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When I first reached out to Peter Hillary about an interview, I got an email back from the mountaineer saying that he was currently at: “16,000 feet in the Himalayans right now and about to climb Louche Peak, 6,130 meters, which is about 20,500 ft,” and could he get back to me when he returned to New Zealand in May. Sitting at my desk in Midtown, Manhattan, I, a little taken aback, respond with, “Mid-May would be totally fine!” I also thanked him for responding from 16,000 feet.
When Hillary, 63, got back from his climb — he later called it a “little peak” — which he had just completed with his two sons, 21 and 26 years old, he Skyped me from his New Zealand home and talked about his lifelong love affair with climbing. His first real climb was completed when he was only 10 years old, with his father, Sir Edmund Hillary. Peter Hillary remembers sometimes falling off the steep path and being pulled back up on bungee cords. He was never scared though.
“I had this childlike belief of ‘What could possibly go wrong? I’m with my dad,’” Hillary told me.
He had good reason to feel safe. Edmund, along with his climbing partner, Tenzing Norgay, were the first people to summit Mount Everest, the highest mountain in the world at 29,029 feet. Hillary made that climb in 1953 at 33 years old. Peter was born 18 months later.
A group in Tibet in 2011. (Courtesy of Peter Hillary)
Since that first climb at 10 years old, Peter Hillary has been smitten with mountaineering. He said the most important aspect of climbing is that you experience the full spectrum of intense emotions — you hate it one minute, you’re filled with fear the next, and you also have moments of pure joy. Hillary explained that, during a climb, you often have feelings of regret and promise yourself you’re never going to climb again.
“You do wonder why you’re doing it, but that happens for just about anything of the best things we do,” said Hillary, who completed the Seven Summits, climbing the highest mountain on each of the seven continents, in 2008. “They’re difficult and challenging and you push yourself beyond certain limits and that’s part of the draw.”
But two weeks after the climb is done, he explained, you fondly remember that scrap of bread you ate at base camp as “the best crust of bread you’ve ever eaten,” and your mindset switches back to, “I have to do that again.”
Mountaineering is no easy feat, though, especially when it comes to Everest. More than 4,000 people have scaled the summit since Edmund conquered it, but 288 people have died in the attempt. In 2017, 648 climbed it, but of those climbers who went above base-camp, only 61 percent made it to the summit.
Peter Hillary first summited Everest in 1990. That summit meant that the Hillarys became the first family with two generations of Everest climbers. He climbed it again in 2002 to celebrate his father’s first ascent.
“You really do start to understand where [my father] went, what he did, and what’s involved,” Hillary said. “Even though I’ve climbed it and been on five expeditions, we knew the mountain could be climbed. That was a question mark when he did it. They really broke down that barrier.”
Hillary has followed in his father’s footsteps in more than just mountaineering. Edmund Hillary devoted much of his life to philanthropy, starting schools and hospitals in the Himalayas. He founded the Himalayan Trust in 1960, a nonprofit dedicated to helping reduce poverty and strengthen communities in the Everest region. According to the nonprofit’s website, it has helped give 3,000 people access to clean water and 6,500 children have benefited from its school support program.
Peter Hillary says he loves going back to the same places year after year and seeing the changes that his family’s foundation have helped create.
“It’s wonderful to be involved over a long period of time and get to see kids going to school, getting an education, becoming literate, starting business and then getting their own kids educated,” he said. Hillary’s own children — he has two daughters and two sons — all participate in the charitable work to various degrees. Hillary feels having shared experiences as a family is an incredibly important aspect of life.
“The thing is to just share time together and give it a focus — like we’re going to climb this mountain — whatever it is you have an objective,” he said.
Peter with daughter Lily-Louise, wife Yvonne, and George, Amelia and Alexander in London, 2008. (Courtesy of Peter Hillary)
He also emphasized the importance of philanthropy because everyone should have a balance in their life. He explained to me that while it is important to have your career and interests, it is also good to give back, whether in your “own suburb or town or a community on the other side of the world.”
For the Hillarys, part of that diversified portfolio includes a new clothing line that will be a range of heritage-inspired pieces based around Edmund Hillary’s personal style during his first ascent of Everest.
“It’s taken a while, but we are at an exciting step and I hope it inspires people to not just look at heritage style but get out there and engage with the great outdoors,” Hillary said of the upcoming line, which will launch this fall or winter.
As for mountaineering, I asked Peter if he thought he would have loved it as much as he does if it wasn’t for his father. He agrees that his father’s influence no doubt played had a big role, even if Edmund didn’t push his children to — literally — follow in his footsteps. In fact, Peter says his dad never insisted that his kids become mountaineers; he wanted them to find pursuit and interest that they cared about on their own.
“But I looked at him and thought ‘I like what you’re doing,’” Peter recalled. The stories his dad would always tell were “compelling and exciting,” and as Peter got older and started accompanying his dad on climbs, he realized that’s what he wanted to do too.
“I think the big thing about mountaineering is it’s basically 95 percent mental. It’s about your attitude and your desire to get out there,” Hillary explained. “Anything in life is about having a real desire.”