Over the past few years, it’s been my privilege and pleasure to interview a wide cross section of people, an experience that I always enjoy, and from which I often come away having learned something new. In all this time I’ve rarely gotten the jitters, but meeting Peter Hillary—Sir Edmund Hillary’s son—was an exception: honestly, I was nervous. However, I needn’t have been, because he put me at ease from the very first moments. Courteous and generous with his time despite his busy schedule, in the time he had he was completely present and focused. I was also struck by how very thoughtful his answers were: if he had heard similar questions a thousand times before, he didn’t let on, but gave each a well-reasoned answer. I hope you enjoy the following insights as much as I did. - EN
Did you always know you were going to be a climber?
Dad was probably one of the most famous climbers of all; when you make the first ascent of the highest mountain, you really establish something quite extraordinary. And I just grew up with that, and in those early years I never thought ‘hey I’m going to follow in his footsteps,’ you just take it for granted.
We traveled a great deal; my father took his family on adventures, and that could just be backpacking or camping or whatever, and for the sort of person I was, I really loved these activities. And then, as I got into my teens, I really liked the idea of mountaineering and the people involved in it. Because dad always had this sort of entourage of mountaineers and friends who loved doing these sorts of things, and I just found the camaraderie in this group, and you think, ‘if this is that good, I want to be involved in these activities.’ There’s a community, for sure; it’s not a huge community. I think there are a lot of mountaineers who are pretty special people. They’re very self-selected; on the whole, you don’t make money out of mountaineering, you do it because you love the idea of it. Probably, the best way to describe it is how these sorts of decisions are made by individuals all the time. Why does that person over there decide ‘I want to be a ballet dancer’ or ‘I want to be a poet’? A lot of people go, I don’t get it, why would anyone want to be a ballerina, or write obscure poetry for a whole lot of highbrow folks, a small community of people? So, look, it’s a long winded way of saying that’s how I ended up going that way, and I ended up being the youngest member on a lot of dad’s later expeditions. Oh, it was incredible! To be the young guy on dad’s last few expeditions, and you know, I never really looked back.
From what I’ve learned, you’re not just a mountaineer, but an adventurer in general; is that right?
Skiing to the South Pole, for example, or climbing big mountains in Antarctica actually relates a lot to climbing in the Himalayas, or the Alps, or something. It’s about being very self-contained, living in a tent, coping with terrible weather. I mean, my prime area is certainly mountaineering.
Even though you’ve not lived in Nepal at length, you have come multiple times across many years. I’m curious how you seen the many changes that have taken place across that time in society, mountaineering, and so on.
Look, a lot of people who have visited here over the years have a sort of nostalgia for the very simple agrarian village lifestyle that existed, it’s understandable; for example, the first few times I came here, Dad always stayed with the British ambassador, just across the road here [we were talking in the lobby of the Hotel Ambassador, Lainchour] and we all would run around in those lovely gardens of his residence, I was seven years old the first time we came here. I remember my mother releasing us from the main gate there on this little side road on bicycles, and we’d just cycle into town, because apart from the British ambassador, the American ambassador, and I dunno, a few members of the Rana family, and perhaps the king, no one had a car. You just had to stay out of the way of cows and potholes and things like that. So look, I understand that nostalgia, but when people ask me about that and whether I think we have contributed to changing people’s lives up in the remote areas of the Himalayas, I think we feel very proud that we have, in terms of education and health, and my response to a lot of them, if they’re doubting that type of scenario, is, ‘Would you like to live in a mud hut? Would you like to live without healthcare? Would you like to live in a situation where perhaps your children don’t get any opportunity for education and therefore different sorts of vocations?’ I think some of the questions you get from people, there’s a certain amount of hypocrisy, really; they go, ‘It’s lovely to visit a very simple village somewhere,’ but they wouldn’t want to live there.
But, to fully answer the question, with electricity, communications, and education, I think on balance it’s got to be better. So, there’s no question about that. But if I have a frustration, it is that I want this country to liberalize a lot of things. There are all these little permits that you’ve got to get, so everyone goes to Everest or Annapurna, and most of the peaks in the Khumbu, no one climbs them, because you need a peak permit of thousands of dollars and a liaison officer; and virtually no one goes out to west Nepal.
If a tourist goes to the U.S. or U.K., for example, you get stamped into the country, the immigration officer doesn’t go, ‘You are not allowed to leave Washington DC, you need a special permit to go to Vermont…’ You’re allowed, say 90 days in America or Britain or wherever it is, and you’re expected to obey the law, but you can do whatever you like, and the benefit of that is, why won’t you go to the Lake District for a couple of days, on the spur of the moment? Here, you’re not allowed to, and I think it holds the country back terribly. I feel the Khumbu could be like the Chamonix of Himalayan mountaineering, but the majority of peaks no one climbs, because no one’s prepared to go through the whole process of bureaucracy and expense… in the end, you’ll go to Alaska or the Alps or New Zealand or somewhere else where simply you won’t be affected by what I think are rules that work against things really developing right across the country.
I’ve just written the forward to the second edition of Robin Boustead’s book Great Himalaya Trail, he’s been promoting this trail right across Nepal, and I feel strongly about this because and think this is important. Look, I love the Everest area and will continue going there, but I feel that if 50-60,000 tourists go there and spend money, imagine if there were hundreds of thousands of other tourists going out to to Rara Lake, Kanjiroba, Dolpa; all the little lodges and porter jobs...it would just be more opportunities for more people.
And I think this is such a marvelous country, such a marvelous landscape and so many fascinating cultures that it could easily support all of that, so that is something I feel they need to work through, and the whole business of these little upfront fees is a problem, they need to get rid of all of them. I personally think they should get rid of visa fees. You know, just give people 90 days and encourage them to go to all sorts of different places, to expand tourism and the wealth that tourism brings to a lot of other areas. ‘Cause a lot of people do come here, they fall in love with Nepal, they want to come back on different treks, but if it starts getting just too difficult in terms of cost or infrastructure, they’ll decide they can’t be bothered.
Let’s talk about the Himalayan Trust. I saw their schools myself when I trekked in the region, but aside from those, can you summarize what your current and future projects are for that?
All those schools are [already] handed over to the government, but I continue to contribute in terms of infrastructure or support; they were the first projects that Dad did. But, education really is our biggest focus; we feel it is where everything starts. To illustrate it, I remember Mingmar Gyalgen at Phaplu Hospital was speaking to a group of people some years ago, and I thought it was a magnificent quote he stated, “There are three main priorities in Solukhumbu: the first is education, the second is education, and the third is education.” I’ve always actually felt this, but I thought it was wonderful that it was coming from the senior medical person in the district at that time. Mingmar could have gone on and on about washing your hands, or vaccination programs, but the thing is, health will work better if you’ve got a basic education. So, that’s really been the focus.
We’re still involved in the school, and we basically provide lots of scholarships. We’ve got a major teacher training program, and that has certainly received a lot of approval from the government. I’m involved in a lot of different charities, there’s the Himalayan Trust, the American Himalayan Foundation, and Dad was involved in setting all these up: Sir Edmund Hillary Foundation in Canada, the Sir Edumund Hillary Stiftung in Germany, the Himalayan Trust UK. And they all have a particular focus, because each country has a particular interest, everyone likes to have their own little niche.
Did your father start them, or did others start them in his memory?
They were [started by] friends of his; he would go over and help with fundraisers, and these people became significant friends. Look, it really is an example of a pretty charismatic fellow with good friendships, and they became important friendships, and they worked together – maybe building a hospital or raising funds for educational scholarships or whatever it was.
So, there’s a number of foundations, I’m involved with many of them and certainly do fundraising for them at various times and I really enjoy that. But that’s not what I do: I work in tourism and speaking and writing, and we’ve got a little clothing brand, sort of heritage clothing based on what Dad and the 1953 British expedition wore, and then been it’s modified, and my kids are the models.
You’ve been to a lot of places in Nepal; obviously, the Khumbu area is very important to you, but is there a place that you think is really special that hasn’t been highlighted enough that you think more tourists should go to?
I actually did a Himalayan traverse back in 1981: we walked from Kanchenjunga in Sikkim across Nepal—this is at over 4000 meters—across Gharwal, Arunachal Pradesh, Kasmhir, Ladhak, then we looped around and went into the Karakoram in Pakistan, so it was Kanchenjunga to K2. Ten months, living rough. Non-stop. A whole year, winter to winter, and mostly sleeping under rocks, most of the time we didn’t use a tent; there was a [rotating] group, but three or four of us did it all, just living very simply. If the local people were just eating makai, we’d eat makai, or tsampa, it was what we ate. We had rendezvous with the support team every six or seven weeks to get a mail bag or more pharmaceuticals for our medical kit or replace some shoes or whatever, but basically we just disappeared into the landscape, averaging 4000 meters, crossing innumerable 5000-, even 6000-meter passes, so it was a high-altitude traverse of the Himalayas. So, to answer your question, I think the whole of Nepal is incredible: it’s so varied, obviously, the Everest area is marvelous, Makalu is marvelous, Kanchenjunga, Annapurna, but you know, as I was saying earlier, Rara Lake and Kanjiroba in the far west, these are wonderful areas. Really, I’d love to see people going to all of these extraordinary areas of this country, because all the emphasis and all the benefit goes to Everest, Annapurna, Langtang.
So, I’d love to see it develop, but I just think, with the exception of Everest, because you need a little bit of management there, but not too much, in my opinion, in fact, I really think you only need to manage the South Col route, [but other than that] I think it’d be great to encourage the hotshot mountaineers from Europe and North America or wherever to climb the west ridge or the south, all these others ways—no one goes there, [or] very little, because all these really top climbers look at it [all the cost and red tape] and just go, ‘Oh, for heaven’s sake!’
In the Alps in Europe, which is probably the most developed Alpine tourism anywhere, if you look at the chalets, the walking, the skiing, the mountaineering, the haute routes, you see it goes from the very highest level to the most benign luxurious levels, but they’re all relevant parts of the picture.
Any final words?
Look, I’m just really another person who really has a lot of ties in this country, and I think it’s a wonderful people and great mountains and I just want to see a lot of these things improve.