Return to Everest

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2003, 12:00am

WHEN WAS THE last time you felt truly alive, or appreciated the small things in life - like having a hot shower or clean bed sheets?

For Peter Hillary it was in May last year, on his way to conquer Everest again, retracing the footsteps of his father Sir Edmund Hillary. who reached the summit 50 years ago next month. 'It's amazing,' says the 48-year-old New Zealander, 'how much you find yourself thinking about what is important, like your family and what it means to be part of a family. I know there are people who don't need to go on expeditions to Everest to realise these things, but for some of us, it's a great help.'

Having already graced the world's highest point in 1990, Hillary says he had no intention of returning to Everest. 'There are lots of mountains in the world ? why do the same thing again?' But when National Geographic Channel approached him to make Surviving Everest, a programme to mark the 50th anniversary of his father's ascent on May 29, 1953, Hillary jumped at the chance.

Apart from praising the adventure channel's ability to make quality programmes, Hillary says he supports the station's pledge to highlight the Sherpas' role in Surviving Everest - something most programmes have largely ignored. Yet the local ethnic people are 'the engines of the expeditions', says Hillary, who is in Taiwan as part of a global promotional tour, having sidestepped Hong Kong because of the atypical pneumonia outbreak.

What inspired him most to challenge Everest again was the team of people involved. It is the atmosphere - the infectious feeling of energy, camaraderie and trust - created by the people on the expeditions that are special to Hillary. And one team member the mountaineer is particularly fond of is Jamling Tenzing Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, his father's climbing partner on the historic 1953 ascent. 'The connection with our families, the way it's transformed our lives, has been profound,' he says.

But unlike Hillary, Norgay declined to go all the way to the summit on last year's climb and only went as far as base camp at 5,400 metres, having promised his family he would not go back after his ascent in 1996. Hillary respects his decision. 'Jamling climbed Everest during a catastrophic season in 1996, when 11 people died. He made a promise to his wife and family and he stuck by it,' Hillary says.

Last year's climb to Everest's 8,848-metre peak only happened after a failed attempt. Two seasoned mountaineering cameramen escaped death on their first attempt after the collapse of an ice vault, Hillary recalls. After that, like Norgay, they too decided not to tempt fate again.

Yet Hillary, who wasn't present when the accident happened, soldiered on. 'It comes down to how you view things. That area had been dangerous for a long time and the collapse was something that was bound to happen at some stage. After it collapsed, it meant it had stabilised. So, why not go? We shot back up there and climbed it in 52 hours,' he says proudly.

Once again at the top, Hillary felt 'reunited' with something familiar. And he felt a connection with his father. 'I felt immensely emotional thinking about how dad and Tenzing got up there 50 years ago - knowing that they'd been there, climbing into the unknown.

'Climbing means a lot to me. My ascent is more significant to me than to the broader community. But what dad and Norgay did was of enormous importance to everyone.'

He says climbing reminds him of life's basics. 'At the essence it's actually about shelter, being warm, having enough to eat, not falling off the mountain, and hopefully reaching the goal which is up there in the clouds somewhere,' he says.

While mountaineering and scaling Everest mean a great deal to him on a personal level, Hillary understands that his father's ascent was of wider significance, one that pushed and tested human potential. 'The physiologists of the day debated whether it was possible for humans to be at that altitude without a pressure suit on. It was a major undertaking.'

Hillary believes that people's achievements, such as walking on the moon and climbing Everest, are empowering and help them believe in themselves. It shows that if we really put effort into something, he says, we can come up with solutions, and make extraordinary things happen.

And indeed he has. He has been on dozens of expeditions including trips to both poles, forged a new route across Antarctica and traversed the length of the Himalayas, experiences he draws upon in his work as a motivational speaker when not busy with his day job as an adventure tour operator.

He is working on a book, In The Ghost Country, to try to 'communicate this experience in a meaningful way'. Whether he will succeed or not is the type of challenge that moves him, he says.

Hillary first went climbing as a 10-year-old, with his father and a Sherpa friend, up a small, rocky and snow-faced summit in New Zealand. 'I just remember the trust - with dad and his friend around, I thought to myself, 'What could possibly go wrong?' '

Sir Edmund sowed the seed for his son's love for climbing and adventures at that early age, although he never pressured his son to follow in his footsteps. Hillary decided to be a mountaineer himself. 'Climbing is a game you do for yourself, because you love the activity, not out of familial obligation - that's dangerous. Dad was aware of the pressures other people in those circumstances had been under. Like Sir Peter Scott in Britain - the son of Captain Robert Scott, who disappeared in Antarctica in 1912. Sometimes there can be a lot expectations and pressure on the subsequent generations.'

So was there much pressure to succeed and match his father's achievements? 'People think there must be enormous amounts of pressure. But I don't know how big a deal it really was.'

What he truly looks forward to now is spending time with his children, aged 13, 11, six and two. He has taken them for 'a scramble on the rocks but not to the mountains yet', and so far, his 11-year-old son George appears keen to continue the family tradition. 'Like my father, I have no aspirations that they become mountaineers. They certainly don't have to do it for me ? If they do it properly, spend their weekends climbing, do apprenticeships, then I will certainly encourage them - I'll probably go with them.'

Hillary and his father still live in Auckland, and at 83, Sir Edmund continues to travel extensively, although not to high altitudes, says Hillary, adding that his father won't be able to join him and 200 guests on May 29 for a celebratory banquet at Tengboche Monastery near the foot of Mount Everest. 'We will be toasting to dad and Tenzing's climb and talking to my father in Kathmandu via satellite telephone.'

Surviving Everest premieres on Sunday at 9pm on National Geographic Channel.