Following more explorations in Antartica and the Himalaya, the proud-Kiwi soon became known for his philanthropic work after being exposed to the poverty faced by the high alpine communities of Nepal.
“If you’re brought up in this family, you either grew up loving it [going on adventures], or decided you don’t want to do it”
This generosity extended to building schools and hospitals for the local communities of Nepal – 17 in total, alongside two airstrips. He then went on to persuade the New Zealand government to help protect Nepal’s pristine forests, which were in threat of deforestation.
His eldest son, Peter has carried his father’s mantle extremely well – ascending Everest twice. The second time climbing with Tenzing Norgay’s son – Jamal Norgay – to commemorate the 50th anniversary of their fathers’ groundbreaking climb.
Fair to say then that Alexander Hillary – the grandson of Edmund Hillary and son of Peter Hillary – has got some big shoes to fill; something he’s looking to take in his stride.
Peter and Alexander found time to chat with me about ‘Ed’ and the future of the Hillary family. Over the course of my talk with them, it’s not exaggeration to say their faces would light up as they spoke with pride of his various achievements – referencing Edmund’s own admission that helping to build new schools and medical clinics gave him “more satisfaction than a footprint on a mountain.”
When he first reached the summit of Everest in 1990, Peter and Edmund Hillary became the first father and son to reach the summit of Everest. Although Edmund and Peter will be best known for their epic mountaineering exploits, they’re clearly a family whose love of adventurous activities is very much part of the day-to-day.
Peter:“If you’re brought up in this family, you either grew up loving it [going on adventures], or decided you don’t want to do it.
“Ever since I can remember, we’ve gone off on the most amazing journeys. Driving into the outback of Australia, going up and helping him build a hospital or school in Nepal or just skiing down in the Queenstown area [of New Zealand].”
This answer brings an enthusiastic nod of agreement from Alexander.
Alexander: “Yeah, that’s what I loved about everything. It wasn’t so much about mountaineering and climbing, for Ed it was more of a love for adventure. That’s what I really relate to.”
The legacy left behind by Edmund is something that you’d naturally expect to be rolled onto each generation of the Hillary family, with the exact same adventurous spirit that Edmund was famous for having being instilled deeply within each Hillary. But did the ones who came after the man himself actually feel pressure to climb Everest at some point in the lives?
Peter: “I never really thought I was heading for Everest, but I knew I wanted to get into adventure. I’d kind of figured [Everest] that was dad’s area and look, you know that was in a time where Everest has been done and we want to work on other things.
“As I got more and more into mountaineering, I worked my way up, a lot of climbing in the Southern Alps [of New Zealand] and in other parts of the world. The Himalaya loomed pretty large and I worked my way up and decided absolutely that this is where I want to go.
“Ever since I can remember, we’ve gone off on the most amazing journeys”
“And I attempted some quite difficult routes on Everest; the west ridge, the south pillar as well as dad’s south col route. It’s a mountain I got to know well, but I feel as though I was brought up in an environment that that type of adventure was there and if it appealed to you, then what better way to take it.
“I’ve certainly tried to give my children amazing introductions to travel, to the outdoors, whether it’s skiing or going to the mountains to climb.”
Alexander: “That’s an interesting point. Everyone used to ask me when I was growing up if I was going to go and climb Everest, even at 12 years old.
“Dad [Peter] never pushed mountaineering and climbing onto me. It wasn’t until I said “Dad, I’m going climbing, will you come with me?”, that we actually went climbing.
“Which I really appreciated as I wasn’t climbing for any other reason but the fact that I really wanted to be there up on the mountain. I think that’s what’s so important, because when you’re doing these things; whether it’s sailing, kayaking or climbing, you have to be doing it for yourself… so thank you dad.”
“Everyone used to ask me when I was growing up if I was going to go and climb Everest, even at 12 years old”
Peter: “We’ve shared some wonderful trips together, I’m the one who should say thank you. I couldn’t be happier than when I’m in these amazing environments with Alexander or George, or when we went to Everest basecamp, Lily was there as well. As a parent, it was pretty good.”
Of course you can’t, in all good sense, base your life around the mountains without having some care for the environment. The Hillary family have consistently been at the forefront of this kind of thinking, with Edmund being one of the first mountaineers to build sustainability and a sense of positive legacy into everything he did.
Peter: “I think this was one of the extraordinary things about my father. There had been a number of mountaineers who had given something back, but nothing quite to the extent of what he did.
“He devoted 50 years of his life to building schools and hospitals and raising funds for scholarships – really committing himself to the high altitude villages of the Everest region. To this day, you can go to the Himalayas and as you trek in, you stop at little tea shops and every second tea shop will have a big poster of Ed Hillary on the wall, with the silk scarves around them.
“That’s really telling you something; on the other side of the world, in a completely different culture and location, they still have great affection for the man who not only went there to climb mountains but who kept coming back to build schools and hospitals.”
Asked about what can be done to blend sustainability with the money-first thinking mountain tourism is sometimes guilty of, Peter brought it back to the act that kick started Edmund’s drive to create a sustainable future for the mountain communities – the simple art of being in nature’s high places.
Peter: “I think it’s about getting people out into these wonderful places, no matter their background. Whether it’s trekking in the Himalaya, climbing a mountain, or whatever. I think there are very few people who don’t come back that haven’t had really powerful experiences.
“The enrichment that it gives to people in terms of their experiences, but also the connection with destinations, those communities and those environments are also important because we live in a time when most of us are urban dwellers, we are more and more isolated and disconnected from nature and the environment.”
“We are more and more isolated and disconnected from nature and the environment”
Whether real or imagined, every generation feels a weight of expectation from their parents and their achievements, but after talking to Alexander and Peter I got a sense that the Everest factor was something they’ve both embraced in their own way, with support from those closest to them, rather than been pushed into.
Alexander is now looking to become the third in the family, and third generation of Hillary, to climb Everest when he heads out to Nepal in April 2020.
Peter: “Alexander is particularly drawn to the mountains, in fact he and I are almost certainly heading back to Everest in April / May 2020 to make an IMAX film that we’re just finalising these arrangements for. Whether or not I’ll reach the top I don’t know, but this young fella will be.”
Not only is Alex looking to follow the path of following his grandfather’s and father’s footprints on Everest, he is set to continue this family legacy whilst helping his father to build and develop the Edmund Hillary brand.
It’s this brand of clothing that’s looking to give back to the communities that were ‘close to Ed’s heart – helping the people of Nepal and [develop] outdoor activities for young people around the world’ (as it says on the website).
Peter: “It is interesting to go through this process [of starting up the company]. You realise that this is a man [Edmund] who was not only the first to climb Everest, drove tractors to the pole and built schools and hospitals, but he was also all about being generous and actually engaging with people, encouraging them to set their own challenges.
“We decided it was important that it became part of how the Edmund Hillary brand actually worked as well. So you know, a percentage of funds going towards supporting these actual areas.”
Just like with Ed’s work on supporting the people of Nepal, the Edmund Hillary brand is looking to do exactly the same thing; building on the partnerships Ed created around the world and supporting the work he fought so tirelessly to make happen.
“This is a man who was not only the first to climb Everest… he was also all about being generous and actually engaging with people”
Not only is the Edmund Hillary Brand looking to protect the local communities of Everest, it’s also aiming to show the youth of the United Kingdom and New Zealand the importance of adventure – something that had a profound effect on Ed’s life from a young age.
So how do they hope to fund this? Well, the Edmund Hillary brand have created a range of premium outdoor clothing, based on the clothing that Edmund and Tenzing wore during their first ascent of Everest.
Whilst numerous outdoor clothing manufacturers keep pushing each other to make the lightest possible garments in the industry, with each manufacturer claiming their next innovation is the biggest thing in the industry, the Edmund Hillary brand are looking to go in the opposite direction with the creation of their clothing range.
Peter and Alexander saw the clothing technologies that worked for Edmund, Tenzing and the rest of the expedition team, during the 1953 expedition and looked to recreate this – sometimes even using the exact same manufacturing techniques that went into the 1953 kit.
Alexander: “With the likes of our summit jacket, it’s actually made by the same company that made the fabric in 1953. We’ve got these really exciting connections with the heritage of the 1953 expedition and Ed’s story.
“Further than that, we want to be able to follow in Ed’s footsteps in what he stood for. He had a great connection with the UK and New Zealand… and with Nepal. So really as a brand, what we’re trying to push towards is to actually have our three feet in those different countries.
“We’ve made connections in places like Peru and Equador, where we have small villages, like the ones that Ed looked after in Nepal and they’ve been spinning the yarn and knitting for us.”
Whether it’s producing clothing or climbing mountains, these two different yet connected passions are threaded through the Hillary family thanks to the undeniable energy that Ed brought to the Himalayas. And looking at the efforts of Peter and Alex now, it’s clear as day that the drive which took their father / grandfather to the highest point on Earth lives on.
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