Article: The Son Also Rises

Writer and good friend John Elder provides an in-depth perspective on Peter Hillary, which suggests that in his lifetime of extraordinary opportunities and achievements, Hillary junior has earned his own place in the sun. John Elder and Peter Hillary are the authors of In the Ghost Country, published by Simon and Schuster. 

The Son Also Rises

by John Elder

He spent his childhood trekking through the Himalayas beside his father, the man who conquered Everest, so Peter Hillary’s yearning to climb mountains and perform heroic feats was probably inevitable. But why, after years of tragedy and grief, does the passion endure? John Elder explores one man’s obsession.

Peter at age seven beside his father's South Pole tractor.  He is seven years old and roped to his father, who walks ahead on the steep spring snow and ice, leading him to 2,500 metres, to the top of a small mountain in New Zealand, the name of which will fall out of his head. There is another man in their party, a Sherpa named Mingma Tsering, who is visiting from Nepal.

The three have slept among the tussocks at 1900 metres, rising early to reach the snow face. Up there, he slips and falls off the track, sliding away, his father and Mingma reeling him in.

He is seven years old and visiting Darjeeling with his family, staying in the home of Tenzing Norgay, who takes him in his arms and carries him up Tiger Hill in the blue dark of early day. Peter Hillary stands there on his skinny legs, with his eyes gone skinny with smiling, wedged between Tenzing and Sir Edmund, the latter pointing to Everest where the sun hits first and highest.

Sir Edmund and Tenzing Norgay had crawled to the top of Mount Everest in 1953, two years before Peter was born. They came back to earth, to their own surprise, as decorated figures of history. Soon after, Sir Edmund established the Himalayan Trust to build schools, hospitals, airstrips, bridges and water systems for impoverished Nepalese.

Peter Hillary and his sisters play on their father's back Over the years, the Hillary family spend their summer holidays, months at a time, living in Nepal, trekking to the construction sites, making themselves at home among the hills and their people. At seven years of age, Peter knows that his father is the most famous mountain climber in the world, and he’s starting to realise that not everyone lives this way.

Years later, Peter tells me: “I’d always known there was something special going on. You were aware that there was this excitement around him but you didn’t know why and you didn’t care that much.

“You’d tell your friends on the way to school (Kings College in Auckland) that the Governor General had been around for tea. Everyone would go “Oh Christ”, you know, Hillary’s boasting. You realise that not everybody appreciates the stories you’re telling.

“Dad would organise these family expeditions. One May holiday we drove most of the way up the Birdsville Track, which was flooded. In August we went to Queenstown on the South Island for skiing. One year we lived in Chicago and drove across America, up through Canada and into Alaska.

“And in summer we went to Nepal. I remember being met by the British ambassador in an old Bentley and driven to the embassy, where we stayed while in Kathmandu. It really was the old scene of gin and tonic on the verandah, the sound of crows and golden light in the evening.”

He is 12 years old and walking to the Mount Everest Base Camp with his father, mother and sister. They started out at Kunde, a remote village at 4000 metres where Sir Edmund is building a hospital. They go slow up through the valley to 5500 metres, walking six to eight hours a day, stopping at villages where they are treated as friends.

He finds himself sitting on a peak at 5639 metres, where the propellers of small planes cannot find purchase in the thin air, looking up at the biggest mountain as his father tells him stories. He is 12 and the passion to hang out his hide, to survey and embrace beauty and fear in desperate places, is already emerging as a tattoo on his heart and soul. The mountains are now his siren.

He is 20 and riding a train across India when he hears that his mother, Louise, and younger sister, Belinda, have been killed in a plane that crashed while taking off from Kathmandu. The family had planned to spend a year living in Nepal while Sir Edmund built another hospital.

Years later he tells me: “ It was just shattering. I didn’t find out for five days. My mother and my sister. It almost halved the family. It takes a long time to learn to live with it, though you certainly don’t get used to it.

“I do think there is an almost spiritual connection to some parts of the Himalayas because of the deep family connection, not just in what we’ve put into the area but because of the sacrifice the family’s made with my mother and sister dying there.”

He is 21 and travelling by jetboat with his father up the Ganges River from the Bay of Bengal to the feet of the Garwhal Himalaya. It is a major expedition and Peter is part of a climbing team that will tackle two 6000 metre peaks, Nar Parbnat and Akash Parbat. The mountains have never been climbed.

In the eyes of the Indians, the roaring procession upriver is both a spiritual pilgrimage and superstar tour. Huge crowds line the banks. As the party arrives in the Punjab, where the hill country begins, they find the rolling countryside smothered with hundreds of thousands of people wearing brightly coloured turbans. And they are chanting: “Long live Hillary”.

Years later, Peter tells me: “They thought it was the stuff of absolute heroism. Aged men with white hair knelt down to touch my feet because I was travelling in these amazing boats on their most sacred of rivers with this great man they call the ‘Great Sir Hillary’. I found this overwhelming”

He is 35 and has gone to the top of Everest on his fourth attempt. It is a world first in that Peter and Sir Edmund are the only father and son to have made the big climb.

From the summit he talks to Sir Edmund in New Zealand by a satellite telephone. The references in newspaper articles to Peter standing in his father’s shadow begin to dwindle.

Sir Edmund had hoped that Peter would take up something solid like engineering. He did study geology before heading to the hills and working as a ski instructor.

He then got his commercial pilot’s licence and flies to stay current, but being away for three months a year on expeditions prevents his logging up the hours to get a job.

He does a number of things to make a living, all connected to mountaineering: promoting and consulting on the design of outdoor equipment; giving lectures; writing books; and running an adventure travel operation. He also works with his father on Himalayan Trust projects.

In between talk of other things, we go back to K2, Pakistan, August just past. Eight climbers are headed to the summit, to 8580 metres. Six reach the top and are wiped out by the kind of storm we don’t see down on earth. Civilisations have been devastated by less.

The seventh man, Canadian Jeff Lakes, turns back too late and is buried by an avalanche in his tent. He digs himself out, but can’t find his ice axes, crampons, harness or anything to eat. He makes it down to Camp Two hand over hand, with little pieces of tape stuck over his eyes in place of sunglasses, urged on by walkie-talkie by his companions below.

But he is doomed anyway; what is left of him goes quietly as his friends sleep at his side. One of the men who talked him down and cuddled him for comfort is Lake’s climbing partner – Peter Hillary, the eighth man, the only one to make it down and out and home.

Hillary is thinking about this now, sitting on a loungeroom floor in Carlton, two blocks from his own thin red house. He is 40, a divorced father of two, a mountain climber with a regular life back on earth that is as complicated as any.

It is nearly three in the morning. He has been talking about this recent calamity and about other moments, hideous and glorious, that he has not thought about for years. “It is bizarre,” he says, “to be one of eight people up on that shoulder pyramid and the only one alive today. Dad told me the most important thing I know: how to be bravely independent when making a decision.

“It’s becoming more clear to me as I get older, especially after what happened on K2, that people have this really horrifying propensity to let other people make decisions for them. You can teach your children how to push themselves and how to know when to pull back. That allows you to say: “Not for you today, old boy.” I felt a lot of pressure not to listen to that voice up on K2.

So I don’t feel any guilt for being here. I actually feel that I left my decision too late because it was getting bloody tough getting down. Up there I kept feeling ‘Oh God …’ It’s a very common attitude among people that there is safety in numbers, which is absolute rubbish. “Everyone’s looking at everyone else thinking, “They’re feeling all right so it must be all right.” It’s hard to go against that. That storm was coming in and it was incredibly obvious that going on was not the right thing to do.”

The newspapers pulled their facts together from a long distance and made the finish of British climber Alison Hargreaves a cause of most concern, leaving the dead men just footnotes in passing. The six up top may well have died six different ways.

There’s falling, of course; blown off the wall or tripping away after tangling your own spiked feet. Freezing at the tips while the cold and wind sucks the life out of you. Dehydration. Exhaustion and madness. Brains and lungs turned liquid from the lack of air. Sheer fright at being lost. One day a glacier may bring some of them down to the rocky floor where they will give a future generation of climbers something to think about.

Peter Hillary got lost up there after turning back towards Camp Four, at 8000 metres, to get warm. He lost his way above the shoulder in the dark clouds and thick white cold. Close to blindly diving, he kicked snow in front of himself to find a safe place to step. If it disappeared, he didn’t follow.

He kept wandering around this way looking for footprints and not finding any. Heading down a slope, he stepped into a crevasse, sending his body out into the nothing and then forward. He stretched out and got most of himself over the crack, landing on his chest and skidding down and over another crevasse and another.

After making it to the tents through the murk he found Jeff Lakes and told him he was going down because the weather looked bad. Jeff said he’d push on. And so they parted. As he made his descent, it would momentarily clear above his head and he could see the tiny figures heading up. One of them was his friend Bruce Grant.

Did Peter think they must come down? “You know, you find yourself locked into staying alive, not having diverse or interesting thoughts. Of course, I thought ‘My God, what would it be like up there?’ Some people can’t pull back and they were a very driven group.”

His voice softens, for he is now talking to himself and seeing things that are not in this room. “When it hit, I don’t think they would have had very long to think about it. A very short time. That’s the only possible good thing about it.”

He is now a man floating in rough seas catching sight of people drowning in the distance. “You can’t call out to anybody, you can’t just pop up and have a word. If you were on Mount Kosciusko, it might take you five minutes to go up one of the steeper flanks of 600 feet. At 8000 metres, it could take you five hours. You take two moves and you slump against your axes and hang there breathing for a long time.

“You take risks and get down quickly or otherwise it’s not going to work out. You’re staggering and feeling pretty feeble and you’re scared shitless. You can’t find the route, you’re getting blown around.

“You can’t think about anything too much. Chances are your mind will start wandering into all the horrifying things that might come your way.

In 1984, during his first Everest attempt, two of Hillary’s friends, Craig Nottle and Fred From, fell to their deaths while retreating from bad weather. One of them was walking just behind Peter when he fell without making a sound. “He was trying to stop himself. I shouted. I don’t know why. It just came out.

“It’s the most terrible sight, I think, when you see the person, their face, them falling …. it’s harder because you’ve dealt with the actual death. You’re sick with grief but you also want to be out of there very fast. When someone falls it breaks your safety envelope. It comes shattering in and says “It really can happen”. The stark, horrifying reality of where you are just comes crashing in and you just want to be someone else.”

He looks at me and says: “Do you know?” I tell him about standing on pack ice in the Ross Sea, watching my ship go down and watching the faces of my crew mates change shape as they wondered what next. It’s the waking fear and weariness of being in a place you were not made for. And yes, you get out and you stay away for a while.

We talk about being back in the warm life, where your dreams of falling faces go into your bones, feeding the desire to be afraid again, to know again what you think of as the good fear. The cold in the morning wind reminds you of places that left you defeated and it stirs in you a longing to get back to them. It is a heartache. And it is very strange.

During his second attempt on Everest, he met two men who were making their way down from the summit. They fell to their deaths shortly after passing. And, shortly after that, six Polish climbers were churned up in an avalanche after making it most of the way down the hill. Five of them died, two languishing for some time with their broken selves. The last man went blind, his eyes knocked out by the bright snow. A rescue team found him trying to light a stove that had run out of fuel, resigning himself to lie still with his friends.

At Camp Two on K2, when Hillary, Kim Logan and Matt Comeskey found Jeff Lakes dead in his sleeping bag, the three of them howled and screamed for hours while they dug his grave.

They had already realised that the six who went to the top, including their friend Bruce Grant, were dead or dying. None of them were strong enough or well enough to go looking for survivors.

“ It was a nightmare. Three men on a ledge in sheer emotional agony. It was none of this stiff upper lip holding it back in and needing to go to a psychiatrist for 10 years.”

Hillary later visited Bruce Grant’s family. “You want to do what you can to relieve the suffering of those left behind. His father … it was like talking to a 69-year-old Bruce. I was stunned by the similarity. And it was a comfort in a way. We watched a video and some slides that Bruce had taken.

“I also dealt with Jeff’s family on the phone to Canada. They thought at first that Jeff might have died alone and terrified. I told them how he was with us and that we hugged him and gave him drinks and put him to bed. I think they got a lot from that.”

And how do you regard death and Heaven? I don’t believe there are spirits. What we call a spirit and a personality I see as one and the same. When we die they fade. The only way we live on is through the people we affected and knew.”

It is ridiculous to rank these things, but it seems the most unnerving thing to have come Hillary’s way, did so very early in his climbing career, when he was still struggling to accept the death of his mother and sister. He was 24 and leading the assault on the west face of a Himalayan mountain called Ama Dablam.

There were four of them, roped together in pairs. At 6400 metres they were hit by an ice fall. Kenneth Hyslop was hit in the head and killed instantly. He and Geoff Gabites, the man he was roped to, started falling. Hillary couldn’t hang on and started falling too, until the rope went taut and he found himself hanging off his partner, Merv English.

“There was 3500 feet (just over 1000 metres) of nothing under my feet. I was trying to get myself vertical, to get my feet up against the face … but my forearm had snapped in half and was flapping around. While I was trying to digest this I felt a tremendous weight on me. This is the freakiest part. Geoff and Ken had fallen on either side of me, Ken down the left side, Geoff down the right.”

Their rope had fallen across Hillary’s chest, breaking two of his ribs and sawing most of the way through his rope. “It took six or seven hours to sort things, getting me and Geoff secure and up on to a ledge. We had to cut Ken loose and he went straight to the bottom.

“There was nothing else we could do with him. You’re hanging on the rope and … I very much believe that, in the end, if you’re in a dire situation you have to be pretty jolly pragmatic about things.”

There is a long pause. And then he covers his face and says: “God, it’s so awful. It’s unbelievable, isn’t it?

It took them three days to get down. On the first night without Ken they sat on a ledge that had only enough room for the three of them. A helicopter pilot found them at the bottom in tears.

I tell Peter that it’s very hard for people to understand why anyone would keep returning to the mountains after dealing with this much horror. It seems to go beyond the joy of risk.

Because I have been going away on expeditions all my life, I actually need to do it. There is an intense joy and sense of being alive in a place where very few people go.

“You don’t go to K2 expecting seven people are going to die, or even one person. As pragmatic as you’ve got to be, you can’t consider it. If you think the summit is worth your toes and fingers, if you’re willing to go that far in the beginning, it may well end up being far worse. I think you’ve got to think it won’t happen. You’ve got to be optimistic.

“But if you say you can’t go climbing because it’s dangerous, you’re going to have a whole world of mollycoddled softies sitting at home with their seatbelts on. We need mountaineers and adventurers as much as we need people who grow roses and those who stay up late writing weird poetry.”

We drink a little more and he goes off somewhere else for a moment while I look at a piece of paper he’s given me. “So how do I explain myself?” it says. “Families are factories. Some manufacture accountants … we are a limited production mountaineering establishment.”

No one cares about accountants until they turn spectacularly crooked; not much is said any more about climbers until they fall off mountains. But passion is selfish. The foolishly in love, the possessed and addicted, they don’t care if you’re watching or applauding or deriding their bliss.