Sixty years after his father conquered Everest, Peter Hillary says the Himalayas are not just for serious climbers.
Time flies at 29,000ft. Just a few weeks after reaching the summit of Mt Everest in 1953 with Tenzing Norgay, my father Ed was welcomed at a Royal Air Force officers’ mess. When he was asked to pen a few words in their line book, he wrote: “I was at 29,000ft without a parachute.”
It doesn’t feel like 60 years since the world’s highest mountain was conquered, an event that captured the imagination of the world — and it nearly didn’t happen. Just below the South Summit the snow was dangerous and prone to avalanche and my father reflected that if he were back in the Southern Alps of New Zealand he would most likely have turned around. But something snapped inside of him and he told himself, “Ed, my boy. This is Everest!” When I was a child he told me that sometimes you have to go “the extra distance” to achieve your goal; up there on Everest was one of those times.
Many things had changed when I climbed Mt Everest in 1990 (and became the first second-generation summiteer). For a start I was able to call my father on a radio patched into a satellite telephone at base camp and receive some paternal advice. “Look after yourself up there,” he told me. “You’re not done until you’re down.” That’s because the pressure at the summit is less than one third of what it is at sea level and oxygen is scarce. Consequently, you don’t function that well. It stifles your sparkling repartee; conversation is usually in monosyllables interspersed with hyperventilation and a vague realisation that a “posthumous success is overrated”.
Looking down from the top is like looking down on a topographical map of the Himalayas; the great flanks of the mountain seem to curve in beneath you. The sense of exposure is mind-boggling, which raises the ante on a key part of mountaineering: survival. In the end that is what it is all about.
Climbing Everest is only for serious mountaineers, although most people can either trek to Base Camp or meander in the foothills and have the time of their lives without the risk that comes with mountaineering. Their first view of Everest, which will provide a stunning backdrop to their trek, will be coming into land at Kathmandu, although they often don’t know where to look. Everyone peers out of the northern windows searching for a view of Mt Everest; their noses up against the win-dows with their eyes looking down. Is that it down there? But Everest is not down, it is staring in the window, eye-to-eye.
Some of my fondest family memories are as a child trekking in the high Himalaya with my parents — I first visited when I was 7 — and looking up at my father when he pointed out the pyramidal bulk of Everest on the northern horizon and wondering about the excitement in his voice as he told us about the climb with Sir John Hunt, Charles Evans, Tenzing. “Ed, my boy. This is Everest!” That thrill has never left me and I keep going back. And I take my kids, my friends, anyone who will listen.
In 2003 I trekked into Everest Base Camp with my daughter, Amelia, in a wonderful father and daughter adventure. In the lower reaches of the Khumbu Icefall I found an old wooden crevasse bridge from the 1953 expedition and a simple fir log step, with its surface punctured by hundreds of crampon points that would have included my father’s and Tenzing’s, with those of Hunt and Evans, Tom Bourdillon and George Band, Ang Nyima, and all the others. It was incredible to stare at this primitive bridge and think of them crossing it time and time again, and that this rough piece of wood was one of the many steps that led to success.
My father dedicated his life to the people of the region, building 42 schools and hospitals, forest nurseries, airstrips, bridges and water systems. He also helped to establish the Mt Everest National Park. That work was the love of his life, work that continues under Ed Hillary’s Himalayan Trust.
Every year I return to Khumbu at the foot of Mt Everest, not just to climb or to work with our schools and hospitals but to see an old friend in a village at 13,000ft. I have known my Sherpa aunt, Ang Dooli, since I was 7. And while she doesn’t read or write and we can’t engage in deep philosophical dialogue, our times together are significant with a sense of connection and history. And it is from her house that so many Hillary family sorties have set out.
As with any adventure, the quality of the journey depends on whether you keep your eyes and ears open. Are you open to the adventure? What will you see? In the early morning darkness in April last year, with my sons George and Alexander and our Sherpa friend Pasang, we left Ang Dooli’s house with headlamps and began climbing to a high ridge.
As the rising sun cast beams of light from around the ridges of Mt Ama Dablam, warming our cheeks and causing the frosted rocks to steam, we gazed around at the grandness of the Himalayas. We all had a wonderful sense of exhilaration up there on that ridge; suddenly Alexander called out and pointed to a narrow valley below.
Between thickets of juniper and rhododendron we glimpsed the dash of a snow leopard, a great grey cat running. You see it and then it is gone. A corollary for life of sorts and we all stood transfixed by our good fortune.
But life is like that; serendipity is everywhere if you are open to it. In 2010 I trekked into Everest Base Camp with my old friend, Jason Kimberley. We pitched a tent on the summit of Kalar Pattar to watch the moon rise behind Everest. As we watched the milky light on the mountain, fighting the biting cold but enjoying the esprit de corps, we saw two tiny lights just below the 23,000ft summit of Mt Pumori above us — climbers descending in the dark on their own adventure.
Coming here is about the people you meet and the experiences you share. It is an opportunity to bring your whole family on an adventure and give your kids memories that they will carry with them always. Unquestionably these family trips have been the most wonderful journeys, both for me with my parents and as a parent with my own children.
These days, trekking in the Himalayas is a quite dignified affair with little accommodation lodges and comfortable trackside restaurants. You can still camp in tents if you want to — and canvas is a must if you head off the beaten track.
With Nepalese staff to carry your baggage and to guide you along the trails, the logistics of trekking for a couple of weeks or longer are easy. The Nepalese are incredibly hospitable people and they take great care of their clients.
You can’t ascend too quickly because of the high altitude and the need to acclimatise so this makes the journey perfect for enjoying the scenery, the flowers, the smiling faces, conversations with passers-by, the extraordinary jagged Himalayan landscape. Anyone of any age can trek providing they have reasonable cardiovascular fitness and an enthusiasm for adventure.
So on the 60th anniversary of the first ascent, why not visit Nepal? Trek into the Himalayas. Take the whole family. Make a little history of your own.
The untold story of Edmund Hillary’s scientist, Saturday Review Peter Hillary will be a special guest at the Royal Geographical Society in London on May 29, the 60th anniversary of the conquest of of Everest. For details see himalayantrust.co.uk. He is the co-author of In the Ghost Country, which recounts his mountaineering expeditions and the Hillary family adventures.
More information: peterhillary.com; edhillary.com
Need to know
Mountain Kingdoms (01453 844400, mountainkingdoms.com) runs several trips to Everest Base Camp. For instance, a classic 20-day trek, including flights, accommodation in tea houses (no en suites), all meals on the trek, and the services of a guide, costs from £2,405pp. Four nights are spent in a four-star hotel in Kathmandu on a B&B basis. The maximum group size is 12.
Great Himalayan holidays
Best for wildlife
Naturetrek’s 22-day tour to Mount Everest and the Gokyo lakes of Nepal focuses on the surrounding national park’s birds, including pheasants, bluetails, rosefinches and snow partridges, as well as rare musk deer. Beginning in the heart of Sherpa country at Lukla, the high point of the trip is the gorgeous lakes — the world’s highest freshwater lake system — which sit at 4,750m.
Details: 21 nights’ mixed board is from £4,015pp, including flights from the UK and transfers (01962 4632799, naturetrek.co.uk).
Best for comfort
Most treks in the foothills of Everest start and end in Lukla, meaning there is a fair bit of walking, but this one replaces the return hike with a charter flight. There are four nights in Kathmandu (two at the start and two at the end of the trip), and trekking is confined to six days in the Himalayas. The maximum peak of Thame is at 3,800m, making it ideal for those who suffer from altitude sickness. Accommodation is not scrimped on either: walkers stay in decent lodges with individual en suite bathrooms.
Details: Ten nights’ mixed board is from £2,675pp, including flights from the UK, transfers and guides (020-3051 8098, theultimatetravelcompany.co.uk).
Best for luxury
Cut out the hiking, climbing and scrambling over snow by flying on a chartered helicopter to Everest. Ideal for those who are pushed for time and can blow the budget on a four-day trip — includes accommodation at Dwarika’s Hotel, one of Kathmandu’s best, and a chopper flight to Base Camp. There’s a champagne breakfast at Kongde with views over to Everest, before flying back for an excursion in the Kathmandu Valley.
Details: Four nights’ B&B is from £3,205pp, including transfers. International flights are extra (01747 898104, naturalhighsafaris.com).
Best family trip
Explore has designed a 14-day Everest Adventure trip for families with teens. The tour takes on part of the trek to Everest Base Camp, travelling through Sherpa homelands to Namche Bazaar. There’s an optional trek to the hilltop monastery at Thyangboche (3,876m) and plenty of free time in Kathmandu to explore the ancient temples and bazaars.
Details: 12 nights’ mixed board is from £1,836 per adult and £1,624 per child, including flights from the UK, transfers and guides. The trip is suitable for children aged 11 and above (0844 4990901, explore.co.uk).
Best on a budget
This trip from Mac Adventure has a great itinerary and is also fairly affordable. Over 18 days, visitors get to move continually higher, taking in Phakding, Namche Bazaar, Tengboche, Dingboche and Ghorak Shep, before reaching Everest Base Camp. Stays are in Nepali guesthouses — traditional mountain lodges with no en suite facilities. Back in Kathmandu, relax in the five-star Hotel de l’Annapurna, opposite the Royal Palace.
Details: 17 nights’ full board is from £1,125pp, including transfers and guides. International flights are extra (0141-530 1950, macsadventure.com).