Heartful Homecoming: A Conversation with Peter Hillary
In recent months, I’ve had the great pleasure of interviewing a number of GeoEx’s trip leaders. I’ve spoken with Bill Jones, who leads GeoEx trips to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Algeria; trekker extraordinaire Bart Jordans, who has been leading GeoEx journeys in Bhutan since 2000; photographer and Himalaya expert Manoj Sharma, who leads our trips to mystical Ladakh; Africa explorer and leader Brad Hansen, who will be leading upcoming journeys to Chad, Congo and CAR, and Tanzania; and famed Argentinian trekking guide Merlin Lipshitz, who will be leading GeoEx’s Into Patagonia trips in 2021 and 2022. I love these opportunities to converse with our far-flung leaders. They connect me with the larger world, remind me of the passion we all share, and recharge my wanderlust.
Most recently I had the honor and pleasure of talking with Peter Hillary, renowned mountaineer, explorer, writer, and philanthropist, who leads GeoEx’s Overland Lhasa to Kathmandu and Himalayan Traverse trips. We spoke about the exciting new trip he has created with GeoEx, Peter Hillary’s New Zealand, which offers an intimate, highly personal exploration of the country where Peter and his father, Sir Edmund Hillary, were born and raised, and where they mastered the art and sport of mountaineering.
I hope you enjoy our conversation! (A transcript follows after the video.)
Don George: Peter, thank you so much for making time to talk with me about this incredibly exciting new trip that you are going to be leading. I’d like to begin by asking you what inspired you to come up with this idea and this itinerary?
Peter Hillary: New Zealand is a very beautiful little country. It’s a wonderful place to travel around. I was brought up here, my father was brought up here, and we know all sorts of little hidden valleys, little secrets, wonderful places to go, and I thought what a great opportunity to put a trip together that goes to some of these really superb places, accompanied with me, and seeing a little of what created Ed Hillary in the first place, to become perhaps the world’s most famous mountaineer, hailing out of New Zealand.
It’s so exciting to me—thinking about traveling around New Zealand with you to your special places. I’m actually getting goosebumps right now thinking about it. Could you tell me what for you are some of the highlights of the itinerary?
Overall, we’re going to go to especially beautiful places, particularly mountains, the very dramatic Fjordland region in the far south, the great glacial peaks of the Mount Cook area, the volcanoes of the central North Island.
In addition to going to these extraordinary places, there is also an Ed Hillary theme, what created the man who made the first ascent of Mount Everest, who went on to build 42 schools and hospitals around the foot of Mount Everest in the very poor country of Nepal.
Then I guess the other important theme is that of conservation, of national parks, of encouraging people to get out and participate in these beautiful places, and how do we go on to make sure that we conserve the natural environment. So these will all be themes that flow through the experience.
I’ve noticed looking at the itinerary that some of the highlights certainly are meeting family members of yours or friends of your family and having special experiences with them. Can you talk a little bit about some of those?
From many, many years of taking people to remote locations in different parts of the world, I’ve observed that while people love going to a great castle or a particularly important monastery or whatever it might be, the things they enjoy the most are meeting people along the way. It could be in a little back stall in a bazaar in Tibet, or it could be popping into someone’s house in a small village somewhere.
So that’s what I’ve tried to do with this particular journey around New Zealand, visit people who have meant a lot to the Hillary family, learn a bit about their lives, visit a remote farming family, go in and have some tea and a conversation and learn what it’s like to run a remote high country farm in the mountains of New Zealand. That’s been one of my guiding principles.
That’s wonderful! I think we’re going to meet your sister as well—is that correct?
Yes, when we’re in Auckland, we go to the Auckland War Memorial Museum, where there’s a huge collection of my father’s artifacts and records. Then we’ll go to the Auckland Art Gallery, one of the most important art museums in New Zealand, and it just so happens that my sister Sarah is the chief art conservator for oil paintings, so she’s going to come and meet us briefly while we’re there.
That’s very nice. And we’ll be walking in your and your father’s hallowed footsteps.
Well, yes. Ever since I can remember as a child, my father was taking his family all over this country to adventure, to ski, to climb mountains, to visit friends, and that’s really what I want to do with our groups, to share that experience. We’ll go to some of the most famous highlights that this country has to offer, but we’re going to do it a little differently, too.
There are so many fantastic things on this trip. What are you most looking forward to in this itinerary?
One of my favorites is heading out of the little town of Wanaka, one of the most gorgeous locations on the planet, I think. We head up this beautiful valley, called the Matukituki Valley, and this reaches deep into the Southern Alps; the further we go up through this farm country, these great Southern Alps mountains rise up around us.
We’re going to head up there, do a short walk into the upper reaches of the valley, have a picnic, and on the way down, we’re just going to pop in to see some old family friends who run this high-altitude, mountain sheep and cattle station. So we’ll catch up with them over tea and pikelets and hopefully in lovely warm weather—of course, we never know what the weather’s going to do—and learn a little bit about their lives and how the Aspinal family and the Hillary family knew each other and have known each other for so many years.
Another important part for me is going to the Mount Cook area. This is importantly where my father went to learn the ropes about being a mountaineer, and he did some of the best ascents of some of the most difficult peaks during the 1940s and early 1950s. This is where he got the skills and basically the preparation for what enabled him to make the first ascent of Mount Everest back in 1953. So we’ll be heading up there, walking in his footsteps. Of course, my father’s not around, but up there at Mount Cook, there is a very impressive 3-meter bronze statue of him, so we can have a chat with him up there.
Excellent! You will definitely meet him then–that’s fantastic. Is that where you got your first mountain experience as well?
It is! I’ve certainly got lots of stories to tell about that, turning up there as a just-turned 17-year-old with another school friend of mine thinking we are going to turn the world on fire with our prowess—and of course learning some pretty good lessons along the way. So yes, Mount Cook was and is where all New Zealand—and Australian—climbers go to learn about alpinism, in the same way as people in the United States go to Alaska to learn about big mountains. In this part of the world, you go down to the south of New Zealand, to the Mount Cook area, with the great glaciers and the big peaks.
What was it like growing up with your father? Did he pass on some very lasting lessons to you? What did you take from his life and whatever he taught you?
He taught me a lot of things, and I think like most parents, he did it by example. And it was a pretty good example. He was a very generous man, he was a very hard worker, but he also knew how to make difficult decisions. I think for a young mountaineer, that was a very important one, when to go, “You know what? These conditions aren’t right to go on. We’re going to back off, then we’ll come back tomorrow; we’ll try again some other time.”
It’s important to know when to push on, when to be incredibly determined to achieve a goal and when to know that this is not the time. I think that was one of the most important lessons I learned from my father and I saw examples of that in the Mount Cook area, so that’s one of the stories I look forward to sharing with our group when we’re up there.
I feel that those lessons help you as a trip leader as well. Sometimes you’re faced with difficult decisions, spontaneous circumstances where you have to decide what to do. How do you feel this has helped you to be a better trip leader?
That’s an incredibly good point. I think my background, being raised in the Hillary family but also being a mountaineer, going on close to 60 expeditions in different parts of the world, means that at times you do have to make difficult decisions.
One example was just five years ago, I took a group trekking. They were a group of my old school friends, in fact, from various parts of the world. We were all uniformly 60 years of age, trekking up to Mount Everest base camp. We were about to go up to Everest base camp to have lunch and join some friends up there, when the great Nepal earthquake struck—of course, this was 7.8 or 7.9 on the Richter scale. The shaking was devastating; it was a national disaster. Over 10,000 people died in Nepal, the local villages up there near the Mount Everest region were badly damaged, and of course, we didn’t know what was going on.
Suddenly you’re in a predicament and you have to make a decision. I knew I had to just turn our team around. We were not going to go to Everest base camp, we were going to start going down. I’ve got to hand it to our group–the esprit de corps that everyone felt as we made our way out of that situation was really very rewarding to me. But it was a decision that had to be made.
Sometimes things happen. The weather is bad, someone gets sick–these are things that can happen on any expedition, any tour, and you have to be ready to address them. That’s an important part of making sure the trip goes well and people can enjoy it.
Absolutely. What is it that you enjoy most about interacting with travelers when you lead trips for GeoEx?
I probably shouldn’t tell the people who come on our tours, but they’re an amazing group of people. I think I get as much out of it as they do. Because there are all these different personalities with all these different stories to share, and that basically makes each group have a special chemistry, and that’s what I love about it. I get a lot out of it as well, and I think as a group we all put something in. Of course, we’re there in this case to travel around New Zealand, meet different people, go to extraordinary places, learn a little that we didn’t know before, but it’s the contribution by each of the group members, that is really what enriches these trips.
I agree. I lead trips in Japan, and I feel the same way. But thinking about your trip in New Zealand—of course, you lead amazing trips in Asia, but the idea that you’re going to be in your homeland, your birthplace, the place where you grew up, where you became who you are today, and where your father became who he was, that you’ll be leading people through that and telling them stories and sharing all the richness of your background with them, that to me sounds singularly exciting!
Well, I’m excited about it, too, because the fact of the matter is, I really haven’t taken a group around my homeland. I’ve been on some ships around the perimeter, and normally I’ve taken groups, as you mentioned, off to the Himalayas and Tibet and different parts of the world, Antarctica. So this is going to be very special, this is a homecoming. It’s a more intimate tour in a way because it’s looking inside the fabric of a country of which the Hillary family is quite a significant part.
For example, our travelers are going to have to put up with the fact that if they go into a shop to buy something, and let’s say the item they’re going to buy is $25, they’ll pull out a New Zealand $20 bill, and then they’ll look around for a New Zealand $5 bill—and when they look at it, there’s a picture of Ed Hillary across the front.
So you see, it is a little different traveling around New Zealand! There are postage stamps with his name on them. When we go to Mount Cook, the southern ridge—the incredibly elegant, steep southern ridge of Mount Cook—is the Hillary Ridge. You really can’t get away from the Hillary influence.
Right! I’m wondering, are you recognized sometimes when you travel in New Zealand?
Oh yes, I get quite a lot of that. I was just down in Queenstown last week. I went to a restaurant with an old friend of mine. We were enjoying the meal, and the waiter comes up and she says, “Excuse me, but you’re not the son of Sir Edmund Hillary who’s on the $5 bill, are you?” She clutches her heart and goes, “Oh, I’m so happy to meet you!” I felt a bit embarrassed, but it is rather nice.
That’s quite wonderful. As you have put this trip together—and thank you for gracing GeoEx with this trip; I think it’s an incredible privilege that our travelers get to enjoy this with you—what are you hoping that travelers ultimately will take away from the trip?
Firstly, I’ve been working with GeoEx since 2003, largely of course in Asia, and I’ve really enjoyed the experience. I’m absolutely astonished at how thorough GeoEx is in the design of tours—obviously collaborating with me on itineraries, but also in the background checking. It makes you realize you’ve got to be really careful about saying “oh yes, this can happen”—because I’ve found GeoEx researchers do go and check and make sure that everything really is going to work well.
What I hope people get out of this trip to New Zealand is a wonderful, refreshing look at a beautiful country down there at the bottom of the Pacific, one of the loveliest places on the planet, with a very relaxed lifestyle. I’ve heard many people from North America say, after visiting New Zealand, that it reminds them of a rather charming, happy-go-lucky, easygoing place, maybe like Idaho back in the 1950s. Well, come on down and see for yourselves, because I can’t wait to show you around!
Is there anything else you would like to say to travelers who are considering taking this trip and are excited about it?
There’s a number of underlying themes that were top of mind when we put the itinerary together: They certainly are the mountains, the really spectacular destinations and locations around New Zealand; the Sir Edmund Hillary theme, the adventuring; but also conservation, visiting national parks, encouraging young people to get into the out of doors, looking at the public giving back land to conservation. It’s another way of looking at this, actually creating new reserves.
These are things we’ve been involved in too, so these are all areas we’ll be touching on, but fundamentally, it’s about people, it’s always going to be about people. The conversations you have—we’re going to have lots of different people coming in to talk about their specialties; I’ll be providing briefing sessions. I hope people go away feeling that they’ve made some really good friends Down Under, down in New Zealand. That’s really what the trip is going to be about.
It sure seems that way. So often you hear the word “unique” bandied about incorrectly, but this is one case where we really can say this is a unique journey, it’s really a unique opportunity. I’m excited about it. I hope I can clear my schedule so I can come too!
I hope you can!
Thank you very much, Peter. Thanks for talking with me about the trip. Thanks for giving yourself to this journey and creating it with GeoEx. It’s a singular offering that I am so proud that we as a company are able to offer, and I’m also so proud that we get to work with you, because you’re a fantastic person, a fantastic humanitarian, and we’re lucky to work with you. Thank you!
Thank you. It’s a great team and I’m glad to be part of it.
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To find out more about our New Zealand or Himalaya trips with Peter Hillary, call our travel experts at 888-570-7108.
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Do you have a question for Peter Hillary? Or a favorite travel memory you’d like to share? Please add your comments below. It’s always a pleasure to hear from you!