Facing death at the Earth’s highest reaches

by Kaori Shoji

Special To The Japan Times

Peter Hillary was born in 1954, one year after his father, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Nepalese sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men in history to stand on the summit of Mount Everest.

Peter provided the voice-over for his father’s character in a new documentary called “Beyond the Edge,” which cleverly compiles archival footage with spectacular re-created scenes of the Mount Everest climb shot in 3-D by the team that worked on James Cameron’s “Avatar.” The film is also a tribute to the Hillary/Norgay duo, (Hillary played by Chad Moffit with Norgay by Sonam Sherpa), and a restrained but heartfelt love letter to the mountaineers of the 1950s who gathered at the Himalayas every season.

“I think my fate was decided for me before my birth,” says Peter with a laugh, in an interview with The Japan Times. “Adventure was to be a prerequisite in my life. Adventure was compulsory. From a very early age, I accompanied my father on tours and expeditions. As for climbing mountains, well, that was practically second nature.”

He was only 11 years old when Edmund took him on his first Mount Everest expedition. In 1990, they became the first father-son team to reach the summit and their adventures continued until Edmund passed away in 2008.

“One of my earliest memories of a family vacation involved mountains,” says Peter. “My father took my mother, my two sisters and myself to Nepal. We were going to build a hospital there and my father got us all involved. We spent the entire vacation carrying tools, hauling stones and so on. I loved it, actually. Come to think of it, I don’t think he ever took us on a vacation where we just looked at sights or just relaxed. It was a marvelous upbringing. I always felt incredibly proud to be the son of Edmund Hillary.”

Peter’s father remains a dominant influence on his life, and when director Leanne Pooley invited him to do the voice-overs of his father’s character for the fictional dramatizations in her documentary “Beyond the Edge,” he willingly agreed.

“I think the movie really speaks about the mountaineers of that particular era,” says Peter.

“Back then (in the 1950s), mountaineering was still a very young activity; people had only just started climbing Mount Everest in the 1920s. It was the sport of blue-blooded Englishmen, and they all practiced in Switzerland, hired the best guides and had the best equipment and so on. The 1950s was also a decade of national expeditions. You know, the war had ended and people needed a purpose and a sense of solidarity. You can see in the movie how the British flag was always prominently placed on the pole, and how getting to the summit was practically an act of patriotism. Now the whole mountaineering culture has changed dramatically, but that was what it was like in those days. And the movie shows you that.”

One other thing that has changed is how the geopolitics of mountaineering have significantly diminished in the 21st century. Climbers no longer have a national flag stashed in their backpack or — as in the case of “Beyond the Edge” — burden themselves with the additional weight of a pole ribboned with the national flags of every member belonging to the expedition.

It was against this backdrop that Edmund, a beekeeper from New Zealand, joined the British expedition to summit Mount Everest in 1953. He was a self-taught alpinist with no lofty connections, social or familial. In a recording of a radio interview with Edmund used in “Beyond the Edge,” he says that his own father would never have supported his endeavor, and that he described the expedition as a “waste of time.”

Peter elaborates on the particular values of his father and grandfather when he was younger: “In many ways my dad was a reflection of his upbringing. My granddad had fought in World War I and had a terrible experience. Most of his friends died on the battlefield and he came home badly injured. This made him distant, and stern as a father and husband, but he wasn’t alone — many New Zealanders who fought that war were quite damaged souls. By today’s standards, they seemed cold and unapproachable. My granddad taught my dad the values of hard work and to look for a higher meaning in life and, ultimately, I think that aided him in his adventures later on. It also triggered a desire in him to help and inspire others.”

Now it has become much harder for individual mountaineers to be undisputed heroes or prominent role models and the once-unattainable peak of Mount Everest has seen some sizable crowds. Still, the risks to get there remain largely the same.

In one dramatized segment of Pooley’s film, Edmund and Norgay sleep in a tiny tent and, at night, sip oxygen from their tanks for a semblance of warmth and comfort. Exhaustion was an enemy. The cold was another. But both were inescapable, and Edmund recounts how “it was impossible to get more than a few hours of sleep at night, but we needed to sleep in order to get up in the morning and keep climbing.”

Peter says he believes that “mountaineering represents the sharp edge of human endeavor.” But watching “Beyond the Edge,” the “edge” of days gone by seems so much sharper than today. When Edmund and Norgay first climbed, their oxygen tanks were heavy and often faulty, and high-tech synthetic fibers were not yet available. In the archival footage (shot on the 1953 expedition by George Lowe), Edmund looks as though he’s climbing in several layers of pajamas and not much else. But the sight of his tall, lanky figure making the climb one strenuous step at a time is simply awe inspiring.

“It’s true, my father doesn’t look like he’s especially well equipped. In fact, Norgay was better dressed — he was wearing a down jacket!” says Peter with a laugh.

“In those days, the great alpinists were celebrated for their ability to climb, and to make it to the summits of the world’s most forbidding mountains. Now it’s a whole other game — mountaineers climb with laptops and they feed their experiences directly into the Internet. Everything has changed. The great thing about it is, though, that the field has opened up and more people are getting out and challenging themselves.”