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A Hillary-ous Dad

By Peter Moore

Adventurer Peter Hillary, son of Sir Edmund, is trying hard to get his priorities right. To him, family comes first. Peter Moore talked to him.

“Being a father — and that includes the birth and the raising of my three children — has been the most momentous event of my life. And that includes skiing to the South Pole and climbing Mount Everest.”

“I mean they’re all good fun, and I love doing those sorts of things, but it’s a real adventure having a child.”

You might think that Peter Hillary is not much of a family man. Where would he get the time in between trekking off to far-flung bits of ice and rock scattered round the world? When I caught up with him, I was surprised and pleased to learn what a high priority his kids are in his life.

Peter is the father of Amelia, aged 9 (almost 10, dad says proudly), George, aged 7, and Alexander aged 2 3/4. The older two live with their mum in Melbourne, while Alexander lives with Peter and his partner Yvonne in Auckland.

Peter made it to the birth of all his children. “It’s something I wanted to do,” he explains. “Although I must confess, it’s a very full-on business. It did occasionally cross my mind that maybe it was women’s business after all”, he laughs. “But I was delighted I was there.”

Amelia’s birth was particularly memorable because of a complication. After 18 hours of labour, she was becoming distressed, Peter recalls. “So they got out the forceps and the obstetrician couldn’t move them.”

“My daughter, who’s a feisty little girl, had actually reached out and grabbed them and wouldn’t let go.”

The doctor pulled the forceps back out and had another go. Again Amelia grabbed on. He made a third attempt, and still she resisted. “So there was Amelia wrestling with the doctor about whether or not she would be born.”

Finally, on the fourth attempt, after 18 hours of labour, Amelia came out into the world.

When helpful relatives aren’t on hand, and Peter needs a break, he pops the kids in a backpack and goes for a walk. “Children love that as well,” he explains. “They look around and they fall asleep and they wake up and they look around again and you have this little chat.”

As a mountain climber, he didn’t stop this when the kids grew.

In fact, he used to put BOTH Amelia and George in a backpack and go for walks of a couple of hours. (Was it take your children to work day??) He took some snacks and drink bottles with him, “and I just sort of handed em up to the ravenous hoards hanging from my shoulders.”

Unfortunately, now that he’s shifted back to Auckland, Peter doesn’t see as much of Amelia and George anymore. He finds small, frequent gestures the best way to stay in touch.

When he was on the Iridium Icetrek across Antarctica, this meant the occasional phone call via satellite telephone. When back at home, he frequently sends a quick postcard. “Just scrawling them a few lines so at some stage the day that card arrives they’ll think, “hey, dad’s thinking about me.”

Peter’s father, Sir Edmund Hillary, obviously helped stimulate Peter into choosing mountaineering as a career path. But the man on the five dollar note also helped shape Peter’s values as a father. Family holidays were particularly memorable.

He talks about them as, “wonderful, wonderful times,” and, “really rich experiences — things I’ll never forget.” He tries to recreate the richness of those experiences for his own children.

Times have changed since Peter was a boy, and so have expectations of fathers. “If dad had attempted to actually go to the birth of the three Hillary children, he’d probably be kicked out and people would think he was a bit strange… these days people would say, ‘You mean you weren’t there?'”

It doesn’t bother Peter that Sir Edmund wasn’t always as involved as modern fathers are. “I mean, he was typical of his generation,”he explains.

“I don’t see a lot of point in judging one generation to another, because things change.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the difficulty for men of finding a good family/work balance. Mention the words “quality time” to Peter and his hackles rise. He sees it as an “excuse for spending about 20 minutes a week with your children.

I’m a great believer that it’s got to be quantity time -you’ve got to be there for them.” For Peter, that means scheduling family time in his diary and ruthlessly guarding it. I learned that he was sincere about this when I had to wait until after school holidays to schedule an interview!

In the summer of 98/99, work did take priority, however. For three months Peter led the Iridium Icetrek retracing Robert Scott’s 1911/12 expedition to the South Pole.

For Alexander, he left behind a poster and a life-sized cut-out of himself. Amelia was more demanding. “Why do you have to do it now, why can’t you do it in a few months time?” she asked.

In the past, an expedition like this could have meant no contact at all from the day the group left, till the day they returned. Thanks to the Iridium satellite phone, Peter continued to be a part-time father while on the ice. He recalls one conversation with delight.

“I started off trying to explain to my children that I’m in this tent and it’s minus 40 outside and were a bit concerned because the conditions are pretty horrific and we’re over a thousand kilometers from the coast and Scott base.

But the thing they really wanted to discuss with me was that the Christmas presents I’d sent to them had got muddled… It brings everything down to earth.

The real issue was Amelia and George’s Christmas gifts — not any of this silly stuff about whether or not it’s cold outside… I rather enjoyed that. It keeps you in tune with what’s important in your children’s lives.”

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