Sons of Mount Everest Pioneers to Repeat Historic Climb

Brian Handwerk
for National Geographic News
March 26, 2002
The National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition
commemorates the first ascent of the world's highest mountain, by
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in May 1953. It also honors the
first Americans to stand on the top of the world, including Barry
Bishop, in 1963.

The sons of Everest pioneers Hillary, Norgay, and Bishop—Peter Hillary, Jamling Norgay, and Brent Bishop—are helping make a documentary that will air on the National Geographic Channel in the United States and internationally in 2003.

The National Geographic 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition is made possible in part by the generous support of American International Group, Inc.

The bustling springtime activity on Mount Everest—Earth's highest mountain and the dream destination of many hikers—makes it easy to forget that 50 years ago the summit seemed as unattainable as the surface of the moon.

No one knew whether people could attain such a height and survive in its rarefied air.

All of that changed in 1953 when Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to stand on the "roof of the world." Ten years later, a man named Barry Bishop was among a group that carried the American flag to the summit for the first time, following a route up the previously unclimbed west ridge.

These milestones paved the way for a new era of Everest mountaineering. Now, another generation is carrying on the Everest traditions of their famous fathers, while honoring their historic achievements.

Peter Hillary, Jamling Norgay, and Brent Bishop—all accomplished climbers—plan to scale Mount Everest this year as part of a National Geographic-sponsored expedition marking the 50th anniversary of the first successful ascent of the summit. The current climb is part of a series of events leading up to the release of a documentary film on the historic event, set to premiere globally and in the United States on the National Geographic Channel in May 2003.

Although conditions have changed since Everest was first conquered, reaching the summit today is still demanding and dangerous, said Peter Hillary. "A lot of people maybe become a bit complacent because we've been on Everest before. But the mountain is as tough as it's always been, and if you make a mistake you may pay with your life," he said.

He added: "You can't take Everest for granted."

A Family Tradition

The climbers who shattered the invincibility of the world's highest mountain will forever be associated with Everest. And in some cases, they and their families created lifelong bonds with the region and its Sherpa people.

"In some ways it's been like a second home for the entire Hillary family," Peter Hillary said recently from Katmandu. "Dad has spent a lot of his life here, founding and building some 42 schools and hospitals. We'd very often be here on school vacations. They were great family adventures and great memories."

The time he spent in the Everest region with his father strengthened Peter's interest and skill in mountaineering. He became an Everest summiter himself in 1990, and naturally felt a strong connection to his father.

It turned out to be more than just an emotional connection. "When I summited Everest, we fortunately had a satellite phone with us, so rather than just thinking about dad up there, I was able to call him," he said.

"It was an amazing moment," he recalled. "I was asking him what it had been like for him to climb the Hillary step, when I had just climbed it myself half an hour before and was standing on the summit. It was pretty special, a wonderful moment."

Region Marked by Change

The current expedition is led by Peter Athans, an experienced guide whose six climbs to the summit are a record among Westerners. The trek will follow the traditional South Col route pioneered by Hillary and Norgay.

The team hopes to reach the summit two months from now, but all plans are subject to the mountain's consent.

The group is now trekking to the Everest base camp at a relatively leisurely pace. For a few weeks they will enjoy the hospitality of the Sherpa people, in the homeland of Jamling Norgay.

The present leg of the journey offers a chance to become familiar with the Everest region and slowly acclimatize to the high altitude. But it also has another purpose: an examination of the changes that have transformed the Everest region over the last 50 years.

A steady influx of climbers and tourists has forever altered the once-isolated region. The expedition plans to document ways in which these outside influences have changed the lives of those who live in the shadow of the great mountain.

Once the team is settled at the base camp, the serious business of climbing Mount Everest will begin. Most of April will be spent shuttling supplies up the mountain and establishing camps higher up that will be used during the climb to the summit.

The expedition is an opportunity for some of the "sons of Everest" to celebrate the historic achievements of half a century ago. Looking ahead, is it likely that a third generation of Norgays, Bishops, and Hillarys might undertake a similar trek 75 years after the celebrated first climb to the summit?

Peter Hillary said his children are young, so only time will tell. "I don't particularly aspire for them to climb, but neither did my father particularly aspire for me to become a climber," he said. "If it happens, it happens."

If any of them do take up climbing, he added, "I hope it's because they love it with a passion—love it for its own sake and not because it's something that dad and granddad were involved in. That would be a pretty bad reason to become a mountaineer."

National Geographic is filming the 50th Anniversary Everest Expedition as part of a documentary that will premiere globally in May 2003 on the National Geographic Channel.

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