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My best teacher

I've thought about these two teachers often in remote places around the world and found myself skiing along with a smile on my face

Portrait by Neil Turner

High up in the Himalayas or on a long journey of exploration in the Antarctic, especially in a situation of sensory deprivation, memories are your companions, and I have often found myself thinking back to my school days, to two guys in particular: Mr Carter and Mr Jefferies. Mr Carter was my form master at King's prep in Auckland, and Mr Jefferies taught me physics when I moved on to the senior school, King's College.

I owe Mr Carter, because he saw I had an interest in natural history, especially ornithology, and encouraged me to pursue it. Who would have thought this interest would lead me to taking a trip recently on behalf of the New Zealand Department of Conservation to photograph one of the rarest birds on the planet, the flightless parrot? There are only 62 of them in the world and they are huge, weighing about four kilos, and creep around in the forest on Stewart Island.

My maternal grandfather sparked my early interest in nature. He was on the board of Tongariro, one of the first national parks, and used to take me as a small child to the bottom of our suburban garden and show me where the cicadas left their cases on the bark of a tree, where to find the giant weta, a big insect that is extinct everywhere except in New Zealand, and how to tell when a fig was ripe.

At school, natural history was probably my best subject and Mr Carter's encouragement was important. He was an elderly man, probably in his early sixties. He was soft-spoken, formal in his grey suit and tie, and very likeable. Everyone respected him. He was one of those teachers who stood out. As well as teaching natural history, he encouraged our art, getting us to draw birds and animals in their natural habitat, which I loved.

At King's College, I was in one of the top forms but I wasn't an outstanding scholar. I was a member of the bird club and the photographic club, not mainstream activities. I wasn't in the first XV, which got you high points at that school. In winter there were two choices: rugby or rugby, and in summer: cricket or cricket. Rugby didn't appeal to me at all.

I thought the whole idea of people hurling themselves against one another was rather undignified. I wanted to put my energies into skiing or climbing. I'd started climbing when I was about 10. Dad took me into the mountains in the Southern Alps of New Zealand with his Sherpa, but I didn't start climbing in a serious way until I was 15 or 16.

Mr Jefferies, who taught physics, was British. Like Mr Carter, he was an extremely good teacher who had total control of the class. He had a capacity to talk about physics in a way that made it wonderfully interesting. Physics is extraordinary stuff because it underscores just about everything - how a plane flies, how radio works, the internet, in fact everything we use. Mr Jefferies was an intense fellow, a skinny man, balding and with glasses. And, like Mr Carter, he was very encouraging with his pupils. The two men became role models; their encouragement was important to me.

After I climbed Mount Everest with my father in 1990, I was invited to the college and given an honours tie for my climbing expeditions and for some work I have done with the schools and hospitals we have in Nepal. Mr Jefferies was still there, but about to retire.

Over the years in remote places around the world I've thought about these two teachers often and found myself skiing along with a smile on my face.

They were good men. One of the great things about expeditions is that you step away from the frantic pace of modern life for a while. These periods of contemplation can be some of the most memorable and best parts of an expedition.

Mountaineer and explorer Peter Hillary was talking to Pamela Coleman


1954 Born Auckland, New Zealand, a year after father Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest

1960-68 King's prep school, Auckland

1968-72 King's College, Auckland

1972-74 Studies geology and chemistry at Auckland University (doesn't finish course)

1977 First expedition, up the River Ganges

1990 Climbs Everest with his father

1995 Only one of eight climbers to survive descent of K2 mountain

1999 Overland expedition to South and North Poles

April 2004 Publication of In the Ghost Country (Mainstream Publishing, pound;15.99), about his journey across Antarctica(co-written with John Elder)

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