'The balance between the physical and the mental leads us to a true sense of self. This is not a judgement of intellect or fitness, rather an openness to challenging ourselves in both forms of endeavour'

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Time Between Tides - article in White Horses

Light lifts night's veil from the sea like a parting of the fog. There's a decent north swell still rolling in, the remnants of Cyclone Lucy which gave the country a good slapping earlier in the week. Waves radiate towards land – the ocean's pulse, which is also my lifeblood on many a glass-sculpted, windless dawn such as this.
Today I've risen early, not just for the promise of surf, but because this is a time between times, a catching of my breath as I transition from something I've helped choose towards something with huge potential consequences that I have little or no control over. Back home, down the narrow lick of wet sand that my footprints will soon fade from, there lies a pile of bags that have been packed with particular necessity. Each item within them has been scrutinised, like it alone holds the key to my safety and that of my wife and climbing partner. The high summits of the Himalaya call to us, but it's with an edgy ear that I hear that call; to undertake an expedition like this without due consideration is an idiot's journey. We're not idiots. We leave in less than two weeks.
Like so often before, the beach and the ocean and the waves – of course the waves – become the source of my unbridling, my shucking off of mind-shackles, my confidant, my shrink. Clumps of seaweed form jumbled islands along the sand, but I barely register their random, sometimes hulking presence. My mind is fuddled with carabiners and ropes and tents and altitude sickness pills. It needs a thorough saltwater cleansing. Shelley likes to jump on the tiny teardrops attached to the kelp, which make popping noises as she stomps down. It always takes us ages to walk along the beach whenever a storm has dumped another load of un-popped seaweed.
This morning Shelley is still in bed, curled up with our two cats Tommy and George, and no doubt dreaming of ice-crusted summits. She's much tougher than I am; was born with a stubborn streak that drags her to the top of most things more often than not. I'm happy to draft along in the wake of her single-minded drive, and to make sure we have the best chance of getting down again – I'm good at the descent. Home is that way.


One of the largest clumps of seaweed nearby grunts and sighs. In the half-light, I almost crap myself. Bloody things's alive! Christ, and it's a leopard seal, a monster of a mammal that looks like its been zapped straight from Dinosaur Land. Usually they hang out in the Antarctic, sleek killers plundering cute little penguins for dinner, and harassing anything that pisses them off. This guy is a long way from home.
After a sudden wide berth of my new acquaintance, I pause. Clearly it's not threatened by my presence, and neither should it be. Built like a small tank, and with jaws and teeth set to tear and pulverise, I don't imagine it getting flustered by much at all. Who would win in a fight with a great white – even bet, I reckon. Is it a boy or a girl? Maybe a girl as it seems pretty streamlined, not that I know much about leopard seals, other than that over the years they've killed a few people – I think the last time was the drowning of a female scientist who was scuba diving under the ice. Presumably being over-friendly, the leopard seal held her down until she eventually ran out of air while being a mammal's play toy.
Obviously, death waits for us along a myriad of paths, some chosen, some as random as a twist of unluckiness. The choosing is not a death wish, rather a conscious decision about action and consequence, and even more fundamentally about the essential worth of risk in our lives. I could so easily have lost Shelley during the terrifying earthquakes that devastated Christchurch, or one of my best mates Graham under what seemed like a skip-load of falling ice a few months later. I wondered how much fight – and breath – I had left when my leg rope recently snapped in heavy surf off the coast of Otago. And our upcoming flight to Nepal is with Malaysia Airlines, a company with a solid safety record yet which somehow has managed to lose one of its planes with 239 people on board. It's funny what your mind fleetingly registers when you almost trip over an unexpected predator lurking on your home beach.
The mountain we are attempting to climb is called Anidesha Chuli by the locals, and was given the nickname White Wave by visiting westerners. From the approaching valley it looms like the last in a huge set on an outer reef bombie. The summit snow piles up in windblown flutings, with giant, blocky ice seracs guarding the approach. I've spent hours pouring over photos from the unsuccessful attempts of a previous expedition, trying to consider every 'what if'. Some times I struggle to accept that fate plays its hand and I'm better off just trying to suck it up.
The leopard seal opens one eye, sniffs the air and shuffles its sleek, powerful body further into the sand. Slowly the gloom lifts. I can see white water folding around the point further down the beach. Sweet! The swell has hung around. Here comes that warm feeling inside that I've been looking for, a wee spark of 'go get it' that helps to drag me out of bed each morning. To rise before dawn. To face the light of the coming day like it's your first and last.

Monday, June 30, 2014

MSR Hubba Hubba NX Tent - gear review

The MSR Hubba Hubba NX (the NX stands for Next Generation) is marketed as offering a number of significant improvements over the previous model of Hubba Hubba. As someone familiar with the old version, and with its strengths and weaknesses, I was intrigued to see how MSR had tweaked the design.
The main faults I found with the old version were its lack of structural integrity – due to the pole design, the bulk of the tent's stability was based on the two side peg placements – and the chance of the fly touching the inner at each end when wet or windy. These concerns have been either fixed or, at the very least, improved.
First up improvement is the weight. With a minimum weight of 1.54kg – including tent, rainfly and poles only – this is around 10% lighter than the older model. This is pretty light for a two person, non single skin, three season tent.
While a weight reduction can sometimes mean the tent is less durable or waterproof, this doesn't seem to be the case here. Fabric specifications indicate that the tent is reasonably waterproof and, if an extra groundsheet is used, quite durable, especially for the weight.
The NX also has several new features and design tweaks that make it more comfortable and more weather resistant – benefits that, together with the weight savings, combine for a vastly improved tent.
The waterproof portion of the inner sidewalls are now higher and have a short solid nylon panel that helps to block dirt and wind. The distance from the inner tent to the outer tent has also been increased at the ends, enhancing ventilation while reducing the probability that the outer tent will touch the inner tent wall when wet. There is a guypoint here for extra tensioning if required in strong winds.
I like that the vestibule doors have been redesigned for easier entry, and a new guypoint increases overall tent stability and weather resistance. The tent also now has a vent at each end, and has slightly more space inside. There are some other smaller design details, like the grommets and pole clips, that have been redesigned to save weight seemingly without reducing strength. All in all, the NX appears to offer quite an improvement over the older Hubba Hubba.
My only concern, however, remains. The double star, single pole set up is quite complicated. I would hate for the bungy cord inside to break – trying to work out how or where to fix it will not be easy. Complicated pole structures are more likely to fail than simple pole structures. The pole of the Hubba Hubba is like a huge TV aerial that takes some wrestling to get into position, and I wonder about its integrity in a storm.
Other than that, this is a pretty good tent.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Journey We Are All On...

I divide my time between surfing, climbing, writing, loving life and a few other peripherals. There is no order or balance to it, but each seems to mesh succinctly into the whole. A mix of randomness here, a few lucky choices there, and I find myself in the middle age well along the journey – to what I'm not entirely sure. But that's the way of risk and reward, isn't it? Adventure starts around the same time as uncertainty...the letting go...the first step. It's a journey that we all have to take, and I'd rather take it consciously then be dragged along by an innate acceptance of what might have been.


Adventure and communication
When people ask what I do, I reply that I write and guide for a living. I realise it's a programmed response, as if our work is the most important thing. But when you think about it, it seems a funny thing to say. What do I do? I do many things, some central to my life and others just as a means of getting by. Work may or may not fit into that category. Surely the question to ask is: What do you look forward to doing?
With my work, I appreciate that I get the opportunity to explore and then preach about our environment, about how fragile and essential it is. You'd think this is a no brainer. Everyone nods sagely, saying 'yes, yes' but no one wants to take the step if it hits their pocket. Global warming is real. Water pollution is real. Take ownership. Make a difference.


Good karma breeds good karma
I thank my lucky stars for my life, my wife and the path I am on. And I try to remind myself every day of this. There are many ways to share your 'good fortune', and to my thinking it is the act of sharing that is of most value rather than what is shared.
So many others have it tough, are dealing with things hidden from our normal daily interactions. Sometimes I realise the difficult path a friend or acquaintance is on, and it frustrates me that I have been so blind to their suffering. All it can take is a smile or a kind word, being a better listener, and listening for what might not be said. Never be afraid to ask 'are you okay?' or 'can I help?'

The travel perspective
My latest trip has been a climbing expedition in the heart of the Nepal Himalaya. There's nothing like two months of different food, different sanitation and different attitudes to life to really open your eyes. Meeting people with so much who want more. Meeting people with so little who want to share the last of it with you. I was humbled at the generosity and appalled at the rampant greed. A fellow traveller complained about all the rubbish along the side of the road, as if the locals didn't care about their environment. 'What do you think our environmental footprint is compared to theirs,' I replied. 'We just do a better job of hiding it is all.'


Surfing's challenge
Surfing trips can be the same. During my last trip to Bali a year or so back, I noticed so many tourists complaining about the increasing pollution along the coastline. Who did they think was to blame for it? The irony of it wore thin after only a few toilet-paper-thin days. Scores of fat, obnoxious tourists, no doubt on cheap package deals, choosing to holiday among the timeless ways of the Balinese and yet complaining every two minutes if they couldn’t get exactly what they wanted when they wanted.
It was my wife Shelley’s first time to Indonesia, and she was abhorred with the way many westerners treated the locals. When a Kuta hawker offered us an elaborately-carved bow and arrow set, Shelley suggested that we test it out on a rather abrasive Australian family sitting further along on the beach. (It should be mentioned that we also met many nice Australians, but none of them wore Bintang singlets)
Nearly a decade had passed since my last trip here, and I was surprised with the increase in prices, tourist numbers and infrastructure. A local taxi driver complained that the Indonesian government was taking nearly all of the tourist dollars back to Jakarta, and that the majority of Balinese were as poor as ever. And then there were the growing number of expats, tearing up rice paddies to build their own chunk of exotic paradise. I wondered if they even cared about the Balinese way of life, or were more interested in shaping it around their own idealism. Overall, my impression was that Bali appeared to be struggling to keep its identity through all the demand.


Feeling the love
I've been chasing waves for over 30 years now. After trying competitions in my younger days – rather unsuccessfully – I settled into seeking out fun and uncrowded line ups, both around the country and overseas. I'm not a big wave charger or an aerial junkie. Just overhead is usually big enough for me, and hollow enough to get covered but not if it means risking serious injury. In other words, I'd consider myself middle of the road in terms of both surfing ability and desire.
And what I love about surfing, aside from the waves of course, is the vibe associated with it...the stoke. This is a great thing, a shared mindset, and something that should probably be appreciated more than it is these days.

To my aging eyes, stoke is sometimes being overtaken by an urge to get more waves, as if accumulation is more important than feeling. And this leads on to the one thing that really sticks in my craw about surfing: over the top localism and the surf rage that goes with it. I can't think of any other activity that has the same level of post pissing, chest thumping, macho posturing as surfing. This is a black mark on us as surfers. And yet it is something so easily fixed. How far does a simple smile go, a nod and a comment: 'Nah, you go mate. I'll wait for the next one.'