Friday, December 24, 2010

The Question Of Risk - article in Wilderness

Kynan Bazley, a good friend, once told me that ‘the dignity of risk should be afforded to everyone’.  It was the winter of 2004, and North Elcho’s confined alpine valley had piled high with avalanche debris. Having picked the least exposed site we could find, Bazley and I zipped up into our cosy tent beneath a cirque of snowy slopes and settled in for a long, cool evening.  Mount Ward’s steep and icy south-east face – the feature we’d come to climb – faded with the light, but still played hide and seek with our psyche.
I remember lying there in my sleeping bag, and being struck by Bazley’s choice of words. He then went on to say that, too often, we are denied the opportunity to take risk because of societal judgements and laws. This was something I agreed with. ‘If I decide to climb a mountain,’ he said, ‘my decision reflects how I see the world and where I fit into it.’
Deciding to play devil’s advocate, I countered with: ‘That’s fine, but climbing is not essential like driving a car, is it?’
‘We as humans have needs,’ Bazley replied, probably realising I was leading him on but enjoying the gist of the conversation. ‘And, I believe, self-actualisation comes at the top. We should be more inclined to take risks to feel good about ourselves rather than in the mundane day-to-day survival stuff.’
Since that cold night, I’ve found myself reflecting a number of times on Bazley’s ‘dignity of risk’ comment. I find it all the more profound given that, as a doctor, his daily job is to save lives. Some people would consider this being in direct conflict with Bazley completing a number of bold mountain climbs around the world – climbs where he has risked both his own life and the lives of his willing climbing partners. But Bazley, and indeed most who participate in outdoor adventure activities, don’t see it that way. And that’s fine. Adventurous activity isn’t eveyone’s cup of tea. The issue for me is that, in today’s over-protective society, risk-taking in the outdoors is seen as a ‘dirty word’. Very rarely is there a conversation about outdoor activity without the question ‘how dangerous is it?’ cropping up.
Prime Minister John Key’s recent call for a national review on the outdoor adventure industry is yet another example of this. Key stated that the review was needed because of a number of recent accidents in this country, highlighting two high profile incidents that influenced his stance: the 2008 death of English tourist Emily Jordan while river boarding with Queenstown company Mad Dog; and the Mangatepopo tragedy the same year, when a teacher and six students from Auckland’s Elim Christian College drowned while on a Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre canyoning trip. These were among 29 fatalities recorded in the outdoor adventure sector in the five years from 2004 to 2009, along with another 450 reported accidents that resulted in serious harm. Key believed there should and could be a reduction in this number, and said that the accident rate was potentially harming our growing tourism industry.
As I see it, there are three main issues here: How safe are our outdoor activity operators, should organisations that are driven by profit be ultimately responsible for their own safety decisions, and has this review achieved little other than adding to the growing negative public perception of the level of risk in the outdoors?  
Dealing with the first issue: some tragedies cannot, realistically, be avoided. This country’s accident rate is comparable to, if not lower than, most other countries in the developed world. But does that make it acceptable? And will the national review make any difference? Perhaps by exploring the the two incidents Key referred to, some light may be shed on the issue.
Maritime New Zealand – the regulatory body responsible for river boarding – prosecuted Mad Dog for the death of Emily Jordan. The accident made headlines here and in the UK, and Emily’s father Chris Jordan was vocal both in his condemnation of Mad Dog and of our government for not acting quickly enough in ‘banning bad operators’.  Undoubtedly, Key was influenced by such a vocal condemnation of our adventure industry – even if it came from the other side of the world.
After the court case – where MNZ presented its evidence but then, according to Mad Dog owner Brad McLeod, approached him for a plea bargain before the defence had a chance to present its own evidence – it was revealed that Mad Dog’s earlier calls for assistance in creating ‘best practise’ guidelines were ignored by the regulatory body. At the time of the accident, river boarding was still considered a ‘fringe’ water activity, and national operating procedures needed to be developed. In this instance, it appears to me that MNZ failed to meet its obligations in administering the Maritime Transport Act, instead choosing a ‘bottom of the cliff’ self-interest role after the accident. The plea bargain saw the company admitting two charges, and being ordered to pay $146,000 in fines and reparation. The other four charges were dropped.
After the accident, Mad Dog changed some of its operating procedures. This is an indicator that it realised there were certain areas it could improve on. But to be labelled a ‘cowboy’ operator was misleading. If anything, it was MNZ that acted inappropriately and needed to tidy up its act.

Obviously, the concept of commercially-driven outdoor adventure is a double-edged sword. The need to create a ‘buzz’ that compels domestic and international tourists to part with their money has to be offset against the real (rather than perceived) risk of any activity. Issues around the monitoring of safety operational plans and clients being fully informed of the actual risks involved certainly need to be addressed. But, according to international mountain guide and registered outdoor auditor Hugh Barnard, there’s no way to eliminate risk in the outdoors despite the best practise of operators. ‘To stop all risk is to stop the appeal of these activities,’ he says. ‘Some are just riskier than others, and this must be recognised both within the industry and by regulatory authorities.’ Barnard believes that tourist operators are getting better at informing their clients of the actual risks involved, especially when compared to a decade ago.
Since the release of findings from the national review, the government has introduced new safety rules – the most obvious being a national registry of all operators. Barnard feels that this is a step in the right direction. ‘Registration is better than legislation. As soon as you legislate, it becomes difficult to change when new and better practices emerge,’ he comments. Barnard says the compulsory registration process means all operators will need SOPs, regardless of whether they are on DOC estate or private land. ‘This was an anomaly in the past. Operations on DOC needed these plans but others didn’t. Hopefully, this will help to lift those sectors of the industry that perhaps weren’t quite up to scratch.’
In terms of a paper audit trail of a company’s safety plan versus a physical assessment, Barnard questions whether the more costly physical assessment would improve safety. ‘Some people are calling for this,’ he says. ‘But the cost to the industry will be high, and I don’t know that it would reduce the number of accidents. A good paper audit usually picks up discrepancies in safety systems anyway. At the end of the day it’s impossible to completely control the human element.’ Barnard feels that, generally, New Zealand’s outdoor industry is in ‘a good place. Most operators are conscious about customer safety and self regulate to ensure this as best they can.’
The question for me here is – and this deals with the second issue I highlighted earlier – is ‘most operators’ good enough? Surely, there needs to be 100% compliance. Also, how much should we trust operators who are there, primarily, to make a profit? Sure, their business depends on good safety practise, but if the safety aspects cut into their profit, and this cost could make the difference between profit and loss, are they always going to make the best decisions in terms of customer safety? The only way to ensure this is through thorough and ongoing independent assessment. The national registry then is certainly a step in the right direction. 

While adventure tourism is focussed primarily on making money, outdoor recreation and education is about providing a service that encourages personal growth. And often the providers are non-profit organisations. It is likely that the Mangatepopo tragedy has done considerable damage to the notion that outdoor education exerts a positive influence on our young people. Investigating coroner Chris Devonport recommended a number of changes for OPC, but recognised that ‘safety in an outdoor adventure capacity can never be guaranteed 100 percent.’ However, he stated that all reasonable steps needed to be taken to minimise the chances of serious injury or death. ‘Even if those risk-management strategies are in place, complacency can defeat them. For commercial/educational outdoor institutions, regular emergency exercises are required.’
After the Mangatepopo incident, and Devonport’s findings, some schools started scrapping their outdoor programme altogether. And according to a number of teachers I have spoken to recently, there is growing confusion in the education system between risk management and the elimination of risk. Current thinking seems to revolve around idea that the best way to manage risk is to eliminate it. This approach forgets the positive value of risk. Learning is reduced, along with the ability to make decisions – recognising the connection between action and consequence – if there is no opportunity to ‘skin one’s knees’ from time to time. Obviously, the balance here is that children are not needlessly exposed to risky situations. Parents expect, and rightly so, that any activity with an element of uncertainty is managed appropriately.
And it’s not just the volunteer organisations focussing on our youth that are finding the wider public’s attitude to risk challenging. Recently the New Zealand Alpine Club has clarified its instructional programme – one of the club’s core functions – to see if and where improvements can be made. Yet, NZAC Executive Officer Ollie Clifton still believes that, while risk taking places a cost on society, the positives far outweigh the negatives. ‘I guess the real question is “should society still value risk taking?” ‘, he says. ‘Society has become too focussed on the cost without seeing the benefit. And I can understand that, especially if I experienced having a loved one killed or injured in an outdoor activity. I would want to look really closely at that activity and see how the risk is managed.’
Referring to climbing, Clifton accepts that, as an activity, it is intrinsically linked to risk. ‘Safety is in many ways a subjective concept, and people can choose where to engage on the safety spectrum. This club’s role is to help facilitate this process either through instructional programmes or less formal mentoring situations.’
Also, Clifton thinks there needs to be careful management of how volunteers are used in the instructional process. ‘With our volunteer instructors, we are certainly more focussed now on offering instruction at the basic level of mountaineering – the fundamentals of movement. As the skill levels of club member’s progress, we then look to bring in professional guides to further their development.’
There is an inherent risk to climbing, and indeed to other outdoor activities. But Clifton sees the decision-making process, necessary when dealing with risk, as a valuable tool in society. ‘Too many people don’t know what to do in times of stress. Take the recent earthquake in Canterbury: having the ability to quickly assess a situation and make the appropriate decision is vital. So much of our day to day living doesn’t expose us to this or allow us to make these decisions.’ Clifton explains that outdoor adventurers have the opportunity to step away from their normal lives, and then to re-engage into community with a more rounded perspective. ‘Yes outdoor adventure can certainly be seen as self indulgent. Yes there’s the potential for things to go wrong, and sometimes the end result is catastrophic. But that doesn’t mean that we should remove risk from our lives.’ 

Without taking chances, what would our lives consist of? But where is the balance, and how do we achieve it? I’ve been giving this a lot of thought lately. From time to time I have asked myself the question while climbing: Is the risk worth it? For me, the answer is still ‘yes’, but there are times when I’m not always sure. So perhaps the question we should be asking is can the ‘more rounded perspective’ and ‘decision-making abilities’ that Clifton refers to be garnered without the need to expose ourselves to constant risk?
But are we looking at the concept of risk, especially when referring to our youth, in the right way? Jodi Apiata, a Christchurch-based facilitator of youth development, doesn’t think so. ‘For me, the major risks in life for our youth are things like unprotected sex, drug taking, alcohol abuse, and negative social interactions,’ he says. ‘When trying to manage risk outside the classroom, we’re just not thinking about it in the right way. We live in a predominantly urban environment, and in this environment there are few opportunities for our youth to learn concepts like responsibility and the relationship between action and consequence. You can’t teach the practicalities of these in a classroom. And you won’t find them on video games or through web socialising.
Apiata sees the outdoor environment as an essential part of developing life experience. ‘Outdoor activity is equipping youth to make better decisions back in the real world. We should be encouraging them into it, not putting up protective barriers. By trying to protect them, we’re actually making the situation worse. Actual experiences are becoming harder to get, and the only way to really learn is through experience. There’s a reality that goes with the understanding. Theory based learning doesn’t come close.
‘The way to tackle things like teenage pregnancy, suicide and substance abuse is through building self esteem, resilience, responsibility and relationship development. And this needs to be done in a medium where young people can recognise and understand consequences quickly. The outdoors is an ideal medium for this.’
This article has focussed on risk in the outdoors and its value to society. The national review is a reflection of society’s changing attitude to risk. And whether the action taken from the review’s findings will actually lead to a reduction in accidents remains to be seen. Yet, these days, it seems that doing the right thing is not good enough anymore. It’s almost become more important that we are seen to be doing the right thing. And that highlights a lack of understanding about decision-making, about consequences, about self reliance and about responsibility. 
Some of the concerns raised in the review are certainly valid but some, for me at least, are missing the point. My learning about the outdoors as a youngster had a practical aspect to it, an ethos that I have carried with me and will continue to carry with me for the rest of my life. I do not proclaim that it is the answer to all of life’s woes, but then nothing is. What I do feel is that, if we continue to carry on down the road we’re heading, the quality of our life will be the lesser for it.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Asgard Project - review for The Climber Magazine

We all know that Leo Houlding is crazier than a sack of howler monkeys. This British uber climber/adventurer takes things as far as seems humanly appropriate, and then a fair chunk further just to see how it feels.
Take one of the scenes from the 2009 adventure documentary The Asgard Project. It’s not even on the ‘project’ itself, but rather a training climb/base-jump combination. Leo and fellow Berghaus sponsored nut-bar Carlos Suarez decide to simul-climb two of the main towers of Riglos in Spain. The towers are conglomerate, around 300 metres high and overhanging. The guys set themselves an hour to monkey up each route and jump off. So, a tick over two hours later, Leo and Carlos are poised at the top of the second tower preparing to jump. Only the cloud has come in and they can’t get a handle on their bearings. All the time, the camera operator keeps filming away as the two adventurers stand on this nose of rock, peering out into the murky abyss. It all seems pretty atmospheric to say the least. Carlos encourages Leo to go for it, but Leo doesn’t appear to keen – not surprising given the conditions. But then he says something like ‘bugger it’ and jumps into the cloud. Carlos is left standing there, looking decidedly uncomfortable all of a sudden, before he too jumps. My palms worked themselves into quite a sweaty lather – a theme they would stick with through most of the film.
So, the overall premise: Asgard is a remote, 2000 metre high granite monolith on Baffin Island in the Arctic Circle. The ‘project’ is to make the first free ascent of its daunting looking north face and then base-jump off the summit using wing suits. To access the area, Leo, Carlos and another team member Sean Leary do a fly-by, attach mini-parachutes to their kit and then shove it out of the door of the plane, and skydive after it into the middle of nowhere. The rest of the team, including film makers Ian Burton and Alastair Lee, hike in 90km from the nearest town to reach the base of Asgard.
In all, they spend 10 days on the wall, dealing with the usual vagaries that weather in the Arctic Circle is likely to throw at them. From go to whoa, this is adrenal gland popping stuff. The location is hardcore, the climbing extreme and the filming top notch. Sure, some of the theme music and voiceovers are a tad overkill for my liking. The climbing is so obviously severe and the conditions bleak enough that I don’t need reminding. But, along with the drive to attract big time sponsors to fund something like this, comes the necessary hype I suspect. And that would be my only gripe on what is an enthralling and entertaining film.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Meaning Of Life

                                                 SNUGGLES WHEN NEEDED!

Thursday, October 28, 2010


The irony of it all was starting to wear thin: 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 in 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, Shell 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)

For a few days we surfed, sunbathed and shopped with the hordes in Kuta’s meat market and then Seminyak’s version – the only difference being the layers of make-up – politely declining offers of transport, huge phallic carvings, sarongs, drugs and yet another ‘special’ massage from bevies of toothless senior citizens. Eventually, we imploded and headed inland to walk among the rice paddies and rain forests.
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.

Easing through the ever trendy Ubud, we eventually surfaced in Sanur. Shell had to head back to NZ for work, and I awaited the arrival of a couple of surfing mates. A dawn check at Hyatt Reef showed that the new swell hadn’t yet arrived, so I wandered south along the waterfront to a friend’s recently established yoga studio.

Theo Wallis is a young Kiwi living in Bali, but the contrast between his attitude and many of the other expats I met was obvious. To start with, proceeds from his Power of Now yoga/chi-gung/meditation/holistic centre go to the Jodie O’Shea Orphanage in Denpasar. And while other expats exhibit that million-mile stare where they can’t quite get motivated enough to do anything with their day – because there is nothing for them to do – Theo bubbles with enthusiasm and ideas.
 ‘It’s about living in the now,’ he told me as we slurped tall, cold glasses of mixed juice and relaxed in the sun after another yoga session. ‘I hate it that people spend their days without being fully aware of their surroundings. It’s like they’re on autopilot. Their mind wanders from the present.’
‘Yeah, but that’s life though, isn’t it?’ I replied. ‘Sure, we have various goals, but really we just drift along from one random occurrence to another.’
Theo shrugged his shoulders. ‘It’s not healthy. We need to concentrate, to be aware of what we’re doing every moment and of the situation around us.’
Theo referred to this as ‘the need for mindfulness’. He spoke of connecting it to other ‘simple’ ideas like positive thinking, the realisation that everything was impermanent, focussing on kindness, love and compassion as well as practising discipline and humility.

To be honest, I’ve never been big on New Age thinking and philosophy. The idea of extensive meditation just seems a waste of time. But here was a 23-year-old surfer from Dunedin – at an age when most of us focussed on alcohol and carnal pleasure – exhibiting a maturity and intuition way beyond his years. I guess it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise – both of Theo’s parent’s are healers. His father works as a meditation teacher, while his mother is a midwife in Dunedin.
I’ve known Theo since 2005, when we worked and surfed together in Otago. A rangy teenager with a big grin, Theo and his mates chased waves and girls. Then wanderlust took hold. Theo spent the summer of 2006 teaching at a surf camp in San Diego, then ski instructed in Whistler and surfed round Vancouver. He returned home for a year, and in 2008 joined a volunteer LEAP (Local Empowerment Assistance Project) programme in Sumatra.

‘We helped build a school, dig wells, and got to surf some pretty good waves too,’ Theo recalled.
The programme was based on the island of Palau Asu, near Nias, and Theo surfed the famous right-hander as often as possible. ‘It’s probably my favourite wave in Indo,’ he said, smiling. ‘Big barrels, the thing goes like clockwork.’
When the LEAP programme ended, Theo headed to Perth, and worked as a bartender on Rottnest Island. ‘I did a lot of training, pushing my body, understanding what it could and couldn’t do.’ It was there that Theo started focussing on yoga. ‘Initially I just picked up basic sequences and used them in my surf warm-up routine,’ he said.
While in Perth, Theo met well-travelled Australian Chris Sampson (Chris is one of the nice Australians, and doesn’t wear Bintang singlets). And, in 2009, they took part in a meditation retreat in Bali – something that Theo described as a watershed: ‘I spent three months in Indo this time, mostly up in North Sumatra. I was training with a yoga teacher, surfing three times a day and doing yoga twice a day.’

Theo then went on the week-long retreat with Chris. Based on a mix of ancient Balinese-Hindu philosophies and Buddhist pre-religion, Theo described it as a week of silence and no food in the evenings. ‘Before that retreat I had been on a path of enjoyment, heading from one pleasure to the next,’ he explained. ‘But it opened up my consciousness. I became aware of what was important in life. Before that I’d been walking round with a blindfold on. Life’s not just about financing fun. It should be focussed on positive development of yourself and the things and people around you.’
Theo and Chris returned to Rottnest and made plans. They worked on Chris’s 60ft ketch, Defiance, before sailing it north to Bali and parking up in Sanur. Theo said that the two of them had previously discussed starting a holistic centre in Rottnest but, upon arriving in Indonesia, decided that Mertasari Beach in Sanur would be ideal. Theo now teaches yoga most days, and organises events for the orphanage.

The Power of Now centre flier states that ‘the most noble thing you can do is to help others.’ Theo is fond of quotes, and frequently uses them to illustrate his views: ‘If you contribute to other people’s happiness, you will find the true meaning of life. The key point is to have a genuine sense of universal responsibility. That’s from His Holiness the Dalai Lama,’ Theo explained. ‘Makes sense, doesn’t it?’
I nodded.

‘Yet we forget to do it,’ he continued. ‘We get tied up in our egos, our own negative thoughts.’
I asked Theo whether yoga and meditation helped with his surfing.
‘Certainly,’ he replied. ‘There’s the physical side to it. I have more flexibility and strength. But it’s the awareness of my surroundings that has had more impact. I feel connected to the ocean. I feel the energy of it through my hands when I’m paddling. Sure, I still have bad surfs from time to time. Maybe my ego is too strong on those days. But other days my surfing feels fully switched on.’

Theo’s love for the ocean has seen him progress to other water activities. ‘I need to go in the water every day,’ he said. ‘Whether kite surfing, tow surfing, stand up or whatever, I’m looking for that connection.’
Theo still thinks of New Zealand as home, and looks forward to one day returning to the Otago coastline to chase the chilly waves there. But for now, he and Chris have plans to extend the centre, and maybe start another so they can broaden their positive influence on others.
‘Wealth is the ability to be generous,’ Theo said.
‘The Dalai Lama, again?’ I asked.
‘No, it’s a mixture of mine and this spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle.’

Find out more about what Theo does at

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Article in Dominion Post 'Weekend' section

A Day Spent Searching For Groundswell With Paul Hersey

By Kester Brown

I can’t decide whether being addicted to surfing is a blessing or a curse. It’s hard to describe the sensation of riding a moving wall of water, one that has risen up out of the ocean, plucked you from its surface and propelled you along at breakneck speed. It’s a simple pleasure—the sweet rush of being picked up by the swell, the feeling of your board beneath your feet carving along the glassy blue surface of the ocean. When everything comes together, the feeling is incomparable. But it doesn’t come easy. You have to contend with ill-fitting tight rubber suits, freezing cold water, dangerous rips, the fear of sharks, near-drownings and worst of all, getting out of bed at an ungodly hour in the morning (the best waves are always at dawn, is this a ploy from the surfing gods to punish surfers for their indulgent hedonism?). All that for a cheap thrill … or is it?

One person who has spent a lot of time pondering the merits of surfing is Paul Hersey, author of the recently released book Searching For Groundswell. Paul spent a year on the road researching his book, surfing many of the breaks around New Zealand, meeting the locals and employing a fair amount of critique to what he thinks it means to be a surfer today.
Searching For Groundswell offers a perspective on where New Zealand surf culture is heading, how the sport has evolved into the mainstream and what that means for issues surrounding surfing such as localism and environmental concerns.

Paul lives in South Brighton, Christchurch, just across the road from a beach that, while it does occasionally produce waves, is claimed by many surfers to be the worst break in New Zealand. So when he called me on a calm, sunny afternoon to say that it was one of those rare days when the surf was pumping, I grabbed my board and headed over.

When I arrived at Paul’s house, he was already in the water, and his wife Shelley was suited up and on her way out the door, ready to run across the road and join him.
As Shelley and I paddled out to sea, duck diving under the whitewater of the shorebreak, we saw Paul take off and pull his board under the curling lip of a nice head high wave. When the surf is good, like it was that day, the excitement is almost unbearable. Grown men and women turn into giggling messes. Paul has a naturally large grin, and he likes to show it off regularly. When I paddled over to him and sat up on my board for a breather, his grin was out in full force, attempting to nudge the ears off the back of his head.

‘What took you so long?’ he asked, ‘This is what it’s all about! Blue skies, nice waves and … aaeeeowww!! Here comes another set!’
Paul has been surfing most of his life, and is obviously comfortable in the ocean. But me, I’m still learning how to read the currents, still trying to tune in to the finer elements of the art of surf board riding.
‘Paddle paddle paddle! Go right … RIIIIGHT!!’ Paul had left the best wave of the set for me. His enthusiasm for surfing is infectious enough, but he wanted to make sure everyone was in on the good time he was having.

I took his advice, paddling as hard as I could, I angled my board to the right so that if I made the take-off, I could outrun the breaking lip as it peeled along the wave. I was too slow though and the surge of the swell lifted me so that I was on top of the wave. It was not where I wanted to be, I should have been further down the face where it was less steep and the water was smoother, but I was committed, it was either make the drop or go ‘over the falls’ into the fury of the whitewater. I leaned back, planted my feet on the board and free-fell down the face. Miraculously, I judged the timing of the drop just right and my weight came evenly onto my board as I leaned into a bottom turn, carving through the water and setting myself up for the ride. When you’ve made it onto the clean face of a wave and you’re looking down the line ahead, with a wall of water at your back, you can really feel the energy of what’s driving you along. You feel very much alive.
The best moments in surfing require no thought, your mind and body function purely on intuition. For most surfers, I suspect, it’s those moments that define their motivation to chase waves.

When I asked Paul where his idea to write a book about surfing came from, he talked about the intimate relationship that he has developed with the landscape of surfing, both in terms of the physical environment and as a cultural identity. Paul pointed out that as a body of people surfers have, potentially, a very powerful voice, and it’s up to them to protect what they see as valuable. During his year long surf trip, Paul gained interesting insights into both the influence that corporate surf culture is having on the sport, and how grassroots organisations, such as local boardriders clubs, have the power to direct the energies of surfings strongest resource—its people.

But the lasting impression I have from reading Searching For Groundswell is the same as the one I was left with after spending a day in the waves with Paul—surfing is just about the most fun thing you can do, and as he points out in the opening quote in his book, ‘The best surfer on any given day is the one having the most fun’.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Reading Between The Tremors

Amongst the chaos and uncertainty that has been quake-central Canterbury over the last week, I have managed to find enough motionless hours to stick my nose in a book. And, just this morning, I finished 'The True Deceiver' by Tove Jansson.
Swedish writer and artist Jansson (1914-2001) is best known as the creator of the Moomin stories for children. However, in her later years, Jansson also turned her talented hand to adult fiction.
'The True Deceiver' - written in 1982 when the author was 68 - is a highly addictive yet unsettling read. The two main protagnonists - Katri Kling and Anna Aemelin - have completely different views of life, ie. the overtly pratical versus the vague and artistic.
The simplicity of the writing makes the deception within it all the more unnerving. There's a recommendation on the cover from Ruth Rendell stating that '...the characters still haunt me'. For me it's their ideas, as much as the characters themselves, that are stuck in my mind. The disjointed manner that Jansson has chosen to develop them adds to their complexity. 
This is the first book I have read by Jansson. And I don't know if it's partly because of all the shaking going on around me, but it feels that my internal thought process has also gone kind of weird-funky, thanks to her take on human observation, interaction and motivation.
As Anna and Katri learn to reinvent themselves in each other's company, there's a continuous paring down of life's supposed fundamentals until not much is left at all.
I fully recommend this book, and next week will be off down to Scorpio Books to purchase 'The Summer Book' - another of Jansson's titles.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Double Thumbs Up To Graham Zimmerman

I’m totally stoked, psychologically pumped, mentally amped. And it’s down, in no small part, to a young Kiwi-American by the name of Graham Zimmerman. I’ve climbed with ‘Zim’, both in New Zealand and overseas, so read with interest his article ‘The Stoke’ in the last issue of The Climber. And while some of it I didn’t necessarily agree with, there was no doubting that Zim had the best intentions in putting his views out there.

Zim is a peace, love and mung beans type of dude. We first met while he was studying at Otago University and I was managing Bivouac Outdoor in Dunedin. Zim and I managed to team up for a couple of fun ascents in the Hopkins and Temple Valleys, and then in 2008 with another mate Yewjin Tan, decided to try our luck in the south of Kyrgyzstan. Since then, Zim has based himself out of the States, while mixing it up in Alaska, Yosemite and Patagonia among other places. Trip after trip, climb after climb, Zim has slowly but surely been lifting his game.

But, for Zim, it’s not just about the bump and grind of the alpine world. He cares about stuff like the environment and the wellbeing of people, and would be the first to admit that a chunk of his heart pines for the snowy heights of Aotearoa as well as for our climbing community.

Maybe this was the catalyst for his article ‘The Stoke’, choosing to talk up the opportunities hidden within our alpine back yard along with the extended challenges to be found offshore. And, while choosing to shine a light at the ongoing furore over the so-called death of New Zealand alpinism, Zim made the call: ‘Talk minus action equals zero’; some might say worse than zero, especially in this tall poppy-lopping Antipodean corner of the globe. But Zim – it must be the American coming out in him – made the call.

If you don’t remember the article, it might be worth reading it before continuing here….

In articulating his views, Zim made a statement to the New Zealand alpine community that I don’t recall anyone making quite as strongly in recent seasons. And this is by a guy who hasn’t reached 25 yet.

Due to a sometimes negative outlook from certain factions within this country’s climbing fraternity, it can be a dicey business voicing too much of an opinion in open forum – especially if you don’t have the necessary street cred (ie. being a well established and long-respected alpinist). Maybe this has permeated into an attitude that stops climbers publicising their deeds, or even pursuing new ones. Patting themselves on the back is seen as self promotion. There are a couple of Kiwi alpinists I know of who actively choose not to talk much about their actions and motivations. Indeed the New Zealand Alpine Club seemed to cop a bit of flak for even having raised the question over the direction of mountaineering in this country.

Maybe this is supposed to fit within the stoic psyche of our climbing forefathers. Don’t talk about it – just get out there and do it. Personally, I think it’s made for great discussion. And then there is the argument that where’s the motivation for the new generation of climbers if ongoing, inspiring stuff isn’t being done or being shown to be done. It’s one thing to increase technical competency at the growing number of rock and ice crags around; it’s another to apply this new skill level to the uncertainty of the true alpine environment.

Yet Zim saw this as a challenge. He decided to take the bull by the horns, trying to motivate local climbers to push their own personal limits, and then to be open in telling other climbers about their actions so they too may be motivated. Again, maybe this was the American attitude coming out in him. But then Zim went and backed this up with an even bigger statement, one involving over 1500 metres of damn hard Alaskan alpine real estate.

Along with seasoned American climber and guide Mark Allen, Zim established a significant new route on the south east buttress of Mt Bradley. Vitalogy involved 29 pitches, 19 of which were M5, WI4 or harder. Overall, the route’s grade went at M6+ WI5 5.9 R A1, and required a 99 hour roundtrip camp to camp. This has got to be one of the harder things done by a Kiwi alpinist in recent times.

Talk minus action equals zero. Talk plus action makes quite a statement. I for one was impressed, and so it seems were a few others judging by the positive comments passing round the internet chat forums.

But Zim hasn’t just suddenly appeared on the hard alpine-sending radar. In 2008 he also climbed an impressive new line in Kyrgyzstan with Singaporean-Kiwi Tan. Their first ascent of the north face of Kyzyl-Muz (5100m) involved 1400 metres of climbing up to 5.10 AI4 M4, and three bivvies – a climb that deserved more kudos that it got, probably due to the fact that it didn’t receive much publicity back home or wasn’t done by ‘name’ climbers.

Zim’s personal statement on his blog site reads as follows: ‘I’m a lover of people, music, peace, harmony and our amazing mother earth. Climbing is what I do, I work hard to perpetuate the dreams of personal progression on the mountains and crags of the world. I am passionate about creating more sustainable communities around me based on peace and love’.

Climbing is a personal, and at times selfish, pursuit. Choosing to commit to it is choosing to take the high road, the one less travelled. With his talk and action, Zim has helped to show the way for other young guns coming along. And maybe even encouraged the odd never-was, such as myself, into staggering back out there. On ya Zim!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Catlins Roadtrip with Mat and Eric

Day One - Tide's a bit high and the wind is starting to get up, but still well worth the walk.

Day Two - No one managed to get on the end of this outside sneaker set.

Day Three - Starting to miss our respective partners.

Secluded beachie on the way back to Dunedin.

Wilderness article

                                                      The Escape

Given your geographical and calendar preference, it’s either late autumn or early winter. Not that the date matters when heavy snow has thrown its white canvas over our southern mountainous landscape. These aren’t the best conditions for a midweek solo climb, but I’m desperate.

Post-storm, the weather clears to bluebird skies, and I’m planning to wander up the Hopkins Valley before making my way into the intimacy of the Huxley, a side valley. In his guidebook to the area, Ross Cullen describes the Huxley as ‘a delightful hidden world of beech forest, grassy terraces, river and peaks’. Climbers and trampers alike are repeatedly charmed by the way the Huxley gently reveals itself, especially after the prolonged river flats of the Hopkins.

Upon leaving the Hopkins, and after crossing over a forested spur, grassy flats lead easily to the Huxley Forks Hut. Steep bluffs frame either side of the valley, supporting the summit of Boanerges to the north and the outliers of Rabbiters Peak to the south. On this day all is covered with a generous blanket of snow.

Hare tracks crisscross through the shallow drifts ahead of me as I finally approach the hut. Beneath the snow the earth is already locked down with permafrost, and overhead the forest canopy is flecked with white. The scene has an enchanted feel of a northern Christmas. At the Forks Hut, the chimney is smoking. Looks like I’ll have company for the evening.

When I haven’t escaped to the hills for a time, or when the weather repeatedly forces cancelled trip after cancelled trip, I find myself losing touch with the feelings mountaineering induces. I begin to imagine that I’m not capable enough any more, lack confidence in my previous ability to pack accurately, move succinctly and make safe decisions as the flat land drops away.

No amount of local cragging or hill running keeps me prepared. I’m forced to scan maps longingly, pour over guidebook photos and route descriptions, telling myself the bad weather can’t always fall on weekends and, sooner or later, I’ll get to test myself in the high wilds once again. I yearn for the satisfied ache that comes from blurred hours hauling a pack jammed with climbing paraphernalia. I want to clear the cobwebs of too many morning-tea flat whites, escape the small towers of dirty dishes from three nights ago, and poke the proverbial at all vicarious living associated with staring into a box of moving pictures for the answers that lie within ourselves.

Yeah, it makes me bitter. I get grumpy that the weather won’t work around me when four months passes between trips, and when I’m more familiar packing and unpacking my ice axes than actually swinging them into an unsuspecting but otherwise appropriate blob of polystyrene ice.

A new set of unscratched crampons is laughing at my inadequacies, not to mention these morose ramblings. Herein lies the attraction of the elusive beast we appropriately label ‘The Great Outdoors’. I can almost see it when I look out the upstairs window. And when the day finally arrives, I’m like an eleven-year-old at my first school dance.

Inside the well-warmed Huxley Forks Hut two old-timers eye my footwear from their huddled perch beside the fire. They are almost identically attired – chequered bush shirts, grey beards, thick woolly hats and saggy long-johns the colour of discarded dishwater – perhaps the quintessential old-school back country traveller, I note upon traipsing in on their quiet musings. Wiry and undoubtedly fit beyond belief, these guys have probably had more trips into the hills than I’ve had hot dinners.

‘Cold tootsies?’ the one in the green shirt enquires.

‘Rather,’ I reply, knocking each frozen running shoe against the door frame to clear away the snow. ‘Beats getting my boots wet in the river crossings.’

‘I guess,’ the other allows. ‘Didn’t you use the high track?’

‘Takes too long.’

‘Only if you’re in a hurry. Guess you’ll be wanting a brew then?’

I nod. ‘Love one if it’s going.’

I drop my pack just inside the door of the hut, and take a pew on the nearest vacant bunk.

‘Didn’t expect to be bumping into anyone up this way, especially after that blow,’ the second man comments as he passes me a steaming mug of black, sweet chai.

‘Thanks. Me neither. What are you guys up to?’

‘Little as possible,’ the guy by the fire says.

‘Fair enough. How long have you been up the Huxley?’ I ask after blowing across the enamel cup.

‘A week.’

‘A week? What was the storm like?’

‘Stormy,’ the man who passed me the tea replies, smiling faintly as he sits back down. ‘You’ve got all the gears there,’ he adds, nodding at the ice axes and helmet attached to the outside of my pack. At least my shiny crampons are packed out of sight. ‘Must be serious.’

I can’t work out whether the two are poking fun at me, or just naturally laconic. At least with conversation this dry, my feet won’t be wet for much longer.

‘You never know,’ I reply. ‘Are you guys brothers or something?’



I run out of things to say, so lean over to my pack for a bag of cashew nuts stashed in its top pocket.

‘Where’s your climbing buddy?’ Green Shirt enquires, poking his thumb back down the valley.

‘I’d be it.’

‘A loner?’

‘Out of necessity rather than choice, I’m afraid. Everyone else is working.’

‘You got any plans, or just carrying that stuff round for laughs.’

‘More often than not. Actually, I’m going to have a nudge at that,’ I say, pointing past them out the window at a distant peak.

Green Shirt stands and squints at the window pane for a time.

‘Is that Anita Peak?’

‘No. Anita’s three to the north, I think. That one’s unnamed.’ And unclimbed apparently, which is partly why I’m here.

Peak 2265m is a knuckled joint in the backbone of the Huxley Range. Soloist Peak sits a couple of summits further south, and Peak 2235m is a closer neighbour. 2235m was climbed in December 1947 via the east-ridge by local climbing pioneers Bob Bauld, George Moir and Arch Wiren. But it seemed no one could be motivated enough or bothered to have a crack at 2265m. I am hoping to follow their initial route up an obvious side-stream before angling onto a steep bush-covered spur towards 2265m, and then a rock step and snow slope above.

Green Shirt sits back down next to his brother.

‘Bit keen doing it alone, aren’t you?’ he enquires.

I shrug my shoulders, explaining that I’ve left route intentions and a timeline at home, and that I plan to carry bivvy gear.

‘Not my cup of tea,’ he replies. ‘But each to their own.’

Later, I thank the men for the brew and decide to retreat to the smaller second hut for the night. It’s a fair bet these two are world-class snorers, and I’m a light sleeper at the best of times.

I leave before dawn, crossing the swing bridge in half light, and follow the track beside the south branch of the Huxley River. In places the snow has a frozen crust, which hopefully means for easy travel further up the mountain. Within an hour I reach the side-stream, and then up on to the steep spur. Pulling at tree roots and edging over loose blocks, I climb within a dark layer of beech. Occasionally, lumps of snow fall from the canopy, making a whompfing sound, and I keep my collar zipped up.

For me, climbing alone can be a ghostly experience. There is no one to talk to or make judgement calls with. At times I have to turn around to see my tracks in the snow, confirming that the strangeness of the experience is solely in my mind. Some over-protective pillars of societal wisdom deem this practise as too risky and something to be discouraged at all costs. What is it that brings solace to each individual? Surely it is for that person to decide, as long as it doesn’t harm others. Being alone in the mountains is like being alone at sea. An internal cadence takes over. Everything becomes so much simpler. Compared to drowning one’s sorrows in nightly alcoholic binges, this is a Godsend.

Birdsong from a lone bellbird filters through the forest canopy. No doubt the little guy is fully puffed, insulating himself from the cold. Sunlight begins to finger down among the branches of beech trees, creating jigsaw patterns of the snowy undergrowth. Ferns and hebes compete for what subdued light makes it to this patch of steep-sided woodland.

I stop to listen to the bellbird. Once my breathing eases, the only sound is its questioning call, and the distant tumble of the Huxley River a few hundred metres below.

For a time I forget about everything. Eventually the feeling returns. It is always there, but I’ve forgotten how to recognise it.

The summit above beckons. Hidden behind bushy outcrops and rocky spurs, its final broad snowy peak is still hours away. But, for me, it’s not the summit that I seek. It’s the process of getting there, the external challenge and internal strengthening, a yearning to escape.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Excerpt from my North and South magazine article, August issue

New Zealand’s outdoor and adventure tourism industry has copped its share of bad press lately. Rightly or wrongly, the media’s spotlight has focussed firmly on recent guiding and instructing tragedies as indicators that companies aren’t operating safely. Even Prime Minister John Key waded into the issue, requesting a national review of the entire industry in an attempt to reduce the number of deaths.

So, what’s going on here? Is our outdoor industry rife with cowboys not giving a damn about safety standards? Has enough emphasis even been given towards understanding what safety standards should be? Or is this another example of society continuing to head down the road of a so-called ‘Nanny State’ where any risk is seen as bad and, regardless of a seemingly random accident, someone must surely be at fault?


It’s another clear autumnal day in Queenstown. Cirrus cloud veils the sky to the northwest, indicating a potential change in the weather, but for the time being all is settled. And by mid-morning, the town is well into its practised repertoire as New Zealand’s, and quite possibly the world’s, adventure capital.

Australian tourists Elise Thompson and Adam Wright lean over the stone wall at the edge of Lake Wakatipu, sipping from cups of takeaway coffee, feeding the ducks, watching all the comings and goings, and wondering what to do with their day. Wright wants to go bungy jumping, but Thompson isn’t so sure.

‘I think jet boating is better value for money,’ she says, pointing as another commercial trip speeds around into the Queenstown Arm, throws a finishing pirouette, and chugs back to the town berth. The display seals it for Thompson, and she looks toward Wright who shrugs his shoulders, figuring he can still go bungying later in the day.

‘It’s all here,’ Thompson rightly observes, ‘and that’s why we chose Queenstown. We wanted to come to a beautiful place that has plenty of fun and exciting things to do, and Queenstown certainly is that’.

There’s no discussion over whether the adventure activities are dangerous, or indeed whether any of them have had fatalities. Either Thompson and Wright, both in their early 20s, are unaware of the potential risk involved or they accept it as contributing to the thrill. When I mention the possibility, they glance at each other. ‘Well none of these things can be that dangerous,’ Wright finally answers. ‘That’s what we’re paying for. I mean, it’s all pretty tightly controlled isn’t it?’

If I’d had the opportunity to talk to English woman Emily Jordan, Chinese tourist Yan Wang or Australian Llynden Riethmuller – who all came to New Zealand with the desire to see firsthand our natural beauty and to experience a world-renown adventure tourism industry – I’m sure I would have got a similar response to that given by Thompson and Wright. How dangerous can it be?

Tragically, Jordan drowned on a 2008 commercial river boarding trip on the Kawarau River near Queenstown, the same year that Wang died when the commercial jet boat she was a passenger in flipped, also on the Kawarau. Riethmuller was killed in 2009 by an avalanche during a commercial heliski trip in Mid Canterbury. And then, two weeks later, one of the guides who had tried to rescue him – Johnny Morgan – was also killed by an avalanche in a similar location.

And these deaths came after a catastrophic outdoor education incident in the Tongariro National Park in April 2008. A teacher and six students were part of an Auckland Elim Christian College group on a river canyoning trip. The group, along with Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre instructor Jodi Sullivan, were caught by rising floodwaters in the Mangatepopo Gorge. Despite a desperate bid to escape the torrent, teacher Anthony McLean and students Natasha Bray, Portia McPhail, Huan Hsu, Anthony Mulder, Floyd Fernandez and Tara Gregory drowned.

Rightly so, whenever tragedies like this occur, questions need to be asked. How robust are the operating systems of the outdoor and adventure tourism industry? Does it even have any systems in place, or is every adventure operator essentially left up to their own devices?

Between July 2004 and June 2009, 29 fatalities were recorded in the outdoor commercial sector, along with another 450 reported accidents resulting in serious harm. Given that New Zealand attracts around two million international tourists each year, contributing $15 billion or 9% to our GDP, the industry is certainly worth protecting. Almost 40% of international visitors try at least one of the 39 recognised adventure activities during their stay, ranging from abseiling to zorbing. Jet boating is popular, attracting around 200,000 international tourists per year, just ahead of glacier walking and trekking.

Adventure tourism is increasingly recognised as a valuable sector, if not the valuable sector, of our tourism market. At least 900 commercial operators are distributed throughout New Zealand, notably in Queenstown and on the South Island’s West Coast. But this figure could be much higher, as little if any controls are currently in place to regulate new operators. They must meet certain criteria before being granted concessions for Department of Conservation managed estate, or resource consents from various local bodies, but this information is not managed nationally. And in terms of meeting recognised safety standards, often these concessions and consents only require an audit of documentation, rather than an ongoing physical assessment process.

Does this rather ad hoc system work? Outdoor operator and safety specialist Mark Smith doesn’t think so. ‘Things have come a long way in the last 10 years,’ Smith says, ‘but, until safety management is seen as more than a tick in the box requirement by everyone in the outdoor industry, there’s still a long way to go.’

Smith believes that while some operators are proactive at keeping their safety systems current, and applying them to the daily running of their businesses, others are less inclined to do so. ‘There needs to some incentive or requirement for all operators to use safety plans as they are meant to be used, rather than just letting them gather dust on the shelf. Look at river rafting. A decade or so ago, their sector was hit by a number of accidents, but more recently they’ve managed their risk better.’

As a member of the Register of Outdoor Safety Auditors (ROSA), Smith independently assesses outdoor safety management plans before DOC concessions or local body resource consents are issued. ‘If the requirement was for a field audit and ongoing checks, I’m sure that safety systems would be more fully integrated within the workplace. No one in the industry wants a bad safety record. If nothing else, it’s bad for business.’

Smith points out that, until a national register or licence exists for all outdoor operators, there is no way of ascertaining the size of the problem. ‘Generally, the big companies are pretty switched on in terms of internal reviews and safety auditing, but some of the smaller operators are probably too busy trying to survive financially. They don’t have the time or inclination.’

Most commercial outdoor adventure companies operating in New Zealand are small, employing between one and five staff. And there is no specific legislation that covers the safety of participants in these activities. The sector is regulated by the Health and Safety in Employment Act (HSE), while the Maritime Transport Act and the Civil Aviation Act cover water and air based activities.

Smith feels that a number of operators are confused about their requirements in complying with HSE. ‘Understanding their regulatory obligations, identifying and implementing best practice is not easy, especially for small operators,’ he says. ‘There needs to be plenty of upfront assistance to ensure that operators know what they need to do, as well as appropriate penalties if they don’t stick to the requirements.’

Many in the outdoor industry believe that the HSE Act tends to focus on bottom of the cliff rather than the top of the cliff scenarios. Rather than clearly defining requirements beforehand, it only regulates after incidents have occurred. This means that operators are left to implement a best practice approach, often without any assistance from external sources. What is deemed reasonable is judged on the likelihood of an incident occurring, the severity of harm if it occurs and the cost involved in preventing it occurring.


The motto ‘it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun’ still rings true. This was probably something Sir Edmund Hillary reminded himself of during those arduous and often dangerous ascents of Himalayan mountains. As a nation, we held Hillary and his exploits in high regard. But, how many of us appreciated the risky situations he put himself in to achieve those climbs? We applauded his achievements yet didn’t acknowledge the conscious choices he made exposing himself and climbing partners to the inherent dangers that come with climbing mountains.

Life is risk. From the moment we rise from our beds, we deal with risk in its various forms. To eliminate risk is to eliminate the opportunity to learn through experience. Yet some of us are more inclined to expose ourselves to a higher level of risk than others. As American author and environmentalist Edward Abbey wrote, “a venturesome minority will always be eager to set off on their own, and no obstacles should be placed in their path; let them take risks, for God’s sake, let them get lost, sunburnt, stranded, drowned,… buried alive under avalanches - that is the right and privilege of any free [person].”

On the other hand, choosing not to manage risk is obviously foolhardy. The rather extreme notion that what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger is something that most of us don’t want to test firsthand. Risk is a multi-faceted idea and, while a good climbing friend of mine once said ‘the dignity of risk should be afforded to everyone’, choosing where to step on to the risk spectrum is itself a judgement call.

Unfortunately, New Zealand society is becoming increasingly risk averse, according to Chris North a lecturer in outdoor and environmental education at the University of Canterbury. And incidents like the Mangatepopo tragedy do not help.

‘This obsession with safety is one of our social panics,’ North explains. ‘Risk is seen as something we need to protect our children from rather than teaching them how to deal with it. Yet this comes at a time when our children are safer than they’ve ever been.’

North, a father with two young children, disagrees with the stance taken by journalist Rosemary McLeod. McLeod writes that outdoor recreation is ‘faddish thinking…where kids may well feel forced to push themselves to limits that may prove unsafe, frightening, and fatal’.

While admitting that any outdoor activity has a certain level of risk, North believes that the debate about outdoor education has become too focused around risk. ‘We are missing the point by having this narrow focus. The feeling of achievement and connection that comes from participating in these types of activities can make us better able to deal with daily pressures back home. They help to put everything in perspective.’

McLeod, after criticising the principles of outdoor recreation in her Christchurch Press article, then goes on to comment about a group of teenagers who attack an off-duty policeman in Tuakau. ‘Hopefully the future for this pack of feral kids will be better than it’s looking now, and life will teach them the merits of kindness, conscience and consideration’, McLeod writes.

These values and skills are not acquired by chance, North points out, explaining that this is an example of where targeted outdoor education can help. ‘Outdoor experience isn’t a panacea, but used in the right context, it may help teenagers through their difficult years. Concepts like responsibility and consequence become apparent, helping make that progression through to adulthood.’

North, who describes himself as a ‘former mountaineer and wannabe mountain biker’, hopes that society doesn’t continue to head down the road of over-protectionism. ‘We’ve become so focussed on the idea of risk in outdoor education that we’ve forgotten all the other good things connected with it. Matching personal competence against challenges is a recognised way of learning and personal growth. Natural settings are also ways to build connections to the world beyond humanity and realise we are part of something bigger. Within this context, outdoor recreation can be powerful, and a healthy avenue for those looking for challenge. ’

North accepts that there is a fine line here. ‘In education, if you are putting people into situations that have higher levels of risk, there needs to be sound educational principles behind the reasoning for it. The point of an outdoor experience is not the risk itself, but other aspects that come with the experience. And, while too much risk is unacceptable, the elimination of risk is impossible and in fact undesirable.’

We are kidding ourselves if we think that we can make our lives risk free. Some risks are more obvious than others; swimming in shark infested waters versus flirting with death by another hamburger. Few people break a sweat when ordering take-aways, but many of us worry about what lurks beneath us in the sea. And statistics show that we have a much higher chance of dying from cancer or driving to the local dairy than from participating in most outdoor adventures.

Karim Sar Expedition, Pakistan 2009

When well-meaning family and friends heard about my upcoming climbing expedition to Pakistan, the conversation went something like this: ‘You want to go where? The place with all the bombings? Aren’t they beheading westerners. Why in God’s name would you want to go there?’

Why indeed? As others tried to dissuade me from accepting Pat Deavoll’s invite to join her, I found myself increasingly drawn to the idea. This was despite all of the negative western media, or perhaps partly because of it. I watched nightly news reports of increasing conflict between the Pakistan Armed Forces and the Taliban, hints that the Government and country were on the verge of collapse, trying to decipher facts from whatever slant the American or English reporters decided on. I didn’t understand what was really happening in this fundamentalist Muslim country. I felt ignorant, something easily done from our safe haven in the Southern Pacific. Pat had travelled to and climbed in Pakistan on a number of occasions, including the two previous years, and she agreed that the risk this time around was probably higher. Still, life is about putting yourself out there from time to time, and the more I researched the country and its people the more fascinated I became. The combination of geographical contrasts and political edginess convinced me that I needed to experience it for myself. Also, I had travelled to both India and Kyrgyzstan the previous two years and was keen to compare differences between the three countries.

At Lahore Airport, while waiting for our domestic flight north to Islamabad, I ordered two bottles of water from a kiosk. When served, the water came with egg sandwiches and Madera cake.

‘Oh yeah,’ said Pat. ‘I forgot about that. Do you want my sandwiches?’

The goal for the trip was a 6000 metre unclimbed mountain called Karim Sar near the Hunza Valley, in Pakistan’s Northern Areas. Pat had spied the mountain from one of her previous trips, and found out that it had been attempted unsuccessfully by a strong Italian team. Apart from that, we didn’t know much about the mountain or the Shutinbar Valley we were to approach it from. The Italians wouldn’t divulge any information as they were keen to head back for another go.

To reach Karim Sar, we needed to travel along the fabled Karakoram Highway (KKH), which is maintained by the Chinese, to Gilgit and then on to Chalt and finally Budelas. Part of the road trip meant squeezing between the eastern fringes of the Swat district, where the Taliban and Pakistan military were fighting, and the troubled Kashmir. Along with occasional suicide bombings in various urban areas, and of course the actual climbing, this part of the journey was likely to be the riskiest.

‘How do you know when it isn’t safe?’ I asked Baig, our local guide, after he met us at Islamabad Airport. Heavily-armed military personnel and police officers patrolled the airport’s entrance, perimeter and surrounding roads.

‘It is always safe, until you meet bad people,’ he replied. ‘Then, very quickly, it isn’t safe any more.’

Baig works for Nazir Sabir Expeditions, the company we used to organise all of our logistics in Pakistan. Company owner Nazir Sabir is a famous high altitude climber, known for achieving a difficult first ascent on K2, Pakistan’s highest mountain.

In previous years, the company had organised many expeditions, but more recently there has been a sharp drop in the number of western tourists. Baig partially blamed the western media for creating a false impression about the dangers of travel in his country. He explained that certain areas were considered dangerous, but usually westerners could still travel unhindered throughout the country.

I found Baig’s comments a slight contrast to the way the company limited Pat’s and my attempts at unsupervised sightseeing in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and parts of the KKH. Understandably, and given the downturn in tourist numbers, if something happened to us it would no doubt damage what little business remained for Nazir Sabir Expeditions.

Pat and I remained in Islamabad for two days while trying to get our freighted luggage through customs. After flying out from a bleak New Zealand winter, the 40+ degree temperature proved somewhat combative, and the limited bursts of supervised sightseeing between extended periods enclosed in our air-conditioned hotel rooms proved to be a blessing.

Islamabad is a clean and organised city. Apart from the numerous concrete barriers and security checks to dissuade suicide bombers, traffic flowed smoothly along well maintained roads lined with trees and grass verges. Traffic police – some looking surprisingly like Eric Estrada from the 1980s television show CHIPs – kept their eye on speed limits and dangerous driving. This was almost the exact opposite of the hustle and hassle of nearby Rawalpindi. Convergence, a keen judge of non-existent gaps, and a well-utilised horn kept traffic inching in various directions. But this is why I come to these kinds of places. There’s a vitality here that more restrictive western rules don’t allow for. There’s something to be said about being able to sit on the horn because the vehicle in front is travelling too slow, pulling out to pass regardless of what traffic is coming the other way, and leaving the onus on the driver that caused the initial slowdown to avoid any vehicle carnage.

This optimistic approach was again exhibited at a more hectic pace by our quietly-spoken driver Wali Khan through the dusty and winding KKH en route to Budelas. An at times slightly intense relationship with the edge of the road, and the ensuing plummet beyond it to the Indus River hundreds of metres below, encouraged me to look up at the surrounding countryside rather than focus too much on the multitude of vehicular near misses.

Towns and settlements rolled by, some deemed unsafe to stop at due to the likelihood of insurgents harbouring there. We spent three hours waiting in a queue at Mansehra for a bridge, apparently sabotaged the night before by Islamic militants, to be repaired. Heading the other way were scores of trucks loaded with refugees trying to escape the fighting in Swat. Forced from their villages by either the military or Taliban, they had travelled in their tens of thousands over Shangla Pass, heading to specially established camps near Islamabad. In all, more than a million residents were said to be displaced from their homes by the fighting.

Seeing firsthand the effect on the people of a fight considered essential for the security of Pakistan made me realise, not for the first time, how easy we have it in New Zealand and how we tend to take our liberty for granted. The daily struggle for a majority of Pakistanis to have even basic necessities is very real and, at times, desperate. This is while western democracy sits on the sidelines and judges a religion and culture it doesn’t fully understand. Small wonder certain factions turn against the west.

Reading a local newspaper, I came across an article reporting that the Taliban was purchasing children directly from poor families, and training these youngsters to be suicide bombers. Selling one child meant the rest of the family could be fed and housed safely, a harsh reality but one faced by many. And here I was, on an expedition costing thousands of dollars that had no value other than a recreational pursuit.

At Budelas, we hired porters and donkeys for the two-day trek to base camp. The rugged dryness, crumbling silt escarpments and abrupt landscape of the lower Chalt district gave way to pockets of irrigated greenery. Cherries, mulberries and apricots grew in abundance, and we followed the gentle uphill gradient of a long-established stone-walled irrigation channel clinging to the side of a steep cliff. It took me some time to realise that, by looking up, I wasn’t staring at steep-sided clouds. These were sheer monstrous mountains, some with an elevation of five vertical kilometres from where we rested. They are the most impressive testaments to alpine architecture that I have ever seen. The world’s three great mountain ranges converge here: The Himalaya, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush. Pakistan has five mountains over 8000 metres high and more than 100 over 7000 metres high. I couldn’t even begin to comprehend the prolonged effort required to climb something so big.

At least Karim Sar was only 6200 metres, and from a base camp situated alongside the Shutinbar Glacier at 3700 metres, the height seemed more in proportion. Baig said to keep an eye out for tracks in the snow of Ibex, the local wolf or maybe even a snow leopard.

Pat and I settled into the slow routine of acclimatisation and scoping for a potential route to climb Karim Sar. Afternoon thunderstorms and occasional snow showers kept us guessing about weather patterns and, a few days before we planned to attempt the climb, I came down with a nose infection. After days on antibiotics I still didn’t really feel well enough to climb, but agreed to help Pat as far up the mountain as I could. Over the next three days we established a high camp, and Pat soloed the last 1000 metres to the summit while I waited, exhausted, at the 5200 metres tent site. I was happy to have made it this high, and fully aware of far away home felt right at this time. Pat returned successful and, as we only had one sleeping bag at the high camp, I soloed back down to our advance base camp tent 1000 metres below. The following day Pat joined me, and we retreated down through the icefall and out to Baig and our cook Nisar at base camp.