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.