Thursday, December 15, 2011

...COUNTDOWN...

In my next life I want to come back as a kea; which is ironic really because I’m not that fond of flying. But every time I see these gregarious mountain parrots, they’re either up to no good, skiting to their mates about how easy it was to wreck the car with the kea-proof net over it, or cruising alpine thermals looking for more mischief. I guess it’s their innate ability to do whatever they want that appeals the most, of course along with the environment they get to call home. I’d have to shut my eyes for the flying bits.
So, in hindsight, I shouldn’t be that surprised that I got into climbing, despite being scared of heights. Going up was fine. The physical jigsaw of gripping unlikely holds on a rock face and linking contortionist movements was a natural progression. But, it’s not so easy abseiling with your eyes closed. For me, the mental transition proved to be long and complicated.
For as long as I can remember I’ve had a strong desire for adventure. Maybe it was born out of associating too much with Huckleberry Finn or The Famous Five as a youngster, of looking up to Ed Hillary beating the English again or Graeme Dingle testing batteries for the first Energizer bunnies. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t long before my brothers grew to dread the words, ‘Let’s go back that way’. I wasn’t particularly brave or tough, I just needed to get off the beaten path and explore. In more than three decades not much has changed.


I reckon the best adventures are often hatched in moments of rashness, maybe fuelled by evenings of inebriated bravado. Some hair-brained idea is suggested between dinner and dessert. Tattered maps, old photos and well-thumbed guidebooks materialise from treasured cubbyholes, and are spread on the floor. Fingers trace unlikely routes, hovering over where the map’s contour lines steepen. Plans are jotted down on scraps of paper. Pacts are made with high fives and back slaps. The head-shaking and reality doesn’t sink in till late the following morning.
So it was with the ‘Backyard and Beyond’ project. My wife Shelley, good mate Jamie and I wanted to test the limits of what we thought we could do in one trip in the Southern Alps. Normally, our mountain climbing trips would be short in duration. We would select an objective, wait for a settled weather forecast and go for it. Everything would be over in a few days. While satisfying in their intensity, the trips tended to feel rushed.
One evening Shelley, Jamie and I talked about the desire for an outdoor experience that could prove to be more sustained and committing. We considered various unclimbed mountain faces and wondered how to manage a continuous trip between them. Could it be done? What would the logistics be? How long would it take? These were probably the questions we should have been asking ourselves that evening. Instead, the three of us became caught up in the pureness of the concept: Coast to coast, self powered, a couple of food drops on the way. No worries!
I’d like to point out that it seemed like a good idea at the time.


It’s now a week and a bit until we leave. Three days biking across the Canterbury Plains, followed by three-four weeks tramping, climbing and exploring the Southern Alps under the banner of the SPARC funded ‘Backyard and Beyond’ project. Jamie, Shelley and I, along with another friend Troy Mattingley, will record our adventure in HD video. Given the remote terrain, challenging climbing goals and tight timeframe, something’s bound to happen!
I’m equally excited and nervous about the opportunity to tell a story in moving pictures, and also relieved that Troy has agreed to be principle cameraman. Troy has a fantastic eye for the arty, the intimate and the unusual. With two DSLRs, two lenses, one Go Pro, one tripod, a slider, various filters, 10 SD cards, 10 camera batteries, two LCD viewfinders, external microphone, time-lapse recorder, a separate stereo sound recorder and various other fandangle-pieces of paraphernalia, we’ve got enough kit to sink the Titanic. I’m not sure how we are going to carry it all for a month, and hope I don’t forget to pack anything essential.
Last month disappeared under a conglomerate of writing projects, video up-skilling, post-earthquake home remonstrations, BAB reccy trips and food drops. Somewhere within there, I’m sure, progress was made. A big thanks to Tony Rac and Hugh Barnard for their help and advice on the filming side of things, and to our other BAB sponsors – Bivouac Outdoor, The Roxx and Cactus Equipment – for providing essential gear and services. Without their help this project would have been a whole lot tougher.


Meanwhile on the personal writing front, touch ups were applied to articles for upcoming issues of ‘The Surfer’s Journal’ and ‘Alpinist’ magazines, along with postulating on the state of the New Zealand alpine climbing scene for the next ‘Climber’. I read and reviewed Paul Maxim’s biography on Bill Denz, and described the rarely-visited Onslow and Godley Huts for ‘Wilderness’. I’ve also just signed another contract with New Holland Publishers. This new book is in collaboration with wicked-styley photographer Mark Watson, and should be an exciting project to sink my teeth into after returning from our month of backcountry wandering.
As always, I’ve got my nose buried in various books. Robert Macfarlane’s ‘The Wild Places’ seems a timely read, while Alvarez’s ‘The Savage God’ and Daniel Quinn’s ‘Ishmael’ give my current bedside collection a rather eclectic feel. Working out how to save the world while considering how others choose to end their part in it is a rather disconcerting mix.
Yet, for all the hectic nature of the last month, things are about to get much simpler. The daily routine of packing, trekking and weather watching in the mountains brings with it a type of cleanness to life and to thinking about it. I hope I can do this clean simplicity justice in the storytelling that will follow.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Murchison Valley

The lower portion of the Tasman Glacier is one of those unique places. I say unique because it felt like we were battling a time warp while trying to traverse its endless, crumbling rock towers. The glacier appeared to stretch in all directions, and it was as if Shelley and I couldn’t make any progress across it. Occasionally a rock the size of a small car slipped from its perch, hopefully without either of us on top; or a patch of dirty ice poked through the piles of moraine debris reminding us that we were actually walking on a glacier. This was a place with little cause to linger.


If the terrain wasn’t so time-consuming, and moveable, we might have appreciated the views overhead more fully. New Zealand’s highest mountains, including Aoraki the cloud piercer, stretched skywards with dark knuckles of rock stepping up towards them and hanging glaciers clinging to their flanks. There could be no mistaking that this was alpine territory.
It was a surprising – and pleasant – contrast to eventually arrive at the flat grasslands of the lower Murchison Valley. Canadian Geese and Paradise Ducks flew past, intent on scoping out any unoccupied moraine ponds and somewhat perturbed by our intrusion. There would have been nice camping sites near the ponds, but Shelley and I had our minds set on the distant Onslow Hut (also known as Steffan Memorial Hut) further up valley.
It seems that the lower Murchison Valley has become a forgotten corner of Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. Its snow-covered upper glacier certainly gets plenty of ski-touring traffic, but the lower valley is rarely travelled. Maybe access across the Tasman moraine is one reason, along with the notoriously difficult-to-cross Murchison River and the increasingly difficult-to-skirt Murchison Terminal Lake.


But, on the long weekend that Shelley and I had chosen to visit the Murchison, both the river and the lake proved to be straightforward. By the end of the first day, we had reached Onslow. Sited under the towering eastern aspect of Mount Chudleigh, and still some two vertical kilometres below its summit, the hut is cosy and old school. Set on the edge of an ancient moraine wall carved by a nearby glacier’s former advances, Onslow Hut looks out over the terminal lake. A pool at the base of a small waterfall is the local water source, and Shelley and I quickly set ourselves outside the hut with hot brews. Across the other side of the valley, evening light shifted from peak to peak on the Liebig Range. Icebergs drifted over the smooth waters of the lake, while waning sunlight sparkled against the lake’s surface. It was a peaceful place.


Shelley noted that the hut logbook showed only five visits in the last two years. No doubt the modern Liebeg Hut across valley is more popular; either that or climbers and trampers aren’t interested in the area any more. Yet, looking up at some of the presumably unclimbed rock features (according to the Aoraki Mount Cook climbing guidebook) on various mountain faces, I couldn’t help but think they were missing out. There was little or no tricky glacial access, the rock strata looked suitable, and there seemed to be heaps of climbing options.


The following day, Shelley and I traversed the true left of the terminal lake, exploring further up the valley. Local Thar seemed intrigued by our presence, rather than their usual whistle and bolt routine in areas that see more human traffic. The majestic eastern flank of Malte Brun rose before us, a mountain that Shelley had climbed but I had not. She told me of her rather unpleasant descent down the south ridge, a stark contrast to the solid red rock of the fabled west ridge during her ascent.
Before our trip, DOC informed us that the best way to travel the lower to mid Murchison was on the true right. However, we found this not to be the case. The moraine wall on that side of the terminal lake looked to be near impassable, while the high traverse around the Murchison River just below Onslow Hut had deteriorated badly. This would require traversing hundreds of vertical metres above the valley floor and then still having to cross steep and eroded guts. The true left was much easier, but did rely on the river being low enough to cross. We crossed at the toe of the lake, and again just below Onslow Hut, and both crossings were easy despite it being Spring.


After leaving the lake shoreline, Shelley and I gained height up a broad shelf of old moraine that led onto a grassy terrace beneath Mount Hutton. Again, I noted the various climbing options. From this vantage, the views up and down valley were, quite simply, stunning. There were also nice camping sites not far from a creek, and plenty of side valleys worth exploring. The western flank of the Liebig Range is mostly glacier free, and easy to traverse in settled weather. However, Shelley and I agreed that it could be a difficult place to negotiate in poor visibility.
Eventually, we retraced our steps back to Onslow Hut, and the following day out towards Mount Cook Village. It was the first time that either of us had visited the lower Murchison, and we were happy in the knowledge that we would definitely be paying the valley another visit in the near future.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Taming The Honey Badger - The Last Pitch in Climber

I love writing. I love trying to piece together the physical jigsaw of words and sentences while unlocking the emotive nuances attached to them. I see worth in sharing personal experiences and the stories of other’s experiences. There’s a collective goal.
But sometimes the process doesn’t come easily. Or, what I’m trying to write about is too raw and emotional to let me find the right way to explain things. Words won’t fit. There becomes a growing void – an inadequacy – between the experience and the story. Author Greg Child describes trying to fill this void as ‘slashing at reality’. He reckons that we can’t trust the written word.
I don’t fully agree with Child, but can understand his reasoning. In the cut, paste and edit world of writing and publishing, the experience is chewed over, regurgitated, and placed into whatever bite-sized pieces the word count allows for. The end result separates from the experience.
I found this when asked to write about the February earthquake. I grappled with making sense of my experience of the seconds of terror, near misses and ‘what ifs’. The words felt clumsy and lacking. Then later, after a number of retellings, the words partly became my recollection of the experience. I came to trust them more than my fading memories.
Now, with another recent ‘close call’ experience, I find myself again struggling with turning emotions into words. But I’m a writer. I don’t see any other choice:

‘Have you guys watched the honey badger?’
‘What?’
‘The honey badger. It’s a video on U tube. You know…nasty ass?’
Shelley and I looked at each other. We had no idea what our friend Graham was on about. I reached for the laptop to try and shed light on the conversation.
Graham or ‘Zim’, a Kiwi-American in his mid 20s, has already learned to pursue life with an intensity that most of us only dream about. I was stoked to hear that he had won the latest New Zealand Mountaineer of the Year award, but more stoked just to see him, and maybe get the opportunity to go climbing together again.
Within half an hour of picking Zim up at Christchurch Airport, we were back home drinking beers and spinning yarns like it had only been days, rather than years, since we’d last seen each other.
‘See what I mean?’ Zim said, after we watched the honey badger video for the third time (I can’t do justice to the video here, other than to say the honey badger is one tough hombre that doesn’t back down from anything. You need to watch the video for yourself).
‘Whenever we’re struggling on a pitch,’ Zim continued, ‘the belayer calls up ‘honey badger don’t give a shit!’ to the leader. Works every time.’

The day after Zim received his award, the three of us headed down country in search of winter delights. Despite average weather, we found an unclimbed frozen waterfall in the Hopkins Valley that looked pretty cool. Excitement levels rose.
Sometimes things just go wrong. I don't know whether to acknowledge that we were unlucky to get caught by the falling ice, or lucky that things didn't turn out a lot worse.
At the top of the second pitch, I had just built my anchor, clipped in, and was belaying Zim up to me. Shell was still clipped to the V-thread anchor at the top of the first pitch, about 40 metres below.
The ice came, 5-10 seconds of brick-sized blocks slamming into us. Driven against the snow by the blows, I thought it was all over.
I don't remember the end of it, so must have blacked out for a few seconds. Everything ached and there was blood over the snow. I yelled down to the others, but could only hear muffled replies. Only one thought developed: 'Get the fuck down!’ I tried to untie and retie the ropes with one working hand while talking to myself. Small things took on new significance.
Abseiling, I saw Zim slumped on a low angled snow slope, and Shell staring at me with huge eyes. Zim mumbled that he wasn't good. He thought that the impact of the ice had broken his shoulder and maybe his leg. I offered to abseil together, but then decided to lower him straight away. I followed Zim down, and checked his injuries while Shell abseiled. After slinging his arm, I started considering the rest of the descent. Zim said that he thought he could walk.
The three of us shuffled slowly downhill to the nearest hut. I then walked out to the road, found a family with a 4-wheel-drive who were holidaying nearby, and asked them to drive in to pick up the others.
By the time we all reached the road end, Shell was feeling a bit better and said she could drive.
We headed for Timaru, making a quick detour to Burger King. The staff at BK's gave us a funny look, not surprising given that three smelly, blood-stained, down jacket wearing individuals were standing at the counter asking directions to the hospital while ordering double whoppers.
Zim broke his fibula and scapula. The duty doctor initially refused to X-ray his leg after hearing that he had been able to walk out. Zim is off climbing for at least four months. But I spoke to him the other day, and he is already riding a stationary cycle. Shell and I escaped with cuts, bad bruising and concussion. We all needed new helmets.

I returned to the same ice three weeks later, wanting closure as much as anything. But the rest of the four pitch route had fallen away. Instead, we climbed another single-pitch line nearby. Kester led the route, and my hands shook as I prepared to follow. Despite my nervousness, I wanted to get back on the ice that had spanked us. Looking at conditions, I figured my chances were over until next winter.
Two days later, one of the biggest snow storms in our history plastered much of the country. The temperature plummeted. More than 20cm of snow fell outside our home on the coast. My thoughts returned to the possibility of ice forming in the mountains. I called Jamie and, as long as we could get out of Christchurch, he was keen.
In the early morning light, we could see the route from the valley floor. It was thin but on! Even Jamie wasn’t his super-confident self as we wordlessly roped up at the base. Light bathed the route with warmth, but we figured the ice would cool again soon enough, as the sun tracked west. Small fragments bounced down from above, and I flinched. We started climbing.

There’s no motto here, nothing life affirming other than the obvious. We are faced with choices and dictated to by chance. But I quite like this from a band The Mermen: The album is called ‘A Glorious Lethal Euphoria’ and the song is ‘With No Definite Future And No Purpose Other Than To Prevail Somehow…’

'Native Stones' by David Craig - Book Review in Climber

Why do we read climbing literature? Is it to pass the time; be entertained; informed; appalled; to be perched voyeuristically on our armchair while soaking up another knife-edge experience; or to try and tease something out that is actually inside us? Add to that our personal views and experience, what we’ve read before, and even how our day has been. There’s a whole lot going on that influences how we feel about what we read.

I found David Craig’s book ‘Native Stones’ by accident. I’d never heard of it or him, and tripped over a hand-me-down copy of it in a Wanaka second-hand bookshop. The inside cover blurb about Craig said he was an English professor who discovered climbing in his later years. This is how the book begins: ‘The crags act on us as the moon does on the seas, inert mineral masses exerting their force, leading us to their poles. People, birds, goats and sheep – we are drawn along the ledges, up the gullies, out onto the buttresses and pinnacles.’
For me, this is lyrical writing. So often in climbing literature we are bombarded with climbing heroics and stoic fortitude. While certainly page-turning and palm sweating, at times I find myself disappointed with the sameness of it all.

Yet these gentle fumbling of a moderate climber on gently-inclined rock routes in the Midlands showed me that not all climbing writing needs to follow the tried and true. And this highlights another point: do we enjoy more the works of climbers trying to write or writers trying to climb? I would suggest that, while Craig is certainly the later, the genre is loaded with the former. I guess it only matters in the end result, in the quality of the writing. And I’m drawn to Craig’s writing just like he describes being drawn to the crags; because there is something hidden there, some meaning that’s not explained explicitly, but if we stick at it we may at least discover something about ourselves that’s worth knowing.
For me, there are two things that Craig does really well. He gives us a strong sense of place, and he has a distinct voice. For climbers reading about climbing, we need more than the typical reader. We are intimately attached to the interaction between the climber and the environment. It’s natural that we want it explained in detail, so that we can imagine ourselves there, or feel damn lucky that we’re not.

This has turned into a book rave rather than a book review. I make no apologies. I love Craig’s writing. Finding and reading it raised my expectations of future climbing authors that I would seek out.

If there’s one thing I feel that is perhaps missing in Native Stones, it’s a continued narrative. This is more a collection, or recollection of Craig’s musings and experiences. Given that, I find myself rereading passages often, sometimes for inspiration and other times just to realise the wealth of this writer’s talent.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

New Backyard and Beyond team member: Troy Mattingley

New Backyard and Beyond team member Troy Mattingley has already showcased his photography, filming and editing talents.
Here is his latest work: A short video on the recent trip to climb White Strike on Dasler Pinnacles in the Hopkins Valley.



Troy's skills are a huge addition to the team!

Monday, September 19, 2011

'What We Did With Our Weekend' or 'A New Route In The Hopkins Valley'

I love it when a plan comes together.
The forecast for the weekend was average. Perhaps the narrow window of fine weather could stay open, but in all likelihood typical Spring instabilities would shut it down. Jamie Vinton- Boot and I decided to risk it.
The Hopkins Valley is one of my favourite places in the world. In the last eight years I've been there 70-80 times, maybe more, but I never tire of its stunning mountains and climbing possibilities. Over the years I've formed a bond with each peak. And it seems each new trip offers up more perspective.


Jamie and I planned to have a look at something I'd had my eye on for a while. But the route in question would be committing and, given the dodgy looking weather, I kept a Plan B up my sleeve.
Low cloud and a gusty westerly greeted us. Soon after we reached Dasler Bivouac it started snowing. There wasn't much to do other than climb into our sleeping bags and wait for tomorrow.


The next morning it seemed the weather couldn't make up its mind. We decided not to follow suit so, at first light, started clambering through the beech forest, traversing round into the valley between Dasler Pinnacles and Glen Mary. We were going to climb somthing!
Plan B came into view - a thin white streak running straight up the western flank of Dasler Pinnacles. Never more than two metres wide, and mostly less than a metre, it was as clean a line as I'd seen for some time. Two, maybe three pitches long, it looked amazing. Jamie and I geared up.


Somehow, two pitches grew into five. The ice kept running. We kept climbing. The ground dropped away, pitch by narrow pitch.


At the crux third pitch, the ice was no more than 20 centimetres wide. I struggled to fit myself within the narrow band of rock, thrutching with one tool above the other and crampons wedged in tight. Protection was sparse and, not for the first time, I marvelled at Jamie's leading ability. This was a beaut line!


'White Strike' - 250 metres WI3 M4

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Ice Is Nice

Chasing the elusive ice this winter has been rather stop-start. Continuing earthquakes, sinking homes, near misses, injuries, and now a one in 50 year storm has kept the team edgy for more.
But I can't help but love the medium. It's so finicky, so ephemeral, so beautiful. That is, until it falls on me, and then I want nothing to do with the stuff. Thinking shifts to a surf swept tropical beach paradise, sipping pina colada, and enjoying having warm extremeties.
Of course, that wears off. The bad memories fade, or at least glob together in the bottom of the scroggin bag: like when all that crystalized ginger pretends to be pineapple and gangs up on your taste buds. You spit it out in disgust, and quickly dive for the chocolate-coated raisins.
Here's a small montage of a couple of recent ice climbing trips into some of my favourite valleys in the Southern Alps.



And just posting this has got me reaching for my ice axes again, just to run my hands across the worn grips, maybe give them a wee swing.
Yep, weather permitting, we'll be heading off again.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

My Friend My Helmet (or how to break the new New Zealand Mountaineer of the Year in less than a week)

My father called the other night. He had heard through the Hersey grapevine about my recent close call in the mountains.
I braced myself for another of those talks, but it never came. Instead he sympathised with my 'go for it' attitude, before going on to discuss his latest plans for chasing wild horses again in the Far North. I braced myself to give another of those talks...
Without trying to sound too melodramatic, I guess I've had two brushes with death in the last six months. The February earthquake was an experience I'll never forget. Metres and seconds were the difference betwen life and death for so many Cantabrians.
As the ground continues to shake in Christchurch, I am reminded of the transient nature of our lives. As societies, we build these protective walls around ourselves, convinced that we can control the weather, ocean, earth and even our own destinies. And, to a point, we succeed. Everyday life brings a sense of sameness, a monotony that sometimes leads us to forgetting the value of what we have. Maybe a good shake-up now and again is exactly what we need.
Which is ironic, because this sameness is what I yearn to escape when I head for the mountains. Being prepared to let go of what you've got in order to recognise it again is a philosophy I believe in (though not always at the crux pitch).
Of course, this risk for reward approach comes unstuck from time to time - which leads me to my second recent incident.

Graham Zimmerman is a good mate. A Kiwi-American in his mid 20s, Zim has already learned to pursue life with an intensity that most of us only dream about. I was stoked to hear that he had won the latest New Zealand Mountaineer of the Year award, but more stoked to see him and get the opportunity to go climbing together again.
The day after Zim received his award, he, Shell and myself headed down country in search of winter delights. Despite average weather, we found an unclimbed frozen waterfall four pitches high. Excitement levels rose.

Sometimes things just go wrong. I don't know whether to acknowledge that we were unlucky to get caught by the falling ice, or lucky that things didn't turn out a lot worse.
At the top of the second pitch, I had just built my anchor, clipped in, and was belaying Zim up to me. Shell was still clipped to the anchor at the top of the first pitch, about 40 metres below.
The ice came - 5-10 seconds of brick-sized blocks slamming into us. Driven against the snow by the blows, I thought it was all over.
I don't remember the end of it, so must have blacked out for a few seconds. Everything ached and there was blood over the snow, but only one thought developed: 'Get the fuck down!'
I yelled down to the others, but could only hear muffled replies. Abseiling down, I saw Zim slumped on a low angled snow slope, and Shell staring at me with huge eyes.

Zim mumbled that he wasn't good. He thought that the impact of the ice had broken his shoulder and maybe his leg. I offered to abseil together, but decided to lower him straight away as that would be quicker. Small things, like checking and rechecking knots and threaded ropes, took on new significance.
I followed Zim down, and checked his injuries while Shell abseiled. After slinging his arm, Zim thought he could walk; which was a relief, as my ribs hurt and my left hand wasn't working. The three of us shuffled slowly downhill to the nearest hut. I then walked out to the road, found a family with a 4-wheel-drive who were holidaying nearby, and asked them to drive in to pick up the others.
By the time we all reached the road end, Shell was feeling a bit better and said she could drive. We headed for Timaru, making a quick detour to Burger King. The staff at BK's gave us a funny look, not surprising given that three smelly, blood-stained, down jacket wearing individuals were standing at the counter asking directions to the hospital while ordering double whoppers.

Zim broke his fibula and scapula. He will need to get the scapula operated on, and is bummed to be missing out on climbing time. Shell and I escaped with cuts and bad bruising. For the time being, our training entails quiet ambles along the beach.
Of course, the weather is perfect. The fattest high all winter is currently parked over the Southern Alps. We are supposed to be at Pioneer Hut. Instead, we are at home drinking coffee and taking anti-inflammatries.
Life reminds us, once again, why we live.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Blast From The Past - Kyrgyzstan 2008

At about this point I have a profound thought: ‘Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all.’
Glancing at Zim, intimately trussed up next to me in the back seat of what could best be described as the Russian version of a Unimog, I can tell he’s thinking roughly the same thing. Zim’s normally a pretty laid back dude, but right now his eyes are wide, and eyebrows doing the ‘aw ma gawd’ Golden Gate Bridge routine.
I can’t see Yewjin’s face. He’s packed in next to Toktosh, our cook, Turat, the young interpreter, and one of the horsemen – all in the backseat.
It was an hour ago that we left the Kyrgyzstan Army Headquarters, just outside of Voruch. After a serious half hour with the head honcho, it looked like things were about to grind to a halt. Three days driving the length of Kyrgyzstan, and one broken vehicle later (the bottom literally fell off – perhaps the driveshaft but I’m not mechanically inclined), it all came down to one rubber stamp moment. We had the appropriate official-looking paperwork (all in Cryllic, so it could have been a shopping list for all I knew), but was it going to be enough to get us where we wanted to go? The head honcho frowned. Turat shook his head and said everything was going to be all right.


Eventually, after a round of solemn handshakes, and thankfully without any more money changing hands, it was. The locals all lit up cigarettes. Zim got told off for trying to take a photo of the military compound. And then we piled back into our version of a sardine impersonation.
Our driver seemed cruisy enough, but the armed escort who rode shotgun was clearly a man of action. Resembling Vin Diesel, if you squinted your eyes, he locked and loaded his AK47, checked his numerous fatigues pockets for extra magazine clips in case the shit really hit the fan, and motioned our mini-convoy onwards.

Zim and I keep leaning back so the barrel of Vin’s automatic isn’t pointed in our direction. It seems like the situation is about to deteriorate. Our driver has just clipped a local on his motorbike. A large crowd gathers, waving their arms, shouting and looking riotous. Vin holds his rifle at the ready, and appears quite prepared to shoot someone - anyone. Clearly this is his usual form of negotiation. With a hand motion he instructs us to keep our heads down. Voruch is not how I remember it.

The settlement we have stalled in is a small Tazikistan village, with mud houses and narrow streets, completely encircled within Kyrgyzstan. Just one of the mind-boggling borders set by the Soviet Union back when they still flexed Communistic muscle over the ‘Stans’, it causes no end of strife for all those involved. According to Toktosh, who lives nearby, everyone outside of Voruch thinks it is full of bad people. Those within the town boundaries are constantly harassed each time they need to cross a border back to the ‘mainland’. I first visited here 12 years ago, and it didn’t seem anywhere near as tense as this time. But then, we are riding in the ‘enemy’s’ vehicle, and someone is waving a weapon in their direction.


We need to pass through here if we are to reach the Karavshin, and our own valley of choice – Jipdick. Since my last visit, foreign expeditions have experienced rough times here, including kidnappings and cross-border gun fights. Recently, the Kyrgyzstan Army stepped things up a notch, and now tend to shoot first if there’s conflict. And with good reason: Islamic terrorists occasionally attempt ‘smash-and-grab’ raids from across the mountains. It seems though, over the last couple of years at least, the local military has managed to force the rebels back into the remote valleys of northern Tazikistan.


I watch the arm waving going on outside my window. So does Vin, with added interest and no doubt an itchy trigger finger. Zim has fallen asleep and starts snoring – a sneaky way of dealing with the stress. Yewj wants to take photos, but figures now is probably not a good time. Eventually, the motorcyclist shoves his bike to one side in a final gesture of defiance, and we continue stalking through the streets of Voruch. But our driver decides on taking back alleys to avoid the large crowd now blocking the main street. A quiet glass of Riesling wouldn’t go amiss right now.

+++
The weather’s gone to custard. Sleet has progressed to snow, and is doing the horizontal routine. Thunder and lightning wave their personal battle flags above and below. Zim’s a ways ahead of me up a cloud-engulfed spur, with the tent. Things are a tad icky. Being as he’s got the shelter, if I don’t find him soon I might have to think about turning around and trying to sniff out a bivvy rock. So much for summer.


We’ve been following animal tracks for the past hour, lots of little ones and then one set of prints the size of a small cow. Must be some mountain goat to have hoofs that size, I think to myself. And then I see him – an Ibex (I think) – about 300 metres away silhouetted on a ridge above, standing in full profile with huge curving horns. He’s an amazing creature and, even from this distance, I can judge that his bulk is big enough to make me decidedly nervous. Maybe I can’t find Zim because this creature’s already dealt to him?
Trying to estimate size, I figure he’s about shoulder height, not including his horns, rangy and muscular. He skips up the ridge a few metres. If only I could move like that in the mountains. And then he bounds off into the gloom, literally looking like a four-legged superhero. Maybe he’s got a spaceship on the other side of the spur.

I find Zim, and he’s got the tent up. Good man! I shake off as much snow as possible and dive inside out of the weather. All thoughts of continuing with our attempt of the stunning unclimbed peak we had spied earlier are gone. This much snow will make every slope a death trap. Just snuggle up for the evening and hope that we can get out of here tomorrow.

+++
The rain is doing its pitter-patter thing on the tent again. I think it’s around 9am but can’t be bothered checking my watch.


Turat is standing in the drizzle, hacking half-heartedly at lengths of wood for the fire. Toktosh kneads wads of dough for some more of his yummy bread. Yewj is taking sips of whiskey and studying a textbook on anatomy trains. Zim absently rubs tiger balm on his belly, hoping to encourage some, or any, bowel movement. For breakfast he tried a tea made from plants Toktosh gathered on the slopes above camp. Apparently it cures most things, possibly even cancer and impotency. It smells like celery.
The expedition is winding down amidst false weather promises, spurts of bouldering intensity on the limestone between showers, and general unwashed apathy.
After a fine day yesterday, we were up early this morning hoping to at least pretend to climb something, but instead greeted with low cloud, a gusty northerly and showers. Now, three hours later, it’s bluebird clear. No doubt it will be sleeting by lunchtime.


Toktosh has asked me to wander up valley with him this afternoon to the Tazik shepherds’ hut, possibly for another meal of meat and meat with the locals: Past the peaks we have tried to climb, the mountain Zim and Yewj forged a great new line on (while I stomped grumpily around camp with a tweaked back), and the summits I’d stood on more than a decade earlier.
For now I keep my eyes peeled for earwigs. I’m sure they’re plotting their next attack. A month after I’m home I reckon I’ll still be tipping them out of drybags and gloves. Each morning they hide under the lip of the tent door, so that when I unzip it they can drop inside and run amok.
Zim’s finished War and Peace and is now chewing through Kerouac’s On The Road. I’ve read McCarthy’s The Road four times (a fantastic read) and looking for any excuse not to do anything. We’re out of real coffee, soon to be out of whiskey, and missing our loved ones at home.
Aah the joys of expeditions. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Try to stay healthy. Manage the weather, and hopefully manage to squeeze some climbs in along the way.


The horsemen are due tomorrow, and then we can walk back to civilisation – to hot showers, espresso, a bed that doesn’t seem alive with its own smell, noisy traffic, expectations, commitments…

+++
Jipdick Valley, near Karavshin, Kyrgyzstan, July-August 2008.
Team members: Graham Zimmerman, Yewjin Tan, Paul Hersey.
First ascent (Zimmerman and Tan) Kyzyl Muz North Face, 1500m, 18, AI 4, M4, three days.
Four other unsuccessful attempts (including one solo) on peaks in the Jipdick Valley.
One new rock route (Hersey and Zimmerman), and heaps of boulder problems.
Thanks to the Mount Everest Foundation and the New Zealand Alpine Club for their support.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

ESCAPING THE AFTERSHOCKS

Life continues - as it must. At least there’s no need for an alarm clock these days, with early morning aftershocks doing the trick. This morning’s effort sends houses into more funky jigs, and pets scurrying for their hidey holes. All across Christchurch, residents lie in bed in the half light, trying to find motivation to get up and turn the coffee machine or kettle on; knowing that, soon after the first cup, we’ll have to make the long cold trudge to the nearest portable toilet in the street.
Motivation is a topical word these days. We try to find the energy to bring normality back into our lives. Yet with so much physical and emotional destruction still apparent, the task feels huge.
Small steps, like finding good things in each day, seem the best approach. For the BAB team, training routines in the outdoors offer a chance for mental and physical release. But the Port Hills and coastline - popular training zones for the BAB team - are off limits. So the team heads further afield, in search of the outdoor adventure that we crave so much.
Just one small step, as we take a collective breath and look to the future...

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

MY FAVOURITE BOOKS? - A LOADED QUESTION

Someone recently asked me what my favourite books were - a loaded question to say the least!
I think I replied: 'anything by Cormac McCarthy', an offhand response that saved me having to think too much...or decide.

But think I did, sitting in front of my book shelves one morning, scanning titles and authors and remembering the feelings each instilled in me. Quickly, I whittled the pile down to around 30...and then stalled. What was I basing my selections on? And how many could I choose?
I stuck my nose into each book in turn, reading a few passages to try to recall why I liked the writing so much. Hours passed, and the pile lessened by only by a few. Procrastination seemed the best from of progression, so I went to turn the coffee machine on.
Eventually I came up with a plan. Imagining a desert island scenario, I could only take 10 books and no more than one by each author.

Number One was easy: 'The Road' by Cormac McCarthy. It was my first McCarthy novel, and initially only meant to be a few pages before bed. Of course I read it in one sitting, and lay there in the dark afterwards, my brain and emotions alive with the characters and images and possibilities McCarthy created. Two days later I read it again just to make sure I hadn't dreamt the whole thing.
'The Road' led me to reading, and re-reading, the rest of McCarthy's books. And if I allowed myself more than one of his titles in this selection, then 'All The Pretty Horses' would definitely be there, possibly along with 'Blood Meridian', 'No Country For Old Men' and 'Cities Of The Plain'. Suffice to say, I'm a McCarthy groupie.

Number Two: 'Feeding The Rat' by Al Alvarez. This is a simple yet revealing story of an amazing man, and Alvarez applies one of his writing mottos 'less is more' with style and grace. A beautiful read. One of Alvarez's other books, 'The Writer's Voice', keeps me up at nights.

Number Three: 'Fugitive Pieces' by Anne Michaels. Normally I'm only susceptible to crying at soppy movies, but this opened the floodgates also. So much emotion packed into each paragraph that I became an instant Michaels fan and went in search of her poetry.

Number Four: 'Girl In Landscape' by Jonathan Lethem. My favourite Lethem novel used to be 'The Fortress Of Solitude', but I think 'Girl in Landscape' pips it. I never thought science fiction would make my top ten, but this is an understated read that lets you fill in the blanks of the alien landscape with your own imagination.

Number Five: 'A Soldier Of The Great War' by Mark Helprin. The life story of Alessandro Giuliani is memorable and moving, written in the style that sweeping novels should be written.

From here, my palms got a little sweaty. I didn't want to limit myself to only five more books. There were too many titles to leave out. So I decided to list a 'floating five' that could, and will, change depending on the day, weather, tide, strength of coffee, etc....
Feel free to shoot down my selections, but you have to state yours first.

'The True Deceiver' by Tove Jansson
'Black Sun' by Edward Abbey
'Caught Inside' by Daniel Duane
'The Solitude of Thomas Cave' by Georgina Harding
'Into The Wild' by Jon Krakauer

Yep...that'll do for starters.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

'On The Edge' - Article In New Zealand Geographic

Rock fall in the mountains sounds like gunshot. There’s a whirring as each projectile flies by, and then a crack when it ricochets off the cliff I am clinging to. It’s easy to imagine that this is what coming under enemy fire must be like, a sickening feeling.
I hunch into as small a target as possible and listen to the barrage getting closer. Shutting my eyes, I try not to think about much while stones ping off my helmet. Something larger thuds close by. There’s nothing else to do other than swallow the sour taste in my mouth and mumble a few words to any deity that might be listening. Seconds drag like hours. Eventually – and thankfully – the impacts lessen. The noise recedes to faint echoes in the gully below.
Slowly, I unfurl and peer up towards the distant summit of Mount Walter, then back down the steep rock wall that Jamie and I have spent the day climbing. After a few moments, I give up trying to work out where the falling boulders came from. Thinking about ‘what if’ isn’t going to get me off the mountain any quicker. When close calls like this happen, usually I can shrug my shoulders or laugh it off. Occasionally I tell myself that enough is enough and it’s time to quit this climbing game altogether. But I never do. All climbers understand that risk is an inherent part of venturing into the mountains.
Whether threatened by rock fall or snow avalanches, crevasse-riddled glaciers or a sudden change in the weather, I manage the risk as best I can. The irony is that I also made the decision to be here in the first place. But how could I not? This is what I live for: a long unclimbed route on a remote mountain; a climbing partner stronger than the black coffee I gulped down in the tent this morning; and a weather forecast that lets me forget about the worries and banality of life back in the city. I can focus on the here and now, on this steep buttress of rock stretching up towards the sky and on what we need to do to climb it.
In sharp contrast to the recent bombardment, the air now holds an eerie silence. The snaking curve of the Stevenson Glacier which we started from at first light is nearly 400 metres beneath my feet, partially hidden by an abyss-like swirl of cloud. Jamie is the equivalent of four storeys further up the cliff, and has been belaying me up to him, pulling in the rope tied between us through a friction device as I climb. Out of sight, he probably doesn’t realise what just happened, figuring I’ve paused to take out a piece of protection he had placed while leading the pitch. Perhaps the dragging of the rope dislodged the rocks, or maybe it was just one of those random occurrences where luck could fall either way. It doesn’t matter anymore. The moment has passed. I begin climbing again.   
                                                                        +++
For me, desire is the most fundamental of emotions. It gets me out of bed each morning, motivates me to tempt fate with love, work and leisure. Sometimes it gets me into and then out of trouble, or to help when others are in trouble. Without it, life just wouldn’t be worth facing.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a strong desire for adventure. Maybe it was born out of reading too much Mark Twain as a youngster, or the home grown exploits of Ed Hillary and Graeme Dingle. Whatever the reason, it wasn’t long before my brother Glen grew to dread the words: ‘Let’s go back that way.’ I wasn’t particularly brave or tough, just needed to get off the beaten path and explore. In 30+ years not much has changed.
My desire to explore a forgotten corner of Westland National Park grew from staring at it too much. Every fine morning for two years I carried coffee outside of my rented cottage in the coastal settlement Okarito. I leant against the railing, did battle with the inevitable sand flies and took in the view. To the east, jagged peaks appeared to float over valley cloud, their summits silhouetted some three thousand metres above where I stood. Mountains Elie De Beaumont, Walter, Green and others crowned a rugged landscape, towering over the remote Spencer Glacier. The view became so imprinted on my psyche that I promised myself I would have to climb there. It only took another 10 years to fulfil that promise.                                                                              
In the past decade few if any climbers have managed to reach the Spencer. There hasn’t been a first ascent there since 1983. A no-fly zone, access has previously been forged from the top of the Franz Josef Glacier, down either the Cerberus or Styx Glaciers. But recent glacial recession means these options quickly become too broken in summer. And, in poor snow years, they aren’t accessible at all. This is yet another example of how global warming is slowly but certainly changing the face of mountain climbing in New Zealand. According to NIWA studies, the surface area of our glaciers has reduced by 35 per cent over the last 100 years. And by the end of this century, warming in the Southern Alps could be significantly greater than over the rest of the country. NIWA projects that there may be an average summer temperature increase in the Alps of around 6 degrees Celsius, raising the freezing level by 1000 metres. Given this scenario, it won’t be long before the Spencer, along with a number of other alpine environs favoured by climbers, is completely cut off.
Despite the potential access issues, Jamie Vinton-Boot and I were still drawn to the Spencer. According to trip reports gleaned from old New Zealand Alpine Club journals, the rock in this part of the Alps was of exceptional quality. And those who had ventured there mentioned large areas of unexplored terrain. After studying local guidebooks and maps, Jamie and I chose the unclimbed West Rib of an outlier peak to Mount Walter as a possible objective. Hoping to avoid the worst of the crevasses, we planned to cross into the Spencer from the east. First, we would need to climb the lower east ridge of Mount Green and then camp at Diver’s Col on the Main Divide. Just south of Mount Walter, we could then descend the narrow tongue of the Stevenson Glacier and, hopefully, reach the Spencer.    
                                                                             +++
‘How was that, Paul?’
Jamie grins like a Cheshire cat as I step across to his belay ledge. Actually, the ledge is more like two bookends put together, and slopes sharply off at one side. Jamie is anchored to the rock with various forms of metallic climbing paraphernalia linked together by a length of nylon cordelette, and he coils the rope at his feet as I approach.
My climbing partner’s enthusiasm is infectious and, despite the recent rock fall, I can’t help but smile back. ‘Fantastic,’ I reply. ‘Some great moves to get over that bulge.’ I don’t see the point in telling Jamie about my near-miss. Instead, I congratulate him on a ‘good lead’.
Crowding onto the tiny ledge, I pause and take in the view: the steep peaks either side; the jumble of ice cliffs whompfing in collapse below; and the bush-choked west coast spreading out beneath our feet. Through the cloud, I can see the Stevenson and other glaciers feeding finger-like into the broad palm of the Spencer. In turn, the Spencer folds and twists north like a broken accordion, losing altitude between the narrow confines of the rugged Drummond and Burton Ridges. Eventually it melts into the Callery, an unbraided, tumultuous river that rushes onwards to the Tasman Sea.
I imagine that, in the distance, I can almost see the tiny bach where I lived in Okarito. For a few moments I recall my life there, a quieter more reflective time when compared to the hustle and bustle I currently experience in Christchurch. The remote and wild certainly has its attractions.
‘What a place,’ I murmur, feeling both humbled and blessed to be here.
Jamie – ever-practical – un-wraps a muesli bar and hands it to me. ‘We should have brought the stove, though. Imagine having a coffee now.’
I nod enthusiastically. ‘A macchiato would do nicely. One sugar please.’
‘Coming right up.’
It is my turn to lead. Jamie hands me the ‘rack’ – an assortment of nuts, ‘Camelots’ (mechanical camming devices) and pitons – all designed to be placed in cracks in the rock by the lead climber. Once secure, they are then clipped through a karabiner to the rope. This means that, if I slip while on lead, I can’t fall more than twice as far as my last piece of protection.
This technique relies on two assumptions: there are enough cracks in the rock to place the protection; and the lead climber is able to establish a ‘stance’ where they can hang off the rock by one hand long enough to place it. Soon after climbing above Jamie, I discover that the steep buttress in front of me offers neither.
The rope – our lifeline – slithers over greywacke blotched with lichen as I pull myself up metre by careful metre. Coarse rock scratches against my fingers, a reassuring feeling. And the rock is a shade of red that I treasure in the mountains. Normally greywacke – a metamorphosed sandstone found throughout the Southern Alps – is dull grey, brittle and a nightmare to climb. Mountaineers refer to it as having the consistency of weet-bix, opting instead for snow slopes and glaciers as safer options. But discovering a sustained band of pinkish, orange, or red rock like the buttress that Jamie and I are on, is our version of winning the lottery. All I now need is to find somewhere to place a nut or a ‘Cam’. A fall here doesn’t bear thinking about.  
One after the other, I quickly slip my hands into a chalk-bag knotted at my waist, coating them with a thin layer of the white powder which soaks up sweat and helps with friction. In my climbing routine, this has become an almost meditative act as I solve the sequence of moves ahead. The section of greywacke in front of me is almost sunset red, and near vertical. Fingertip cracks split its surface and a ramp the width of a mobile phone angles up and left.
Finally, I find a notch deep enough to push a ‘Cam’ into and then, slightly higher, a nut. I clip the rope through them and breathe a sigh of relief. Now I have the confidence to tiptoe up the ramp for eight metres, until it fades and the rock becomes almost devoid of edges and cracks. I pause, dipping my hands into the chalk again.
Climbing in situations like this is less a game of snakes and ladders and more about chess-like moves. Subtle changes in body position, sideways shuffles and a vague combination of pushing and tweaking with hands and feet allows progress to be made. With hundreds of metres of fall space beneath me – something I don’t wish to consider right now – the intense level of physical and mental commitment means my whole world is nothing more than figuring out how to reach the next hand or foot hold. Time passes without notice. Life becomes very, very simple.
A muffled cry comes from below, meaning I’ve almost reached the end of the rope. I scan for a ledge suitable to belay from, but the rock drops away sharply. An awkward corner I’m bridging across will have to do. At least I find two ‘bomber’ anchor placements, and tie myself into them. I call out ‘safe’ and start pulling in the extra rope.
Rope length followed by timeless rope length, Jamie and I measure off the climb. Sometimes we chat at belays, other times we exchange equipment and move on with only a word or two. Shadows lengthen around us as the sun sinks towards the western horizon. We don’t talk about how distant the summit may or may not be, but it is on both of our minds. A night out on the rock would be an unpleasant experience, to say the least. An old climber once told me not to count on how close the summit is – that way I can’t be disappointed if it doesn’t arrive when I expect. Just keep ticking off the pitches. Keep moving. Keep concentrating.
Then suddenly it’s here, a flat platform that comes as a shock. Broad ledges follow the Main Divide in both directions. Nearby, the glacier that leads back to our tents sparkles in evening sunlight. We’ve done it, succeeding on a quality new route on a remote mountain. All of the planning and weather watching and effort to get here is worth it. With tired satisfaction I gather the rope in. Jamie climbs the last few metres, joining me as a warm red glow draws across the mountains. Despite the risk, there is nowhere else I would rather be.
(Kester Brown and Shelley Hersey also climbed the route to take photos)

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

'127 Hours' - Movie Review in Climber Magazine

I’m not good with gory bits in movies. Often, I end up watching my wife Shelley while she reacts to them. At the very least, one hand covers my face as I pretend to peek through protective fingers.
So, after reading some early reviews of 127 hours, and the gut-wrenching scenes that reportedly had viewers leaving the cinema, passing out and even throwing up, I didn’t fancy my chances at seeing much of the nitty gritty.
Aron Ralston’s solo-canyoning-turn-rock-trap-epic in remote Utah has become almost as well known as Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void.
‘So, could you do it?’
‘What?’
‘Cut your own arm off?’
After sitting through a rather explicit depiction, I’d have to say…probably not.
But it’s not just about that moment. Director Danny Boyle does a great job retelling the drama, playing a deft hand with an action-consequence type narrative. The main protagonist, James Franco of Spiderman bad-guy fame, realises he needs other people in his life, especially when his borderline Darwin Award adventures finally place him in this predicament. This is nicely done, without hyper-focussing on the obvious ‘tell someone where you are going’ moral to the story. Franco is an inspired choice for playing Ralston. He revels in the role.
I hate the term, but Franco and Boyle ‘keep it real’. There’s enough early life reflection and delusion-based imagery to break up the narrative, but not too much that it bogs down. The cinematography is spot on, and a cameo by Scooby Doo nicely edgy. There’s one scene where Franco suddenly manages to get his pack off the shoulder of his trapped arm – an impossible feat without undoing it or sliding it down over his body – but this is a minor blip. It only shows up because all of the other survival details are observed so closely.  
It would have taken a lot of courage for Ralston to agree for his experience to be told on the big screen. Forget the money. This is about opening yourself up – exposing your failings and weakest moments – to hundreds of thousands of strangers. But then to bring footage of Ralston and his wife and son into the final frames of the movie – like Sean Penn also did with the tragic Chris McCandless story Into the Wild – adds to the authenticity.
And now to the moment: I managed to watch most of it, which is to say that it’s not too gory, rather than me outdoing myself. Be prepared. It is realistic. But, even allowing for my weak constitution, it needs to be.
Score: 4 out of 5  
      

Mount Asgard Smock - Gear Review in Climber Magazine

English outdoor giant Berghaus recently introduced its high end Mtn Haus range of clothing and gear. Developed with nutbar Brit climber Leo Houlding, the Mtn Haus ‘Extrem’ range is purportedly focussed towards the technical user – without all the overhyped wicking-this, pit zip-that bells and whistles the mainstream market seems to feed off these days.
I got the opportunity to test drive one of the ‘Extrem’ flagship models – the Mount Asgard Smock. Upon receiving the rain jacket, my first thought was ‘Jesus, it’s small.’ It comes in a stuff sack that’s about half the size of my bivvy bag, weighing in at a paltry 290g (size large). The fabric is Goretex Pro Shell, which means it should wear well. I still think of this as a two-layer fabric, but Google if you want to know what it does and doesn’t do compared to other ‘waterproof, breathable’ fabrics.
 Generally speaking, rain jackets get a bum rap. They are stuffed into dark, cramped spaces for hours, days or even months on end, and then hauled out when things turn pear-shaped. And that was the case with my Smock. I’d only throw it on at bivvy sites, strut around and comment on its nice shade of blue with red trim. But a ‘death and taxes’ day finally arrived, and the Smock played its part well.
So, rather than a typical rain jacket that has a zip running all the way down the front, the Smock’s zip ends midway, kind of like an old Fairydown model from years ago. This is where a major saving in weight comes in, as well as being more waterproof. The Smock is a tight fit, but has these nifty underarm gussets, meaning there is still enough movement in the sleeves. And the hood fits well with a helmet.
This is supposed to be an impartial review but…I love the jacket! The design cuts out all the extraneous stuff that has been weighing down other supposedly technical jackets. This is true ‘smash and grab’ stuff. It may be a squeeze getting my big puffer on underneath during a midwinter climb, but that’s nothing I can’t solve with a bit of lypo-suction.
Score: 4.999999/5

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

WHAT MAKES GOOD CLIMBING LITERATURE?

The following is a summary of a talk I gave a while back on this topic:

I have always had a strong interest in books and in words. My grandfather had quite a collection which I inherited a chunk of, and I’ve managed to add to the collection also. Amazon.com loves me.
As a reader I like to think critically about what it is that I’m reading, what techniques are being used by the author and why? That is unless I’m tent bound and stormed in on an expedition somewhere. Then I’ll read just about anything, even something by Tom Clancy or (sigh!) a Mills and Boon to pass the time. My brain doesn’t operate too quickly at altitude.
As a kid, I read lots of the typical climbing adventure expeditions, and lapped up every word. But now, while interesting in a historical sense, the quality of both the observations and writing don’t stack up, for me at least. And as a climber, the difficulty here is trying not to get lost between what makes good climbing writing and what makes good climbing. Both don’t necessarily overlap.
My background isn’t academic, rather the newspaper reporting school of hard knocks, then more specialised journalism, and lately lucky enough to get three books published.
These days, I spend most of my time thinking first about ideas and then the right words to convey those ideas, and then sooner or later I might write something down. And I guess the biggest thing I’m finding is that the more I write the more I’m learning about writing, and probably the less satisfied I am with my own work.
In terms of reading, rarely do I just read for pleasure anymore, usually there is another reason attached to it. Likely it’s not just the story itself, but maybe how the author manipulates the interaction with the reader. It’s not just what words have been chosen, but also the gaps that we as readers fill between them. I used to have a rule that I would stick with a book for 100 pages, but these days often I get nowhere near that. But likely the book will remain on the shelf and I’ll try it again later when I’m in a different mood.

A while back I was asked to be a judge for the latest New Zealand Alpine Club’s short story competition, along with Colin Monteath who’s been in the publishing game for many years and Nic Learmonth who is an avid rock climber and boulderer, has a PHD in English literature and works as an editor. As the entries trickled in, we discussed the best way to judge. Nic opted for a criteria-based approach, so we would clearly know what aspects of the writing we were judging on. Colin seemed pretty keen just to get the job done so he could get back to his workload, and I was all for just reading the submissions and seeing which ones stood out without being too particular about why.
After some discussion, we decided on each submitting a list of our top five and then we could deliberate from there. From memory there were around 20 entries, and Colin, Nic and myself set about reading each before deciding on our top five. Eventually, we forwarded our individual lists to each other… and quickly realised that we had three entirely different lists. Between the three of us, and despite all of us supposedly having some knowledge of what makes good writing, we’d managed to pick 15 different stories. I was gobsmacked. I figured there’d be some differences but not completely different lists.
Of course we thrashed out the pros and cons, went away and re-read everything again, this time aware of what the other judge’s feelings were, and finally came up with our greatest hits.
So I guess the first point to take from this is the subjectivity of it. Indeed, I’ve given the same piece of my own writing to various colleagues to comment on, and gotten the full spectrum of responses. Experiences like that can make it difficult to know who to trust and how to progress as a writer.
Sure, there are certain elements that good writing tends to exhibit but, at the end of the day, the relationship is solely between an author and a particular reader at that particular time. My opinion on what makes good climbing literature are just that - opinion.

So maybe if we back up a bit in the process we can identify why it is that we read and why it is that we read climbing literature. Is it to pass the time; be entertained; informed; appalled; to perch voyeuristically on our armchair while soaking up another knife-edge experience; or to try and tease something out that is actually inside us? Add to that our personal views and experience, what we’ve read before, and even how our day is going. There’s a whole lot going on that influences how we feel about what we read. Good writers are aware of this. While they can never be everything to everyone, they try to connect with the reader, not just choosing to highlight moments or experiences but choosing how to highlight them.

I found David Craig’s book Native Stones by accident. I’d never heard of it or him and tripped over a hand-me-down copy in a Wanaka second-hand bookshop. The blurb about Craig said he was an English professor who discovered climbing in his later years. This is how his book begins:
'The crags act on us as the moon does on the seas, inert mineral masses exerting their force, leading us to their poles. People, birds, goats, sheep - we are drawn along the ledges, up the gullies, out onto the buttresses and pinnacles....'
For me, this is lyrical writing. When we are bombarded with climbing heroics and stoic fortitude, the gentle fumblings of a moderate climber on moderately-inclined rock routes in the Midlands showed me that not all climbing writing needs to follow the tried and true. All that matters is the end result, the quality of the writing. And I’m drawn to writing just like Craig is drawn to the crags, because there is something hidden there, some meaning that’s not explained explicitly, but if we stick at it we may at least discover something about ourselves that’s worth knowing.

So what are the necessary elements required in good writing? I put this question to an academically-qualified friend to find out.
The obvious things are setting and plot. And the trick, my friend noted, is to try and mesh these in to the writing without being too obvious about it. English author and critical essayist Al Alvarez is a master at this, and his profile on climbing friend Mo Anthoine - Feeding The Rat - a great example. The writing is simple and understated, but with just the right amount of imagery and description to let us know what’s coming. The key is a light touch – something that my academic friend noted was one of the most important elements that separated good writing from the not so good. Choose the moments for superlatives. Play the interaction with the reader like a hand of poker, introducing ideas in a covert manner and manipulating the reader into thinking and feeling certain things.

So often climbing writing fails to do this. It comes across as a trip report, passively focussing on events rather than conveying mood, personality and reflection. And it relies on the situation itself to carry the story – otherwise known as the epic.
Joe Simpson is both the master of understatement and the epic. I certainly wouldn’t want to climb with the guy. He seems to attract wrong turns and unfortunate surprises like no other. And of his series of climbing books, my favourite is This Game Of Ghosts, because of its characterisation and humanising of climbers.
According to my educated friend, the two most important elements of climbing writing, and probably all writing, are have a strong distinctive voice and having a light touch ie. not over describing something but rather choosing key words or phrases that let the reader create for themselves. The rest of it is pretty open.

Climbing literature is all about movement, be it personal thoughts and reflections, group dynamics, the action of the climb, or the changing terrain and weather. These can be conveyed in many different ways. What a writer has in their skill set is probably not that different to what a climber has on their trad rack. The mark of a good writer is having an awareness of the reader and the relationship between the words chosen and how that reader may respond to them.
So, my top five climbing books, in no particular order are:

'Native Stones' by David Craig
'Feeding The Rat' by Al Alvarez
'Mountains Of The Mind' by Robert Macfarlane
'In The Shadow Of Denali' by Jonathan Waterman
'This Game Of Ghosts' by Joe Simpson

Please note that this list is likely to change at any stage...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

FEBRUARY 22: THE DAY CHRISTCHURCH SHOOK (AGAIN)

It’s been two weeks since the 6.3 earthquake that devastated Christchurch, but this is the first time I’ve felt capable of putting my experiences and thoughts into words.
Recently, I had been working every Tuesday at the outdoor store Bivouac on Colombo Street – partly to be able to buy cheap climbing gear, but more importantly to force myself into taking a day away from my computer and interacting with people.
At 12.30pm on February 22, I took my lunch break from Bivouac and walked outside into the CBD. After eating sushi, I bought coffee from Vivace on the recently renovated Hereford Street, before taking the lift up to the sixth floor of the Vero Building to catch up with friend (and incredible photographer) Lee Howell. Lee and I chatted about possible future projects we could work on together.

 

At around 12.50pm I returned to the ground floor, stepped out onto Hereford and headed east towards the intersection of Hereford and Colombo. The sidewalk was crowded with tourists and locals on their lunch break. Overhead, above the tall buildings, the sun was doing its best to prove the weather forecasters wrong.
The initial force of the quake knocked me from my feet. For the first few seconds I thought ‘hey this is a strong aftershock’, but that quickly changed as windows shattered and the fronts of buildings started collapsing. The noise was deafening. People around me were getting hit by falling debris. I tried to get up, to stay in the middle of the road, and shouted for others to move away from the buildings. Some did, but some chose to shelter near walls. I lost sight of them as more bricks fell from above. I didn’t really think much about what to do, other than looking up for falling masonry and trying to get up every time I was knocked over. I remember grabbing someone who was curled up on the footpath to drag them away from somewhere near Vivace. All the time, the ground roared with a deep rumbling sound.

 

It felt like the earthquake lasted for about 20 seconds, and when it stopped the street was filled with dust and debris. It was unrecognisable. Towards the intersection of Hereford and Colombo, it looked like a building had collapsed right across the road. The roaring had stopped, replaced by alarms, and people screaming or crying. Some people were running up and down the street. Some, like I, stood dazed, and others lay injured on the asphalt. Is my wife okay, I thought? Competing with thousands of other panicked residents concerned for loved ones, I tried to call and then text her with no success. Then through the haze I could see people, some injured, trying to get out from damaged buildings. I climbed over a pile of rubble and helped those that I could. I looked towards the Vero building and thought about Lee. People were kicking at the broken glass doors and clambering out. I shouted to get away from the building and to move down towards the relative safety of the Avon River banks. Some responded, but others slumped to the ground as soon as they got outside. At one stage I tried to get into the Vero Building foyer to look for Lee, but a line of people kept coming out. Then, about 10 minutes after the initial quake, the first aftershock hit. Someone called out a warning as more debris fell. A man next to me was hit. I ran.         


Upon reaching the Avon, I walked south along its banks, past the Bridge of Remembrance and then down Lichfield street towards where it intersected Colombo. The scene was utter chaos and destruction. Cars were crushed by collapsed walls. People stood in small clusters and looked on with shocked disbelief. Some held pieces of clothing over wounds. A few were inert on the ground, presumably having been dragged clear. Others dug hopelessly at mounds of rubble. I passed a man with a head wound, who couldn’t work out which direction the hospital was in, and I asked an uninjured bystander to take him there. My phone bleeped – Shelley checking to see that I was okay. Relief flooded through me that she was fine. I kept trying to text back to no avail. How were my work mates, I suddenly thought, and rushed down the remainder of Lichfield towards Bivouac, passing a burst gas pipe hissing and a dazed policeman not knowing what to do first. The Bivouac building was still standing, but the glass frontage had shattered. Rob stood outside, and Chris was getting on his bike to go and check that his wife and children were fine. We hugged quickly and he cycled off. John came over covered in dust, saying he had just helped to dig an elderly woman out from under a collapsed veranda. Both directions of Colombo Street looked like a war zone.
Another policeman arrived and they both started shouting: ‘You have to leave! There is a gas leak.’ I wondered how to get to Shelley at her work on the corner of Brougham and Durham. South along Colombo looked impassable. The only way out was east along Lichfield and then maybe south along Manchester. I figured that, at least, once clear of the CBD no buildings could fall on me. The road was gridlocked with vehicles, drivers trying to inch their way out over ruptured roads, while aftershocks continued and more bits of buildings fell onto the street. Inside a vehicle was the last place I wanted to be.


I helped a Japanese couple down Lichfield, escorting the elderly woman by the arm as we weaved between the cars and stayed as far away as possible from the more fragile-looking buildings. On the corner of Lichfield and Manchester I crouched beside a man who was lying, unconscious and alone, on the ground. There were no obvious injuries, but he was covered in dust. Someone turned up with a blanket, and soon after a police car pulled up alongside. I didn’t know what else to do. My father was staying at our house in Southshore, which had been hit hard in the earlier September quake. Finally I got a text through to Shell. The best option seemed to be to start walking home. Along with droves of others, I left the CBD.
Three hours later, after avoiding craters in the roads, and watching panicked drivers driving into them, wading through sewerage and wastewater and silt from liquefaction, seeing slumped bridges, crushed houses, fallen trees and snapped power lines, and peoples’ faces everywhere wide-eyed, blank and lost, I reached home.


Two weeks later: The death toll is still rising. I haven’t been back into the centre of town, but large portions of it are barricaded. The latest estimate is that 50% of the CBD will need to be rebuilt. Our house is liveable, though it has slumped sharply on one side and will likely need to be demolished. It looks like all 10 of the houses in our lane will go, along with thousands of others throughout the city. Power and water are back on here, and our day to day living is at least starting to feel a little more normal. The eastern district is like a ghost town. Tens of thousands have left Christchurch, finding solace in other parts of New Zealand away from the ongoing aftershocks.
Where to from here? I have no idea, but at least we are alive and uninjured. So many families and friends have lost loved ones. And hundreds of others are in hospital with serious injuries. Christchurch – and life – will never be the same. But how could it be after a natural disaster of this magnitude? I would like to congratulate the authorities on their concerted and sustained efforts. At times the organisation of recovery efforts has seemed disjointed, but I can understand why. This is not something you can plan for and hope to cover every contingency. This is fire fighting on a large scale.


I am touched by the level of compassion people are showing for their neighbours. It seems that the concept of community is not lost, even in a city the size of Christchurch. Every day our neighbours check on each other, pooling together resources and making sure spirits are as high as they can be. And that feeling and support is what Christchurch needs. Mayor Bob Parker said at one stage that the city was ‘on the cusp of not being a city’ any more. Canterbury, the South Island and indeed all of New Zealand needs Christchurch to, slowly but surely, return to its former glory. My Great Great Uncle, the poet and author Johannes Andersen, was one of the city forefathers. He wrote lovingly of its architecture, its coastline, its plains and its rolling hills. My grandfather grew up here. For better or worse, I am linked to this place, and I feel its vitality as my own.