Friday, November 23, 2012

'Gone' - Article in 'White Horses' Magazine

I grew up surfing Pataua, a slick little river bar 100 metres off the coast of a drowsy settlement with the same name. There is a steep-sided hill at the entrance to the estuary, grass covered and with gnarled pohutukawa trees rooted to its clay slopes. The hill is an ancient pa site, or Maori fortress. Stepped terraces are still visible beneath the long grass, along with shoals of long-emptied pipi shells that were dumped off its banks. Pataua means fort of the warriors. The pohutukawa flower blood red every summer, the Christmas tree of the north yet also a symbol of the past. A finger of white sand arches away up the coast. This was where my family stayed on weekends and holidays, in a wooden bach set back from eroding dunes. Two beat-up old longboards lived in the back room, one which took both my brother Glen and I to carry down to the water when the bar was knee-high. We could paddle and ride it together, until its foot-long keg beached in the shallows. Years passed, with clean summer groundswells and winters when I returned to shore with hands misshapen from the cold. One sunny morning, as a teenager, I was wandering back along the water's edge after another spiraling session, my head aloft with the buzz. I passed a gobsmackingly hot older woman sunbathing in a brightly coloured bikini. She had slender, tanned limbs and blonde hair with a mind of its own. I smiled, slowing fractionally, knowing I was way out of my depth but figuring what the hell. 'You got some nice waves out there,' she said. I stopped, half turning in surprise. Then I realised she wasn't talking to me. A tall bloke with muscled shoulders and a thick black moustache had just glided in on his longboard, and was striding up the beach. He grinned: 'Guidday.' That was how I met Karl and Penny. Their family owned a holiday home on the south side of the estuary. Karl and Penny drove up every other summer weekend, escaping their daily grind in Auckland's city life whenever a decent north swell was forecast. Karl would call the night before for an update. I hardly saw them during winter. Although Karl worked as a carpenter and Penny a fashion designer, it seemed they jetted off to warmer climates overseas during the damp, cloudy funk that settled over us in the middle months. Both about 10 years older than me, they never really mentioned their other lives. But they asked me lots of questions, which got me excited about possibilities in life. Karl was assertive. I liked that because he seemed to know what he wanted. Penny made me wish I was older. Sometimes we just talked about waves or, as I recall it now, I did most of the rambling and they smiled and nodded. They seemed really happy, an adult couple who had it sorted. In the few photos I still have of them, taken during surf trips further afield, they were either in each other's arms or laughing or both. One evening while drinking beers, Karl asked why I had stopped to chat to Penny that day. 'Did you think you had a chance?' he jibed. Feeling my face colour, I smiled sheepishly. 'Leave him be,' Penny scolded, leaning over and whacking Karl on the shoulder. 'I'm just asking, alright.' I shook my head. 'I don't know. I was in such a good mood, you know. The surf had been great. I was...I don't know...happy.' Karl laughed hard, like it had erupted out of him. I shuffled my feet, stared out the window into the dark. 'Stupid, I know.' 'There, you satisfied?' Penny said to her partner, rising suddenly from the couch and stalking outside to the balcony. We both watched her. Karl sighed, got up. 'You want another beer?' I shook my head, mumbling something about getting an early night because the surf could be good first thing. When I finished school, I lucked into a job as a junior reporter with the local daily newspaper. I still hung out with Karl and Penny whenever they came north. Then only one of them started showing up, usually Karl and he'd be amping for a wave, any wave. He was never that good at surfing, didn't have the feel for what the wave was doing. He would paddle furiously and thrust himself upon a breaking swell as if he could force it to his will. After two years I got bored, headed south to another newspaper, got bored again and bought a ticket to Europe. I chased girls in England, and a football career in Germany – neither with much success. I drank Weissbier in Munich, and watched dudes with punk haircuts in fluorescent wetsuits surfing river waves like they were at the centre of it all. I missed home. My mother sat me down. I'd arrived back in New Zealand the previous morning. It was a cloudy autumn day, and our dogs wrestled on the lawn. 'I've got some news,' she said quietly. 'It's about your friends, Karl and Penny.' 'Huh?' 'They're dead, Paul.' I tried to clear jet lag from my mind. My voice quivered. 'What happened?' My mother frowned, looking worried like something bad was still to come of it. 'We saw it on the news, your father and I. I'm not sure of all of the details.' I've only lost a few mates over the years. One of my best friends died in a climbing accident soon after I'd left him in the Italian Alps, and I still carry guilt for not being there. It left such a gap in the way I thought things ought to be. I don't know why Karl and Penny separated. Penny moved out of their home, and stayed with her mother. Karl turned up there one day, trying to reconcile. Penny said no. Karl went out to his vehicle, returning a few minutes later. The sudden crush of sound startled Penny's mother in the kitchen. Rushing to the lounge, she saw Penny on the floor and Karl awkwardly turning the barrel of the shotgun towards himself. I don't know where people go in their minds that lead them to this point. I'm not sure that I want to know. I try to remember Karl and Penny from the early days, days when they created a positive impression on a young life. Now, I stare at the fading photographs in my album and think about waves and sunshine and friendship. I like to recall our conversations, Penny slaughtering me at chess, and Karl falling off his board wave after wave, thrashing to the surface and laughing like it didn't mean shit.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Arc'teryx Atom SV Hoody Review

I am happy to admit that I don't have much in common with gun American climber Mark Twight. While his attitude to alpinism is something akin to 'go hard or die', mine is more along the lines of 'tread extra cautiously'. But I do buy into his 'climb light, climb fast' approach. In fact, trying to sweat as little as possible is one of my priorities on long climbs. If nothing else, it means I can get away with carrying less water. So, I'm always assessing, and updating when necessary, my technical climbing gear and climbing clothing to lighten the load. And, with winter climbing, I've got my layers pretty sorted. The insulation layer is where I still find room for tweaking. Up until now, I've been using a relatively thin Primaloft jacket, but have sometimes found it a bit cold. This means my top layers are as follows: light synthetic top or 100 weight fleece next to skin, then the Primaloft jacket, and a hard shell over the top to keep out any moisture. I tend to just wear unlined soft shell pants, but will add thin tights if it's super cold. I've recently started climbing in an Arc'teryx Atom SV Hoody. And, combined with a light fleece and thin wind shirt underneath, I've found it to be super toasty. Insulated with Coreloft, it feels significantly warmer than Primaloft. The nylon ripstop outer also has a water repellant coating, which means I've been able to do away with the hard shell. The wind is kept out, and it sheds snow well. But, the fabric is pretty lightweight, so durability may be an issue in time. With its insulated hood, which fits well over a helmet, I can regulate my body temperature while climbing. Normally I go for a size large but, with the Atom, I've dropped down to a medium. It is still long enough to fit under my harness, and the zipper is easy to operate with gloves. One of my pet hates are these sticky zips found on lots of jackets, which are near impossible to drive with gloves on. So big ups to Arc'teryx for fixing that also, even if it means driving the weight up a tad. At around 475gms, it's a little heavier than my old Primaloft jacket, but the added benefits more than make up for that. Arc'teryx has pitched the jacket at the backcountry ski/snowboard market, but I reckon it works a treat for alpine climbing also. Five out of five.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

'Backyard And Beyond' second trailer

This is the second trailer for our 'Backyard and Beyond' climbing and video project. It profiles team member Shelley Hersey. The full video will be completed next year. Troy Mattingley and Tony Rac filmed and Tony did the editing. I did the writing and directing, and the music is by Joss Weatherby.

'Backyard and Beyond' trailer part two from Paul Hersey on Vimeo.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Remarkables Ice And Mixed Festival

Shelley and I headed over to Queenstown for the festival, not really sure what to expect. I guess this would have been the same for festival organiser Daniel Joll, as this was the inaugural event. We turned up for registration at the Frankton Ale House on Thursday evening, and found the pub filled with keen climbers, all chatting excitedly about the long-weekend's prospects. More than 100 climbers had registered for the event. Aged legends rubbed shoulders with wide-eyed newbies. The vibe was positive...and exciting. The event was the first of its kind ever to run in New Zealand and, by the looks of things, nearly all the top alpine climbers active in NZ had turned up. The next morning Shelley and I drove up to the Remarkables ski field car park. I'd never seen so many alpinists gathering in one place. The feeling was infectious. Everyone wanted to climb! Along with a friend Sally Ford, we hiked over to Wye Creek to tune in to the ice. Despite a warm temperature, the ice was still in reasonable condition.
We all led a route, and then trudged back over the hill to our vehicle.It was great just to get amongst the mountains again.
On Saturday, Shelley and Sally teamed up with Jean Kenney for an all-womens assault on the west face of the Telecom Tower, climbing Saturday Morning Special. By the looks of things, they were one of two all-women teams climbing on the weekend. Meanwhile I tagged along with mates Scott Blackford-Scheele and Rob Frost for an ascent of a route called The Clearances.
Conditions were pretty scratchy, but Scott and Rob made short work of the cruxes. This was the first time I had climbed here, and the setting was awesome. Lake Wakatipu twinkled gently in the dappled sunlight beneath our feet, while Queenstown hummed away to its 24/7 beat.
I also got to see fellow Backyard and Beyond team member Jamie Vinton-Boot work himself to a frazzle on some heinous-looking hook-fest of a route, while Troy Mattingley swung from ropes to capture all the action. Another friend Steve Fortune bathed himself in glory, picking up the Black Diamond Alpinist of the Year award, the hardest send of the event award, and the fastest time on the Double Cone-Single Cone traverse. Huge ups to Daniel and the crew for running a sweet event. I'm sure everyone who participated in it made new friends and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. I can't wait for next year. On a slightly different tone, I want to say that I'm sick of the fractious and, quite frankly, arrogant comments occasionally arising about Kiwi climbers needing to move on from their 'one pitch' routes and travel overseas. Climbers do not have to venture to the 'greater ranges' to be considered 'real' climbers. Judging by last weekend, alpine climbing in New Zealand is alive and swinging, thank you very much. All of the smiles and laughing and personal epics waged on different routes showed me that everyone there was doing the most important thing in climbing...having fun!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Localism and Surf Rage – News –

How do you feel about localism and surf rage? I reckon it sucks! Here's a piece I wrote on the topic for Localism and Surf Rage – News –

It's Cold But Where's The Ice?

Last weekend Jamie Vinton-Boot and I went for a wander into the North Temple Valley in search of ice. There had been a big snowfall a week earlier, and temperatures had been consistently in the negatives since. We were optimistic about the prospect of ice.
Unconsolidated, windblown snow kept progress slow as we plugged towards the head of the valley. After setting up camp in the beech forest, we carried on up to the headwalls under Rabbiter's and Belfry Peaks. Long snaking veins of ice drooped down a number of drainage lines, and we started to get excited.
However, on closer inspection, we realized the ice was very thin and brittle, and still unclimbable for those who aren't particular fans of Scottish climbing.
Still we tried to remain upbeat, gearing up at the base of one route, and Jamie setting forth. After a few blown tools and crampon placements, and collapsing ice everywhere, he changed his mind and climbed/slid down.
Conditions were pretty cold, so we returned to our tent, hoping a solid overnight freeze might eventuate. But slogging in the dark through the snow the next morning, back up to the ice, we realized that it felt like the air was warmer.
The sound of running water and tinkling ice greeted us at the base of another intended route.
The unstable-looking daggers overhead, along with a warming temperature, convinced us that it was not going to be our weekend. We retraced our steps down valley, through the snow, in search of coffee.

Friday, May 18, 2012

'The Glaciers Are Retreating' - article in Alpinist

'Watch me,' Jamie Vinton'Boot calls out. He dinks at aquamarine-hard ice with his tools, his front points scratching above the obsidian depths of a sepulchral crevasse. 'All good mate. You're looking solid,' I shout back. The rope slivers over the narrow ramp of glacier beneath my feet. Jamie hasn't placed an ice screw yet. If he slips now, he'll pendulum right into the crevasse. There's water dripping somewhere. I feel a sudden, voyeuristic urge to peer into the darkness of the deep cleft below. My friend talks to himself, his muttered words lost across the chasm. Should I offer more encouragement? When I was younger, I realized one day that the more animated my belayer came as he extolled my leading virtues, the more dire the situation actually seemed to him. I try again: 'Just take your time, Jamie. No rush.' But this isn't right either. Early morning sunlight has already arched over the remote Stevenson Glacier. And forty kilometers to the west, a dark, thickening cloud oozes in from the edge of the Tasman Sea. The day is getting away from us, and we haven't even reached the start of our proposed route.
I doubt Jamie is paying attention to anything other than the ice and his front points. He's partly deaf and probably can't hear what I'm saying. I'm calling out reassurances to make myself feel better. But my good friend has the ability to bend the reality of climbing sequences, making them appear easier than they are. He'll deal with this. Jamie resets his axes, and the tinkering of falling ice echoes across the morning air. Another friend, Kester Brown, shares my belay stance. He's quietly munching on a muesli bar. 'That's a bomb site over there,' he observes. 'Jamie will be coming back.' 'You reckon? Christ, how are we going to get through this bloody maze?' it's still early in the summer alpine season, yet already cavernous gaps have opened in the glaciers. Kester says nothing. Not inclined to get worked up about anything other than burnt coffee, he turns to look across this rugged pocket of our Southern Alps. To the north, the Stevenson and other feeder glaciers plunge over weathered rock slabs on the western flanks of Mt Elie de Beaumont and Mt Walter. To the south, the ice fields warp back from the more shattered, blocky rifts of Mt Green. We are hoping to tackle the unclimbed West Rib of Walter, a chipped fin of coarse greywacke sandstone half a kilometer high. But even reaching it is proving difficult. I kick at the ice with my crampons. Two hundred meters below us, the Stevenson fingers into the broad palm of the Spencer Glacier. In turn, the Spencer sags between barren knuckles on the Drummond and Burton ridges, before disintegrating into the Callery River hundreds of meters further down the valley. Even from this distance, the unbraided river appears turbulent.
Aoraki Mt Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain, is a few kilometers father southwest, hidden behind the saw-toothed summits of the Main Divide. There hasn't been a first ascent recorded in this part of Westland Tai Poutini National Park since 1984. As far as we know, no one has even attempted a route from the Stevenson in the past decade. Looking at the terrain we still have to negotiate, it's easy to understand why not. At last, Jamie reaches the other side of the crevasse and clambers over a low fold of ice, disappearing from view. My wife, Shelley Hersey, is perched on a divot in the glacier a few meters behind Kester and me. She inches higher to try and glimpse what Jamie sees. Moments later, curses float over the void, and Jamie returns. He shakes his head. Kester shrugs his shoulders and looks away. He's probably already thinking about heading back to our tents to brew fresh coffee. Shelley smiles at me, and then starts cramponing back across the slope we traversed at first light. She skirts a short ice cliff and vanishes down a snowy ramp. I know she's searching for another way through the jungle of crevasses. My wife hates giving up. Perusing old guidebooks and alpine journals before the trip, I'd noticed that first ascents in the area tapered off in the early 1980s. Yet the few people who climbed there wrote about good quality rock, at least by New Zealand alpine standards. Brittle zones of greywacke or argillite (a type of crumbly dark horror) appear throughout our higher mountains. Most climbers stick to snow and ice. Or else they wait until winter when the fractured rock is frozen together. Occasionally, a solid, compact weathering rind forms on certain rock strata. Signs of pinkish, orange and red bands usually mean there's good climbing to be had. I'd first spied the auburn hues of the West Rib of Walter in 2000, while guiding on the Franz Josef Glacier. Every clear morning for two years, I carried coffee outside my cottage in the coastal settlement of Okarito. I leaned against the railing, swatted sandflies and faced the sunrise. The silhouettes of Elie, Walter and Green craned over thick, dark rain forests and the white splodge of the Spencer. Day after day, I stared at that same view. Sometimes a warbled morning sun made the mountains shimmer in the sky. Other times, in flat sepia-toned light, the summits seemed so close that I could almost reach out to them. I promised myself that I would, someday, climb them.
Yet after a number of forays from the Franz, I realized the difficulties involved. In the summer, glacial thaw cut off the western access. With no icy bridges to clamber down, all that remained were steep, impassable walls of rocky detritus. The most reliable approach seemed to be from the east, traversing the country's longest glacier - the Tasman - and then climbing over the Main Divide. A reasonably straightforward trip of around twenty-five kilometers, it took more than a decade for me to carry out that plan. Each season, the ice fields of the Southern Alps seem more broken, and moving through them grows tougher. What used to be easy snow shelves have morphed into unreachable hanging glaciers. Whether it's because of of glacial recession, climate change or a temperature anomaly, I've watched entire ice fields slowly vanish. Despite the relatively small size and low altitude of New Zealand (Aoraki Mt Cook is 3747 meters high), more than 3000 glaciers spread over its mountains. Yet according to studies by the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, over the past 100 years, the surface area of those glaciers has reduced by almost half. And by the end of this century, NIWA claims that warming in the Southern Alps could mean an average summer increase of up to three degrees. Freezing levels could rise by another 500 meters. As the ice melts, and the glaciers break and collapse away, the dirty, unstable bedrock becomes a nightmare to climb. It's as if our alpine world - or the way we appreciate it - is being torn apart. How long will it be before we're doomed only to imagine the lines still waiting around the next ridge line , or beyond the next glacier, to wonder whether we will ever be able to get there to find out? Shelley reappears on the snow slope below us, breathing heavily from the exertion but grinning. 'There might be a way over here,' she calls out, pointing with her axe. 'We can't get much further down the glacier, but I think we can get off the ice on to the ridge.' The rest of us shuffle over to where Shelley indicates. There's a wide gap between glacier and rock, but a fragile-looking tongue of ice juts out over a rumbling ice cliff. Access across the tongue looks tenuous - it might just go. Ice collapses nearby with a loud whompf, making us all twitch. The glacier gives a gentle shudder and settles again.
I quickly establish an anchor - and myself - in a nearby crevasse. That way, I won't have to test the ice tongue first. When no one else makes any moves towards the edge, Kester sighs. Since he's the tallest, it seems appropriate that he should go first. Kester gives his ice axe a good thunk into the undercut slip in the glacier. He peers over. 'Don't like this much,' he mumbles. He shuffles his crampons before re-hooking his axe on a last, thin, icy protuberance. Extending his long legs, Kester reaches for the rock. He snares a narrow ledge with his crampon, lets out a small 'yoo-hoo' and scrambles up the blocky ground to set a belay. Shelley, the shortest in our group, has to swing one leg repeatedly, building up momentum before she can stab across the gap. Her front points scrape against the rock as she searches for purchase. Once stable, she leans out, drapes her axe over a rock flake on the other side and then lunges the rest of her body over. Jamie climbs down to the edge, says 'bugger that' and clips his ice axe to his harness. 'Give me some slack,' he calls up to me, before jumping like a stuntman. Somehow, he manages to stick to the small ledge on the other side. 'Sometimes I just do stuff without thinking too much about it, he says in a nonchalant tone, as if he's making a valid excuse. 'Go for it,' the others shout when it's my turn, but the prospect of repeating Jamie's aerial feat makes my aging knees quiver. I sink the pick of my axe as deep as it will go into the ice, clasp it with two hands, and push one leg out behind me until it clatters against the rock. Once stemmed between glacier and rock, I breathe a sigh of relief. At the belay, I pause to take in this broken rib of red greywacke that we're about to climb. The rock curves upwards in a graceful arc, a totem that will entice us onwards for hundreds of meters. I can't help laughing: we've made it across, into the kind of place that climbers, perhaps, treasure most.
The rockfall sounds like gunshot. Each projectile whirs by and cracks against the cliff. I cling to the wall, hunching into as small a target as possible and listening as the barrage gets closer. Stones ping off my helmet. I shut my eyes and try not to think about much. Something larger thuds close by. I utter a few words of hope to a deity I don't believe in. More cracks resound against the rock. Some ricochet, and others explode on impact, spitting debris over me. Is this it? Is this the final moment? Eventually, the noise recedes to faint echoes in the gully below. I take a deep breath and slowly unfurl. The others are out of sight above me and, seemingly, out of earshot too. They probably don't realize what just happened. They'll be thinking that I've paused to take out a piece of gear. Perhaps the rope dislodged the rocks. Maybe climate change played a part in loosening the stones, or it was just one of those random occurrences. It doesn't matter why. The moment has passed. I begin climbing again. 'How was that, Paul?' Jamie asks a few minutes later as I approach the belay. I can tell he's enjoying himself, and can't help but smiling back. 'Pretty good. Some solid moves to get over that bulge eh?' I don't see the point in letting him know about the rock fall. I'd rather congratulate him on the lead. Kester and Shelley are already heading off on the next pitch, a steep slab with desk-sized chunks missing. I suggest to Jamie that we follow a short buttress to the left to stay out from underneath them.
Jamie hands me the rack. The weight feels reassuring in my grasp. The call of a kea - sounding like an elongated cry of the vowels in its own name - echoes from somewhere above. I look up. Red and green wings flash across the air. A foot tall, with a powerful beak and claws, these native mountain parrots are known for getting into mischief and wrecking gear. I hope that if the kea spots our tents, it chooses Jamie's over mine. The coarseness of the rock rasps my fingers - a comforting feeling, like a memory trace of past experiences. For me, climbing is about the the rock's shape, color and texture, and then how to move with it. The patina of the sandstone in front of me is almost sunset-red. Fingertip cracks split its near vertical surface and a thin ramp angles like a tree-branch across the buttress, up and left. I slink along the ramp, ferreting at dead-end cracks. Finally finding a notch deep enough, I slip a cam into it and, slightly higher, a nut. Now, I have the confidence to tiptoe up for another few meters. But then the edges and cracks begin to vanish as I reach a bookend in the rock. The air is still. Another kea calls in the distance. This is when everything fades and sharpens. This is the time. Breathe. Keep breathing. I slip one hand after the other into my chalk bag, more a meditative preparation, and continue. Time seems to reverberate in the distance, or in some other place entirely. A muffled shout rises from Jamie. I scan for somewhere to belay. This awkward corner I'm bridging will have to do. Two small nuts drop key-like into a thin crack, and I shout back down the rope. Shifting weight from one leg to the other, I look up, trying to judge how much farther we've got to go. A mossy rootlet hides the terrain above. The climb gives nothing away.
Hours later, the summit ridge comes almost as a shock. I stagger for a moment, trying to readjust to the sudden change in geography. Broad ledges create a bench along the east side of the Main Divide in both directions. A few meters behind me, the glacier that winds back down to our tents seems to float in the evening light. The sun's final warmth fills me with renewed energy. As Jamie seconds the last few meters, a crimson glow draws across the mountaintops and tinges the glaciers pink. Jamie's not into hugs, but I grab him anyway. Kester shies away, muttering something about being all smelly. Tiny wisps of hair stick out from under Shelley's helmet, catching in the light. She has that ebullience in her eyes that I recognize and love. The others start cramping down the gentle snow slope, but I take a few minutes to look back over the Spencer. Through the low clouds that choke most of the valley, I try to eke out other faces worth investigating. A long, rippling slab runs up the western flank of Elie. Could we reach it? The last of the evening light merges the high, bright peaks around me with the cloud, the distant cobalt of the sky with the ocean. The view softens and hazes, fading slowly to the night until everything feels as one thing. I want - I need - our summits like this, with their glaciated flanks and their ice-cut ridges. Without these snowy surrounds, much of the mystery, the character, will fade away. We're only just becoming aware of what we're losing. The inevitability of transformation and loss is disheartening. Yet I can't help but hope, rather naively, that what I'm looking at will stay like this forever.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

'After The Earthquake' - article in The Surfer's Journal

It’s not every day your life flashes before your eyes. I was walking along a busy urban street in New Zealand’s second largest city, drinking a cup of takeaway coffee, glancing up towards the sky and wondering if I could squeeze a surf in before dark. The wind looked promising, and a few rays of insipid sunlight were trying to squeeze through the cloud cover. Without warning the ground lurched violently. Chunks of masonry sheared off tall buildings overhead, smashing onto the footpath inches away. Along with thousands of others all across Christchurch, I was thrown to the ground. Some, like I, tried to regain our feet to avoid the falling concrete and exploding windows, only to be knocked over again. Others remained foetal on the ground. Shop frontages blew out and then whole buildings started collapsing, like a scene from a bad Spielberg movie that we were stuck in the middle of. But it was the noise, an unfathomable, sonorous roar from deep within the earth that stuck in my mind. It sounded like the world was tearing itself apart. Twenty seconds of terrifying, destructive chaos, time enough to take the lives of scores around me, annihilate half of Christchurch’s Central Business District and damage nearly every building in a city of 400,000. The street I had been walking along was now choked with dust and debris, and completely unrecognisable. My favourite cafĂ© where I purchased the coffee from minutes earlier was a pile of bricks, along with my favourite bookshop on the other side of the road. And amidst the immediate aftermath of sirens, alarms and cries for help from people trapped in destroyed buildings, I realised that life would never be the same.
At 12.51pm on February 22nd, a cloudy summer’s day with an offshore breeze cooling the temperature, the coastal city of Christchurch copped a 6.3 magnitude earthquake right on the nose. Nearly 200 people were killed and thousands injured. This was our second major earthquake in less than five months. In the early hours of September 4th, a 7.1 magnitude shake – much deeper within the earth’s crust and therefore less destructive – threw us from our beds. Then, the city suffered moderate damage, but nothing compared to the shallower and more violent February quake that followed. People lost loved ones, homes and businesses, all in less than half a minute. For a population as small as New Zealand’s, the second quake brought a city, and a country, to its knees. Once the ground had stopped shaking, with police shouting at us to clear the area and streets gridlocked with vehicles, I decided to leave the CBD on foot. Three hours and 10 miles later, after avoiding craters in the roads and footpaths and watching panicked drivers disappear 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. Surprisingly our house, built on a narrow sand dune peninsula with the coast on one side and estuary on the other, was still standing. But, along with so many other dwellings along our street, it had developed a rather sharp lean. Foundations had torn apart. The front door was blown open, deadlocks exploded outwards. Flooding lapped at the concrete step and, in the back yard, sand volcanoes erupted out of cracks in the ground. Inside, apparently someone had let a rogue bull run-riot. After checking that all of our neighbours were okay, I scratched around in the bombsite for a gas cooker, scooped water out of the toilet cistern and made a hot drink. Power, phone, water and sewerage were down. I found a transistor radio and turned it on to bury the silence. Shelley arrived home an hour later, wide-eyed, exhausted and covered in grime, and we hugged as if our lives depended on it. The next morning there wasn’t much Shelley and I could do other than start a long, slow process of picking up the pieces. My neighbour Phil called by to say he’d been for a walk along the beach. The bar was breaking, chest-high and glassy. Tension released like a flood as I dropped down that first smooth, curling wall with all the promise it held. Phil and I were probably the only people surfing in Christchurch that morning. It felt damn good to be alive. Between sets, we sat looking back towards shore and a huge cloud of dust hanging over the city.
Later that day, the local council started releasing raw sewerage into the sea. With the waste treatment system shattered, it was either the ocean or the streets. Months later, they’re still doing it. Sand and silt have clogged the system and it could take over a year to fix. The coastline is fast becoming a cesspool of sewerage scum, and anyone who enters it likely to contract gastro-interitus, hepatitis or something equally as noxious. The tidal zone smells like the morning after a night of too much Indian food and red wine. Access to the ocean has literally been taken away. You never fully realise the importance of something in your life until you can’t get it anymore, and especially so when it’s right there across the road, reminding you day after day. The new local is now two hours drive away on Banks Peninsula, a remote beach break that gets crowded on a Wednesday mid-morning low tide. Sometimes, weeks go by between sessions.
Surf photographer Warren Hawke lives a few doors down from us on the same finger of sand. Like our place and hundreds of others along the street, his has been earmarked for demolition. ‘Not much to look forward,’ I comment over coffee one morning. Right on cue, another aftershock rattles the ground, and we both grab our cups to avoid spillage. ‘Enough of this, let’s go on a trip,’ Warren replies. ‘There’s nothing better when the shit’s hitting the fan.’ So we do, three carloads of Christchurch surfing refugees driving about as far south as you can get, along narrow, windy roads flanked by chequered farmland, through non-descript towns with high pub-to-local ratios and past endless herds of dairy cows. Our base for the trip is a remote and ramshackle two-storey coastal ‘holiday home’ with complimentary sagging floorboards, mouldy carpet and peeling wallpaper. But there’s a decent log burner, a trailer-load of dry firewood and plenty of low-slung comfy chairs. Surf checks can be made from the upstairs balcony, and entry onto a long sandy beach, and clean ocean beyond, achieved down a rickety wooden stairwell. A cutting southerly announces our arrival and the premature coming of winter. Low-lying cloud clings to farmland across the bay, and thick hills of deep-green forest rise above it. Apart from the smooth curvature of the bay, the coastline is rocky, jagged and unforgiving. Through dull evening haze, a small cluster of fishing vessels huddles in the lee of a distant headland.
Warren had predicted the building south swell which now thrashes against an outside reef, lumpy and as raw as the wind. The swell lines then bend in towards us, before lurching up and dumping messily on the shore. The wind corrugates the bay with an ugly cross-chop, but Warren reckons it will swing. ‘Don’t worry, this’ll clean up,’ he says. Warren has been coming here for decades – last making the pilgrimage a year ago – and is confident of picking the conditions. The rest of us shrug our shoulders, before heading back inside to stoke up the fire. English poet Philip Larkin once wrote: ‘If I were called in to construct a religion I should make use of water.’ Various terms and ideas get bandied about in relation to surfing. Why is it so important? What does it mean? Is it a sport, a religion, or something even more fundamental? I don’t know and don’t give it a thought most of the time. But moments of stress can bring with them extended periods of checking for lint in the belly button. And what I realise is this: I’ve felt the urge to chase waves for three quarters of my life. That’s longer than anything else save the fundamentals. Yes, there are other things that make me feel just as alive. I relish the search for physical and mental challenges that put me in the flow of the experience, things like climbing, mountain biking and writing. But it was surfing that helped me first realise this perspective through which I could suss out the rest of the world. And it’s surfing that I usually turn to when everything else feels confusing or gets too disjointed. That’s why I agreed to travel south with Warren, despite there being so much to sort out at home, not to mention lucky that my wife recognised when a boys’ trip was needed. No doubt the other guys have their own version of this. As Al T says the first evening, while we sit around the fire, drinking beers and staring at the flames: ‘I just need some waves.’
Al Te Moananui’s Maori surname translates as Big Sea. An automatic invitee when the local big wave competitions ran a few years back, Al gets amped about the same time I start thinking about exiting the water for personal safety reasons. A few months before the earthquake, Warren showed me some photos he took of Big Al cage fighting. ‘After the initial exchanges, Al just used the other guy for target practise,’ Warren pointed out at the time. When I query Al on his apparent narcissistic streak, he shakes his head. ‘It’s nothing like that. I’ve just done martial arts for a few years now, and I see this as a good way to test of my skills. You’re in there and it’s all on.’ ‘Fair enough,’ I say. Note to self: Do not take issue with him over who gets the last beer. ‘So, when’s your next fight?’ ‘I’ve got one coming up soon in Timaru. Apparently the guy I beat last time wants a rematch.’ ‘Really!’ Warren adds. ‘He must be a slow learner eh?’
I wake around dawn to the high pitch of a dog yipping somewhere. It ignores my attempt at mental ‘shut the f__k up’ telepathy. The sky is still overcast, and flat sepia-toned light filters through the window. Outside, the dark, sabre-shaped leaves of cabbage trees rustle with the wind in what looks like the right direction. As Warren predicted, the wind has swung offshore. ‘No rush, the banks need more water,’ he says when I wander out into the kitchen in search of Joe. The young guys Luke and Tom don’t care. They’re busy wolfing Weet Bix and bread rolls like alley cats, smiling at each other like they’re privy to some personal joke. Thirty-something’s Jay and Al take their time while Jonny’s still upstairs, sucking paint off the ceiling. After a second coffee and decent portion of Warren’s fry up, I settle for a wander along the sickle-shaped bay. The wind still has a wintery bite to it, reminding me that nothing but a few paltry islets separate this coast from the Antarctic. Apart from a couple of bored-looking seagulls and a lone oyster-catcher ferreting in the shallows, the beach is deserted. In summer, the nearby camping ground proves justifiably popular with eco-tourists, although occasionally visitors get closer to nature than intended. I remember reading in some newspaper that the local Department of Conservation staff resorted to placing stuffed beanbags shaped as sea lions along the shore. Apparently, horny juvenile male sea lions were bursting into tents and terrorising unsuspecting campers. But the article reported that tourists were the only ones being fooled by the beanbags, giving them a wide berth when going for a stroll along the beach. The leftfield beanbag idea doesn’t surprise me. I’ve surfed here a few times in the past, and always found the locals a funny, quirky bunch. By mid tide, the line-up in front of our accommodation is working nicely. Although Al’s complaining about a lack of size, he still manages to revel in the perky, head-high A-frames, slugging any unsuspecting lips and causing facial mayhem. Warren lurks in the sand dunes with his long lens, occasionally doing the sand fly shuffle when the little beggars breach his armoury of clothing.
Fifteen-year-old Luke O’Neill paddles quickly over from the next peak with a funny look on his face; a female sea lion has taken a shine to him. Tall, quietly spoken and with a smile young ladies no doubt go gaga over, Luke is the current national junior longboard champion. But he pretty much rips on anything. Today he’s drawing mature lines on a 5’6” mini-Simmons shaped by Australian import Jay Jackman, and not looking too happy about his flippered companion. ‘I just saw this bow wave and didn’t know what it was at first,’ Luke says, trying to encourage the sea lion to tag on to one of us. She follows him round like a lost puppy, and we laugh at his misfortune. Jay calls out good ‘luck with the first date’ as Luke decides to head to shore for his longboard. Between sets, and having earlier picked up on his Australian accent, I ask Jay what he’s doing this side of the Tasman, especially given that the water temperature’s about 10 degrees colder. ‘My wife and I came over from Sydney for a holiday,’ he says. ‘We loved Christchurch so much that we decided to stay. Sydney’s just too large, you know. It takes forever to get anywhere.’ In need of an income, Jay set up shop in Christchurch’s industrial zone and started shaping under the Sadhana Surfboards label. And through the last three years, his clientele has been steadily growing. ‘How’d your factory handle the quake?’ ‘Not too bad,’ Jay replies. ‘Damage to the building, and all of our boards got dinged to some extent. It could have been much worse, though. At least we’re all alive eh?’
We both stare into space, thinking about what if’s, until young Tom Owens drops into a peaky wave in front of us and sets his rail. This is Tom’s first session on his new Sadhana 6’0” Bonzer, and his grin says it all through another bowling section; a grin so infectious that talk of the earthquake is quickly forgotten. Tom makes wetsuits for a living and bears a striking resemblance to Australian icon Wayne Lynch in his younger days, complete with the hefty dark mop of hair. A few years older than Luke, the two live just down the road from each other and are good mates. Tom spends his weekends doing ding repairs at Jay’s factory. Nursing a hangover, Jonny Wardrop is last into the water. A compact, quietly spoken but scruffy-dressing Cantabrian, Jonny somehow morphs into a clean-cut physics teacher at a swanky religious school. ‘The work is reliable and the holidays are good,’ he explains. ‘Yeah, but physics? That’s pretty dry,’ I comment. Jonny smiles. ‘At least the students in my class want to learn. In some of the other subjects they can’t be bothered. Actually I like teaching physics. It’s all about wave energy and motion.’ ‘I can understand that,’ I reply, nodding but having no idea what he’s on about. I failed basic physics at high school, and haven’t touched it since. Hung over or not, Jonny sorts his board angle equations with precision. For a little guy, he puts up quite a rooster tail. It’s not fair how flexible he appears, and I have to stop paddling to watch.
Bring boys, boards and beers together and, sure enough, bullshit follows. In the evening, Jay regales us with tales of his ‘first time’ with a rather robust girl next to a, presumably, robust letterbox. Then he moves on to another girl nicknamed ‘Handy Smurf’ and has us in hysterics. My jaw aches from laughing so hard. I lean back and take in the combined warm glow from the fire, beers and companionship. The earthquake feels on a different planet. And it’s welcome to stay there. Next morning it’s Al’s turn for a post-breakfast amble along the beach. Sometime later he comes jogging back waving his arms in the air as he draws closer. This is quite animated for Al. ‘The river mouth,’ he says, catching his breath. ‘The right-handers are walling, really bloody walling.’ A mile down the road, we launch from hastily-packed vehicles, suit up, jump the fence, race across the paddock while avoiding minefield-sized cowpats – still steaming – and gather meerkat-like on the highest sand dune. Al’s call is spot on. One after the other, a set fires off across the bank, accelerating into the shallows. The faces are thoughtfully groomed by a gentle north-westerly funnelling down the valley. Warren shuffles along to find a suitable vantage point to shoot from.
Al and Jonny, riding standard shortboard thrusters, position themselves for the outside bombs while Luke and Tom hug the inside racers with Mister Simmons and Mister Bonzer. Jay and I hover in the middle, jack-of-all-trades like, Jay on one of his quad-fin creations and me on a Roger Hall twin keel fish. The sets keep coming.
I love the rhythm surfing allows for: the waiting, paddling, catching, riding, paddling and waiting again balances me in a way that nothing else I’ve experienced in over three decades of trying comes close to. Occasionally there’s mind-blowing intenseness in make-or-break late drops, but usually the feeling spreads in a comforting glow – like when you’re cold, pee in your wetsuit and it feels all warm, but without the stale stink afterwards. And here are a group of guys, aged 15 to 43 with various surfing backgrounds on a range of boards, hooting and acting like kids. Luke’s the only one with an excuse, and he’s probably the most reserved. Jay, Luke and Tom head back in the afternoon, work and school calling. The rest of us decide to stay on, despite a forecast for more gale force southerlies and snow to 400 metres. And this is escape? We hunker down for another stormy evening, stoking up the fire and listening to the wind. Warren outdoes himself at dinner, making Sheppard’s Pie, though I guess it’s not surprising given his comments towards the ‘good looking’ southern sheep which can be seen out the kitchen window. ‘What defines a good looking sheep?’ Al feels obliged to ask. ‘Clean, not too many dags, preferably off to the freezing works soon.’ Al walks away, shaking his head. You can never travel far or for very long in rural New Zealand without a sheep joke cropping up. Jonny and I look at each other, smile, and take another swig from our beers. Yes, we know we’ve got to head back to Christchurch soon, to continue picking up the pieces. But for now, this’ll do all right.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Cormac McCarthy - a biased view

When once asked to explain why Cormac McCarthy was my favourite author, I uttered two words: 'The Road'. This forlorn candle of hope in a post apocalyptic world was my first experience of McCarthy's work, a random purchase at my favourite bookshop.

That evening, in bed, I thought to read a few pages...and finished the book some time after midnight. The following day I read it again, just to make sure I hadn't dreamt the whole thing.

So began my ongoing relationship/obsession. Returning to my bookshop, I raided the shelves, purchasing 'All The Pretty Horses', 'No Country For Old Men' and 'Blood Meridian'. After that, I had to start ordering in McCarthy's remaining titles. My bedside table towered. I wouldn't read anything else.

Then the movies started appearing: 'No Country For Old Men' and 'The Road carried the weight of a McCarthy groupie's expectations well. Now there's word that 'Blood Meridian' is also to be immortalised on the big screen.
'Blood Meridian' is brutal. I'm intrigued to see how they handle all the violence, which is intrinsic to the central story.
My friend Mat and I still argue over whether the main character, a young man, is finally dealt to by his God-like and twisted older companion. He is, but Mat still blindly clings to the ideal that evil (or, in this case, a greater evil) doesn't win.

Most of McCarthy's characters are either twisted, or become that way due to the circumstances they find themselves in. And, nearly always, a harsh and endless landscape is backdrop to their turmoil.

I haven't really justified my reasons for liking McCarthy so much. The muted internal dialogue of his characters, set against a nicely overplayed external environment lights my fire - that's about it I guess. Maybe, it's tied up somewhere with my father making me watch too many 'yippees' (cowboy movies) when I was young.

My favourite McCarthy novels:
1. The Road
2. All The Pretty Horses
3. Cities Of The Plain
4. Blood Meridian
5. No Country For Old Men
6. The Sunset Limited (novel in dramatic form)

Monday, March 5, 2012

New Zealand's Top Surf Breaks

Surf and travel go hand in hand. Whether it’s a weekend spent exploring down the coast or a month-long holiday in the tropics during our winter, surfers love the idea and the reality of searching for waves. And there are literally thousands worth searching for, both along New Zealand’s varied coastline and throughout the South Pacific. I'm often asked what my favourite breaks are, so thought I'd make a list.

New Zealand Top 10
I’ve made this list from well-known surf spots in Aotearoa. It would be a completely different list if I included my favourite secret spots, but I’m not going to tell.

Starting near the bottom of the country and working north:

Porpoise Bay, Catlins
A quaint half-moon bay with a cool motor camp nearby, this sandy-bottomed beach often has well-formed A-frame waves. Not surprisingly given its name, often your only surfing companions are dolphins. There are also some other little-known points and reefs nearby, and in fact the whole Catlins coastline is a surfer’s dream tour.

Aramoana or ‘The Spit’, Dunedin
A visiting French surfer once told me the pitching waves at Aramoana are better than any of the world famous surf spots in his country. Whenever a north swell, or a large south swell, hits town, expect a crowd at Dunedin’s best beach break. But the endless choice of peaks usually means everyone gets their share. ‘The Spit’ is also famous for frequent shark encounters, which can clear the line-up rather quickly.

Murdering Beach, Dunedin
This is Dunedin’s signature wave: a right-hand point break forgiving enough to entice most surfers out there and long enough to turn your legs to jelly by the end of each ride. While arguably it’s not as good as some of the other points nearby, nevertheless it draws the most attention. ‘Murderers’ is one of the most sought-after waves in the South Island.

Kahutara, Kaikoura
This right-hand point is not for the faint-hearted. A powerful wave with fast, hollow sections means it should only be ridden by competent surfers. Better when bigger, there is plenty of opportunity for getting locked in to long barrelling waves. I’ve had some of the best waves of my life here, but also some of the biggest hold-downs.

Mangamaunu, Kaikoura
Another right-hand point, and just up the road from Kahutara, ‘Mangas’ is considered the ‘friendlier cousin’. Giving rides about three times longer, it’s pretty popular too. If there is any type of wave forming at ‘Mangas’ usually someone is surfing it. Visiting surfers often plan their whole trip around trying to score the point working. And even just one wave on an epic day here is enough to leave a smile on your face for weeks afterwards.

Stent Road, Taranaki
The local council has finally wised up and replaced the constantly- missing road sign with a huge immovable rock. This is how famous Stent Road has become. And for good reason, as the right-hand point is probably Taranaki’s premier wave. Fast and powerful, it handles plenty of size, offering up barrelling sections and walls for cutbacks. A word of warning though: this place can get crowded so be patient and respect the locals.

Kumara Patch, Taranaki
This is probably my favourite wave in the ‘Naki’. A 20 minute walk along the coastline takes you to a mechanically-winding left-hand point with never-ending walls of Indonesian proportion. There are certainly other more intense waves nearby, but ‘The Patch’ gets my vote for its mix of bowling and speed sections. A fantastic wave, but again be patient if there is a crowd.

Wainui Beach, Gisborne
Gisborne has more quality waves than seems fair. And while there are a number of lesser known breaks of a higher quality around, you can’t beat Wainui for its long sandy beach and clean fun waves. This isn’t to say that the intensity doesn’t jump up with the swell size. Depending on sand conditions, Wainui produces hollow, intense rides. Another plus is that the locals are usually mellow and friendly to visiting surfers.

Raglan, Waikato
Most Kiwis – surfers or non-surfers – have heard of Raglan. This is New Zealand’s iconic wave, and ranks as one of the best left-hand points in the world. Actually it’s three points, which helps to spread the crowd. This is a good thing, because it certainly attracts surfers from all over the world. But, if anything, this seems to have mellowed the line-up. Everyone – or at least on my previous few surfs there – is careful not to drop in. The nearby township has grown to cater for all the visitors, and boasts a number of quality cafes and accommodation options.

Shipwreck Bay, Northland
‘Shippies’ in the Far North is a series of left-hand point breaks at the bottom of Ninety Mile Beach. And on its day, for my money, it produces better quality waves than Raglan. As you venture further around the headland, each successive break gets bigger and heavier. And, during huge swells, they often link up to provide mammoth, epic rides up to 500 metres long.

There are dozens of other waves around the country that could just have easily made this list. New Zealand is becoming increasingly recognised as a world-class surfing destination, regardless of whether surfers are looking for perfectly-shaped beach breaks or huge, intimidating offshore reefs. Our coastline and geographical aspect mean we are exposed to swells pulsing in from the Pacific and the Tasman. While the water temperature can be challenging at times, we have waves rivalling the rest of the world.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Writing Workshop, Unwin Lodge, Mount Cook Village, June 21-25

The New Zealand Alpine Club has asked me to run a writing workshop in June as part of the Unwin Lodge Autumn Arts Workshops.

The cost is $700 per person, including accommodation, dinners and transport between Christchurch and Mount Cook if required. A maximum of eight participants will be accepted, and they must be NZAC members. This is a good opportunity for those keen on improving their writing skills, define where they want to head with their writing, or work towards getting their writing published.

Those interested should contact Pat Deavoll at NZAC for a registration form:

Below is some more information on the course:

‘They told me that writing is 95% rewriting. They lied. Try 99.99999%. Be prepared for the best, and worst, relationship you’ve ever had with your inner self!’

This workshop is focussed towards writing about the outdoor environment, how we see it, feel it and interact with it. Writers can be either novices or experienced, but should come with an open mind, spare pens, the biggest Thesaurus they can find and lots of questions.

After covering what constitutes ‘good’ writing, Paul will encourage course participants to search for their own writing style, or ‘voice’, and avenues for expressing this voice. By the end of the course, each participant should be able to identify suitable writing topics, processes and self-critiquing techniques to improve their writing. Paul is happy to explore different writing genres (ie. creative, short-story, novel, journalism, fiction, non-fiction) depending on the needs of participants.

Topics will include (but are not limited to):
1. What constitutes ‘good’ writing? Should we even care?
2. Why write? What are our reasons and aspirations?
3. Opening our eyes to the world: How and where to start the writing process?
4. Without an engine, the car goes nowhere: Exploring the rather dry, but essential ‘mechanics’ of writing.
5. Writer’s block: Is there a pill to take?
6. Rule number one: Critique, critique, critique. How do we do this? Learn how to love, and hate, our own work.
7. The writer’s ‘voice’: What makes our work unique?
8. The big bad world: What to do with the end result, or the reality of publishing and how to go about it.

Course participants should bring new best friends – Thesaurus, dictionary, laptop, pens and notebook – along with a piece of previous writing to analyse, a favourite outdoors book (be prepared to argue why), sturdy shoes or boots and suitable clothing for outdoor inspiration walks. The course will incorporate both group sessions and one-on-one interaction.

Paul Hersey is a Christchurch-based author and climber. A former newspaper journalist, Paul has had three books published on outdoor topics, and another set for release in 2013. His work has also featured in New Zealand Geographic, North and South, New Zealand Climber and Wilderness magazines, and articles are due to appear shortly in upcoming issues of Alpinist and Surfer’s Journal. More information on Paul’s writing can be found on his blog

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Te More - album by Whirimako Black and Richard Nunns

After hearing a small portion of this on National Radio, I raced out and bought the album. And I absolutely love it!

I'd describe the music as traditional Maori vocals - moteatea, or chants - along with early instruments. The result is both haunting and fully engaging. Released in 2011, the album Te More has been described as 'beautifully evocative and emotional', and I fully agree.

Prior to European contact, moteatea and waiata were considered essential for carrying knowledge for Maori through oral culture. This selection of moteatea are from the Tuhoe iwi, as well as pieces composed by Whirimako and Richard in the moteatea tradition. The work incorporates selections from early Tuhoe composer Mihi-Ki-Te-Kapua. Mihi-Ki-Te-Kapua was considered the greatest composer of the Tuhoe and Mataatua peoples.

While each moteatea deals with different stories, for me the music invokes feelings of remote landscapes forever trapped in mist. There is solitude, and loneliness. The use of taonga puoro, or traditional Maori instruments, adds to the haunting nature of it.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

'The Path Of Most Resistance' article in Climber magazine

Jono Clarke and Jamie Vinton-Boot paused briefly at their belay. Partway up the west face of Conway Peak, they tried to pick out the line they had decided on the previous day. It was the beginning of August. Fangs of ice, still with an early season sparseness about them, vamped over various gullies and rock faces. The Fox Neve curved away beneath the climbers’ feet, partially hidden by swirls of low cloud. At least it had stopped snowing.

Conway Peak is not one of the big-name mountains in the Southern Alps, but it has been the scene of a number of relatively short but difficult first ascents in recent years. ‘The Vision’, first climbed by Al Uren, was considered the hardest route to date, and given a Mount Cook grade 6+ for its technical difficulty. Uren was forced to aid the crux.
Clarke and Vinton-Boot were also in search of new terrain. The previously unclimbed gully system they had started on at first light tended right, towards the summit ridge. This was the obvious line. Instead, they had decided to veer left towards two steep, discontinuous ice streaks, and some improbable-looking mixed madness between them.
‘We wanted to push ourselves with something challenging,’ Vinton-Boot tells me afterwards. ‘So we had decided to climb towards whatever technical difficulties we could find. It was still a line, but not an obvious one in the tradition sense.’

Clarke and Vinton-Boot are no strangers to difficult terrain. Clarke is in his mid 30s and built like a loose forward. The size of his calves is legend in certain climbing circles. Over the years Clarke has been quietly ticking off the hardest winter routes in the country. Kester Brown, himself no slouch on most climbing terrain, considers Clarke to be, if not THE strongest, than certainly one of the strongest, most technically efficient alpinists to ever climb in our mountains. This is a big call, but Brown has climbed with Clarke a number of times, and has seen him dispatching routes widely considered desperate or test-piece.
There’s one pitch in particular that sticks in Brown’s mind: ‘We were up on Al's route ‘The Vision’, at the crux pitch and it was Jono's turn to lead – thank God! We didn't know it at the time, but the line Al had taken was out to the right, up a crack on a steep slab. Straight above us was a corner that went into a vertical wall and roof/chimney thing. About ten metres up, just above the roof, we could see a bolt that Al had placed. It didn't occur to us that the route went anywhere but up the corner. Jono set off, and after a few metres was in a stance beneath the steep wall. He had found no protection and so was faced with two options: commit to the tapestry of small edges on the otherwise blank rock and hope for the best; or come down. He went up. I edged around the corner to shelter myself from a potential fall. After what seemed an interminably long and tense few minutes, Jono reached the bolt and relative safety.’ Seconding the route, Brown found it ‘desperately hard’, and almost fell a number of times. He still describes that pitch by Clarke ‘as the best lead by a climber that I have ever seen’.

Vinton-Boot is a decade younger than Clarke. Strong, fit and uber motivated, he’s already made his mark with hard bouldering and rock climbing. Now he wants to help raise the standard of difficult alpinism in this country. As a team, Vinton-Boot and Clarke are quite formidable. But even they were feeling tentative as they climbed into some improbable-looking territory on Conway. The crux involved what Vinton-Boot describes as ‘hooking up a diabolical combination of thin, almost vertical ice and tiny cracks in the rock just wide enough to take a pick’. Clarke was on the sharp end and, at one point during the lead, called down that it was the hardest thing he’d ever done in the mountains. ‘Jono’s never usually that animated, so the comment certainly caught my attention,’ Vinton-Boot recalls. ‘But it wasn’t the technical difficulties that have stuck in my mind, more so the attitude we took when we chose our line and then climbed it. I will no longer be blinkered by lines of weakness when I seek new ways to climb mountains. Instead, I will seek lines of most resistance.’

Clarke and Vinton-Boot topped out on the route, which they named ‘Technospectacle’ (IV, AI5, M7). Brown considers ‘Technospectacle’ to be the most technically challenging route done in our higher mountains to date, and it has been given a Mount Cook grade 7, the first winter route with this grade and the first grade 7 without bolts.

Meanwhile down country, Queenstown has fast been turning into the Chamonix of the Southern Hemisphere; or, at the very least, a winter version of Auckland’s Quarry. And, judging by last winter, sustained and technical mixed climbing is taking off.
Daniel Joll has been in the thick of the action. With a strong sense of climbing ethics, not to mention a keen competitive streak and healthy dose of overseas experience, Joll is pushing for mixed grades to keep increasing here. He reckons New Zealand has heaps of suitable terrain, both on the lower and higher mountains. ‘We’re just getting started,’ Joll says. ‘And the key is to take this approach to longer and longer faces. There’s so much potential.’

To cap the latest winter season off, Joll and Vinton-Boot combined to climb ‘Under Pressure’ (M8), which is currently the most difficult naturally protected mixed line in New Zealand. Joll almost got the lead ground up first go.
‘The West and South Faces of Single and Double Cone are a good example of the untapped resource for multi-pitch alpine rock, ice and mixed routes that we have,’ Joll explains. ‘What really motivates me about the Remarkables is the easy access and the endless natural lines. It’s both a perfect training ground and a destination in itself.’

Joll cautions those who would underestimate the routes there. ‘To date all the major lines completed on Double Cone have ended up taking 12 to 17 hours to complete,’ he says. ‘The routes are not long by alpine standards and the combined approach and descent in good conditions can usually be done in around three or four hours. But the climbs tend to have sustained and serious pitches.’

So what’s going on here? Is this nothing more than chest-thumping rhetoric from some up and coming wannabes? Or are our technical alpine grades finally taking another leap forward?
I guess my own interest in this was instigated by a self-confessed ‘throwaway line’ from NZAC executive officer Ollie Clifton. In an effort to garner interest for the club’s AGM a few years back, Clifton suggested a discussion on something random, like…say…’the death of New Zealand alpinism’. This created quite a stir. Views bounced back and forth, but the general consensus – especially from some of the older, more established climbers – seemed to be that New Zealand mountaineering had seen its best days. Most of our challenging lines had been done. And of the new routes, none were worthy of the classics. Our current ‘elite’ were climbing well behind the standard of top overseas climbers. It was even suggested that they didn’t have the drive or the ability of past New Zealand alpinists.

Opinions are just that, and I include mine here. So, rather than trying to be definitive, this article is more of a discussion or a hinting of the possibilities ahead. My intention is to approach this in a positive light, rather than to criticise what has or hasn’t, as well as what is or isn’t, occurring.

First of all, it is important to acknowledge what has gone before. I don’t have the room to list all of our past worldly climbing achievements, but the efforts of Ed Hillary, Norman Hardie, Graeme Dingle, Bill Denz and Lydia Bradey to name a few have been well documented. And it’s reasonable to say that, given our small population and geographical isolation, we have punched above our weight at times. In recent years, Kiwi-American Marty Schmidt springs to mind in terms of world class high altitude (+8000m) achievements, as do Karen McNeil, Pat Deavoll and Julie-Ann Clyma on exploratory first ascents of lower altitude peaks. I should also mention that another Kiwi-American, Graham Zimmerman, is taking steps in the right direction with his first ascents in the Alaskan Ranges. But, in terms of recent cutting edge alpinism, there’s probably only Athol Whimp who could be considered of world-class standard. His winning the 1998 Piolet d’Or (the climbing equivalent of winning the Oscar) with Australia’s Andrew Lindblade for the 1997 first ascent of the north face of Thalay Sagar (6904m) in the Indian Himalaya was a stunning achievement. Many highly-fancied international teams had tried, and failed, on the 1500 metre high face, before Whimp and Lindblades’ success second time around.
At the time, respected Australian high altitude climber Tim Macartney-Snape considered the pair to be the leading figures in Australian and New Zealand alpinism, and certainly world class. Interestingly, Macartney-Snape pointed out that Lindblade and Whimp had ‘embraced the essence of climbing in a way that the current generation down here seems to have lost’. But this climb was over a decade ago. Linblade and Whimp are no longer ‘putting it out there’. So what’s happening now? Who’s carrying the mantle? What direction are we heading in? And can we reach those lofty heights again?

Before continuing, I feel that I need to do a quick summary. How can the ability of a climber be measured other than through the grade of a particular climb? Accurate grading is sometimes as hit and miss as finding good coffee on the road, but it still provides a measure of difficulty. New Zealand’s grading system (ie. the Mt Cook single number grade) is woefully inadequate. How can a single number represent the relative technical vagaries on rock and ice along with the level of commitment? And then there is this new ‘M’ grade.
Whereas in the past, technical difficulties were generally found on either rock or ice, now they are in the dark art of mixed climbing; which, in my view, has the potential to be the saving grace of New Zealand alpinism. Our mountains aren’t particularly high, ice is becoming increasingly fickle thanks to something called ‘the hothouse effect’, and most of our good rock is ironically – (sic) cruelly – concentrated in an area with our highest rainfall. But, it’s incorrect to think that New Zealand’s mountains aren’t steep enough. If it’s taking 12-17 hours to climb new mixed routes on the Remarkables in winter, and this is being done by climbers experienced in this technical approach overseas, imagine how long it would take to tackle this kind of terrain on, say, the east face of Pope’s Nose? In my view, we’ve only just scratched the surface.
I’d like to point out a specific example: ‘Godzone’ on the north face of Torres Peak was first climbed by Al Uren and Craig Jefferies. 16 pitches long, it was generally accepted at the time as a sustained and challenging line, especially by New Zealand alpine standards, and given a Mount Cook grade 6+. But, after recently climbing with Joll on the Remarkables, Jefferies reckons the crux of ‘Godzone’ is probably about WI4 M4. ‘Al did lead the crux with basically no gear that would have held a fall,’ Jefferies adds. ‘And it did take us three days to climb.’

This observation is not meant to belittle the efforts of Uren and Jefferies in any way, but just to illustrate how much more difficult terrain is now being tackled, and still to be tackled, in our mountains. There is certainly a valid argument that a route on Torres is more committing than anything on the Remarkables or even on Conway. Remoteness adds to the grade, or at least to the level of commitment and fitness required.
A recent comment from Brian Alder further illustrates this point. Alder is recognised as having been on the first ascent of two of our ‘hardest’ alpine routes – ‘Bill and Teds’ Excellent Adventure’ on the south face of La Perouse and ‘F___ the Pope’ on the east face of Pope’s Nose. Referring to these routes, Alder reckons the cruxes were ho harder than WI4, ‘just in a big setting and a long way from home’.
Also, it’s worth noting that difficult mixed climbing is not new to our mountains. But, due to the limitations of the Mount Cook grading system, it was not recognised or graded specifically. Routes attempted by Marty Beare and Matt Evrard in the past are examples of this, but mixed climbing was generally considered as a transition between the ice runnels, or to get somewhere to take the crampons off and climb rock. At any rate, if the likes of Joll, Clarke, Vinton-Boot and others keep applying this technical approach to longer faces, then the results will speak for themselves.

Steve Fortune is a well travelled Kiwi climber whose achievements have largely flown under the radar, especially back here. Fortune has made difficult ascents in Alaska, the European Alps, Central Asia and Scotland. After basing himself out of the United Kingdom for a number of years, Fortune has recently returned home to Christchurch.
Fortune has some interesting perspective to add, especially about any notion that New Zealand’s mountains are inferior: ‘Look at the United Kingdom. It doesn’t have large mountains, but it does have a number of icy, north-facing cliffs. This lends itself not to a mountaineering attitude, but to a cragging one, where challenge is found not by bagging peaks, but by climbing steep technical lines. The same cliffs, and often the same climbs that make difficult summer rock climbs become winter test pieces when covered in snow and rime.’

The craggy mountains of Scotland have long been recognised for churning out world-class mixed climbers, some who have gone on to apply their skills to the world’s hardest mountains. And Fortune reckons that more numbers than ever are getting out into the hills in the UK, with queues on the easy classics, hard classics seeing more repeats, and a focussed group of climbers pushing themselves and each other at the highest level.
Fortune thinks it is useful to compare rock climbing to mixed climbing, and even alpine climbing, standards. ‘Top end rock climbing standards are incredibly high,’ he points out. ‘Intense focus and accessible training venues allow people to put massive amounts of time and effort into improving their rock skills. I am quite mountain focussed, yet I still have had far more pitches of rock, or plastic, pass under my fingertips than pitches of ice or mixed under my tools. This is simply because of the accessibility. Imagine where rock climbing standards would be if all you got done was a few pitches of alpine rock once a month, if you were lucky? Now imagine where we could bring alpine standards if we applied the focus and training ethic we have on rock?’

The terrain in New Zealand means most climbers will quickly develop general mountain skills. But, due to access and weather, it can be hard to get a depth of experience on more technical terrain. Fortune believes that the new climbers coming through are on the right track. ‘A renewed focus on
developing technical skills on accessible and less weather dependent mixed crags, such as the Remarkables, in combination with developing all-round mountain skills will allow the big and hard mixed lines of the future to be tackled,’ he says. ‘Climbing in Scotland did not just give me a greater experience in climbing on mixed or thinly iced terrain. It opened my eyes to what is possible.’
Brown agrees with Fortune. ‘Climbers are becoming more training specific,’ he says. ‘And when this is added to better equipment and a change in perception about what makes a challenging climb, it becomes apparent that advances are being made here in New Zealand.’
Brown reckons that the change in attitude has in part been brought back by Kiwis like Fortune climbing overseas. ‘In terms of our approach and attitude towards technical winter and alpine climbing and training, we weren’t going in the same direction as Europe and America. But that’s starting to change.’
Jefferies says that he can ‘see the trap oldies make’ when they talk of alpinism. ‘They have based their observations on past knowledge of skills and techniques and the cultural environment of their active climbing career. I fell into this for a time. It took a serious dose of mixed climbing, technical ice and bouldering to get my head around the idea that this developing skill set can and will be applied to the high mountain routes.’

Matt Evrard has been pulling hard on rock and ice for a number of years. He has climbed with legends and newbies, and is well considered on the direction of New Zealand climbing: ‘It seems outrageous now that Dingle and Jones were the first people to climb all six north faces in Europe in a season. New Zealand alpinism really was booming on the world stage in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. So what happened? It seems the “decline” in New Zealand alpine climbing standards was basically because we just didn’t keep up! As international standards rose, ours stagnated. Initially, I thought our Alps were to blame. They lend themselves to a very 80’s style of alpinism that isn’t very technically demanding. I still think this is to blame in part. Also the access in New Zealand is a nightmare. Who wants to walk for 3 days to get 2 pitches of steep climbing on the south face if Hicks. In Europe, there would be a road and village up every valley and heaps of technical test pieces to hone your skills on. For these reasons I think we have been slow to adopt modern alpinism in the New Zealand Alps.’
Evrard recognises that, despite these limitations, our latest crop of alpinists is managing to adopt more modern techniques. ‘The modern mixed routes are very technically demanding and often bold,’ he says. ‘I have no doubt that the current climbers have the skills to easily despatch the old test pieces. I guess they think why bother.’

So what does it take to succeed internationally at this level? What’s the difference between climbing M8 on the Remarkables and climbing the north face of Thalay Sagar? According to Evrard, the difference is a ‘burning desire in your guts’ to achieve. ‘Top mountaineering is bloody hard,’ he says. ‘Athol reckons Himalayan climbing is 90% determination. Just look at the top climbers of the past. They were all intensely driven. What would you do when you’re five days out with four days food, the weather is dodgy, you are scared and tired and you know you could be back in your tent at base camp by evening and having a foot rub by your partner? Do you push on or go down?’

So where to from here? A recent article in the Climber on our last unclimbed challenges is a start. ‘Maybe the direct on Popes Nose,’ Brown suggests. ‘From seeing the photos and talking to the guys who climbed it, the direct would be a good challenge. It looks pretty steep. Maybe a portaledge will be needed. But if and when it is climbed, then a definitive statement will have been made. And the commitment level will be huge.’
But Brown is quick to point out that what Clarke, Vinton-Boot and Joll are climbing right now is worthy in its own right. ‘Let the doubters go and repeat their routes and see for themselves,’ he says. ‘Or, failing that, if you want to know what M7 feels like, go and climb ‘Grey Power’ at Wye Creek, and then imagine climbing it 4 pitches up with no bolts! That’s the crux pitch of Technospectacle.’

Meanwhile, in Queenstown, Joll is keen to increase the numbers of those following in the footsteps. He has organised a Remarkables Ice and Mixed Climbing Festival for August 2012, seeing it as an opportunity for this country’s top alpine climbers to come together in friendly competition and pass on their knowledge with some general climbing tips and instruction. Joll reckons the festival is a good way to further improve standards. ‘There’s still plenty of hard terrain left on the Remarkables,’ he says. ‘With so much potential for difficult naturally protected mixed lines in the M8 to M10 range, the development is sure to be fast paced.’ Joll is busy organising prizes for the top climbs done over the weekend, and the festival promises to be an interesting and informative get-together. Check out the website: for more details.

So, the final question: Do the climbers of today have the ‘mongrel’ to step up onto the world stage?
‘I don’t know,’ Evrard says. ‘They do have the technical prowess and they are pushing the limits where the previous generation left off. But succeeding on international test pieces is different.’
For myself, I feel that the signs are positive. No one has taken up the mantle left vacant by Athol Whimp, but the potential is there. Our guys are heading in the right direction. If they keep focussed on improving, and looking for bigger stages which inevitably means climbing overseas, the rest will take care of itself.

Monday, January 30, 2012

'Gronell Annapurna' mountaineering boot review

Finding good mountaineering boots in New Zealand can be like trying to get a table at Christchurch’s Cassells Brewery post earthquake – damn near impossible.
Reputable climbing shops might only have one or two options available. Lack of a large enough climbing market means there’s no money in it. And despite all the bru-ha-ha about getting great bargains online from overseas stores, what are your chances of getting the right size without first trying the particular model on? Boots are one item you can’t afford to get wrong.

When buying new footwear for technical mountaineering, the main things for me are fit (most important), functionality and durability. Price is also a factor but, if the other boxes are ticked, I usually bite the bullet and shell out a small fortune if that’s the only option.
So when a different climbing boot – the Annapurna from Gronell – came onto the local market, I was pretty keen to ponder its particulars. I hadn’t even heard of the brand Gronell. A quick Google search revealed an Italian company that had apparently been making climbing boots since the 1930s. And one thing worth noting was that all the boots are manufactured in Italy rather than Asia.

To the boot itself: the company’s website reckoned the Annapurna weighs around 2.2kgs for a pair of size 8s. That’s a bit heavier than the La Sportiva Karakoram Pros (1.7kgs), which are probably the closest comparison availably locally. But then the Annapurna has a thicker leather upper, much beefier rand, more warmth with its Primaloft lining, and is around $200 cheaper. Both boots take a crampon with either a toe bail or strap.
The fit is pretty similar, although the Annapurna toebox feels a little roomier, hence comfier, but is not quite as sensitive as the Karakoram Pro. So, to field testing where the proof is in the, err, pudding as they say. Starting off with a bit of heavy pack moraine bashing, the Annapurna did the job well. The boot was stable and grippy – two areas where I need all the help I can get. Later, though, I was surprised by the amount of flex in the sole. This is great in terms of walking comfort, but not so when sustained front pointing. The boot lacks a decent stiffener (shank), and so probably isn’t ideal for overly technical cramponing.

If Gronell had made the sole a bit stiffer, to match the solid upper, the Annapurna would be a great all-round alpine boot. Still, a good pass-hopping and entry level mountaineering boot, and at a decent price.

'Bold Beyond Belief: Bill Denz, New Zealand's Mountain Warrior' book review

I found it rather ironic that I was asked to review a book about one of our climbing legends at the same time as working on an article extolling the virtues of our climbers of the present. It was like I was being tested of my facts, or reminded of the toughness and bloody-mindedness that shaped much of our mountaineering history. ‘Tread carefully through these hallowed annals’ seemed to be the message.

Most climbing enthusiasts, armchair or otherwise, would agree that Bill Denz was one of our highest achieving alpinists. Before his death on Makalu in 1983, Denz had literally bludgeoned his way into climbing folklore, both here and overseas. Blunt to the point of being obnoxious, stubborn to the point of being pigheaded, Denz usually had one way of doing things – his way! Most people I’ve spoken to over the years agreed that Denz was a ‘bloody good climber’, but also that he could be ‘bloody difficult’ to get on with.

A book on Denz has been long overdue, and I was stoked to get the opportunity to review ‘Bold Beyond Belief: Bill Denz – New Zealand’s Mountain Warrior’. Yet I didn’t actually get a copy of it to review: Apparently the book was still at the printers and, in the rush to get a review in the latest ‘Climber’, I was given a final printing draft copied onto A4 paper along with a colour photocopy of the wrap. So I can’t comment on the final look or ‘feel’ of the book.

I was interested to see how Wellington author Paul Maxim tackled this project. Maxim’s previous two books, a family biography and an archival delve into Wellington aviation history, could be described as rather dry topics, whereas the Denz legacy is full of colour, grit and healthy characterisation. But it quickly became apparent that ‘Bold Beyond Belief’ had been thoroughly researched. It is jammed with information, quotes and anecdotes. After a forward by Greg Child (who never had that much to do with Denz, but did write about him and is a famous author) and introduction by Maxim, each of the 14 chapters starts with either a quote or a short scene setting of a particular climb or event.

It seems most of Denz’s climbs have been referred to: from his formative years in Aoraki Mount Cook and the Darrans through to the big walls in Yosemite, on to Alaska, South America and the Himalaya. And what surprised me was Denz’s methodical approach to higher and harder climbing. Early on in the book, Maxim picks up on the fact that ‘not only did Denz want to be the best climber of his day, he wanted to be the best that New Zealand had ever produced’. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Denz stuck his neck out for women climbing, criticising the Canterbury Mountaineering Club for not allowing female members, and trying to get the club to change its policy. The hardened climber also had a sense for what was right.

I’m not sure if it was deliberate, but Maxim’s language usage is in what I would define as the classic mountaineering style, almost to the point of being swashbuckling. Phrases like ‘an uncut jewel for all to see from the lofty surrounds’, ‘the boldness of the line and the dashing style of its execution’, and ‘victory was theirs’, could be considered a bit clichĂ© in modern literature terms. I acknowledge that Maxim, either by choice or necessity, has gone with self-publishing the book. This brings about its own set of challenges in the editing process.

But there are plenty of gritty moments, and Maxim has depicted these well. From my perception, Denz was someone who surrounded himself with the best climbers he could muster, and then go for the gnarliest line he could find. Maxim has captured the tenacity within these climbing relationships by using extended quotes from others, along with Denz’s own writing. Black and white photos are spaced throughout the work, along with a selection of colour prints in the middle. Also, at the end of the book, there is a section of obituaries and tributes, along with a list of Denz’s climbs.

This book is less a critical assessment of Denz, and more an extended memorial towards him. As Maxim writes in the introduction, ‘this book details the life of a most extraordinary New Zealander who touched the lives of so many people and inspired a whole new generation of mountaineers, amongst them yours truly. It is my hope that this work captures the essence and greatness of this remarkable New Zealander, Bill Denz.’ Personally, I would have enjoyed more of the former, but it proved an interesting and worthwhile read all the same.