Going high, Julia Millen

To the Mountains: A Collection of New Zealand Alpine Writing
Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey (eds)
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781988531205

Since the arrival of Pacific peoples, New Zealand’s mountains have enthralled and enchanted. Māori revered the craggy peaks from afar while they forged ways through the hinterland. The first European explorer, Abel Tasman, sailing to the Southern Ocean in 1642, recorded the sighting of “a large land, uplifted high”. Captain Cook’s crew were bent on “conquest” in more ways than one. This collection features the 1998 re-enactment by 13 climbers of the 1773 ascent of Mt Sparrman in Fiordland, made by a party from Cook’s second voyage on the Resolution.

Compilers Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey have been creative and thorough. Combing through 150 years of archives, unpublished and published sources (notably the New Zealand Alpine Journal, first issued in March 1892), they have chosen 79 extracts from 66 contributors. Fearnley notes that their 372-page selection features the recurring themes of exploration and discovery and “crisscrosses time, place, gender, age and genre”. She might have added “ethnicity”: I particularly enjoyed Rangi Faith’s poem Castle Hill. Factual accounts, fiction, poetry, memoirs, letters and diaries are organised within a four-section structure: Approach, Climb, Epic and Reflection. Writing styles are distinctive, emphasising the colourful, often eccentric, personalities which abound in the alpine world. 

The earliest excerpt presented is James Cowan’s story of the rangatira Raureka. With one companion, a slave, she crossed the southern divide from west to east by way of a pass, now known as Browning, which is part of the popular Three Passes route in Arthur’s Pass National Park. Cowan writes: “Cold and hunger, daily risk of death were the lot of the first explorers and gold-prospectors.” Also among early visitors were those who came to conquer in a different way – by conversion – and braved the terrain. In this selection we find the Reverend Richard Taylor’s 1853 trek with “natives” to reach a high point above the snowline of Ruapehu. Early settlers and pioneers, many of whom – by their very nature – were tough and adventurous, explored mountain regions for the hell of it. It is notable that records held by the New Zealand Alpine Club go back to 1864.

By the late 19th century, the Southern Alps had become a tourist destination for the British middle class, keen to experience what contributor Jonathan Scott describes as “the southern religion of the unput foot”, and tackle virgin peaks. These visitors provided paid work for local climbers, Māori and Pākehā, as guides. Australian-born Freda du Faur’s account of her first traverse (with guides Peter and Alexander Graham) of Sefton in 1913 is complemented by Jack Cox’s lively portrayal of a novice guide’s travails at the Hermitage in 1929.    

Prolific alpine explorer and writer, John Pascoe, appears in the collection with his 1932 reconnaissance on Mt Evans. His now classic Unclimbed New Zealand, published in 1939, was the first of many books, written in an accessible style, which whetted the appetite of a generation of youthful aspirants. All would-be alpinists were given a huge boost by Edmund Hillary’s 1953 ascent of Everest with Tenzing. The compilers include a letter written by Hillary from Everest Base Camp. I particularly noted his first view of “the ghastly summit ridge”.    

When I lived in Christchurch in the late 1960s it seemed that climbers – many of them engineering students – were heroes, risking life and limb in mountain rescues, with drama and tragedy celebrated in – somewhat ribald – song and story. In those so-called “golden days”, when there were still “virgin” peaks, faces and traverses waiting to be “de-flowered”, Norman Hardie was one of the seniors, respected for Himalayan achievements. His record of the first successful Kanchenjunga climb in 1955 exhibits the prosaic, slightly careful prose of the older generation. Astonishing also to compare the massive logistical resources required by early expeditions – 300 porters and 40 Sherpas – with the later, more favoured and streamlined “alpine” style: small light independent groups (SLIGs).  In marked contrast is the colloquial freshness of contributors such as Brin Williman, one of many who headed up to Arthur’s Pass to “give the mountain a go”, at the same time wondering why they were there in that inhospitable terrain.

Among the rich and varied samples, I was pleased to find Derek Chinn, son of old friends Barbara and Trevor Chinn from my Canterbury days. His breezy rendition of a 2004 Everest climb shows the typical laid-back Kiwi spirit. Also prominent at that time in the Alpine Club (Canterbury) were Jim and Margaret Clark, who had a formative influence on younger members. Margaret took Lydia Bradey up Mount Aspiring, her first serious, 3000-metre peak. I was amused to read of Lydia’s reaction on discovering, early in her climbing career, that the Canterbury Mountaineering Club was then “men-only”. It reminded me that because of this “no women” rule, Janet Gough and I, tired after skiing the Tasman Glacier, had to camp out on the moraine, despite there being spare bunks at Wyn Irwin Lodge. 

It is fitting that, as well as the fearsome, glaciated terrain, hazardous river crossings, crevasses, avalanches and the fickle weather, selected extracts illustrate psychological attributes. An essential element of mountaineering is the camaraderie, along with implicit trust and mental toughness for coping with danger, failure and exhaustion. Many readers will empathise with Andrew Lindblade’s depiction: “I stopped every 20 steps and leant over on my knees to rest … I was even too shattered to take my pack off.” Most climbing endeavours assembled here are set in New Zealand, with a few from Nepal (naturally), China and North America. I was disappointed not to read about one of the many Kiwi climbs in South America. Also, a couple of extracts are insufficiently referenced: “J. Walton, 1963” has no accompanying notes and, for Thom Conroy‘s piece from The Naturalist, I had to consult Google to ascertain that this novel was based on the life of Dr Ernst Dieffenbach, who came to New Zealand in 1849. 

A collection of alpine writing inevitably contains drama and tragedy which, in a macabre way, heightens its fascination for the reader. Apprehensive awareness of mortality is depicted in Philip Temple’s poem Fire and Ice (“will we ever come out of this alive”), while a contributor notes that climbers should aim to appear in the front pages of the New Zealand Alpine Journal, not with the many, grim, obituaries at the back. Another friend, Peter Gough, writes with self-deprecating, Kiwi understatement of one of his more spectacular – and in retrospect almost “funny” – experiences. On an ice climb in the Adirondacks, in New York state: “The whole damn ice slope fell off. I recall a desperate self-arrest – which was pretty silly as the entire cliff was collapsing around us. This is what it is like to die.” 

Compiler Hersey writes: “Climb in the mountains for long enough and you will likely lose a friend, a partner, a loved one.” For there have been several losses: one was the death of my first husband’s climbing partner after a fall on Mount Silberhorn. I have also realised, in retrospect, that on occasion I’d “cheated death”. In 1966, I was in a party of four from the Tararua Tramping Club, climbing in the Sealy Range of the Aoraki/Mount Cook region. We were engulfed by a frightful storm and spent two nights and a day cooped up in Three Johns Hut on the Barron Saddle. While the hut shook, groaned and rattled, we hoped and prayed that the steel guy ropes would hold. Hersey recounts in detail a later trip in the same location, which ended in tragedy. In January 1977, four members of the Wanganui Tramping Club sheltered from severe weather in Three Johns Hut. Searchers later discovered that the hut had not only been completely wrecked, but literally blown away, killing all four occupants.  

With age, and the acquisition of wisdom, climbing may become less about heroism, or “peak-bagging”, and more about, as Rob Kettels writes, “feeling alive and connecting with the human spirit”, or just gratitude at having survived. In stark contrast with the action-packed pieces, the compilers have gathered several more philosophical writings. W Scott Gilkison, a former president of the New Zealand Alpine Club and veteran of 16 first ascents, writes about “swagging”: more usually called tramping or backpacking: “The perfect expedition is that in which both swagging days and climbing days and real lazy days are all featured, and a proper combination of all these spells a very delightful holiday.”  

A keen mountaineer once said to me, “climbing is mostly enjoyable in retrospect” and this collection is, indeed, tinged with that essence of nostalgia. Designed to provide the reader not only with immediate pleasure, but also leave them wanting to explore further, both the mountains and the literature, this book succeeds admirably. 

Writer and biographer Julia Millen has tramped and climbed in most of New Zealand’s mountain ranges. Some of her more humorous exploits appear in Fair Weather Trampers: In the New Zealand Bush with the Cock and Bull Tramping Club. 

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