Asked after a six-day non-stop adventure race through the mountains around Mt Aspiring, “Was it fun?” can only be answered with a certain amount of internal amusement. Such intense experiences in the mountains cannot be summed up into small packages that the uninitiated can easily understand. “Was it fun?” is a difficult question to even ask yourself, let alone explain to another.
The constant battle against the wet and the cold, sleep deprivation, injuries and full-body soreness that comes from pushing yourself to extremes through night and day does not reckon well against the contemporary definition of fun. It’s fun with a time-delay. Days, weeks, or even months later once the memory of suffering has faded, all that remains is something deeply profound.
Joy in the Mountains
But pure fun can be found despite the slog and the suffering.
The bliss of skiing un-tracked powder from Temple Col in Arthurs Pass.
The thrill of swinging an axe into alpine ice with a resounding thunk.
Emerging from a frosty snow cave in the Seaward Kaikouras to witness the sun breaking over the Pacific Ocean.
Topping out on an un-climbed granite wall in the Paparoa Ranges.
Staring out to the Milford Sounds from the summit of Sabre Peak in the heart of Fiordland.
Bum sliding frozen avalanche chutes down the Otira Slide of Mt Rolleston.
The joy of the perfect view from a hard-earned summit.
These moments are great, but it’s the moments that push us out of comfort zones and force us to search a little deeper that make a story worth telling.
Brushes with fatality
Climbing the sheer granite walls of Fiordland, the consequences of an error is no more real. Shaking on a smeary left foot and gripping the shallow flake, my partner carefully selected the smallest cam hanging from his harness and inserted the lobes into the damp, flaring crack. He clipped the rope through the slung carabiner. In the grips of the rock, he was now committed to the move. But one subtle adjustment of body weight was enough to upset the tender balance of climbing rubber traction and gravity. Feet cut, he plummeted.
I locked the rope tight, watching in horror as the cam ripped, and he continued falling out of view until the rope jolted taut. Then silence. Long mumbled groans broke the cold air of the Darran Mountains. He hobbled into view and beckoned me to bring him down, desperate to be lowered to safety. Rolling up his pants, I winced as yellow skin was now stained scarlet. More leg revealed more gore - a perfect V-gash two inches wide, skin stretched open to expose bloody tissue and bone.
Cuts and bruises heal in a matter of weeks or months, but how long does it take to rebuild the damaged mental tissue that comes by the experience of a damaging fall in the mountains?
Death is a reality of life. But does a personal brush against the fatality of the mountains persuade one to give it all up for the safety of something more secure? How close are we willing to step towards the edge before giving it all up?
I asked a dark figure crunching across the frozen glacier of the Grand Plateau if he had a spare set of batteries; my headlamp had run out. “Sorry mate, only double A’s… the moon’s about to come up, you’ll be right…” I could see the glint of the half moon rising above the Tasman glacier, and thanked them as the pair continued towards the East Ridge of Aoraki/Mt Cook.
As fate would prevail that day, it would turn out to be his last climb. He was an experienced mountaineer, but the mountains had rolled their dice that day. We had planned to ascend our country’s highest peak the following day, but after hearing the harrowing news of this man’s fall, our party of three was now split. Conditions were the best they had been all season. Continue to the summit, or pay heed to the signs?
A decision to be made now or never, mountains will always claim lives and logic says the risk tomorrow is no different from the risk today. The next day, we enjoyed the taste of our country’s highest summit. But it was not without much introspection.
Experience the real New Zealand
We’d spent a perfect winter’s day in Arthurs Pass climbing the steep and icy Crow face of Mt Rolleston. Later, I shared a photo of first rays piercing the jagged horizon as my friends traversed a narrow ice ridge above a sea of clouds; an inspiring scene. Somehow the photo made its way onto Reddit with the title: “Tired of politics? I present the real New Zealand.” Comments flooded.
Answers to this valid question were abstract at best.
“Because you're deluding yourself into thinking we're not a tiny population of mountaineers desperately clinging to existence on rugged peaks with very little in the way of proper shelter and sustenance. It's a common problem when people go mountain crazy. They start imagining things like grass, sheep, bucket fountains, political corruption, elections, cities, cars, posts on websites, and houses. You just have to accept that this is all a fantasy you're living out to escape from the harsh reality you exist in. You have to let go of the dreams of an idyllic existence and accept you live on a mountain, and there is only the mountain. You're not reading this, and I never typed it. The reality is, you're on a mountain. Accept reality. Accept the mountain.”
New Zealand is a relatively small country, amassed with a relatively large number of mountain and wilderness areas, yet only a statistical few manage to experience the raw beauty of the hills, let alone understand why others put themselves through such hardship. According to a recent Active New Zealand Survey, the participation rate of tramping is 9.7%, yet for climbing and mountaineering is almost unsurprisingly less than 1%. The pursuit of New Zealand’s high peaks will most likely continue to be a niche sport here – the gear and instruction can be expensive, the dangers are well publicised in the media, and the fun to suffering ratio can be hard to cope with at first.
Navigating the moraine and white ice of the Tasman Glacier in white-out, followed by climbing thousands of metres up loose rock and wet snow certainly drained us and forced us to ask questions, like “Why do we do this to ourselves?” We try to return ourselves an answer, but the reply is drowned out by the roar of another rock avalanche and serac-collapse in the chaotic Hochstetter ice-fall far below.
The summit: a paradigm shift
On the summit, there was a feeling of incredible remoteness and of being at complete mercy to the mountains as the sun glared, rich and golden in the western horizon, glowing through the dense clouds of an approaching storm…
The city that we’d left that morning could not have felt further away. Without exchanging any words, we knew we were experiencing a classical mountaineering moment.