A new Kiwi literary collection captures the allure of the mountains

by Geoff Chapple / 08 August, 2018
Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - To the Mountain alpine anthology

To the Mountains displays the greatest appeal of the alpine writing genre: most of it was written by people who could have died gathering the raw material. 

A climber writes to his mates proposing a do-or-die summer assault on the dangerous Ramsay Face of Mt Whitcombe. “It’s all or nothing, the front pages or the back.” Of the New Zealand Alpine Journal, that is: the front pages document the most spectacular climbs of the season; the back pages carry the obituaries.

The letter, quoted in To the Mountains, a new anthology of alpine writing, perfectly captures the allure of mountain literature: it’s about people who put their lives at risk. They just go for it, and when they write, the dangers and stress they face can’t fail to make a good read.

But the two editors, Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey, are more inclusive than that. We follow a 13-year-old girl, roped up to her surveyor dad, reaching the top of the Mackinnon Pass in 1889 on the newly emerging Milford track. She’s an observant kid, who notes the robin that perches on her dad’s theodolite, and his hat. Dad names a tarn after her – Lake Ella – and she’s a good read, too.

So is Jill Tremain who, during her epic 1971 traverse of the Southern Alps with Graeme Dingle, takes time out to pen a hilarious apology to a fellow female alpinist for nicking her food stash at Murchison Hut. Elsewhere Ed Hillary writes from base camp after climbing Everest to his girlfriend’s father, and president of the New Zealand Alpine Club, Jim Rose. The angles here are new, the vision fresh.

Laurence Fearnley.

The 79 short excerpts include poems and, somewhat experimentally, five fictional extracts. Climbing descriptions range from the technical, to rock climbing or scrambling, and include overseas expeditions. They range across male and female mountaineers, well- and little-known. Pre-contact and post-contact Māori mountaineers get a run, and an excerpt from James Cowan’s 1935 Hero Stories of New Zealand marks the first known trek across the Alps by Raureka, a 17th-century chieftainess of the West Coast tribe Ngāti Wairangi.

Such diversity needs shape, and the editors divide the book into four sections. Approach includes housekeeping on glaciers, and the low peaks that beckon a novice climber into more testing landscapes. The Climb section is mostly summit-bound, and Epic records experiences in the toughest extremes.

The lonely scream of sheer existential joy we encounter earlier in the book echoes through this section – “F---ing yeeaahh!!” – but the flip side can be grim. Hersey revisits the northwesterly storm of January 1977 that shakes Three Johns Hut on Barron Saddle. The guy wires begin to snap, the hut starts dancing about, finally lifting off, with four Wanganui Tramping Club friends trapped inside. They will die in the dashed wreckage.

Paul Hersey.

The co-editors are writers themselves, and their selections favour prose that, either by circumstance or natural talent, has standout power. I’d instance Allen Uren’s White as a Sheet as just such a tightly rendered classic but the book’s final section, Reflection, has some of the very best: Fleur Adcock’s poem, Flight, with Mountains, for David Herron, killed by an avalanche in the French Alps in 1960, and Aat Vervoorn’s lament for alpine guide Bruce Jenkinson.

The book notes that some extracts have retained their idiosyncratic spellings and grammar, but there are actual slip-ups, too: the cover photographer’s name is spelt two different ways; there’s a “tip” for “trip” in Fearnley’s first Lydia Bradey excerpt and a “waked” for “walked” in Bob McKerrow’s Māori Mountaineers of South Westland, misspellings that aren’t in the original works. An ice climber describes his scientist boss as so high-ranking that when he enters the room, even four-star Pentagon generals will “touch their fetlocks”.

These are small irritations, though. It’s a beautifully produced book, with a buckram hardcover, and the price is a steal. It’ll last 100 years, or until the top falls once more off Aoraki Mt Cook.

As to overall content, I’d say only that it caused a commotion in our household. Must-read bits got handed back and forth. Maps got spread, the magnifying glass brought to bear, computers fired up.

An excerpt by one of New Zealand’s best-known mountaineering writers, John Pascoe, credits an exquisite photograph in a 1908 Geological Survey as the source of his lifelong enchantment with the squat and formidable Mt Evans, and a web search turned up that exact survey, and that exact photograph.

Some of the routes described are traced on mountain flanks online, including that Ramsay Face climb completed in 1962 by Mike Gill, Ian Cave, John Nicholls and Phil Houghton. The one that made the front pages of the Alpine Journal, and has never been repeated. In short, there are days of clagged-in winter reading and wonder here.

TO THE MOUNTAINS: A COLLECTION OF NEW ZEALAND ALPINE WRITING (Otago University Press, $45)

Laurence Fearnley talks about the anthology at the WORD Christchurch Festival on September 1.

This article was first published in the July 14, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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