To the Mountains: A collection of New Zealand alpine writing selected by Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey (Otago University Press, 2018), 372 pp., $45
New Zealand is a mountainous land, so it’s hardly surprising that landscape often shapes our literature. Think of Mulgan’s protagonist Johnson, a fugitive traipsing through the Kaimanawa Ranges in Man Alone. But what of those who deliberately choose to go to the mountains: for exploration, for challenge, for rejuvenation?
Otago-based writers Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey have carefully selected material for To the Mountains, the only anthology of New Zealand alpine writing to appear in over three decades. Like the threads of a climbing rope, they blend historic writing with modern, vivid accounts of epic climbs with thoughtful contemplation, and the voices of men with women, Māori with Pākehā, children with adults. This is no random collection, but a considered compilation structured into four themes – ‘Approach’, ‘Climb’, ‘Epic’ and ‘Reflection’ – which mimic a mountaineer’s journey.
Like any good mountaineering partnership, both editors bring different strengths and experiences to the book, resulting in a rich miscellany. Fearnley, a well-known novelist who has often used landscape to great effect in her books, wanted the collection to be as broad as possible. So we read of 13-year-old Eleanor Adams who joined her father on a tramp over the Milford Track in 1889. Of the precipitous Mackinnon Pass she recalled, ‘Looking down the thousands of feet into the valley we had left was awe-inspiring. The only way I could look was to lie down flat and pull myself to the edge of the cliff and get my Father to hold my ankles!’
While Māori have written far less about mountaineering, we learn about Raureka’s first crossing of the Southern Alps through the words of historian James Cowan, and of South Westland’s Māori mountain guides in a fascinating essay by Bob McKerrow. These and other extracts navigate a nicely chronological route through the early part of the book, providing a sense of the development of New Zealand climbing. And sometimes this history is told through fiction: the tale of Ernst Dieffenbach’s ascent of Taranaki in 1839 is drawn from Thom Conroy’s novel about the German naturalist.
Early climbers usually came from the educated wealthy classes who had enough money and time to spend weeks in the mountains. However some guides, such as Joseph O’Leary, were working class. In wonderfully colloquial language, including some inventive spelling, he describes an 1894 ascent of Mount Earnslaw, where the cold winds were like ‘a stepmother’s breath’. The party included two women, who wore ‘beautiful’ long dresses. While scrambling through an area of ‘Burrnt Timber’ one of the men ripped the seat of his trousers, and everyone became ash-blackened. ‘Miss May’s white dress I can’t well describe. Mrs. Price’s black dress by this time well covered with Bidybids began to look in poor condition having lost several pieces of braid …’
Fearnley and Hersey have chosen extracts as much for their language as for their location or action. Take Doreen Pickens’ description of South Westland during the approach to a climb: ‘blue bush, blue cliffs, ragged ridges, and rushing torrents; a land of sharply interlocking spurs, deep gorges, and, above all, a land of shadows; tree shadows, mountain shadows, and the ever-present shadows of clouds’.
Hersey, an accomplished mountaineer who has made first ascents both here and overseas, brings a solid knowledge of New Zealand’s recent climbing history and mountain literature. Mountaineering, by its very nature, is dangerous, and attracts daring individuals – often with egos to match. The editors have been brave enough to ignore some writers and instead include more than one piece from others. So readers are treated with extracts from both of Aat Vervoorn’s books, rightly considered classics. The first, from Mountain Solitudes, tells how, on a solo traverse over Mt Gladiator, Vervoorn found his way through a snowstorm by following the tracks of a thar: ‘Their skill at route-finding is such that when my decisions coincide with thar mountain sense I feel proud and pleased with myself.’ The second considers the death of his friend Bruce Jenkinson, from Beyond the Snowline: ‘For death was always imminent in the rhythm of our days, in a dangerous move or falling stone, waiting to touch us on the shoulder.’
Another braid of the book is the way pieces echo each other, across place or time. When John Pascoe set off in 1934 to climb Mt Evans at the head of the Whitcombe Valley, he was inspired and informed by an earlier surveyor’s photo of this formidable peak. A later piece by Rob Kettels describes his difficult solo climb of Silberhorn, weaving through schrunds and crevasses. On the way up he took pictures at each obstacle using his digital camera, and later consulted these images to navigate his way back down. Different mountains, different times, but a camera played a crucial role in the ascent of both peaks. Likewise, friends and climbing partners Philip Temple and Brian Turner offer paired poems that mirror each other.
The anthology aspires to a pleasing gender balance, countering what has traditionally been a male dominated sphere. Forrestina Ross, the first female member of the New Zealand Alpine Club, relates her Southern Alps honeymoon: ‘It did not matter how aristocratic one’s back was, it had to bear the burden.’ She recalls a kea stew ‘made with many onions and much pepper’ cooked on a ‘gipsy fireplace’. Ida Corry describes descending Franz Josef Glacier in the dark, her climber partner nursing a broken leg. Their teeth chattering, she started singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’. Then a huge rock avalanche thundered nearby, invisible in the darkness: ‘we could only see the sparks flying in the darkness as the rocks crashed together’.
A similarly good balance exists between well known and original material. Some extracts are like old boots, nicely worn and familiar – such as Graeme Dingle’s account of an avalanche from his book Two Against the Alps. Others are fresh and sharp, like new crampons. Rebecca Smith’s ‘Young, Short and Loving It’ is a good example of the latter. The editors have made original choices even from Ed Hillary’s work: instead of using an extract from any of the famous beekeeper’s many autobiographies, they opted instead for a candid letter he wrote to his future father-in-law just days after his Everest success: ‘Well all the flurry and bustle is over, all the hard work is finished and at long last we’ve climbed the jolly mountain.’ His other appearance is as a character from Fearnley’s novel, The Hut Builder.
Another joy of To the Mountains is revisiting authors whose books I had forgotten were so well written. These include Michael Gill, Graeme Dingle, Pat Deavoll, Andrew Lindblade and Jonathan Scott. It’s like finding a piece of pounamu among the schist, one that perhaps wasn’t so obvious until you felt its weight and saw it polished in this collection. Humour surfaces too, sometimes glinting darkly. Take an extract from Mountain Midsummer, when Gill’s mate contemplates a first ascent of the notoriously steep and unstable Ramsay Face of Mt Whitcombe: ‘It’s the front pages of the Alpine Journal or the back,’ he quips. The front of the journal of course featured audacious climbs, while the back was reserved for obituaries.
Every anthology has omissions. I would have liked to see an extract from one of Paul Powell’s books to replace the anonymous piece ‘Ngauruhoe’, in which I found little value.
The Epic section, however, includes some edge-of-the-ledge reading, not a dud among them. Examples include Kim Logan’s visceral account of climbing Fiordland’s Sabre during winter, where you can feel the cold claim your bones. Guide Mark Whetu writes a harrowing account of trying and failing to save his client after reaching the summit of Everest just before dark. J. Walton’s story of a rock avalanche that partially destroyed Pioneer Hut, killing one occupant and trapping another, starts so innocuously that the result is all the more disarming. But just as the armchair adventurer starts to feel a bit too exposed, humour emerges again. Peter Gough’s account of his fall in the Adirondack Mountains shows that accidents can have as much absurdity as pathos. Injured and upside down on a frozen face, and entangled with another party, Gough has to convince one of the other climbers not to cut the rope.
‘Cut the rope,’ she pleaded. ‘No! No! Don’t cut the rope,’ I countermanded. [Later] ‘Cut the rope.’ Her voice was becoming faint. ‘Hit her over the head,’ I told my companion.
This handsome hardback has high production values, including a striking monochrome cover image showing a climber high on Aoraki. Photographs are used to sparing effect as section dividers with the editors rightly keeping the focus on words. Notes provide background about the authors.
To the Mountains is that best of all anthologies: one underpinned with thought, effort and care, but wearing the depth of its research lightly. Using an excellent choice and order of extracts, it simply lets the writing gleam and shine.
SHAUN BARNETT is the editor of Backcountry, the quarterly bulletin of the Federated Mountain Clubs.