T. 97, To the Mountains: A collection of New Zealand alpine writing, selected by Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey

To the Mountains: A collection of New Zealand alpine writing, selected by Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey

Dunedin: Otago University Press, 2018)
RRP: $45.00. Hb, 372pp
ISBN: 9781988531205
Reviewed by Mary Cresswell


New Zealand has been very lucky in its alpine writers – that they exist, and that they are published. Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey have assembled a collection of the best in their anthology To the Mountains. Many of the selections come from the New Zealand Alpine Club (which has been publishing since 1891); others represent a wide range of publishers, in New Zealand and elsewhere.

To begin with the physical side: The book is hardback, bound so that it opens comfortably for the reader. There are four main sections: Approach, Climb, Epic, Reflection. First-class photographs illustrate each section and the cover. There is a potted biography of each contributor, often linking to the incident that has been abstracted, rather than just dates. The sources are well referenced in a section that gives you a good idea of the impressive record racked up by New Zealand mountaineers.

And we start them young: Rebecca Smith races out of school for a climbing weekend plus encouraging advice for short climbers (“…you will have to walk three times as fast and plug all your own steps … but it’s worth it!” (p 31). In 1889, eleven-year-old Elinor Adams did the Milford Track: “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!” (p 33)

Forrestina Ross (among others) laments modern-day softness. “Nowadays [1890] a paternal Government has provided comfortable huts stocked with food and blankets. We were pioneers, however …” (p 48)

In 1894, Joseph O’Leary, Miner, Cardrona Lake County describes an ostensibly impromptu ascent of Mt Earnslaw by a hotel party comprising “Miss Price, a lady from England” and three members of the Alpine Club, “having left their Buggie at the Rees Gorge” in mid-morning of the Wednesday. They returned to the buggy mid-day Friday, after living on tea and a leg of mutton Mr O’Leary happened to have with him. The party was considerably the worse for wear, and the intrepid Mr O’Leary expertly chivvied them through the Thursday night:

“We could not stay long. The piercing wind and cold made us think of returning so leaving their cards in match box…we collected the former momentos [sic] left by Ross and party of my last visit, and left the top at ¼ past 3 o’clock. I gave my pocket handkerchief to Mrs Price to tie round her hand and to prevent the rock and shingle from cutting her hand as she sometimes fell. … I done all I could to keep them moving never resting more than 10 minutes we reached the camp at 11 o’clock at night…” (pp 101-105)

O’Leary (brother of Arawhata Bill and a lad for the main chance) asks that any account Mrs Price might write to “Home Journals” be sent on to him; he ends by blowing a hearty raspberry to Forrestina Ross: “This will be a blow to [her]. She is supposed to be the best Alpine Lady Climber in New Zealand.”

Other climbers (those who lived to tell the tale) planned scrupulously and carefully. Their attention to detail carried over in some descriptive accounts, along with full knowledge of what they were letting themselves in for. Kim Logan’s 1965 account of the first winter ascent of South Face of Sabre says:

“Up 7 a.m., gear sorted out, packs weighing about 40 lbs. Gone by 8:15 a.m. … 2½ hours bush walk with knee deep snow. Made fast time over Lake Marian. 100 mm of ice on the surface which saved half an hour walking around the lake.  … By supper time the temperature was down to -5o C. Nothing much was said. Five minutes conversation in 3 hours. You can lie down in the bivvy and look directly up at the South Face. It’s the most evil face I have ever seen, able to crush your mind before you set foot on it.” (p 198)

Many of the accounts are “the first ascent of X” – understandably more exciting than following in someone else’s footsteps, though perhaps this is due to editorial bias, either of the editors here or of the Alpine Club journal over the years. Whichever way, a first ascent is a conquest. In 1958, John Pascoe laments covering 20 miles and losing 5,600 feet of altitude, “somewhat of a contrast to the previous season in the Mathias when we had cleaned up thirteen virgins in two days”. (p 307)

So much of mountaineering shown us here defies words. Aat Vervoorn describes his growing concern as he looks for a fellow climber – when night is about to fall, he finds him, dead. In his account, Vervoorn immediately backs off into an inanimate world of sharp and brittle pain:

“That night the stars froze against the silhouettes of the mountains. Cold fell on the stones of the valley and the leafless thickets of ribbon-wood, until water congealed and the air shattered into fragments; needle ice pierced the earth. Over the glaciers a wind sprang up. It picked up the dust of the rocks ground fine by the ice and swirled it, clouds of darkness in darkness, above the fast-flowing waters braiding their way to the sea. Only the sound of the river echoed through the silence, rebounding from the cliffs and valley walls to lose itself in the inaudible hum of the slow-turning galaxy.” (p 286)

So what is the appeal of climbing? Why do people do this? “Because it’s there” is a cop-out, whether or not Leigh-Mallory actually said it; it’s too low a common denominator. All eighty of the selections in this collection, written for various reasons and at various times after the fact, circle (but don’t define) an extraordinary total experience – but I suspect this is about as close as we are going to get. As long as mountaineers endure the unspeakable in order to experience the indescribable, we outsiders can but wish them safe passage – and content ourselves with books like this elegant and excellent anthology.

Mary Cresswell is from Los Angeles and lives on the Kapiti Coast. Fish Stories, a collection of ghazals and glosas, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2015 and Field Notes was published by Mākaro Press in 2017. See also her page at the NZ Book Council.