Thursday, October 4, 2007

Challenge and Fear

I would never presume my mountain explorations as being anything more than what I take from them. The Ruahines themselves would perhaps by some be laughed at in terms of difficulty, or in presenting any real technical mountaineering problems. Although to offer a quick aside, George Lowe, who was with Edmond Hillary on the 1953 first climb of Mt. Everest, was an accomplished mountaineer in his own right, and crucial in opening up the Lhotse face which ultimately opened the way to success, was a Hawkes Bay lad who learned the basics of mountain craft in the Ruahines before moving onto bigger challenges. A very much unsung Kiwi hero in my humble opinion. Also in the 1930's, during winters of extremely heavy snowfalls many of these early modern pioneering Kiwi mountaineers practiced their soon to be world class ice work skills on the sheer bluffs and drops of Sawtooth ridge.

That aside, the Ruahines would by no means be considered lofty classic peaks, with difficult technical routes, or challenging peaks yet to be climbed, or vast areas of unexplored terrain left to yet be explored. I have tramped there many times in winter over the past 13 years without crampons or ice axe and rope. There is a plethora of huts to stay in, most located in sublime spots, and if one has good gear, plenty of food, and some sort of shelter, and is reasonably experienced, chances are one's tramp would be completed without any strife at all. It is really a place for trampers, not mountaineers.

Yet in my time there I have been late getting out 3 times, once with my son Taylor when we ran out of time and daylight on the Makaroro river and decided to stay at Barlow hut, and twice solo due to weather, once in Pohangina valley at Ngamoko hut, once this past winter in a blizzard at Top Maropea. All three times making the decision was pretty straight forward, with Taylor a long way to go and a tired 9 year old boy, at Ngamoko simply trying to wait out gale force winds up on unfamiliar tops, and at Top Maropea knowing I would probably die if I carried on from the hut in a gale force blizzard. There was no real fear involved, perhaps a bit of unease at putting Tara on edge being overdue - but we have worked out a pretty good system over the years. Learning that time and the elements always hold the upper hand in any mountains is just one the basic lessons to be learned.

Fear, however, is a different kettle of fish. My original thoughts in this writing were simply to indicate that most mountaineers, or even trampers, would perhaps never experience fear in the Ruahines, blazing on through flooded rivers, sheer spurs and ridges, and climbing down water falls with out a care in the world. Had I been born here in Palmerston North and discovered the mountains at a young age - which I have little doubt I would have - then I might put myself in that class. I might have moved on beyond the Ruahines, as most do, to look for other challenges. But I was not born here, I came to the mountains late, in my mid thirties, with much to learn and no reference to build upon except to get out and try. Somewhere in that learning process the Ruahines took on a much deeper meaning to me than just a place to tramp and so I return there again and again, for both practical and spiritual purposes. The challenges I find there are enough for me, I missed those years elsewhere. They certainly were not wasted, exploring the brooding beauty and immenseness of the Boundary Waters in Minnesota and Canada, camping in the wonderful coniferous forests and bountiful lakes of Wisconsin, and the huge National Parks of the western states. Yet my soul is home in the Ruahines. Why I do not know, part of the reason of this blog is to find that out if I can.

So I do find learning about the mountains, traveling in them, discovering
new aspects of them, to be a challenge. Learning to navigate in open untracked country was a challenge, to trust my growing experience was a challenge, to head down unknown, to me, rivers was a challenge. To extend my rudimentary bush craft skills was a challenge. Learning to venture out solo was perhaps my biggest challenge, and a topic I will at some stage address on its own merits. None of these involved fear, apprehension, yes, but not gut wrenching, adrenaline producing, shaking fear. I have experienced that sort of fear 3 times in the Ruahines, and have, obviously, survived all 3, and came out the other side thrilled and enthused. Yet all 3, with out doubt, involved that moment, or moments, when any mistake could have resulted in serious injury or death. I do not seek out such moments, as some might, and at my age, could happily get along not having them happen, yet such is the nature of mountain travel. Particularly when off the beaten path. I understand the allure of seeking out such thrills, as one does tend to feel very alive and aware when they happen, but I feel like that almost all the time in Nature so it is not something I need to purposefully expose myself to for some sort of reaffirmation.

I felt the most fear a few years ago, climbing down to the Kawhatau river from Mangaweka, the Ruahine's highest point. John Nash and I had climbed to it along the Hikurangis on a stunning day from Crow hut. There is a series of three creeks running off the tops to the valley below, and I suppose John and I were feeling a bit giddy, or over confident, or both, and we opted to simply climb down to the nearest creek and head down to the river. Which was not a wise choice, as looking at the map and aerial photos later on, we had picked a subsidiary creek to one of the three streams, but not the stream itself. It involved an extremely steep drop to even get to the stream, and having gained that we ran into a series of water falls, a few perhaps 10-15 meters which involved picking the best side to sidle out into the sheer leatherwood till we could slide and climb down past the falls and regain the stream. One in particular I had to let go of the relative comfort of the leatherwood bush I was clinging onto and slide almost vertically back down to rocky stream below the falls. That was a fear filled moment, amongst others in about two hours of bush bashing and vertical downward slow descending. Eventually the grade lessened, the boulders became smaller, less slippery, and easier to negotiate as we got below the bush line. When we arrived at where this nasty little water way met with Iron Peg Creek - the one we thought we were on, we both flopped down at the confluence and didn't say much at all. We knew we had put ourselves in that situation, just as we had extracted ourselves from it as well.

I will admittedly state I was scared during that descent, a few times my knees were shaking, and I probably questioned my reasons for being there. Yet as John and I straggled down the Kawhatau to Waterfall hut, all that had already begun to fade, and I felt alive and privileged to be amongst such a place. And later on that evening, down by the river, tin cup in hand containing a generous dollop of good whiskey, all was well. I had learned more lessons that day about these ranges, myself, and the very fine line between challenge and fear, and the necessity of both.

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