Recent books: reviews from The Climber
Most books featured here can be bought online on this site.
Bold Beyond Belief
Bill Denz - New Zealand's Mountain Warrior
by Paul Maxim
Paul Maxim, 2011
Review by Paul Hersey (issue 78, summer 2011/2012)
I found it rather ironic that I was asked to review a book about one of our climbing legends at the same time as working on an article extolling the virtues of our climbers of the present. It was like I was being tested on my facts, or reminded of the toughness and bloody-mindedness that shaped much of our mountaineering history. ‘Tread carefully through these hallowed annals’ seemed to be the message.
Most climbing enthusiasts—armchair or otherwise—would agree that Bill Denz was one of our highest achieving alpinists. Before his death on Makalu in 1983, Denz had literally bludgeoned his way into climbing folklore, both here and overseas. Blunt to the point of being obnoxious, stubborn to the point of being pigheaded, Denz usually had one way of doing things—his way! Most people I’ve spoken to over the years agreed that Denz was a ‘bloody good climber,’ but that he could be ‘bloody difficult’ to get on with.
A book on Denz has been long overdue and I was stoked to get the opportunity to review Bold Beyond Belief: Bill Denz, New Zealand’s Mountain Warrior. Yet I didn’t actually get a copy of it to review. Apparently the book was still at the printers and in the rush to get a review in this issue of The Climber, I was given a final printing draft copied onto A4 paper along with a colour photocopy of the wrap. So I can’t comment on the final look or ‘feel’ of the book.
I was interested to see how Wellington author Paul Maxim tackled this project. Paul’s previous two books, a family biography and an archival delve into Wellington aviation history, could be described as rather dry topics, whereas the Denz legacy is full of colour, grit and healthy characterisation. It quickly became apparent that Bold Beyond Belief has been thoroughly researched. It is jammed with information, quotes and anecdotes. After a foreword by Greg Child (who never had that much to do with Denz, but did write about him and is a famous author) and an introduction by Paul, each of the 14 chapters starts with either a quote or a short description of a particular climb or event.
It seems most of Denz’s climbs have been referred to: from his formative years at Aoraki Mount Cook and the Darrans through to the big walls in Yosemite, on to Alaska, South America and the Himalaya. What surprised me was Denz’s methodical approach to higher and harder climbing. Early on in the book, Paul picks up on the fact that ‘not only did Denz want to be the best climber of his day, he wanted to be the best that New Zealand had ever produced’. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Denz stuck his neck out for women climbing, criticising the Canterbury Mountaineering Club for not allowing female members and trying to get the club to change its policy. The hardened climber also had a sense for what was right.
I’m not sure if it was deliberate, but Paul’s language usage is in what I would define as the classic mountaineering style, almost to the point of being swashbuckling. Phrases like ‘an uncut jewel for all to see from the lofty surrounds,’ ‘the boldness of the line and the dashing style of its execution,’ and ‘victory was theirs,’ could be considered a bit cliché in modern literature terms. I acknowledge that Paul, either by choice or necessity, has gone with self-publishing the book. This brings about its own set of challenges in the editing process.
There are plenty of gritty moments, and Paul has depicted these well. From my perception, Denz was someone who surrounded himself with the best climbers he could muster, and then went for the gnarliest line he could find. Paul has captured the tenacity within these climbing relationships by using extended quotes from others, along with Denz’s own writing. Black and white photos are spaced throughout the work, along with a selection of colour prints in the middle. At the end of the book, there is a section of obituaries and tributes, along with a list of Denz’s climbs.
This book is less a critical assessment of Denz and more an extended memorial towards him. As Paul writes in the introduction, ‘this book details the life of a most extraordinary New Zealander who touched the lives of so many people and inspired a whole new generation of mountaineers, amongst them yours truly. It is my hope that this work captures the essence and greatness of this remarkable New Zealander, Bill Denz.’ Personally, I would have enjoyed more of the former, but it proved an interesting and worthwhile read all the same.
Sir Edmund Hillary's Everest Legacy
by Michael Gill
Craig Potton Publishing, 2011
Review by Geoff Gabites (issue 78, summer 2011/2012)
Many New Zealanders travelling en route to Everest Base Camp, or any point above the Sherpa villages of Namche and Kunde-Khumjung—have an affinity for the Himalayan Trust hospital. We have a feeling of ‘ownership’ forged by the knowledge that our man Ed and his small band of Kiwis have over the years bought modern medicine to the likeable people of the Solukhumbu. For all but a handful of people, that is all we know, for the inner workings of the Himalayan Trust are private matters and the trust has had little means of engaging with the wider public.
At the trust’s fortieth anniversary celebration in 2006, Lynley Cook, who had served as a volunteer doctor at Kunde Hospital from 1991 to 1993, suggested the story should be told. Members of the trust, in collaboration with Mike Gill, gathered letters, postcards and interviews and these have been included in the book along with informative side bars that provide a cultural, technical and medical insight into some of the many issues and day-to-day experiences the young and often inexperienced medical professionals grappled with.
The book is told in a series of short, personalised chapters usually by one of the two trust medical staff living in the hospital. The scope of the medical coverage expanded in 1982 to include Phaplu Hospital—the problem child for Ed and the trust. The hospital bears the stigma of being the place where Ed received the tragic news of his wife Louise’s and daughter Belinda’s death in a plane crash shortly after they took off from Kathmandu to join him on his building project there in 1975.
Throughout the book, the personalities and incredible commitment of the mainstays of the trust come through in the letters and stories. During the timeline of the book, we trace Ed as an enthusiastic, hands-on personality, raising money and continuously planning new schools, hospitals, bridges and education for his beloved Sherpa people. From the death of Louise onwards we get a glimpse of his anguish and frustrations as he dealt with ever increasing demands for medicine and more schools. The trust was never a typical bureaucratic structure. Meetings often occurred around kitchen tables with small committees of trusted friends. There were some amazing personal sacrifices, none sadder than the loss of Max Pearl who drowned while fishing in the Waikato River above Huka Falls.
Mike Gill allows us brief insight into the tensions of the trust and some of the varying demands and needs of the ever rotating staff of doctors, wives, husbands and often their families. In each chapter there is a similar theme as the new arrivals settle in, deal with the round of parties, the isolation of the monsoon and the huge array of medical events they have to deal with. Their stories are informative and funny, and offer a private glimpse into what it is to be the ultimate isolated rural doctor.
Much credit is given to the role of the Canadian arm of the trust. From 1981 onwards, Canadian staff alternated with Kiwi staff up at Kunde Hospital. As part of the inevitable thread of aid stories, in late 2002, the trust was finally able to place trained Sherpa and Nepali staff into the two hospitals as yet another stage in the running of the medical service to the locals.
This story is long overdue and comes at a time when the trust itself is undergoing a restructure. The book reconnected me, as I was one of those who found themselves brought back to normality in the refuge of Kunde Hospital. I never got to thank the trust for what that meant to me or the lovely John and Sue who nursed us back to health. Hopefully the revitalised trust will make that reconnection easy for future Kiwis.
This is a great book. It is well written, with interesting photos and a crisp text. The main characters evolve and develop and at the heart of it is an anguished Ed Hillary whom I had a far greater appreciation for by the end of the book, as well as for his burden and his self-elected mission in life. At 450 pages, it’s a book you can pick up and put down, but I found it so enthralling that I read lengthy chunks per sitting and was saddened to come to the end.
untold stories from backcountry New Zealand
by Mark Pickering
Canterbury University Press, 2010
Review by Geoff Spearpoint (issue 76, winter 2011)
No longer available from NZAC - please contact the publisher direcly for copies
In various shapes and sizes, huts have long been important in our backcountry. In recent years older huts have also undergone a revival of interest in both their historical significance and practical value. Something similar has happened with the kiwi bach, with both types of buildings receiving better recognition of their place in our outdoor culture. One of the outcomes of this is the growing popularity of visiting huts as a pastime for its own sake. Having visited over 1170, the author Mark Pickering has just about the ideal credentials to write this book.
Presented portrait format, with 384 pages and colour throughout, the book is the same width as A4, but not quite as tall. The layout is open and easy to read, easy to delve into and attractive, with photos and sidebars liberally scattered throughout. The introduction and particularly the preface are wonderfully written. The writing is clear and mature, and carries an obvious love of huts that is expressed in all sorts of subtle ways.
Mark writes, 'There are not many statues to working class people, so I like to think that these huts serve as monuments of a sort. Ordinary workers built them, lived in them, and walked away from them. The huts are practical, understated, low-key, versatile and often overlooked, just like the men themselves. When you consider these huts as memorials to skills, pastimes and habits now long forgotten, their importance to New Zealand becomes quite compelling.'
The book tells the stories of both New Zealand’s backcountry huts and the culture that surrounds them by choosing a particular outdoor activity then one representative hut for each of fifteen chapters. Mark brings each hut to life through the lifestyle and activities of the people who built each hut, something of the hut itself, and then something of his own impressions as he visits them. Sounds simple enough, but there is more here than that. Although only one hut is mentioned under each chapter heading, dont be mislead, near the end of most chapters several other huts with similar histories are given quick profiles as well. That is not obvious from a cursory look at the contents page.
Each hut is the carrier for a whole facet of our outdoor story. Chapter one examines the shepherds and boundary keepers, chapter two the water-racemen, chapter three the rabbiters, chapter four the musterers and packies, chapter five the goldminers, chapter six the settlers and farmers, chapter seven the roadmen, chapter eight the deer cullers, chapter nine the hunters, chapter ten covers health and welfare, chapter eleven the packers, chapter twelve the climbers, chapter thirteen the trampers, chapter fourteen the skiers, and chapter fifteen the tourists.
As can be seen from the headings, this is a widely encompassing look at our backcountry culture, with a heavy historical influence. Most of the huts chosen date back a century or more, and the main activity associated with many has come to an end half a century ago. However, each activity has contributed a significant historical strand to the depth and breadth of outdoor New Zealand.
I found the chapter on the rabbiters fascinating. The sheer scale of the problem and some of the stories were mind boggling. And under Health and Welfare, Mark gives a comprehensive background to a part of our history few will know much about, leading to the building of huts through Harpers Pass, from the Hurunui to the Taramakau. The roadmen chapter too, brings the story of how our isolated roads were maintained, and although the story revolves around South Island roads, the same is no doubt true for many past North Island ones too.
The chapter on climbing huts concentrates on Sefton Biv, which has historical interest, is accessible, alpine and basic. A good choice. Mark begins with his own trip up to the biv, reflects on his view of climbing then goes on to talk about the biv and its restoration, describing this as heavy handed. I found that a bit harsh, as on a recent visit I thought DOC had achieved a good balance between maintaining the look of the old biv and keeping a useful, weatherproof hut in the mountains. There is also useful comment in the climbing chapter about other alpine huts—Ball Hut, Pioneer, Haast, Colin Todd, Esquilant Biv and huts in the upper Rangitata Valley, among others. Some interesting facts and quotes about climbers and trips are also included.
There are small quibbles. The cover is simple and clear, but given the subject matter, it would have been good to see something a little more evocative—there are some fantastic hut photos around. And there are occasional points that could be seen as a bit misleading. For instance in the Howletts Hut chapter (trampers) on page 306 it is stated that 'several Wellington tramping clubs began to build ski huts on Mt Ruapehu in the 1960s.' One Wellington tramping club built a Ruapehu ski hut in the late 1940s, another followed in 1950 and those huts were used to ski from pretty much every winter weekend from then on. And in the same chapter it doesn’t add anything to be labelling the 'weekend fitness culture of Tararua trampers' as 'absurd', any more than any other outdoor recreational group that prides itself on its fitness. But these are minor things.
This book has already proven its popularity by selling out several editions. People clearly connect with Mark’s choice of huts, but in that regard it is interesting to reflect that although the Forest Service, old National Park Boards and Department of Conservation have all played a part in maintaining some of them, only one hut was originally built by a government department (Rogers Hut, by cullers for Internal Affairs). Something else of interest is that all of these huts, with the exception of Avoca Homestead, are less than ten bunk, in fact most are half that size. It's not that Mark had a shortage of large flash old and new huts to choose from. Clearly people identify with and love these smaller, basic, characterful structures, where the outside is only a couple of steps away, and so do I. Their intimacy is partly what we love about being in the hills. Ask any hunter. The challenge for the future is to find ways to rediscover this intimacy in our hut culture rather than build ever bigger and more expensive structures to display to the world.
Mark's book puts into words where our huts have come from and their diversity. That such humble edifices have managed to keep their place through many decades of changing land use and bureaucracy is testament to their isolation and the people who behind the scenes over all these years have helped maintain them, practically and politically. One is left at the end of the book realising that we do indeed have a deep and rich outdoor history, and in many cases it is only in the huts that we have any tangible record still existing of it. These huts are probably our most honest architecture, an expression of living and relating to the land. This book is the story of 'the voices of the everyday, invariably overlooked people' as Jim Henderson wrote in Open Country and who Mark quotes.
No matter what you already know about huts, there will be stuff in this book that you don’t know. One gets the impression that decades of information collecting have gone into this book. All in all, it is a great read and it would make a great present for those interested not just in huts but in our whole relationship to the outdoors, past and present.
and other pricks – the journey to Aoraki Mount Cook
by Mary Hobbs
Spirit Publishing, 2010
Review by David L Harrowfield (issue 75, autumn 2011)
No longer sold by NZAC. Copies available from Spirit Ltd.
I recently visited the wonderful Old Mountaineers’ Cafe and Bar in Aoraki Mount Cook Village, opened by the late Sir Edmund Hillary on 6 July 2003. Whilst there, my attention was drawn to a book on display with the intriguing title, Matagouri and other Pricks. I needed little persuasion to secure a copy and within hours was engrossed.
For those unfamiliar with the plant, Matagouri or ‘Wild Irishman’ as it was named by early settlers, is a thorny shrub well known to many who venture into New Zealand’s South Island high country.
This is the fourth book published by Mary Hobbs, who for a decade produced the award winning New Zealand Outdoors magazine. Her last title The Spirit of Mountaineering Volume 1, focused on the early Aoraki Mount Cook guide and photographer, Jack Adamson. Here, however, is a book that is quite different and one in which the author chronicles triumph over adversity (which could also have been a fitting title).
As stated on the jacket, Matagouri and other Pricks is about ‘a rip-roaring battle’, spanning over a decade, to establish a modest business. The saga involved dealings with the cumbersome infrastructure of a government department (which was also the landowner), and a long established major tourism company, answerable to the same department.
From the time the first application was lodged for the business, respected mountaineer and guide Charlie Hobbs and his wife Mary experienced almost continual bureaucratic barriers. Needless time and expense was spent trying to convince authorities of the merits of their dream, and to provide an assurance that as a concessionaire in Aoraki Mount Cook National Park, all they wanted to do was provide a service that would benefit everyone. I would have thought nothing could be simpler.
Along the way however, there were special moments that reflected the spirit of the mountains Charlie and Mary call home. These moments, plus loyal friends (including some government employees), provided a sense of normality, love and peace that carried them through.
The book begins with a useful history of the region. Mary then proceeds to outline the frustrations that she and Charlie experienced, frustrations that many would not have tolerated. Later, chapters are carefully interspersed with delightful accounts of the couples personal lives, respective families, careers and experiences in places as diverse as New York (soon after 9/11), the Himalaya and Antarctica. These later chapters also provide the reader with material that concerns Charlie and Mary’s problems and their dream to establish a private business in an at times, comparatively isolated alpine environment.
I was steadily drawn into this book, which is definitely a ‘rollicking good read’ and the more I became immersed with the contents, it was difficult to put aside. The book is well researched, well written and superbly presented with excellent photographs. It leaves the reader with an overwhelming sense of admiration.
Mary Hobbs’ book is also published under a second title, The Journey to Aoraki-Mount Cook and whichever title you choose, you will not be disappointed.
a guide to the best rockclimbing venues in Victoria, Australia
by Kevin Lindorff, Josef Goding & Jarrod Hodgson
Review by Mike O'Brien (issue 77, spring 2011)
Sublime Climbs is a select climbing guide that covers the three jewels of Victoria’s climbing scene: that ugly nugget Arapiles, the hidden gem of the Grampians, and the rough cut diamond that is Mt Buffalo. This is no small undertaking. Select guides are often frustrating—they can offer too little detail to be functional, and can leave the user wandering around the base of the crag with a puzzled expression. It is a huge task to pick the best climbs from the hundreds on offer at Arapiles, unlock the varied climbing of the massive Grampians Ranges and guide people to crags in hostile terrain at Mt Buffalo. Remarkably, the authors have pulled all that off.
The authors, Kevin Lindorff, Josef Goding and Jarrod Hodgson, know these crags extremely well. Kevin has been the quintessential Aussie hard man for generations, and has put up countless routes. Josef has been involved in the Victorian climbing scene for years—he has introduced many beginners to climbing and ferreted out numerous new crags. Consequently, the guide is well balanced, with routes for climbers of all aspirations.
Sublime Climbs is the first guide to the Grampians to be published in some time, the area has now been virtually unlocked for visiting climbers—by this fact alone, the guide is a worthwhile purchase for anyone planning a trip there.
Sublime Climbs makes use of full colour photo topos for every one of the 700+ routes covered, so that route finding using the guide is remarkably straight-forward. Additionally, the authors have raised the bar for future generations of guidebook producers by incorporating GPS coordinates for all the crags. I am not a technophile, and generally shun the thought of relying on a gadget, but I have also spent hours wandering around in the bush, cursing and swearing, so I can justifiably praise the inclusion of this feature. Sublime Climbs is packed full of inspiring photos, ensuring it will be as at home on my coffee table as it will be at the crag.
The down sides? The flipside of having colour topos for every route is that some of the topos for the longer climbs are not very detailed (due to scale) but most route descriptions are accurate enough to see a climber confidently on their way. Sublime Climbs also lacks entertaining writing, but it sure makes up for this with its functionality.
Sublime Climbs is an excellent, attractive guide to three must-visit destinations across the ditch. It is the most usable and functional guide I have seen to date, and is sure to get your juices flowing.
Sublime Climbs. By Kevin Lindorff, Josef Goding and Jarrod Hodgson. Rockmaster Publications, 2011. Available to purchase from alpineclub.org.nz
Summits and Shadows
Jack Clarke and New Zealand Mountaineering
by Graham Langton
Steele Roberts, 2011
Review by Richard Thomson (issue 76, winter 2011)
Jack Clarke remains a distant, even difficult, figure through most of Graham Langton’s account of his life. This is the man who, at the age of 19, in his second year of climbing, joined Tom Fyfe and George Graham to make the first ascent of Aoraki Mt Cook. The following year, Clarke was part of the team to make the first ascent of Tasman, then, in that same year, Silberhorn and Haidinger. Later he made first ascents of Darwin, Annan, Hamilton, D’Archaic, Malcolm, Tyndall, Nicholson, Edward and Aspiring. He climbed four new routes on Aoraki and became New Zealand’s first proper mountain guide, making a career out of it.
Most of that will mean something only to climbers, but it is extraordinary all the same—a 20-year climbing record from 1894 until 1914 that is unmatched in New Zealand.
‘A very modest pioneer,’ John Pascoe calls him in the 1930s, by which time Clarke is working as a storekeeper in a works camp on the Arthur’s Pass road. But if you want to glimpse something of the man, Pascoe’s photograph, on page 223 of Summits and Shadows, might be the closest you’ll get. He seems to have been someone who was more human, stronger but also more frail, than the descriptions bestowed on him in his time, which rarely offer more insight than the Bishop of Wellington did in 1905 when he wrote that Clarke, ‘behaved during the whole of my stay of four weeks with the utmost consideration to every visitor at the Hermitage’.
There is the whiff of a suggestion that he was gay (wealthy men took him on lengthy overseas trips, which included climbing), confined to footnotes by Langton and rightly so, you’d have to think. It’s about as likely as the idea that Clarke, Graham and Fyfe wanted to climb Aoraki out of a sense of national pride. The consequences of the nationalist approach to mountaineering are demonstrated when Langton notes that The Press ‘published a telegram of 175 words … giving the news, and accompanied that with an even longer editorial’. No, the climbers were young, they were competitive, and they wanted to get there first.
Later, there is a hint of unrequited—or perhaps suppressed—love. There is a developing drinking problem, damagingly obvious later but hinted at as early as September 1894, when Clarke climbed the East Peak of Earnslaw, solo: ‘I felt that I deserved my lunch, and had a capital one on the rocks just below the top. Leaving my card in the bottle, I commenced the descent … ’
Langton’s history is scrupulous, however, he largely avoids speculation and sticks to presenting the evidence that remains. And in a curious way this acknowledgement of the limits of what we can know about Jack Clarke adds to the poignancy of what we cannot know or understand about this very private man who did remarkable things. But what he did is in this book, carefully researched and extensively illustrated, giving the man his rightful place at the centre of the story of early New Zealand mountaineering. This was our Golden Age of mountaineering, and amidst the splendour and the excitement of the climbing adventures, surrounded by the barren rugged grandeur of the Alps, Langton has found an idiosyncratic but genuine working-class hero.
Wind from a Distant Summit
the story of New Zealand's top woman mountaineer
by Pat Deavoll
Craig Potton Publishing, 2011
Review by Nic Learmonth (issue 78, summer 2011/2012)
Pat Deavoll is easily one of New Zealand’s most accomplished mountaineers. In addition to a string of technical mountaineering routes, Pat’s climbing CV includes ascents of hard ice, mixed and rock routes. For over 30 years Pat has been storming up mountain ranges in Alaska, the Canadian Rockies and Central Asia as well as in New Zealand, often to forge new lines. In Wind from a Distant Summit Pat recounts these climbs and talks about the inner drive that spurs her on.
Surprisingly, although clearly a gifted climber and well regarded by her peers right from the start, Pat lacked confidence in her skills. Pat recounts how she struggled with low self esteem and depression when at the beginning of her climbing career she was unable to reach a summit. As Pat describes her development as a climber in Wind from a Distant Summit, we see her learning to harness these inner demons. These demons are the flip-side of Pat’s formidable drive to climb, they press her to persevere despite fear, run-outs and all those other things that give us mere mortals reason to beg off. They also provide further context for Pat’s impressive but relentless climbing schedule, which has included at least one international expedition a year for the last nine years.
Pat is very articulate about her experiences as a climber and as a traveller. Her internal dialogue, paired with her description of her actions and physical movement on the rock and the ambiance at the base of the crag in her opening chapter about an afternoon in the Port Hills in Christchurch, is particularly well done. Pat’s account of her terrible fall that day and the events immediately after shows good pacing. The chapters covering Pat’s travels through Central Asia with Brian Deavoll in the mid-eighties and her return to Pakistan to attempt Beka Brakkai Chok with Lydia Bradey in 2007, her explosion onto the Canadian ice climbing scene in the later nineties and her expedition to western China with Karen McNeill in 2005 provide good portraits of these places and the local people at specific periods.
Pat has a star-studded cast of climbing partners to match her extensive climbing CV. The list includes: Marty Beare, Malcolm Bass, Karen McNeill, Lydia Bradey and fellow climbing author Paul Hersey. Her portraits of Lydia and Karen stood out for their detail. The sections of Wind from a Distant Summit that feature interviews showcase Pat’s journalistic skills very well.
As with any book, Wind from a Distant Summit has some weaknesses. Though it is a biography, it focuses mostly on Pat’s climbing and gives brief, isolated details of her non-climbing life. The story does not follow a chronological order, and the principles behind the structure of the narrative were difficult to follow.
Ultimately though, Wind from a Distant Summit is a brave endeavour. Pat sets out to showcase her climbing and explain the origins and nature of that phenomenal drive that fuels it, and she has certainly achieved that. A study of determination and a celebration of the joys of seriously hard-arsed elite climbing, Wind from a Distant Summit offers an insightful read and will inspire budding alpinists in generations to come.