Climber bout clouded valley

Throwback Thursday #4 - Who Cares About The Summit?

I don’t get out enough. I imagine that’s not an uncommon state  of affairs, but it irks me nonetheless. I don’t even have a good excuse like kids, distance, or lack of partners. I’ve got all the advantages one could hope for in life, and I’m basically squandering them. Sure, I covet the latest flash gear, and I feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day, but these are weak constraints. I have enough gear to get most trips done. I have enough time, if only I got my shit together and made things happen. Hell, if I stopped wasting so much time and money on coffee and beer I could probably solve both problems in one fell swoop. Really, the only thing standing in my way is me.

I had all that in mind when, about a year ago, my good friend Chris asked the golden question: ‘What are you doing on Thursday?’
‘Going climbing with you, aren’t I?’ was my reply, instead of the usual ‘I’m busy man, sorry.’

And with that we hatched a plan to climb Rolleston via Rome Ridge on a school day. It wasn’t that I wasn’t busy. There were undoubtedly things I could have been doing that day. But I was constantly putting off the things I wanted to do for the things I should do. So we resolved to meet at some hour of the morning that sounded more like it should have been followed with ‘pm’, not ‘am’. The plan was set.
Chris rolled up just as the coffee was ready. We piled into his truck—which has the obligatory oversized Cactus sticker adorning the back window, in case it wasn’t already obvious we are dirtbags—and headed for the hills. To be fair, we probably should have started earlier than we did, but we were going for a climb, and there’s no need to nitpick at the details. We hit the pass just as the headlights were losing their grip and the peaks were silhouetted against a brightening sky. After driving straight past the trailhead and doubling back, we tumbled out in a shambles of hastily-organised gear and tried to muster some sense of ‘we know what we’re doing’, even though we’d both plainly forgotten how to do this sort of thing, or at least were well out of practice. I made a significant dent in this ruse by realising I’d forgotten the inner-soles for my plastics, my sunnies, and probably a number of other things that could have been useful. We both had crampons, axes, and helmets though, so although they were rusty and festooned with cobwebs, at least we had the makings of an appropriate kit for the day.

Incidentally, owning a bunch of expensive kit, having the knowledge necessary to put it to use, an able body, and the luxury of time and funds to get out on trips, gives me some sense of responsibility. It’s something akin to your mother telling you to eat your mashed spuds because there are starving children in Africa. The privilege afforded me, even though I might be a dirtbag, is not available to a great swathe of humanity. To think that I go and walk up hills for fun because the rest of my life is so devoid of challenges; that I think I need all this lightweight, high-tech, Gore-Tex, titanium alloy, seam-sealed, LED, hot-forged, micro-adjust junk to do it; that I can casually drive 100km in a comfortable, if shabby, vehicle for a day-trip to stand atop a bump on the earth—it’s all a bit ridiculous in the broader context of the human condition. And yet, I derive a great amount of pleasure and meaning from the experience. It provides me with a sense of purpose, comradeship, strength, health, pure joy, and mental well-being that isn’t available in any other facet of my life.

And then, on top of all of that, I have this fancy crap and privileged life circumstance by some inexplicable roll of the dice, and I squander it half the time. Excuse me while I wallow in my white-person, navel-gazing first-world problems.

Climner on loose rubble
Chris Oates sampling some famous Arthur's Pass choss.

So we headed up the track at the sort of pace that someone who doesn’t get out much attacks with—that is, faster than their fitness will allow them to keep up for long. Soon my calves were scream-ing and my lungs were burning and we had to slow down. Luckily, the reason we were (ostensibly) there was also the per-fect excuse to stop.

‘Hey Chris, I want to take a photo.’

‘Righto, I could use a break too, actually.’

The sun was just cresting the Aicken Range across the valley, and pouring its first golden beams into the mist blanketing the village below. I really did want to photograph it.

When we hit the snow line we fitted crampons, and crunched off up the steepening ridge. Line selection was straightforward and the travel was easy. It was mid-morning when we found ourselves below the only section worth roping up for. After a brief negotiation I ended up leading up the rock step. I brought Chris up behind me and we scrambled back onto the ridge proper. A bit more scrambling and it seemed as good a time as any for a snack, so we perched in the sunshine and surveyed the ranges of Arthur’s Pass National Park. A snack turned into lunch. One yarn led to another. Before long we’d been sitting there for an hour or more.

The summit was a few kicks up the snow slope, but somehow it didn’t seem worth the trouble. We’d come out to give our legs a stretch, to fill our lungs with mountain air, to put our trinkets and toys to use, to spend time in the hills, with one another and with ourselves. We weren’t there to bag a summit. The top of the mountain is an arbitrary goal, and the objective only matters insofar as it facilitates the outing. Reaching a peak might have been what motivated us, but that wasn’t the real reason we came here. So we sat for a bit longer, admired the view, climbed any number of other lines in our minds. Plans were laid and commitments made. We both became determined to do this more often. And with that we packed up and descended. The return was uneventful, but a steady flow of good conversation made it pass quickly. And then we were on the road home, satisfied with a good day out, and sure that we’d be back out again soon. We haven’t been on a trip together since. I think I’ll give Chris a call.

Words and Images by Jason Blair

This piece originally appeared in The Climber #90 (summer, 2014/15).