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Seeking The Light Book Review

Seeking The Light, by Gavin Lang. Published by Potton & Burton, $89. Buy online.

Some people think you'd have to be crazy to go mountaineering—let alone setting yourself the task of climbing all 24 of New Zealand's named peaks over 3000m. Even climbers might think it is crazy to undertake such a project while carrying a heavy camera and prioritising climbing new or unusual routes, all the while making photographs and capturing video footage. So, it might be appropriate to publish this review of the resulting photographic book—Gavin Lang's Seeking The Light—around World Mental Health Day. Not because Gavin is crazy, but because the issue of mental health and how time in the mountains can help build resilience is a key part of this book. But before I get to that, we must discuss the incredible photographs that are the centrepiece of this triumphant publication.

Book cover

Seeking The Light is a hard book to summarise in a review. Its scope and intent is unprecedented within New Zealand mountaineering photography to the extent that it draws immediate comparisons with all-time New Zealand alpine literary essentials such as Hugh Logan's Classic Peaks of New Zealand and John Pascoe's Unclimbed New Zealand. It is stacked with sensational photographs of New Zealand's highest mountains, photographs collected from the flanks and summits of the mountains themselves—not from a distance or by plane as is so often the case. The immersion of the viewpoints and the precariousness of the climbers depicted combine with the dwarfing of the human figures by these massive peaks to express the sublime nature of climbing in the Southern Alps with an immediacy and power that matches the experience itself. This is no easy feat.

Climber and peak

Those who follow NZAC publications have been lucky enough to see many of Gavin's images in the Alpine Journal and The Climber magazine over recent years. Putting all these images together into one book—amongst so many more and with a scale and production quality they deserve—is a treat for any mountain enthusiast. But we shouldn't be surprised by the achievement of this publication.This project was a bold undertaking, but such bold undertakings are what many of us who undertake adventurous activities live for. Those who know Gavin know of his calm and calculated demeanour; the deep thought, planning and attention to detail that has gone into this project and lead to its success. In this sense, while the photographs themselves are hugely inspirational, so the project as a whole serves as inspiration for those who adventure in our high places. 

There are too many fantastic images in Seeking The Light for me to get into the detail of describing them individually, your time is better spent enjoying the book itself. They are well-chosen and artfully laid out by former NZAC Publications guru Mark Watson, and it is possible to waste many enjoyable hours just thumbing through the pages and being absorbed into the images. But it would be a mistake to think of this only as a picture book. In the text, Gavin describes each ascent and descent in detail, generously explaining weather windows, gear selection, on-the-fly decision-making and with humility acknowledges luck, the skill of his climbing partners and the support of his family as aspects of success. There is a lot of useful information here for aspiring climbers. But more than this, we get an insight into Gavin's journey from growing up in Dublin to the shores of New Zealand, his discovery of the Southern Alps and inspiration to climb and become a guide—despite a fear of heights. He also discusses the injury that nearly ended his climbing career, the path to recovery and the philosophy that emerged from this. Gavin unflinchingly details the mental health approach he has built for himself around time in the outdoors, the importance of risk-taking and other paths to the determination and resilience that have made him successful—such as meditation, yoga and cold water therapy. 

While the images remain the main drawcard and are easily worth the price of admission, the text in this book should not be undervalued and is full of treasures for those with an adventurous spirit and a curious mind. I can't recommend Seeking The Light highly enough.

-Tom Hoyle