Friday, May 30, 2008

Sir Ed Hillary "Good as Gold"

Since the passing of Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary at the beginning of this year, New Zealanders (including the Government) have been looking for appropriate ways to make a fuss over his contribution to this country, and the world in general.

It started with a state funeral here in New Zealand, including an ice-axe guard of honour from the New Zealand Alpine Club.

Another celebration of his life was held in Nepal, where he devoted so much of his life to helping the locals by funding schools, hospitals and other projects.

Then a special memorial service was held in London, so that the Queen herself could pay her respects. Not bad. I don't think the Queen takes much notice when mountaineers die, but since Ed reached the summit of Everest on the same day as her coronation, they have that special something shared between them.

And now, thanks to the fab folks at New Zealand Post, you can buy your own limited-edition Sir Edmund Hillary gold coin! Yep, you know you've made it when they stamp your face into a quarter ounce of 99.9% pure gold. (Plus he's on the $5 note, which is what most of us can afford.)
If you're the collecting type, the gold coins are $520 each. If you're more of a collector wanna-be and don't have that kind of cash to blow on a coin you'll never spend, you can get the silver version for a more affordable $89.

Actually, as far as I can see from these pictures (courtesy of New Zealand Post, by the way) the silver one looks a lot nicer anyway.

If you're interested, here's the link to the online store. Get 'em hot off the press!

Monday, May 26, 2008

Adventure Tourism Gone Wrong

Lake Mackenzie and Mackenzie Hut on the Routeburn Track
This story is a bit old now, but I'm not sure whether it got much international coverage so I thought it was worth posting about, as a sort of cautionary tale.

In late March, a 35-year-old Israeli tourist named Liat Okin decided to walk the Routeburn Track in southern New Zealand. This track is one of the heavily-marketed "Great Walks". The track is well-marked, and there are large, comfortable huts where most trampers spend their nights.

Okin was reportedly not well prepared for the wilderness. She was wearing jeans and sneakers, carrying not much food. After spending the night at Mackenzie Hut, she was not seen again.

A police search of the track and surrounding wilderness did not turn up any clues to her whereabouts. After several weeks the official search was called off. If she was still out there, it was unlikely that she could survive for so long.

Okin's family, led by her brother, mounted their own privately-funded search to continue looking for her. But by mid-May there was still nothing new, and her brother reluctantly admitted that they would have to give up the search.

On May 15, the last day of searching scheduled, they found her backpack and shoes. Then her body was found at the bottom of a steep creek. She had, apparently, gone off the trail by only a few hundred metres and fallen to her death.

The "bright side" is that it looks like she fell and died the same day she went missing, rather than being lost and freezing in the wilderness for several days. Even if she had been found weeks earlier, nothing could have saved her life.

Going into the wilderness alone, even on a well-used track like the Routeburn, is risky. Nobody was expecting to see her that night at the next hut. The search only began a week later when her family hadn't heard from her.

I haven't tried anything like this alone, but if I did, there would be certain precautions I'd take to make sure that if something went wrong, somebody would at least be looking for me.
Ideally, I would buddy-up with someone else, or a group of people, walking the same was as me. On a track like this, there would be no problem finding someone. That way, if you had a bad fall or disappeared, somebody would know.

If that wasn't possible, I would at least chat with the other people at the hut, and tell them to expect me at the next hut the next night. So if I didn't show up, there would be questions. Perhaps our lost Israeli didn't speak English very well, so she didn't mingle with the others at the hut.

I would also fill out an intentions form before starting the trail. The Department of Conservation and the Mountain Safety Council make these available so that someone knows when you should be returning, and what route you're planning to follow.

As I said, none of that would help if you died in a fall like Liat Okin did. But more often, people are lost for several days before the weather or injuries finish them off. And in that case, the key is to make sure somebody knows to look for you.

This is a good reminder that there are no "risk-free" wilderness adventures. Every time you throw on the backpack, you really need to understand what you're getting into and know how to handle yourself when something goes wrong.

OK, enough preaching for now. My condolences to Liat Okin's family. It's small comfort, but at least they finally know what happened.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Matt Damon Gets Lost

Last night I watched a 2002 film called "Gerry". It was directed by Gus Van Sant and stars Matt Damon and Casey Affleck.

The story follows 2 friends, both named Gerry, who drive out to the desert for a walk on a "wilderness trail". After deciding to leave the trail to get away from "tourists", the pair get lost.

The two friends are unprepared in the extreme. Not only have they not brought their "10 essentials", they have absolutely nothing. No water, no food, no extra clothes, no flashlights, and certainly no map or compass to find their way out. Luckily, they are smokers so they have lighters to start a fire.

I was expecting a bit of an adventure story here. A psychological thriller about how getting lost affects your friendship, you state of mind and eventually your ability to function at all. What I got was a lot of slow, wide shots of ever-changing desert scenery and very little else.

There is ten minutes' worth of dialogue throughout the hour and a half of movie. The two spend most of their time aimlessly wandering, trying to decide whether they should be looking for the road or looking for water.
Anyone who has ever hiked in the desert will feel the tension of the situation. But if you're not a hiker, this movie has little to offer. It has no interesting story to tell, no insight into the human drama unfolding.
If you want to kill a couple of hours watching a compelling story about the wilderness - try Grizzly Man, the documentary about an out-of-work actor Timothy Treadwell, who goes to live among the bears in Alaska. It's worth watching for the train-wreck you can see coming from the very beginning.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Canadians Love Sex in a Tent!

It seems that in my homeland - the Great White North - there are lots of people who are with me on the whole 'outdoors is sexy' theme.

A recent report in the Edmonton Sun quoted a study done by Trojan condoms about Canadians and sex. Here's a snippet:

"Women in particular say the Great Outdoors gets them frisky with 75 per cent saying they've had sex in a tent, compared to 65 per cent of men.

The national survey of adults ages 18 to 34 found that those living in Atlantic Canada have had the highest rates of tent sex at 80 per cent, closely followed by Quebecers at 78 per cent. Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba residents lag behind at 67 per cent while Albertans had the lowest rate at 65 per cent."

That's a whole lot of Canadians getting it on inside their tents! And this in a country where, let's face it, the summer camping season is pretty short. So basically, if the tent is rockin', don't come knockin'!

Hey, anyone need a book on the subject for some fresh ideas? Anyone???

Well, it's for sale via Chapters/Indigo anyway.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Meeting Your Outdoorsy Other

Today I saw a post on the Get Outdoors blog where they quote a climber who complained about how indoor climbing gyms can be a bit of a meat market. I'm going to assume she has a boyfriend or husband.

Let's face it, if you're single and your school days are behind you, it's tough to meet someone new. And if you're an active person, you probably want to meet someone who shares those interests with you. So why not look in the places those people gather?

Sure, sometimes you just want to climb at the climbing gym. But wouldn't it also be nice to find a new partner to climb with? (And do other fun things with!)

When I lived in Toronto, I joined a hiking club. This was partly because I didn't own a car and needed to find other hikers to carpool me out to the trails. But it was also a great way to meet people who shared my interest in the outdoors.

Eventually I set up my own club, which I called "Take a Hike". Many of the people who came on the hikes were single. There were a couple of instances where women got unwelcome attention, but overall it was a nice, casual way to meet new people and get to know them before deciding if you wanted to see them alone.

There were a couple of times when I dated someone I met through these group hikes. While neither of them worked out in the end, I stand by it as a great way to meet singles who share the same hobby. And when I immigrated to New Zealand, the first thing I did (or close to it) was check out a local tramping club.

Whether you are a hiker, climber, paddler, mountain biker or enjoy any other outdoor activity, getting to meet other singles who like the same stuff is hard, unless you actually meet doing that stuff! It sure beats walking around a nightclub asking everyone, "So, do you do any mountaineering?"

The idea is so logical, it's gone commercial. Companies like Meet Market Adventures arrange all kinds of activities where singles can have a bit of no-pressure fun and maybe meet someone worth seeing again. Me, I'm all for it!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Walking the Appalachian Trail

Last night I went to Club Night at our local tramping club, where a couple named Susan Guscott and David Castle gave a presentation about their recent 2,156 mile thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, or AT. This was a Kiwi couple, so they had certain limits, such as a 6-month tourist visa, and having to do all of their prep before flying in.

Considering the challenges, they seem to have done well, and had a pretty good time. They chose an unusual approach to the trail, starting at the north end (Maine) in July, and finishing up at the south end (Georgia) in January. So not only were they going the opposite direction to most of the other hikers, they were also going somewhat off-season.
This meant that they got some snow in the Great Smoky Mountains towards the end of their adventure, but generally the weather was kind and they had the chance to enjoy some amazing fall colours, which we don't really see in New Zealand.

Another thing we don't see in New Zealand is snakes, so they were snapping pictures of those whenever they spotted one. I had to giggle at the idea of stopping to take a picture of a garter snake, having grown up around them in Toronto.

Like many long-distance hikers, they struggled to keep their body weight up throughout the journey. But it seems after the first month, they came up with a very effective way to get their fat and calories in. They made hot chocolate a couple of times per day and added baby formula to it. The formula has a higher fat content, and more added nutrients, than milk powder. Once they added it to their routine, they didn't lose any more weight. (But just to be sure, they ate LOTS of french fries whenever they were re-supplying in a town.)

Susan and David kept an online trail journal during their trip, using the trail names Kea and Weka. You can read about their experiences here. And yes, after spending six months on the trail together they are still a couple!

Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Curious Kea

New Zealand is home to some very unique bird life, and while I was on the South Island over the summer I had the privilege of coming face-to-face with one of the most unique - the kea.

The kea is the world's only alpine parrot, and only lives on the South Island of New Zealand. What sets them apart from other birds is their remarkable intelligence. Some researchers have put them on par with dolphins in terms of their problem-solving abilities.

That's all very good, except that this extraordinary intelligence can make them a bit of a pain to nearby humans, who are used to more passive birds. Keas are not passive - they are curious and playful. And they are not afraid of humans, as we learned by hiking on their turf. Here is G having a chat with one on Avalanche Peak.

I like to think of keas as the "reverse engineers" of the bird world. They like to figure out how things work by taking them apart. They use their sharp, hooked beaks and firm grip to accomplish this. Some of their favourite things to disassemble are hiking boots, windshield wiper (as pictured below) and backpacks. Given the opportunity, I'm told, they will also pull the stuffing out of a sleeping bag. Wouldn't that be like a bird horror-show? "Feathers! They're full of FEATHERS! Murderers!!!"

While we were hiking along this track marked by poles, I saw some keas going after the bolts holding the poles together. My theory: they're trying to figure out how to move the poles around and make all of the hikers go the wrong way. You know, as a practical joke!

So if you find yourself in the company of a kea, remember that you should never underestimate what they are capable of (destroying). But mostly, you should enjoy their company, their friendly laughter, and remember that you are a guest in their home, not the other way around.