Friday, August 29, 2008

The World According to Ed

Browsing through the offerings at a charity book fair, I came across an old paperback copy of "Nothing Venture, Nothing Win", Sir Edmund Hillary's 1975 autobiography. I considered boycotting the book due to the very poor title, but decided in the end that I was curious enough to forgive his grammar and give it a read.

I was hoping for some insight into what sort of person does the things he did. What were his motivations for climbing Everest when it was still unconquered? After acheiving fame with that, why was he so keen to make the first motorized trip to the South Pole? Was he really the humble, down-to-earth guy that Kiwis make him out to be, or is that a mass delusion brought on by hero worship?

The book did give me a glimpse into Sir Ed's personality. Granted, it was written before his wife was tragically killed in a plane crash, and well before his re-marriage to the widow of his friend Peter Mulgrew. This book was written by a 50-year-old man reflecting on his accomplishments, apparently expecting that his biggest acheivements were now behind him.

The Ed Hillary on these pages is certainly down-to-earth, but I wouldn't call him humble. He was very confident in his physical abilities, and seemed to enjoy nothing more than a challenge to his strength and endurance. In fact, the worse things appeared to get, whether on Everest or Antarctica, the more he seemed to think it was a good day. I guess this is the sort of attitude that gets you to the top of a mountain, or across the barren wastes. When things are hard, you have to look at it as a good challenge, not a reason to call it quits.

He also shows his stubborn streak. He ignores instruction, and when told he can't do something he either does it anyway, or argues with those in authority until they change their minds. This is not a trait you'd find in a humble man - this kind of behaviour requires a large ego. So although I hate to argue with public perception, I don't think it can be denied that Ed Hillary was an egotist.

I don't really fault him for that. He generally used his ego to accomplish positive things, like building hospitals and schools in Nepal. But I think it would have been annoying to work alongside someone who was always sure he was right.

As for the book itself, I can't credit Sir Ed with being a great author. His style is very understated and he often fails to bring his dramatic exploits to life in a vivid way. He practically skims over the ascent of Everest, possibly because he had already written an entire book about that (High Adventure).

All in all, I find it difficult to recommend this book. It's not as compelling as other adventure memoirs I have seen. Perhaps his later autobiography, View From the Summit, has a more interesting perspective. I haven't read that yet, so I can't say. I don't doubt that Sir Edmund Hillary led a remarkable life, but it may be more satisfying to read a professional author's retelling of it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

New Blogs on the Block

A random picture looking over Wellington Harbour - because I prefer posts with pictures!
I follow a few outdoors blogs, and refine my choices here and there depending on whose posts are keeping me interested (or at least entertained) and how relevant they are. Now and then I discover new blogs that seem to be worth adding to my feeds. I thought I'd share my last two discoveries with you.

First - Hiking in Heels. There aren't enough of us girls out there talking about our outdoors excursions. This Northern California resident has recently started hiking thanks to her new man, and seems to be really taking to it. Her blog consists mainly of trip reports with a unique footwear-based rating system. Her easiest hikes are rated "Heels" meaning it's so easy you could walk it wearing high heels (although she doesn't really recommend it.) Then she moves through flip-flops, pumas, trailblazers and finally hiking boots for the serious stuff.

Hey - when you decide it's time to graduate to overnighters, don't forget to pick up a copy of Sex in a Tent!

Second - Windy Hilltops. This is by a fellow Wellingtonian named Mike. He tells of his adventures around the area, and occasionally further afield. The subtitle for his blog is: Because crawling is more fun when it's windy. Anyone who has tried to hike along an exposed ridge in the Tararuas on a windy day will know what he's talking about! Sometimes the only way to stay on the track is on your hands and knees! His writing style is delightfully entertaining, which makes reading long trip reports worthwhile even if you're never likely to do the trip yourself.
Mike is a member of the Wellington Tramping and Mountaineering Club - which is a great local group who organize trips all year round.

I'm looking forward to sharing their adventures. And in the second instance, getting some new ideas for places to go tramping this summer!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Winter Sun

Every once in a while winter takes a break in Wellington, and we get a glorious, sunny day with no wind. Sometimes we're lucky enough for this to happen on the weekend, in which case it would be a crime not to get outside and enjoy it.

Since we were given one of those days this weekend, and it was rather unexpected, we made a very quick decision to go for a walk up our local hill, Mt Kaukau. The best thing about Mt Kaukau is that it's close enough to our house that we can walk there in under half an hour, and not even bother with the car!

It's not much, as mountains go, but it's the highest hill in the area, and therefore the place where they put the local radio tower, through which we receive our wonderful TV signals. (Yes, we're too cheap to get satellite!) This is the view from the first ridge.
While I left the house with several layers of clothing, not sure what to expect, by the time we made it up to the ridge I had actually stripped down to my t-shirt. How many times do you get to do that in the middle of winter?
From the lookout on the top, there's a view over Wellington Harbour. You can sit and ponder the city from above. (That's downtown Wellington, just past the first hill covered in houses.)
Meanwhile, G was busy rifling through the woods on the way up and down in search of the perfect fire drill. Hopefully his new, longer stick will produce some better results than the little one he tried at first. I'll keep you updated if he manages to get a flame!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Loving the Wilderness to Death

The great irony of eco-tourism is that the more popular it becomes, the more damage it does to the natural places people are so keen to visit. We know this, and yet we can't resist the lure of those epic journeys into famous landscapes. We just have to see those remote places or rare creatures for ourselves, though we know they'd be better off if we'd just mind our own business!

Two recent studies have finding that back this up. Not that I think many people doubted that tourism was bad for wildnerness areas - but it's always nice to have documented proof.

The first study was conducted in on 14 protected zones of oak woodland in northern California. They measured the impact of human visitation on wildlife populations by counting the animal feces in each area. (Sounds like a fun way to spend a semester!) They compared areas where humans were allowed, to areas that were out-of-bounds. Unsurprisingly, they found there was evidence of five times as many animals living in areas where there was no human traffic.

The second study was conducted down here in New Zealand. It measured the effects of human visitors on endangered yellow-eyed penguins. The researcher looked at a population living just a short drive from the city of Dunedin, making it easily accessible to humans. She spied on the penguins be sneaking fake eggs into their nests which contained microphones and cameras.

She found that the penguins would avoid coming on shore if there were people nearby, and this would delay feeding the chicks in the nests. She also discovered that if the penguins are aware of a visitor in the area, their heart rate doubles and it takes them half an hour to recover.

It's a dilemma. We love getting close to nature - but nature hates it when we get too close. And as eco-tourism grows by leaps and bounds, it is affecting dolphins, whales, penguins, coyotes, bears and countless other species. Perhaps we should all just stay home and watch Animal Planet?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

New Zealand Loses a Friend of the Mountains

The death of mountaineer and guide Gottlieb Braun-Elwert didn't make headlines around the world. Probably because, although he died out on a backcountry excursion, his death was not the result of a catastrophic accident or natural disaster. The event only made news headlines in New Zealand because at the time of his death, Braun-Elwert was guiding the country's Prime Minister Helen Clark, along with her husband and a couple of other government big-wigs.

His body was recovered from Mt Gerald Hut (which he owned) in the Two Thumbs Range near Lake Tekapo. Despite his death by heart failure at age 59, rather than avalanche or edema, I think he deserves a proper farewell. Hence this post.

Born in Germany, Gottlieb Braun-Elwert came to New Zealand in 1976 to take up an academic post. He fell in love with the country's mountains, and soon engrossed himself in the challenging vistas of the Southern Alps.

Eventually he gave up teaching for guiding and mountaineering. He set up his own guiding business, Alpine Recreation. He climbed New Zealand's highest peak, Aoraki/Mt Cook, about 30 times with a variety of clients ranging from his own 14-year-old daughter to the Prime Minister herself. He also led climbs in other countries, including several in South America.

Braun-Elwert was a member of the Lake Tekapo search and rescue group, a member of the New Zealand Alpine Club, German Alpine Club, Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society. He was also involved in issues of public access to NZ waterways and rural backcountry. In 1993 he was named "Mountaineer of the Year" by local gear manufacturer Macpac.

Mountaineering in New Zealand has lost a good friend. But his life ended in one of the places where he was happiest, and that's the best most of us can hope for.

UPDATE: Just thought I'd let you know that after his autopsy, the cause of Braun-Elwert's death was found to be a ruptured aorta. This means that even if he'd been close to medical care at the time, he could not have been saved.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

CNN: Is Hiking Better Than Sex?

Trust CNN to ask those hard-hitting questions! A recent article on looks at other activities that stimulate the brain's pleasure centres in the same ways that great sex does.

Along with mountaineering and hiking, which can give participants a thrill when they achieve physically demanding goals, the article highlights the (apparently ecstatic) joys of shoe shopping and public speaking.

The fact that something like public speaking can make anyone orgasmic, when it makes me simply want to vomit, brings up an interesting comparison with outdoor adventures (which don't generally make me want to vomit, unless I spin around too much).

It seems to me that there's a very fine line between "exciting" and "terrifying". So while I consider summiting a mountain in the first category and public speaking in the second, I can see where for some people an outdoor adventure would be just as scary as making a speech in front of thousands.

Those things that put us on the edge, and get our adrenaline pumping, can be either the best or worst experiences we have. Often, we can't predict which way it will go until it's all over - and we either feel orgasmic at achieving something so adventurous, or completely defeated.

What I think is funny, is the fact that all good experiences are measured on a sliding scale against sex. Chocolate? Mountains? Stilettos? If they're really gonna do it for you - they must be "better than sex".

Perhaps I can borrow one of the comments posted in response to the story (please don't sue me!) which sums things up nicely:

"I've had some great orgasms, and I've ascended some awesome peaks... Both are very different highs and both great. Each a little different though. Next up: sex on the mountain... now that would be a rush."

Hey, I know a great book that can help you achieve that next goal...

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Mystery of the Fiordland Moose

(Photo via News Durham Region)

Most people have heard about mysterious wilderness creatures like the yeti of the Himalaya, or the Sasquatch of North America's west. But few outside of New Zealand have heard about the mystery of the Fiordland moose. With new "evidence" coming to light recently, this seemed like a good time to share the story with all of you.

In 1910, 10 Canadian moose were gifted to New Zealand. The idea was to release them into the wild, where they would happily breed until there was a viable population for hunters who like a big rack (so to speak.) New Zealand, after all, is completely lacking in native mammals (OK, there were a few bats, but they hardly make good hunting) so European hunters were keen to import game so they'd have more to shoot at.

The moose, however, never really took to their new home in Fiordland National Park. They were outnumbered by (also imported) red deer, who ate all the good leaves and didn't get shot often enough to keep their numbers in check. Soon enough, the moose seemed to have disappeared. Most Kiwis assumed they were extinct in this country.

In 1951, a hunter named Robin Smith not only spotted a moose in Fiordland - he shot it! But in the end he kinda felt bad about it. I guess that's something. He managed to spot another moose the next year, but since his 1952 encounter there have been no confirmed sightings. The moose are presumed to be all dead.

That hasn't stopped Ken Tustin from devoting his life to proving that the moose population is alive and well, just a bit shy. (Well, I'd be shy too if people shot at me every time I showed myself!) He has claimed to have seen moose several times, but never got a clear photo (sounds more and more like a yeti all the time!) He did find some suspect droppings and tracks too.

Recently, Tustin found some hairs and had them sent off for DNA testing at a Canadian lab. The results came back as a strong match for moose, prompting many to finally believe that there are some survivors descended from the 1910 herd.

Nobody knows for sure if the moose are out there, and if so how many. But if photographic proof emerges, it could cause the Department of Conservation to take action to protect the moose population. Which is kind of funny, since really they should never have been released into New Zealand's ecosystem in the first place!

Background story here. Recent DNA story here.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

I'm Gonna "Take On Camping"

I've been holding off on announcing this until I had a contract in my hot little hands, but now it seems safe enough to get up on my box and shout.

"Take on Camping" is a new book I'll be writing for Seal Press. It's part of a whole "Take On" series which encourages women to try activities that have been traditionally male dominated like car repair, home renovation, and (apparently) camping!

The book will demystify the outdoors for women who think that they'd like to get closer to nature, but aren't sure where to begin.

Don't look for it on bookshelves just yet, though. This will be the third book in the series, and is planned for a spring 2010 release.

However, I may be putting out requests for information, advice and opinions via this blog - so be prepared to get interactive!