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Best Queenstown Summer Yet.

I say this every year, but this season was definitely the best Queenstown summer yet! The more sports you do, the more adventures there are to find and progressing within those sports seems to unlock next levels of fun. Cheers to everyone who made this summer a blast. We had epic flying, some of the most incredible mountain adventures yet and exploring new terrain, scary moments on the edge, finding the line and pushing it, hospital visits, road tripping, endless laughs, a lot of nudity, a lot of beer, lessons learn’t, oh and a bit of work here and there! The highlight of summer was exploring Fiordland and I’m sure we’ll be making many more trips down there in the years to come. I feel super fortunate to be surrounded by a vast collection of people doing some pretty skilled stuff. There seems to be an endless amount of learning potential in this place and that is a good environment to be in. To an awesome season past and many more to come!

 

 

NZ Lately: Speedflying

Here’s a collection of visuals from summer ’13 in and around New Zealand’s mountains under the speedwing. All footage was filmed using Drift Innovation’s HD Ghost action cameras. They asked me to capture some footage for them from the Southern Hemisphere and from what I’ve seen, Drift cameras are going to get better and better over the next few years, so watch that space! They’re also creating some super useful camera accessories to make action filmmaking on-the-go much easier and stylish.

 

Unreal Journeys

My buddy Rusty made this video edit of our recent trip to Fiordland during perfect summer weather. We left Queenstown late one evening with a car packed full of toys. It turned out to be a pretty epic four days of non-stop climbing and flying. Cheers for an epic trip Rusty!

Mt. Tasman – North Shoulder

“There are many shades in the dangers of adventure” – Joseph Conrad

The pull of the mountains is hard to explain. There is an unspoken energy in the high and steep places of this world. Perhaps it’s something about these alpine starts and exchanging the relative safety of our base camp in the early hours of the morning for the cold silence of the alpine environment. The only sounds resonating in this world are our crampons slicing through snow and ice, providing a repetitive beat for the chime of equipment moving on my harness.  It’s a personal soundtrack of alpine approach. Invariably, and to the beat of it’s own drum, comes the hair-raising bass. That deep and bone-chilling sound comes from overhanging ice-cliffs, seracs and crevasses, as the unimaginable pressure and force of them threatens to fall and slide. Occasionally my partner adds his own sound and I feel the tension of our rope change. With the light of our head torches, we find our way through and over deep and empty obstacles within the glacier. Overhead, the stars provide a highly defined light of their own. This ceiling panorama covers us in visual depth – a universal grasp of distance that I have seen only from mountain backcountry and the middle of oceans. They are our audience, watching over us during our attempt. The beat continues, as we keep the pace as fast as it will flow, hoping the bass of falling mountains enters not our rhythm. Just make it to the lower buttress, I tell myself.

As New Zealand weather forecasts go, we’ve chosen a good one; no wind to six thousand meters for forty-eight hours and the skies are perfectly clear. The freezing level could be lower, but it’s low enough. If you want to climb one of the highest peaks in the country, the forecast doesn’t get much better. If you want to fly from the summit of that peak, it’s essential. Having a speed wing in the bottom of your backpack adds an element to alpine climbing that I would best describe as efficient. Our plan to summit and fly from Mt. Tasman this morning could go one of more than a few ways, but if we pull it off, it will be a smooth and clean way to summit this photogenic and captivating mountain.

We reach the base of the lower buttress of Syme Ridge.  This extremely aesthetic line connects the Grand Plateau glacier to the North Shoulder of Mt. Tasman. After finding our way over the final crevasse, I begin to lead the first pitch of our climb. We’ve chosen a couloir that we think will deliver us quickly to the ridge arête. I climb with confidence, not thinking about my belay – it’s a good feeling to have complete trust in your climbing partner. Three full pitches up this narrow couloir lead us directly onto the arête. The sun is beginning to rise from the east and already we no longer need our head torches.  The horizon is painted a deep orange, but still contrasts heavily with the deep blue and black of the night sky. As I bring Georges up on the final pitch, the morning light begins to pour in and behind me Mt. Tasman glows red. The feeling is that of serenity. Or rather, serenity mixed with adrenaline – a damn good cocktail…

Sunrise hits Mt. Tasman

georges lower syme

Sunrise on Syme Ridge

We both sit on the knife-edge ridge and look up at our route. The ridge isn’t wide enough to stand on. One side is soft ice, the other soft snow. Above us, the ridge maintains its sharpness, via what appears to be a minor rock step and a few bergschrunds to keep us honest. For eight hundred meters, we’ll be climbing on pristine and steep alpine terrain, eventually leading us onto the North Shoulder.

Lower Syme Ridge

After layering up on sunscreen, we set off again. Choosing the harder side of the ridge to climb on, we stay level with the arête. Axes bite and pull fluidly, while crampon front-points kick below. Before long, we establish a slow and steep rhythm. I’m aware of Georges below me on the rope, but rarely feel the need to look down. We’re simul’ climbing and moving well. That feeling of the present allows the rest to fall away, and I find myself simply focused, surrounded by dramatic and steep beauty in every direction. Truly, nothing else matters. It’s a high and delicately balanced perspective that I find nowhere else in life – a connection with something profound, momentous and decisively expressive.

aoraki and silberhorn

georges climbing syme

An hour or so passes and we find ourselves about halfway up the ridge. We stop for some food and water, at the bottom of an overhanging section of serac. Not a bad place to be on a Wednesday morning! At this stage of the climb, we exchange few words. Both of us are focused on our bodies and going through the motions of alpine ascent. You’re pushing yourself in many aspects, both physically and mentally. Along with the demands of the climb itself, I find my thoughts returning often to our ambition of flight. Every breath of wind stirs me to look at the sky and clouds below. Is there some weather coming in? With every step, our perspective of the summit changes. How do take off options look? Can we get off?

DCIM100DRIFT

Lunchtime serac vista

We continue on up and Georges takes the lead, climbing straight up the ridge into the sky. Another hour or so passes and we reach the top. The view opens up into a white-capped landscape panorama that remains vibrant in my mind long after seeing it. The summit of Mt. Tasman is now to our south, connected directly by the North Shoulder and we have a panorama stretching from the Tasman glacier to the west coast. Either side of the ridge drops off dramatically. To our left, we can fall all the way back onto the Grand Plateau and to the right, into the west coast. This is it – time to switch on to the terrain and make good decisions. We take a moment and absorb our three-sixty view of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. The Main Divide is clearly visible as it drops into a pristine expanse of glacier and eventually into the Tasman Sea.

west coast and the main divide

Dont fall

I look up to the summit of Mt. Tasman as Aoraki back drops our line to the summit. I can see the spot below High Peak, where we launched our speed wings from last season. I remember how ‘less than ideal’ conditions were that day and smile. “And here you are again, ya nutter”. Today however, conditions are very much in our favor.

Mt. Tasman North Shoulder

I lead four pitches up the east aspect of the North Shoulder, with around one thousand meters of air below my feet. As Georges reaches the fourth belay, we both smile. A few minutes of simul’ movement brings us to the summit of Mt. Tasman. The view is more than reward for nine hours of ascent. The spine of New Zealand’s Southern Alps stretches north and south below our feet. And there’s no wind! We’re going to fly.

georges north shoulder

Excitement pulls us from relaxing on the summit too long. We climb down two or three meters, to a space wide enough to lie out our canopies. A light breeze blows from the north. We decide we’re going to run true with the ridge and hook right when ready.

Crampons off, axes in the bag, and ice screws and other sharp objects are packed away. I consciously feel my focus heightening further. After a few essential checks, we’re both sure off our exit paths. It’s a committed takeoff, with unstoppable steepness after the initial few steps. With one look at Georges behind and a quick remark, we’re gone.

It’s an absurdly incredible feeling – landing back were we started nine hours ago, only three minutes later.  Those three minutes of flight are a mixture of pure adrenaline and intense fun. Carving the air and flying in steep proximity with the terrain of an alpine peak is indescribable.  I now stand meters from Plateau Hut, our start point, with my canopy by my feet and the hot sun above my head, looking back up at that three thousand meter peak in awe and with ultimate respect of it’s terrain and character.

I bunch up my wing and walk over to Georges. We landed meters apart and apparently he’s as happy as me. We shake hands with big smiles, in mutual disbelief that we pulled off our plan. On the 13th November 2013, we are the first to fly canopies from Mt. Tasman’s summit. For a while we can’t stop laughing. We just stand their shaking our heads and staring back up at the summit of Mt. Tasman.

We enter the shade of our alpine hut, strip our clothes down and cool off. After putting together a quick lunch and rehydrating, we’re repacking our bags. The excitement begins to grow again. We travelled to Plateau Hut with both a speed wing and paraglider each. The dream plan was to summit Tasman, fly back to the hut, repack our bags, cross the glacier to Cinerama Col and paraglide back to Mt. Cook village. With perfect weather and no wind continuing throughout the day, we see the chance to follow through with that plan.

By 2pm, we’re slinging our packs again, roping up and starting our crossing of the glacier to Cinerama Col. With no wind, the glacier is a furnace and it doesn’t take long before I’m saturated with sweat, as it drips from my chin. We charge on through the now soft glacier snow. My eyes stay focused on the edge of the glacier, where I’ve no doubt we’re going to be able to launch the paragliders from. We stop occasionally out of exhaustion and I feel the sun burning from above as I glance often back up to the summit of Tasman, feeling a stronger connection than the day before.

Two sweaty kilometres later, we reach the edge of the Grand Plateau and it welcomes us with a perfect wind, licking up from the valley below. Harnesses back on. Ear-to-ear smiles. Quick orange as a pre-flight snack. And we’re flying. Georges and I fly in close proximity, laughing our heads off like kids.

flight from cinerama

After picking up the car from the village, the drive back to Queenstown allows time for processing the past forty-eight hours. The mountains provide me with an experience and connection that is far beyond most things in this life and I’m stoked to be planning and living these alpine journeys. By nine o’clock, we’re back in town – drinking beer and eating food with the housemates. I wake up in my own bed the next morning after a solid sleep and laugh out loud. Whatta trip. What a trip.

The pull of the mountains is hard to explain, but they continue to captivate me. There is a feeling that comes only in the high and steep places of this world, during that delicately balanced state. It’s not a place to stand still for too long and perhaps that it part of the mystique and lure. I will say one thing though; moving fluidly on alpine terrain is like music. It’s a free flowing and expressive state that produces a rhythm, unlike any other.

Tasman Speed Descent raw footage

Tasman Speed Descent

 

See You At The Bottom

“An unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates

As I write this, there are 7,168,667,849 people on our earth. And that number is growing every second. More than four billion people have been born into this world, including myself, in the past fifty years and it is estimated that our population will grow by nearly another billion in the next ten years (UN stats). That’s a lot of people for one world growing smaller as globalization realises itself more and more.

In modern day, it seems that the daily happenings of our lives are worth sharing every hour. Right now I can click open Facebook and find out what my buddy – who I haven’t seen for over two years – just ate for breakfast. I know where he’s partying, which girl is sharing his bed, what he thought about yesterday’s news and even better; what everyone else in our combined circle of friends thinks about his thoughts. Ha. That all sounds like a negative rant, but it’s really just an observation of our digital reality.

I’m sure that Socrates, in his halls of philosophical thought, didn’t imagine this evolved state of social media and exchange. Yet his words seem to hold application and value in modern society. Our own lives, the lives of our friends, and those of our friend’s friends are being examined daily, in an intricate and highly connected web of who-knows-who. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing, but it’s definitely food for thought.

I’m twenty-two years old. I’m an almost infinitely small fraction of a single percentage of the people on this earth. And that makes me wonder; why am I here? It’s so easy to get caught up in your own life, in your own status, image, needs, wants and ideas, but at the end of the day, what does it matter? You’re just another number that makes up such a huge collective of humans on this earth; all consumed individually by their own lives. I think, “relax, don’t worry about it and just enjoy yourself…” But then one does have to remember; we are different to all other living creatures on this earth, for we are able to think about being here. We’re not simply waking to the new sun every day, collecting food, eating food, and repeating the process the next day, with a little bit of reproduction thrown in here and there. We are able to think, to analyze, to examine, to improve and I guess that is a tool most of us should use a lot more often – myself very much included. And hey, you may as well, because otherwise you’re just another one of those clones that make up that incredibly large number of humans.  Progress in life, to me, is important.

Aristotle wrote, “There is only one way to avoid criticism, do nothing, say nothing, and be nothing”. But what is criticism? I guess the common definition is negative feedback, which in itself I find most often, from those who I respect, to be conclusively productive and positive. Negative feedback, like positive feedback, allows you to learn, to realise what you’ve done right and what you’ve done wrong, to teach you how to live your life differently and better in the future – that’s progress and evolution.

Getting back to the point, my generation has revealed itself to be the generation of social media. It’s a generation of readily available beta on each other’s lives, and leaving feedback. Our digital world allows us to see what our friends are up to, write comments and ascertain how our own lives should be lived – but therein lies a potential flaw.

Without sounding too arrogant, the world I live in is pretty good and the people I mostly surround myself by are pretty unique. I’m lucky to have friends and mentors, at the top of the game in the world of “extreme” sports. Daily I see what these guys and girls are up to, in our high-definition world of social media. As great as it is to open up the laptop and be inspired by the latest progression in canopy and mountain-related sports, or whatever else for that matter, it’s also pretty dangerous. I recently lost a friend who died to “get the shot”. It made me think about everything I’ve just written about.

I spontaneously left New Zealand not long ago, to step back and gain some perspective. I felt myself more and more, needing to push my own limits with a camera attached to my helmet. With the sports that I enjoy, pushing it a touch too hard past your own skill-set has big consequences and the mountain environment that we play in adds essence to that. Not long before making this decision to step back, I made a mistake that left me very lucky to have only a broken rib and thumb. The crazy thing…right after that I pushed it even harder. That for me was the beginning of warning signs. Chill the f$% out was probably the answer, but that’s easier said than done sometimes.

And so the past weeks have been a steep learning curve. I’ve seen in many aspects how I shouldn’t be living my life. I’m far from perfect and aware of it, but how you learn from mistakes and improve is completely beneficial to being a better person. Like I say, I value progress in life highly and feel good when I improve on things. I guess that’s a fundamental reason for pushing things to hard and fast. It’s important to chill the f%^ out and moderate that progress level sometimes.

I now know that I am doing what I am doing for the right reasons, for passion and enjoyment simply of the act. The greatest lesson I have learnt recently is how important your friends are. I climb and fly because it gives me a huge kick, but there is absolutely nothing better than sharing those moments with good people.

Our world is quickly expanding and at the same time globalization and social media is bringing us closer together. For the record, I think it’s a good thing. Friends, family and the people that you chose to spend your time with are everything. I feel happy and often inspired by having a positive, creative, varied and progressive group of friends. And it’s pretty cool to be able to see that and talk about it every day.

And perhaps there isn’t really too much thinking to be done after all. Maybe it’s pretty simple. I know for a fact that there is no better feeling than playing in the mountains, ocean and air and doing exactly that with good, positive and smiling people.

Smile and enjoy the daily happenings, spontaneously and without expectation or limit. Improve yourself as a person. Go hard and go fast, but think about it first. Share those experiences, but don’t get too caught up on the lines in between. See you at the bottom!  -BL.

Aoraki

Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.” - Einstien.

As we watched that four-hundred metre wide snow and rock avalanche tearing towards us, flowing like water into crevasses and grinding to an expressive stop uncomfortably close, the physics and reality of what we saw got pretty interesting. The biggest avalanche for more than twenty years (since the east face of Mt.Cook fell off in ’91) now successfully blocked any crossing of the Linda Glacier and our initial access to the north-east face. Fifteen climbers and guides now stared at a vast alpine landscape, instantly changed. It seemed to almost defy the processes of erosion and glacial movement, which take thousands of years to shape landscapes. In less than a minute, we watched this entire glacial terrain and plateau transform. Pretty humbling stuff. And my reaction? It wasn’t fear. Sure, there was a resemblance of fear in what I felt after watching what potentially was the end, but it wasn’t straight up fear. Even now, I’m struggling to label that emotion, although I recall it clear as day. The closest literary equation I can put to it is a very deep and connected respect for the energy of the mountains.

Mt Cook avalanche

Flying into Mt.Cook for a climber is like going to church for a religious person. Plateau Hut sits at around 2000 metres, above the Tasman valley. Mt.Cook towers above you from the other side of the Plateau glacier. Left and right of it, sharp peaks fan all around, creating a panorama of giant serac cathedrals and knife-edged ridgelines. For an alpinist in New Zealand, this is the holy land.

I sat there for a while, looking into the frozen amphitheatre and internalising what had just happened. My biggest fear about climbing Mt. Cook is avalanches and ice falls from overhanging seracs. It’s an external danger that you have zero control over. After watching that avalanche, I think everyone’s concerns were blown straight out of the water. It blew everything out of proportion and changed the game completely. Nobody knew how it had affected the stability of the glacier or if there were more overhanging sections of mountain waiting to fall off.

Myself, J.D. Osborn and Georges Millet were here with a plan to summit and fly speed wings from the highest peak in New Zealand. With such a plan, it didn’t take me long to come to the conclusion that a glacier sized avalanche of snow and rock could only add essence to the already ambitious adventure. In fact – and I’m fortunate to be on the other side of the world to most of my family when I say this – it added an element of excitement for me. This may sound outlandish, but it woke up my senses and almost seemed to put me in tune with the energy of Aoraki. It was as if the mountain had put its cards on the table. Now it was up to us to fold or go all in.

The following two hours was an intense show of helicopters circling the glacier and the guides trying to make decisions. Even the cool, calm and collected Georges had to go and lie down for a while. There was a radio call inside the hut between one of the guides and the head of DOC in Mt. Cook village, which seemed to reveal their intentions to close the hut.

Guides speak to the authorities in Mt. Cook village

Half an hour later, two heads of DOC and Mountain Safety in the village landed a helicopter outside of the hut and determined it closed. We were all offered a free helicopter ride out of the area and back to the village. The decision they were making seemed logical, but it also made no sense for me. I was aware that it was a simple case of nobody knowing what was going to happen next. To me, it was pretty simple. There was a huge rock and snow avalanche now in our immediate path to climbing Mt. Cook. Could it be safely crossed? Nobody yet knew. Was another avalanche of the same size likely to fall in that same space? Probably not. Was the rest of the surrounding area open to avalanche potential? Definitely…but we already knew that! We were here to climb Mt. Cook. For me, nothing had changed. This avalanche had simply made it visually vivid as to how exposed we were.

Watching everyone heli out of Plateau, leaving us to sleep outside the hut, was one of the most enlivening moments I’ll never forget. Saying no to evacuation made no sense and perfect sense at the same time. I fully respect J.D.’s decision to heli out. The guy just recovered from breaking his back flying off a mountain in the States. He was part of the final heli load to depart, leaving me, Georges and three other mountain convicts on the glacier. I had walked out close to the heli to film them taking off and J.D. was filming us from inside. Just as the skids left the snow, we made eye contact and saluted each other. Fuck, I will never forget that moment. We spoke about it afterwards and it seems that he won’t either. It’s incredible how hard it is to say enough is enough sometimes and I’m very much aware of it. Props J.D., ya made a solid decision.

J.D. heli take off

So that was that and then there were five. I’ve spent a good amount of time doing stuff on the edge with Georges over the past two years in Queenstown. This, by far, topped everything. He’s got a reputation for being understated and modest to say the least. I don’t think there’s anyone in town that does as many sports to such a collective high standard as him. It’s not a rare thing to see Georges quietly pull off something that most people would make a big fuss about. He’ll just do it and carry on as if nothing happened… I also fully respect his decision making in the mountains, which I think is possibly the most important part of a relationship between mountaineers. Needless to say, there’s no one else I’d rather be committed to such a demanding adventure with. (Georges is also a champion gas bomber. The man seriously has superhuman rocket fuelled powers!)

The other three that decided to stay were also solo climbers. They were two glacier guides from Fox and a younger, extremely interesting German chick. She was tripping out when we shared summit plans and told her we were taking speedwings to the summit. I’m sure if we had a spare wing, she would’ve asked for a crash course outside the hut! As it turned out, we were both planning the same route up the mountain.

The atmosphere of our base camp had now changed. It was quiet, relaxed and we were very much on our own. Before the evacuation, there were three separate guided parties. With that said, you always know in the back of your head that if it goes wrong up there, then there’s a lot of experienced mounatineers around. From this point on, we had to make concise decisions. Although the intensity of the situation was still present, I felt myself relaxing into the evening. The guides had left behind a box of luxury mountain food that they’d brought in on the heli for their clients. We also had a box of wine and a million dollar sunset. Summit eve could be worse! We chatted it up and prepared our equipment. In less than six hours, we’d be turning on head torches and attempting to climb Mt. Cook.

Wine on summit eve

sundown on cook

Sunset on the Tasman

With my heart racing with the anxiety of crossing the avalanche, I couldn’t sleep. Actually I think I got about half an hour, sixty whole minutes at a push. It didn’t matter. I was amped and ready to go as soon as the alarm went off just before midnight. Harness on. Quick gear check. Helmet and head torch on. Drink as much water as you can. Crampons. Jacket. Gloves. One axe out. Let’s go.

That familiar crunch of crampons on night frozen snow was echoing into the cold silence. A perfect sky was above us, without a single cloud and a clear alpine panorama of stars. We reached the wall of the avalanche in minutes.

Climbing into it was a surreal experience. The sidewall was five metres high. I took one look back at the remote civilisation of our base camp and that was that. A few steps into the debris and we were surrounded. After taking our crampons off, Georges led the way through the chaos. For all the rock climbers out there, there’s new bouldering inside that avalanche! Boulders the size of small houses, pieces of rock the size of your hand, massive chunks of snow and ice and everything in between – crushed together in a chaotic mess. We were relatively safe as everything had frozen together during the night. But wow… That was something to remember. Georges laughed and shouted out that we could name the passage through and claim a first crossing. I think we settled on the Millet Letham Express.

the edge of the avalanche

Much quicker than we had anticipated, we were climbing off the other side and strapping our crampons back on. Sweet. Done. After a quick pee on it (in a fully ceremonious act to claim the avalanche as our own) we were roping up for our night journey through the crevasse fields. For the next five hours, we’d be at the mercy of the towering seracs above us.

We walked through the night. The chilling silence was broken only by our crampons piercing the snow and our occasional reassuring conversation. The first serac fell just as we were entering the ice cliffs. It put me on edge for a few hours, until I eventually relaxed through the tension. I felt the energy of Aoraki and worked to cultivate it into long and deep breaths, trying to hold together a relaxed rythym. Roped together, we fell into a mutual rythym of ascent anyway. You get to the point where you can feel your partners movements without having to look, through the subtle tension changes of the rope on your harness. On one hand, the rope keeps you alert and on the other, it allows you to relax. When tied together in these environments, its almost as if the rope is alive. Its movements form the foundation of your relationship as mountaineers.

By around 6am, we were reaching the end of the vulnerable part of our ascent. Under the Gunbarrel (the name for the largest and most intimidating serac tower), we had the Linda Shelf in sight. After crossing a frozen avalanche, we reached the bottom of it. Our climb of Mt. Cook had begun. I couldn’t be happier to have reached steep terrain and be out of the fall line of seracs. It was such a moral boost for me to be out of that russion-roulette terrain. With an axe in each hand and hard snow under blade, it was on. We were climbing Aoraki and the sun would be soon to rise.

Linda shelf at night

sunrise on cook

sunrise on aoraki

Still roped together, we started climbing the Linda Shelf. The black outline of the rock buttress was visible above us. Taking a direct line above the bergschrund, we reached the steepest part of the lower climb quickly. Watching the black ink of the night sky slowly absorb colour before the sun rose was incredible. As the morning light began pouring in with the sunrise, our panorama opened up. We weren’t even close to the top and already the west coast was visible. I could see distant waves breaking on the shore. I remember promising myself that one day I would surf the west coast at sunrise and stare up at Mt. Cook from the ocean.

The next few hours brought more technical pitched climbing. Although exhausted and feeling slight effects of less oxygen in the higher altitude, the warmth of the morning sun was refreshing. We climbed around six protected pitches, up inside the couloir and through the summit rocks, which led us up and onto the summit ice cap. The slope angle was steep and the ice brittle and hard, but with careful axe and crampon placements it was all good. We were moving slow now, but with the summit in sight, there was no doubt that we were going to reach the top within an hour.

Copyright Mark Watson
Copyright Mark Watson

At around 11am on Monday the 21st January, I summitted Aoraki for the first time with the best partner I could ask for. Georges and I were both elated to be standing on top of New Zealand. I clapped my hands together for my father, as promised, and sent waves towards Europe via butterfly effect (one week later he told me that he surfed perfect waves in Portugal’s sunshine for three days!).

It was only five minutes or so of relaxed contempt on the summit, before the demand for focus arrived. The hours of dreaming, of visualizing, of imagining the possibility of launching speed wings from this very summit were now concentrated into present time. Now. We climbed Mt. Cook. When you dream of something for long enough, it’s the strangest feeling making that dream reality. You feel inside your dream and I could feel myself accepting it. It was strange and makes me now smile; as if my dream to fly from this peak was a childish notion – now I was standing here and the self-preserving and rational side of my brain had to accept it! Ha! I called my own bluff. Here we were and in an almost comical realisation, there was only acceptance. Ok, Ben, do it. Let’s see it. Fly your ass off Mt. Cook.

cook summit, getting ready to fly

The moments leading up to being clipped in and about to fly, seem now in memory to be a blur. Commitment – that word has definition to me now, if it didn’t before.. Complete submission and commitment. All you have is what you have and only those precise reflexes can allow you to perform the act. My take off wasn’t clean and far from perfect. With alpine packs and a rotor-filled crosswind, neither were the externals. But I’m writing this blog, so take off happened. I watched Georges go first, dissapearing off the ridge. Full-on and non-hesitant commitment. It had to be. I remember standing there afterward, hands on the control lines, staring off the face of Mt. Cook into the empty air below. My life never felt so real, so pure, so right there and living. I could feel every breathe and my senses were alive. I was as alive as I’ve ever felt. Those seconds before taking the first step, changed my life.

I must have stood there for three minutes, but it felt like three seconds. Three minutes was the length of Georges’s flight back down to the glacier and he radioed me instantly after landing. It went something like “Ben, take off was not good..I basically fell off the mountain..the air is not good either with lots of turbulence, so just be ready for it”. My Gopro recorded his dialogue and it’s pretty full-on listening to it even now. Georges is part of the best group of paragliding and speed wing pilots in New Zealand, who I very rarely hear voice concern in spicy situations. To hear those words from him was heavy.

With one step forward and complete commitment, I was airborn. The energy I felt in those moments on Aoraki has still not left me. I think it never will. It is, in essence, what I’ve been searching for. The ultimate high.

GOPR0458 0232

Mt.Earnslaw East Face

It’s Sunday afternoon and I receive a text from Bram. Three hours later I’m sat in town with him and Maxime Ducret, planning our mission to Mt. Earnslaw. The forecast is on for the following two days and by the end of our conversation, it’s clear that we have a potentially interesting trip planned.

Climbing Earnslaw is essentially the plan, but not the only motivation. Bram and Max want to ski the East face, while I’ve wanted to fly off it for a long time. We’re basically ascending to descend and I’m into it. If the weather gods are feeling generous, I’ll fly from an iconic mountain and I’m excited to see them ski some steep backcountry terrain.

Our approach plans differ. The two skiers want to pedal the valley floor section, saving them energy for the uphill. If I take off, I’ll fly out of the valley so leaving a bike in there isn’t an option for me. We’ll all bivy together below the snow line, but I’ll have to carry all my gear to the top. They’ll leave all unnecessary weight at the bivy spot as they’ll definitely be returning to that point. They’ll be ski touring from the snow line, where as I’ll simply have crampons on my much less efficient feet. Basically, and I’m very much aware of it, if I don’t fly from this mountain then I’m going to be hauling ass to keep up with this pair the whole time. And I’ll have to endure a normal descent on my own after watching them ski off. The weather gods had better be kind to me..

The next morning, after jamming the bikes into Bram’s car, we’re on our way to Glenorchy. Bram is a mountain man through and through, so it kind of amuses me that he decided to buy a lowered Subaru complete with massive rumbling exhaust. He’s obviously taking it into rough terrain often and I’m super surprised the bumpers haven’t been ripped off and left on some gravel road somewhere! Anyways, we had some tense river crossings, but the car survived another day in the hands of this mountain enthusiast.

We arrive at the end of the road and add the last items to our packs. For the first time since I can remember, I’m organized at this point and good to go before the guys. Normally I’m that poor sucker rushing the bits and pieces into my pack while my friends wait for me and look at their watches. It’s a good omen. The feeling of an organized self is not one I’m used to..

I set off and leave them to it, fully aware that they’ll soon be overtaking me on their bikes. That sucks. All I can think about is stepping off this mountain. I have to fly.

As I step out of the forest and into the valley, I’m not surprised to be surprised by the beauty of the surroundings! New Zealand’s valleys have some kind of unspoken character. There is a subtle contrast that grows from the flats, where the crystal blue rivers flow through warm and lush green grass, into a sudden line that marks tall trees and strong roots, ancient and wise, twisting their way upwards into the rugged valley wall, up higher to the shining snow, gleaming at you in the sun, higher still to glaciers and sharp ridge lines reaching into pointed peaks which seem to cut into the dark blue sky above. There’s a unique something the backcountry of New Zealand gives me that I am yet to place words to. It’s a feeling, a presence, a something..

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My daydreaming is cut short by the sound of pedaling. Jeez, it’s only been five minutes and these jerks are already speeding past me. As underpowered and left behind as I feel, I have to admire their style. It’s not often you see two guys cycle past you with alpine packs and skis. With massive smiles, they know they’re at the start of an adventure.

The valley walk-in is expected to be around two hours. We already foresaw me trailing this section by at least one hour. I relax into the rhythm of my footsteps and enjoy the only sounds of the river and wind through trees. Upon reaching one meander in the river bank, I scare a duck with around seven ducklings from their calm resting pool into the middle of the fast flowing current. The ducklings get fully stuck in the current and I track them as they struggle to swim back to a safe place in the river. Just as they begin to leave my sight, they all make it to the edge. It was a real fight for duckling survival and some of them were dunked under water for more than a few seconds at least. That was a Planet Earth moment right there. Attenborough would’ve been all over it.

As it happens, the river crossing are plenty and the terrain rough. It’s not long, maybe half an hour, before I meet the skiers again and watching them lock their bikes to an old paddock gate. With their heavy packs, it’s almost impossible for them to cycle over the uneven ground. Unlucky guys, looks like I’ve got some company for the walk in!

We continue on and begin to feel the heat rising. It’s going to be a warm one. As we step deeper into this valley, the walls seem to get steeper above us. It’s not long before we’re looking up at waterfalls and steep cliffs. Then comes our first obstacle.

I guess I was deep in thought or not thinking much at all (more likely the latter) when I decided to step over the fence. Almost subconsciously I decided we were taking the long way round and in a vigorous fashion decided to leap over this fence and correct our bearing. Yup, 7500 volts later I understood things a touch clearer. “C&@T F%+K. Hey guys, this fence is electric by the way..” “Uh yeah, that’s what we just said” I clearly didn’t get that memo, but now full heartedly agreed with the long way round. Anyways, these damn fences had no crossing points that we could find so we had to use Maxime’s ski poles (with rubber grips) to push them down and step over one by one. Bram got shocked at at least twice and Max too. Funny stuff. I was just happy to avoid the possibility of one of the guys getting shocked and letting go, allowing a swift electric fence blow to my man parts. Phew.

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We reach the start of our ascent up the valley wall below Mt. Earnslaw and after lunch get into it. As we climb higher, the view of our East face ascent becomes clearer. The guys begin to talk about possible descent lines. I’m pretty excited to see them ski it.

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A couple of hours later, we reach the old Earnslaw hut. Full of character and dust! Our sleep will be higher up, below the snow line. An East face climb in spring definitely needs to be started early, before the sun gets up and warms the slope.

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The next few hours pass by pretty non-descript. After a certain amount of upward meters, your mind begins to switch off. It’s physical repetition and with heavy packs on it’s hard work. My fresh perspective from earlier on in the day is now an exhausted blur. About an hour from dark, we reach the bivy spot. Our wild hotel plateau isn’t a bad reward.

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After some dinner and pre-summit day chat, we head into our sleeping bags with alarms set at 3am. I slept well that night but woke once. It was a pretty surreal experience. From my bivy bag I was staring directly into the sky as my eyes opened. With no wind, the night was completely still. Everything around me was dark to the extent that I couldn’t see my hands an inch from my face. Above me however, was one of the clearest star panoramas I’ve ever seen. It felt like being in Space. Since sailing the Pacific a few years ago, I’ve dreamt a few times about those clear nights gazing into one-hundred percent unpolluted night skies. This was as good as it gets. It’s like having super high-definition vision.

I wake again at 3am and its on, with pretty much zero wind. I slept fully dressed so after a quick pack-up I’m good to go. I don’t really like making breakfast on an early alpine start. My style is just to wake and go. My pockets are always lined with a variety of nut bars, muesli bars, muffin bars, brownie bars, chocolate bars and whatever else I can cram in there. I particularly like the peanut brownie and raspberry muesli varieties. My alpine breakfast is on check. Any questions regarding nut bars and the like, just holla. I’m your man.

As expected, I’m trailing the lead from the start. At least I have my heavier pack to blame! I’m pretty happy though, with only a light morning katabatic wind flowing down the mountain. There’s a bit of cloud across the valley but as the sun rises, it clears. Pretty awesome sunrise actually.

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By 9am, we’re on the east face and already feeling the warmth. Much more than expected. What looked like a super easy traverse to the south-east ridge, turns out to be home to several definite crevasses and an easily visible bergschrund below the main summit buttress. The gradient steepens enough to require careful steps and double axes. Although we’ve all climbed steeper and more technical stuff, we’re not using ropes on this one. Falling here would be an alternative quick descent to the valley floor!

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10am arrives and so does the heat. We’re all pretty surprised, but I guess we picked one of the hottest days of spring to climb this thing! Sweating heaps and still only half way across the face, that feeling of avalanche doubt starts coming into my mind like a tide coming in. It’s always the same; once you start thinking about it, you don’t stop until you’re off that slope. Unfortunately for us, it’s only getting hotter and hotter and the conditions deteriorate more and more. We’re literally kicking buckets in the now soft and wind blown top layer.

Rocks start melting loose from the buttress above us and after I nearly get smashed square on the face by a spinning blade shaped one, I’m over it. Not long after, the skiers are shouting down that it’s too sketchy to continue up through the couloir and even up and onto the south-east ridge. They start to flatten ground in the slope to mount their ski’s and I’m left with next to no options. It’s way too steep to launch my wing from. I make a fast down climb below the bergschrund. When left with no quick exit on an obviously unstable slope, three words naturally come to mind – fuck this shit.

Lucky for me, there is zero wind.. As soon as I reach a gradient I can take off from, I set up my wing. As I take it from my pack, I look up to see Max and Bram ski the face from below the buttress – still pretty impressive.

Flying off that mountain was serious fun. I’m still to take still shots from the footage, but I managed to fly round and get a look at the super steep south face of Earnslaw and flew through some super interesting cloud layers. Twenty minutes after take off, I land 14km down the valley in a paddock close to the road.

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It’s a crazy contrast, flying from over 2000m to sea level. Landing in the paddock, I stripped my gear off and chilled for a good half hour or so. Lying on the warm grass and watching the ice melt from my crampons was a sure sign of a successful mission! Now for the final stage, hitching home!