Thursday, 23 December 2010

Christmas stories from the New Zealand mountains and Sri Lanka beaches

The traditional northern hemisphere Christmas with snow and reindeers used to seem foreign to me as a child living in New Zealand in the middle of summer and going to the beach after a Christmas lunch. I suppose I have always associated Christmas with two things: the birth of Christ and adventure. As a child it was outdoors, beaches,  a swimming hole and later, I discovered mountaineering. When I was 19, I climbed Malte Brun, an impressive 3000 m rock peak, on Christmas Day, 1967, in the Mount Cook National Park. In the New Zealand mountains I had finally found snow in the middle of a NZ summer.
On the summit of Malte Brun in 1967 with Aoraki Mount Cook in the bcakground. Photo Keith nMcIvor

The following day, Boxing Day, we climbed the high peak of the twin summits of Minarets. I was fortunate to join a team of three crack Dunedin mountaineers, and together we climbed many of the 10,000 foot or 3000 metres peaks in the Mount Cook National Park, and also, Mt. Aspiring, over the years.
In 1967 we were labelled the 'Four Scots' McIvor, McLeod, Cowie and McKerrow. Together, or in pairs, we climbed many of the 3000 metre peaks in NZ, including Mt. Aspiring.
Aoraki Mount Cook on the right and the tasman Glacier between Rod McLeod on the left, and me in the centre. Jim Cowie is on the right. Photo: Keith McIvor

My first ascent of Aoraki Mount Cook, our highest mountain on Christmas Day, 1968. It was a 20 hour climb and probably the best Christmas present of my life, standing on the top on New Zealand.  Read the story of Keith's tragic death attempting to do the first winter ascent of the Caroline face of Mount Cookin 1973. .

Two years later on Christmas day 1970, I climbed Aoraki Mount Cook again, this time by the East Ridge with Chris Timms. Chris later went on to win an Olympic gold medal in sailing.

On Christmas eve 1970, I was working for the Mt. Cook National Park on mountain rescue team. We knocked off about 3 pm that afternoon and were celebrating in the Park workshop. About 7.30 pm a scruffy climber walked in and said, "I have a ski plane booked to fly into the Grand Plateau in a few minutes. My partner hasn’t turned up so I need someone to climb with."

Most of us were glowing with the effects of large quantities of beer and relishing the thought of a relaxing Christmas day the following day. I looked at Chris Timms, with his curly blond locks falling down over his shoulders, and an impish smile, and I was instantly attracted to this odd character, and I said "yes". That was the beginning of a long friendship.

My pack was always packed, ready for rescues so I grabbed it, stuffed a few cans of beer into it, and 30 minutes later we were on the Grand Plateau with Mt Tasman and Cook towering above us. It was 9.00 pm in the evening. We had the last two remaining cans of beer and grabbed 3 hours sleep. We woke shortly after midnight to a starry sky. We wolfed down some breakfast and hit the hard snow at 1 am. Chris Timms was hell bent on doing the East Ridge of Mount Cook. As I stood on the steep knife edge ridge, my feet were not steady. The effects of the beer were still there. I could think of no place better in New Zealand to quickly sober up. ( This is where I took the picture of Chris posted below) I looked at the Caroline Face of Mt.Cook and searched for my friends Mike Browne and Keith Woodford who I knew were attempting the face today.
Chris Timms on the East Ridge of  Aoraki Mount Cook on Christmas day 1970. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Near the top of the ridge where it comes out just below the middle peak, we struck gale force winds and blizzard conditions. The snow and ice stabbed like a driven nail into our faces. For survival, the only options were to dig a snow hole on the summit ridge, and wait until the weather abated, or drop down into the Hooker Valley to Empress Hut. Originally we had planned to zip over the middle and high peaks and back down the Linda Glacier to Plateau Hut.The descent was the most treacherous in my whole climbing career as neither of us had been on this side of the mountain, and we fell a number of times descending what we found out later, was part of the Hooker face. Visibility was almost zero and we fell, staggered, stumbled our way to safety.
I can remember both of us falling onto the bunks in Empress Hut and both rocking with laughter. " Shit Bob, that was close," said Chris. We had clearly diced with death and survived. Chris Timms and and I were to survive many other close shaves in the years ahead, but eventually in 2004, his luck ran out. We walked out down the Hooker Glacier and out to the Hermitage the next day. Chris was such fun to be with as he sang, joked and enjoyed everything around him. While descending the previous day, Chris had ripped the seat out of his long johns and his bum was showing in places, much to the amusement of tourists as we hit the track near the Hermitage. Chris never cared about what people thought and laughed with them. He had an admirable quality of being able to laugh at himself.
Left, Chris Timms after winner a gold medal in the 1984 Olypmics for sailing.

Our Christmas playground as young mountaineers. Haast, Lendenfeld, Tasman and Aoraki Mt. Cook.  Photo: Bob McKerrow

For nearly a decade I spent my Christmases in the New Zealand mountains interspersed with climbs in Ethiopia, Kenya, Borneo and the Himalya.
On the summit of Mt. Kilimananjaro, 1978 ; "As high as the sky" wrote Hemmingway.

 In 1978, when living in Ethiopa, I climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro a few days before Christmas. In 1969  Christmas was spent in the Antartcic, and in 1986, preparing for  a trip to the North Pole in Ely Minnesota.

Many years later, 2010, I still try to do something adventurous over Christmas, so I am in southern Sri Lanka at Hikkaduwa, with my two sons surfing.

Around 4.30 pm, the surf gets bigger and the waves are fantastic. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Ablai catches a good wave and is handling the surf well for an 11 years old.
Ablai eyeing up the rack of surf boards.

Tonight, Christmas eve, there is a big party at the ' A Frame' just 100 metres from our Hotel.  Do you think I will look out of place without dread locks, as most of the local surfers are real cool ? Photo: Bob McKerrow


The Franz Josef Glacier taken from the Fritz range. Photo: Bob McKerrow


Marja said...

Out of place?. you just be your unique selve and that's what you certainly are unique. What an adventures life and how beautiful it is on the top of the mountains and what a nice memories you have. Sorry that things didn't turn out well for your friend.
Your children inheret your adventures spirit. What a beautiful

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Marja

Life is a mystery for all of us as is the birth of Christ.

We never know how are children will turn out ? I hope the will be risk takers, risk managers and lovers of life.

Merry Christmas.

Donald said...

Dear Bob

A great post on a wonderful theme. Riding the waves of life in more ways than one!

I'm sure that Ablai with benefit from your considerate investment of time into him.

Keep up the good work.



Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

How are you Donald? Yes, the investment of time in children pays off. We had a wonderful holiday but O I how I miss those old mountain trips.

Nest wishes for the New Year, Bob

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Chris Isler said...

Excellent article about Café du Soleil. I was quite moved reading it and looking at all the photos. Eventhough I wasn't exactly a member of this famous university which we called HQ 2, it made me feel a bit nostalgic of my years at the Fed where I feel we were like a big family. Thank you Bob !