‘Fools say that knowledge can only be acquired from books & men . . . and call me a fool & even worse for wasting my life in mountain solitudes. [But] I have now been wandering about the uninhabited parts of New Zealand for over five & thirty years always finding something in nature new to me and the world . . . glimmerings of truth unknown to others. I have never regretted the life I have been leading.’ CHARLIE ‘MR EXPLORER’ DOUGLAS
‘Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.’ MAYA ANGELOU
‘You can live like a sheep or you can live like a lion.’ JEAN-MARC BOIVIN
‘To each. their own Everest.” MIROSLAW FALCO-DASAL
‘Sometimes you have to go to extremes just to find room to breathe.’
The soldiers came up in a single file, rifles slung across their backs, their winter-white camouflage turning them into moonlit ghosts against the monochromatic landscape that was all mountains, snow and trees. they must have left their skis on the col below though they had kept their poles for balance and rhythm as they broke a knee-deep trail up the last steep section of their patrol beat. they were climbing hard, their out-breaths thick as smoke. I watched them through a slit in a rock only metres above, sinking deeper into my hiding place as they approached.
I had climbed here a number of times so was well familiar with the place, and had seen the border patrol before and knew this was their turnaround point. Beyond and for many kilometres, there were only crags, bluffs and rocky spires; an outburst of geological extravagance in the usually rolling and mellow Carpathian Mountains, the one section they did not need to guard. the national border was hermetic and only a fool would try to get across it here — a fool or a mountaineer. Still, I was relieved they didn’t have dogs. the standard-issue German Shepherds would, at this distance, have sniffed me out regardless of how well I was hiding. My escape plan was sound and carefully prepared, but there were always going to be a few gambles in it, and the presence or absence of dogs was one of the big ones.
It was all a gamble, really, one last all-or-nothing gambit. By all accounts, I should have been one of those soldiers. It was 1986 and the government of Communist Poland and its military certainly did their upmost to conscript able-bodied recruits like me, as I
did my damnedest to evade them. We’d played this fox hunt for a few years: me on the run, a fugitive in my own country, trying out one option after another, the hounds of the regime cutting me off at every attempt, slamming shut doors on each of my ways out, confident that, with the borders effectively closed, it was only a matter of time before I gave up my silly antics, as almost all men my age eventually did.
But they underestimated my resolve, my yearning for freedom. Quetzal, the sacred bird of the Mayas, is said to be so adamant about its freedom that it will die if caged. My sentiments, exactly. to me, this yearning for freedom — not liberty, take note, for this can be given or taken away by those usurping the power, but true freedom that is the inalienable birthright of everyone on the planet — was not negotiable. It is as innate as a drowning man’s craving for air. No one and no thing can stand in its way. Which is how and why I came to play my last card.
Finally, when even my parents were being hounded by the military police as to my whereabouts, when I had to walk past our home incognito to see if it was safe to come in, when all options seemed used up and all ways out firmly locked, I feigned surrender, a capitulation which was so coldly and patiently expected.
I was issued with a military summons, a one-way ticket to become a red-beret commando, no less, and the honour and distinction of a three-year stint, instead of the compulsory two years’ service for ‘the country, the people and their Communist ideals’. A weasel of a military bureaucrat, with a cruel smile on his face and wielding what little power he had, assigned me to a garrison furthest away from the town where I lived, no doubt as punishment for the sins of such long evasion.
‘No coming home for weekends,’ he feigned an apology. ‘the 9 trains aren’t fast enough to make the trip before your pass runs out.’ He gave me a week to organise my affairs before commencing my tour of duty to ‘serve and protect’. But what that weasel did not know was that I was just buying time. And that one week was exactly what I needed.
Five years earlier, I had still been a teenager when I’d watched a column of tanks rumble past our home, the soldiers in the hatches stony-faced, inhuman like automatons, avoiding eye contact with those who watched them from the street. on 13 December 1981, unable to contain the groundswell of freedom movements, the Communist cabal, desperate to cling to its power, declared martial law in Poland — in effect a war on its own people. It was a strange kind of war, an invasion from within and, with its imposition, the de facto police state came out of hiding and became official.
The Poles are a feisty and free-spirited lot, with a long tradition of heroic uprisings, but this time around, when they voiced their protest, they were swiftly met with an iron fist of uncommon cruelty, something that might have been expected from an outside aggressor, not from a group of your own, supposedly elected, public servants.
Battles flared around the country: workers occupied factories, taking on riot police with lances whose tips were heated white-hot in industrial foundry furnaces; stones and bricks confronted bullets and truncheons; tanks bulldozed impromptu barricades. Stretchers made out of unhinged doors were used to carry the bodies of the fallen, holding them up as martyrs. Army jeeps blocked intersections while soldiers checked everyone’s ‘papers’ as if in some macabre replay of Nazi Germany, the images still fresh and painful in the nation’s collective memory.
this then was the historical background against which I was to serve my time in the army, perhaps one day to open fire on protesters when ordered to do so. But the protesters were people like me, coming of age, and their grievances just. I could no more point a gun at them than I could at myself. this too, like the pining for freedom, was non-negotiable. And so I was about to play my trump card.
On that mountain pass on the border between Poland and Slovakia, breathing out slowly into my woollen glove so that the steam of breath would not betray my hiding place, I watched the soldiers I could never become. Huddled in a circle, they stomped their feet and beat their mitts together against the cold, the ear flaps of their fur hats tied tight under their chins. they lit cheap workingmen’s cigarettes — filter-less and acrid — and with each drag their faces glowed red with a hint of warmth. they swore, and spat, and checked their watches, stamping around some more, doing what soldiers the world over do best: killing time.
One of them passed around a flask and they all took a swig, and finally, when the requisite number of minutes had passed, the patrol-leader signalled a move-on, and they all filed back down the trail they had broken earlier. on the col below they clipped into their skis, the snapping of their antiquated cable bindings sounding like the metallic clang of closing rat traps. then they were off, schussing down through the snowy glade from whence they came.
For a long time afterwards I lay still in my rock crevice, listening to the winter silence. If patience is the virtue of a hunter, it is even more critical for the hunted. In a routine learned from winter climbing bivouacs, when staying awake and moving was the only way against cold and frostbite, I clenched and unclenched my fists, one at a time, wriggled my toes ten times each side, to circulate blood to the extremities, to keep them from going numb.
When I finally deemed it safe to come out, I stretched and warmed up with a few callisthenics. Below me, the couloir down into Slovakia — and freedom — was long, steep, snowy and smooth. tempting.
Coming back from climbs, we had often descended such gullies using a technique known as a snow glissade. this butt-slide, gleeful and fast, feet-first and using the shaft of an ice-axe for both steering and speed control, was a fun way down, until one time my climbing partner ran over a tip of a rock hidden under the snow which nearly took out his tail bone. I’ve preferred to walk down ever since.
I shouldered my pack and threaded my right hand through the webbing loop of the ice-axe. I thought of the weasel back at the conscription office. I should really send him a note so that he could amend his records. From this day on I was to be considered AWoL. No further notice given; case closed. I could send this to him as a postcard from some stunning exotic island, I thought, a place on the planet where I could get as far away as possible from him and all that he 11 represented. New Zealand, perhaps? Now there was an idea . . .
I started down the couloir, tentatively at first, stabbing the ice- axe into the snow for safety and balance, punctuating my gait. then, finding a newer, freer rhythm, opening up the throttle of the soul, I went from small steps to giant leaps and moon-walked down the slope, confident the snow would hold. the Iron Curtain did not have many cracks, but I had just found one and there was no turning back.
Sometimes you have to go to extremes just to find room to breathe.
You can pre-order a signed copy of GOING TO EXTREMES here
How unforeseeable are the workings of life, how mysterious its ways, coincidences, synchronicities. Within less than a year of that Carpathian night I did indeed find myself in New Zealand. there, on the kitchen table in a backpacker’s hostel in Auckland, was a torn-out page from the jobs section of the New Zealand Herald, days old but with one entry which seemed written especially for me. A high-rise maintenance company was looking for someone with expertise in industrial abseiling, a skill virtually unknown in the country back then, but something which was the only work I’d ever done since leaving school; one which paid enough for an offbeat and expensive climbing lifestyle while also allowing ample time to pursue it.
Within days I had the job and a work permit; within months a residency and my own abseiling business. It would take many years to exorcise the ghosts of the past, the nightmares in which, for some inexplicable reason, I had gone back to Poland and now I would never get out — the dream so predictable and repetitive, yet catching me out every time, making me wake up bolt upright, sweating, breathing hard and checking where I was. But apart from these interludes of bedtime horror, for the first time in my life I felt free, and ready to taste this freedom in all its splendour.
After months of dangling on ropes from the roofs of many of Auckland’s high-rises, I bought a mountain bike, still a relatively new invention in those days. I equipped it with saddle bags, a small climbing tent and all the other prerequisites for self-sufficiency, and set out for a year-long tour of my new home, reasoning, after Hemingway, that: ‘It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.’
I clocked some 10,000 kilometres on that bike, visited most of the national parks and hiked all the major trails. I spent a semi- Antarctic winter at Mount Cook, largely on my own and in the huts at the head of the tasman Glacier. I would fly up the névé by ski plane, on standby rate, packing a month’s worth of food and books, drag all that stuff to a hut on a kids’ plastic toboggan and live there for weeks on end, learning to ski big mountains and learning to write, daily drunk on my new freedom.
People came and went and I joined some of them on their ski tours, but, except for resupply trips, I did not come out until spring. After weeks of sensory deprivation amid the sterility of snow, even the grasses and lichens, let alone flowers and alpine plants, had the pungent intensity of wild thyme snorted straight up, like a drug. I was intoxicated with the country — its varied landscapes so full of potential for adventures, its friendly, laid-back, live-and-let-live people. the space, the clean air and clean rivers, the solitude and the almost unbearable lightness of being free among it all. I saw New Zealand as a place with the diversity of an entire continent — the smallest continent, as I still think of it — one that could take a lifetime to explore and to write about. And so I came back from that bike trip with a plan.
One grey and drizzly day in 1992, in his Mount eden office in Auckland, I met the man on whom this entire plan was hinged. His name was Kennedy Warne, and only a few years earlier he had co- founded and more or less single-handedly ran and edited the most illustrious magazine in the country, the New Zealand Geographic.
His office was part literary den, part laboratory of some eccentric inventor, strewn with half-read manuscripts dense with pencil annotations, large prints of photographs and mock layouts, trial covers and posters. Amidst this farrago, Kennedy moved back and forth like a whirlwind of creative energy, unable to sit still, forever fetching examples of work, both good and bad.
‘See, this is good.’ He showed me a stunning photograph of a man climbing a ridge in the Murchison Mountains, radio-tracking a takahe. ‘It’s good. But it’s not good enough. I don’t just want to lift the standards; I want to establish a whole new level for magazine writing and photography in this country. We have so many good untold stories here, but they’re only worth telling well. Listen to this!’ 13 He read out loud an opening paragraph from one of his favourite stories, in the Smithsonian, then another from the New Yorker.
‘Can you hear it? this stuff sizzles. It’s like a sound or a scent wafting from a good kitchen. It draws you in. It’s irresistible. It makes you hungry for more.’
I could hear it alright, but whether I could do likewise was another question entirely. I sensed that, like the winter night in the Carpathians, this meeting was another pivotal point in my life. But unlike that time on the border, there was no telling which way things would turn here. this time it wasn’t just me who was taking the leap of faith. I had to convince this man to take that leap with me.
I had with me three story proposals, honed to a word like haikus, my only trump cards in this gamble against impossible odds. I had no portfolio, no previous experience. I had only just bought a camera kit sufficient for the job and, hell, english was my fourth language.
But we were both burning with the same fire, the curiosity for life, the treasure hunter’s lust to go out into the world and find the nuggets of the best stories, and to bring them home, polish them up as best we could, and offer them for others to experience and, hopefully, savour. It was easy and obvious to see that quality in him, but somehow Kennedy must have recognised it in me, too, for the next day he called me back in, handed me a cheque to cover my travel expenses and a bag of transparency film to shoot my first story.
Within a month I was back at Mount Cook, this time climbing the mountain itself alongside a guide and his client, to write and photograph my first assignment for the magazine, about glaciers, ‘Rivers of Ice’.
That was the beginning of an adventure which continues to this day. By my rough estimate, I have done over 70 features for the magazine, and many more for other publications, and, if this has been a wild journey it is because, from the outset, I insisted not just on writing each story well but on living it, too. And so to write about ceramics I became a potter for a time; to learn about the underground world of karst, a cave diver. I have played the roles of logger and tree-hugger, poacher and ranger, hunter and the hunted, because one of the early and formative wisdoms which Kennedy had impressed on me was that a writer had to ‘run with the hares and hunt with the hounds’. And because, from he beginning, I innately believed that for writing to be authentic it had to come from direct experience, and that any writer’s block could be overcome by spending more time in the field, gathering experiences, living the story.
I’ll spare you that very first piece about glaciers, for it was clumsy and riddled with purple prose, the way ice, though outwardly solid, can turn out to be full of air bubbles and pores when you stab an ice-axe into it. the learning curve of writing and story-telling was vertical for me then, an arduous and foolhardy climb, much like my early mountaineering efforts, the ones from which you come back lucky to have survived to tell the tale. But by the time I wrote ‘the odyssey of Alphonse Barrington’, which is included here, the angle of this learning curve had eased off somewhat, becoming a steady, pleasantly steep slope, which it has remained ever since — always a good challenge but never quite such a desperate do-or-die again.
The narratives in this volume comprise what I consider my best work to date and they will take you to places and people that are as extraordinary as they are unknown, inaccessible, forgotten or just plain surprising. the theme of going to extremes, and the progression from ‘elite’ to ‘ordinary’, from speciality interests and a narrow focus to the all-encompassing ‘big picture’, have become clear to me only in retrospect. At the time of research and writing, I picked the subjects purely because they appealed to me, not really seeing that each choice, adventure and encounter was also a stepping stone on a larger journey of understanding.
By ‘going to extremes’, I don’t just mean outdoor adventures. Any pursuit — saving endangered species, searching for artistic excellence, treasure hunting, maritime rescue or pioneering aviation — can be taken to extremes if instilled with enough passion and commitment, enough inner fire.
The subject matter of these stories is as diverse as my interests, but this collection is also a record of adventures, a progression in writing life and, above all, an evolution in awareness — my own trial-and-error attempts to ‘see a world in a grain of sand . . . And eternity . . .’ no, not in an hour, but in one moment, the Now. Looking for the mystical ‘zone’ to which the extreme adventurers, athletes, artists, performers and thinkers allude — often in veiled inferences and hushed voices, for the state is as delicate as a soap bubble — and often finding it in the most unexpected places, in the ordinary here and now.
I have always been fascinated with human potential: what we are really capable of, how we act under fire, how seemingly everyday people can become superheroes when faced with a crisis. How, when we are confronted with impossible odds, we can find within ourselves hitherto unrealised reserves, the unused booster tank of clarity, strength, will, energy and resolve that can see us through and out of trouble.
I grew up among people who constantly tested that potential, often to beyond its breaking point. the mountaineering club I belonged to in Poland produced the hardiest and most accomplished bunch of Himalayan climbers ever to walk the earth. though the most coveted prize in the world of climbing has long been the so- called ‘Crown of the Himalayas’ — all fourteen of the 8000-metre mountains — the gallant, intrepid Poles, with their ‘we can do better than that’ attitude, also elected to climb these highest peaks, but in winter! think Antarctica combined with ‘Death Zone’ altitude. No surprise that for many years no one else dared to follow, and so the Poles notched the first ten first winter ascents largely by themselves.
Some years later, their exploits became the stuff of global legend after being portrayed in Bernadette McDonald’s book Freedom Climbers but, at the time, as a teenager trying to make sense of the world, climbing and girls, and soon to embark on my own little freedom climb, I had no idea just who these people really were — Kukuczka, Wielicki, Falco-D?sal, Hajzer and many others whose names may not mean much to you. they gave their time to the club, teaching us how to use ropes and ice-axes, tie knots and make anchors, then disappeared on far-off expeditions of unspeakable hardship. they pushed the limits of what was possible to such extremes that, over time, most of them did not come back.
Settling in New Zealand and, through my travels and work, getting to know the country, its history and people, I soon became aware that there was no shortage of such heroes here too . . . a more diverse bunch and not so obsessed with mountains, to be sure, but of similar grand calibre: Hillary and Blake, Richard Pearse and Bill Hamilton, Jean Batten and Kelly tarlton, Don Merton and Arthur Lydiard. then there is Charlie Douglas, the country’s very own thoreau, and even that old fool Barrington, the accidental explorer, whose journey has been likened to Shackleton’s epic crossing to South Georgia, which was also navigated by a Kiwi, Frank Worsley. And they are just the first tier, the avant-garde.
No question then that, for the size of its population, per capita as it were, New Zealand has produced more world-class pioneers, inventors and exponents of the extreme than any other nation. this phenomenon has been globally recognised. It has even caused some pundits to wonder if New Zealanders are endowed with some kind of special ‘adventure gene’ that is expressed in a greater than usual percentage of the populace. or if perhaps the land itself, in all its glorious and compact diversity, like some giant magnet or tuning fork, has the ability to activate that adventure gene in those who spend time within it, who hear and respond to its silent song.
I like the second idea better. Nurture over nature, if you like, and away from any implied genetic superiority because, beyond national pride, name-dropping and drawing inspiration from the greats, there is a lot more to consider here.
‘Extreme’ has become a much overused, almost meaningless word these days, and, combined with an epidemic of celebrity worship, reinforces the idea that any ‘going to extremes’ is surely the domain of the others — the greats — and never ourselves. Yet the extreme is a highly relative concept. to a Himalayan guide, climbing Mount everest again may be all in a day’s work, but for a man recovering from a heart attack even a short jog can be an extreme effort.
I once spent a day with a Feldenkrais therapist who worked with post-stroke patients, helping them to regain their basic faculties. After their neural network had been partially fried by the stroke — which could erase neuromuscular memories and pathways for even some of the most basic functions — these patients could take weeks, if not months, to re-learn to move their fingers, speak, begin to walk. If that is not going to extremes, what is?
After his fall from Mount Awful, in which he sustained spinal injuries confining him to a wheelchair, John Nankervis, one of New Zealand’s best-known mountaineers, said he now faced the hardest climb of his life, the toughest route. As Falco-D?sal, one of the ‘freedom climbers’ wrote: ‘to each, their own everest.’
The most extreme adventures and heroic deeds often happen in our daily lives, unacknowledged and out of sight and they are, more likely than not, overshadowed by empty glam and the fakery of mass entertainment. If you doubt that, ask a fire-fighter, or, better still, join their training programme. It will redefine your idea of ‘extreme’, as it redefined mine.
Even if our perceptions of what is extreme vary widely, we all innately sense that, if only from time to time, we need to enter this state beyond the comfort zone and, further still, to venture to the edge of what we consider possible.
Why? Because the extreme is where life is lived to its fullest. It is where evolution takes place, where most growth occurs, whether for a lichen or a human body, mind and spirit. It is where the vibrancy of life is refreshed and rediscovered, where we find inspiration and new directions — food for the soul — and we need these as much as we need food, water and air, if not more. there, as we test ourselves in these recurring baptisms of fire, the mundane and the false drop away and only what’s real and true is left to shine.Joseph Campbell, a mythologist and a student of legends and folklore, has suggested that all of our stories, the good and memorable ones at least, can be distilled into one essential narrative: a story of going to extremes, and coming back with the goods.
The book he wrote about it is called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, implying that the story is the same, and only the faces of the heroes and heroines change. the characters may differ, as do the times and settings, but the tale is the same the world over, from the Bible and classical Greek theatre, to indigenous myths and legends, to modern thrillers and movies.
In this archetypal story, the reluctant hero or heroine is thrown out of his or her world of comforts and routines and into a wild adventure, against their will, against all odds and insurmountable obstacles. one after another, things go wrong until, when they could not get any worse, they do. At the pivotal point in the narrative, hounded by fears, enemies, accidents, losses and other misfortunes, the hero reaches rock bottom, down and nearly out.
This is where that booster tank kicks in, when all that was false falls away and the hero finds his or her true strength, and comes through all the challenges and returns to the ordinary world, bringing back a hard-won piece of wisdom, a nugget-like glimmer of larger reality, to share with others.
I am that hero and so are you, because Campbell’s one story is the tale of a universal human quest for wisdom and understanding. our journeys will differ — like fingerprints, no two are the same — but one thing we can be absolutely sure about is that, whether we want them or not, life already has adventures planned for us, and some of them will be extreme.
It has been my direct experience that, unlike Campbell’s reluctant hero, it is better to enter the world of adventures voluntarily. this makes for a smoother journey, more engaging and less accidental. And so, here then are some of the favourite treasures I’ve dug up in my time and brought back to share. May they serve and inspire you on your own journey.
It’s a wild ride, and we are all in this together.
You can pre-order a signed copy of GOING TO EXTREMES here