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Just where do you think you’ve been? By Paul Powell

18 June 2010

The question in the title is fully answered in a wonderful book that takes us all over the place. Starting from his university years in Wellington, the author tells us about his first ‘real’ trips in the Tararua Ranges, and his Christmas forays to the central Southern Alps. After a break caused by the war, during which Paul Powell, abroad with the navy, was able to fit in a fleeting visit to the hills in Wales, the life-long journey through the Southern Alps resumes at Arthur’s Pass. A number of impressive adventures follow, on Mount Tasman, in the Matukituki Valley, in the Copland, in the Remarkables, and in wild Fiordland. The Great Unknown and Mount Grave are two first ascents by Paul Powell which give us a taste of pioneering times that are well and truly gone. The two final chapters, about the construction of Esquilant Hut and a visit to Ruth Flat with Paul’s son Conway, shift the focus entirely away from climbing, but continue with what is really the central theme of this book – shelter.

Paul Powell’s first work, Men Aspiring, ended with a dramatic chapter about a trip to the Volta Glacier, where the author was forced by a storm to endure nine days in a snow cave with his three companions. It was while in the snow cave that in Paul Powell’s words,

“…it came to me what shelter means in the mountains. Huts, tents, shelter rocks, were more than stops along the way – places where men stayed to eat and sleep, leaving them to hunt deer, cross passes or cut transient steps up summit ice. Shelter in the hills meant more than cleaning a rifle, mapping the cross-country tramp, or resting for the climb. In huts or bivvy rocks men were relaxed… By the fire they bragged like Norsemen, argued like Jesuits, sang like minstrels, and dreamed like poets… Such hospices were the beginning and the end of mountain life with the minutes of action sandwiched in between…”

And shelter (or the lack thereof), not climbing, is really what this book is about. The strongest impressions are not associated with heroic action up impossible cliffs. The author’s memories focus on huts, rock bivvies, tents, snow caves, and two miserable nights in a very sodden Fiordland forest – without any sort of shelter.

Just like Men Aspiring, Paul Powell’s second mountaineering book is beautifully written – perhaps even more so. Powell’s skill with words is impressive, his rich vocabulary is always used appropriately, it is never pompous; it conveys his fears, his feelings, his reflections, and makes us feel as if we were sitting in a hut right next to him. This is indeed a book I could read all over again.

Reference

Powell, P. (1970) Just where do you think you’ve been? A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington. 206 pages

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