Men Aspiring, by Paul Powell
When I was young and burned to roam
On thrusting spire and corniced dome
All hill bewitched I swagged the scree
And heedless passed the mountain tree
The mountain tree, the mountain tree
I heedless passed the mountain tree
It is with some trepidation that I attempt a review of this much-loved, and to put it mildly, simply inspiring mountain book. First published in 1967, quite fittingly by Reed, long-time supporters of New Zealand mountain literature but now long out of print, I must hazard a guess that it was immediately popular, and has remained enduringly so. I haven’t researched the reviews that it received when it came out, but I suspect it was well received. If my personal experience reading this book is anything to go by – I read it from cover to cover in the corner of a Dunedin tramping and climbing flat, and then spent many happy years poking about the corners of ‘Aspiring Country’ as Powell calls it, and will do so for the rest of my life.
Powell opens with an reflective explanation of what drives him, his two great influences – the mountains, and the sea, and above all else, his quest for understanding the motivations why people seek to climb mountains. He sums it up by saying that its as diverse as the people themselves, and that how “men come to maturity in the mountains interests him far more than peak bagging”. The book is fittingly devoted to John Turnbull Thomson, the Chief Surveyor of Otago Province, who placed the name Aspiring on the peak that the Maori people had long called Tititea, although I suspect it was secretly devoted to his wife Judith, who like his dental patients probably suffered through many an epic and delayed return from the mountains. Her quote “all men are liars, and mountaineers are great men” is highly fitting.
Powell did many firsts in the Aspiring area – notably the first traverse of Aspiring via Ruth Ridge, the Volta and Therma glaciers (culminating in his first climb of Mount Aspiring), the first ascents of Homestead Peak (1952) and Craigroyston (1953), followed by the first ascent of Rob Roy‘s north ridge in 1954. He also named a few of the peaks of the area, such as Dragonfly Peak. The stories of these triumphs are absorbing and are both expansive in describing the country – much of it untrodden and unmapped at the time, but also personal, detailing the actions and emotions of his climbing companions. Perhaps the best is his account of the epic snow cave on Bevan Col in 1951, when twelve people spent 3 days in a snow cave designed for two people after an accident on Mt Bevan. We may laugh and wonder today, but at the time, the best way of sending messages from the Bonar to the outside world was to spell them out in blue Condys Crystals on the snow arete below Mt Bevan!
Also, his account of his first climbing trip to Aspiring whilst still at university in 1948 was hilarious – due to post-war shortages of petrol they built a gasifier for “Heath Robinson” – their old bomb of a car, and rattled and backfired their way to the old Aspiring Homestead, arriving at the Aspinall’s covered in soot. If the downslope of Hubbert’s Oil Peak is anything like I suspect it will be, we might be back to that!
Powell rounds off the jubilant stories of first ascents and epics with the sobering personal account of the search for Christopher Johnson’s crashed plane (a personal friend) in Rough Creek below Mt Liverpool who he found, and then gently and with great emotion describes the aftermath, as his friends mourned his death in Aspiring Hut.
Powell was greatly involved in search and rescue – particularly in the search for the ZK-AFB, the lost Dragonfly on a flight from Christchurch to Milford Sound. He spent many years scouring the hillsides above both the West and East Branch valleys in an attempt to find it, with no success. Dragonfly Peak is named after this search. The crash site of the plane remains undiscovered. I like his phrase “the honesty of the high hills” – he returned to Aspiring after qutting his position as FMC’s Otago Search Officer in frustration at the bureaucratic delays in getting better mountain radios for searches.
As Powell grew older, his high ascents grew less and less, but his love for the area did not diminish (and it didn’t, right until his death in 2004). He just shifted focus, climbing easier peaks (like a new route on Fog Peak), always with a view of Aspiring in mind.
The book goes into detail with the relationship that climbers had (and still have) with the Aspinall family of Mt Aspiring Station, with Paul working there over the holidays as a young university student. The easy companionship between the climbers and the runholders reflects that period in New Zealand history when attitudes towards land tenure were more relaxed, and the hardened property rights focus had yet to kick in. Thankfully, and perhaps due to both the strength of character of people like Powell and his companions in the NZAC and the Aspinall family, the Aspiring area remains free of that.
Every generation that ventures into the mountains must venerate the one that went before, and think that they have it easy in comparison. When accounts of climbing are written down in old dusty books to be re-read later with a sense of discovery, and when people look at men climbing in old-style clothes on now receded glaciers one cannot help but think that maybe they had it better? Is what is left for future generations to do damned to be ever reduced, or is it now to be celebrated, given that the history of a place is now better known, and everyone who ventures there and understands it becomes part of it?
Powell climbed without maps – the map of Aspiring peaks and valleys and ridgelines and valleys that he produced sits on an engraving in the ‘historical’ corner of Aspiring Hut. But he didn’t mourn the loss of an exploration culture – instead I think he celebrated walking to a known place, and reflecting on old experiences whilst having new ones. This gives hope I think for a new mountain culture – one far removed from a narrowing focus on the few things left undone.
Paul Powell went on to write more great books – Just Where Do You Think You Have Been details more mountain adventures in areas to the north and south of the Matukituki Valleys, and Fishermen of Fiordland delves into the lives of the hardy breed who make their living on the forbidding coast of southern New Zealand. He also published a book of poems called Are You Listening River?, and an expose of the long saga of hydroelectric development on the Clutha River entitled Who Killed the Clutha in 1978.
There is still no book that matches this in the New Zealand mountaineering lexicon, no book that captures the spirit of the Otago Alps and those who aspire to tread on them in the same way, and nothing that makes you just want to pick up a pack and push your way up the Matukituki Valley as so many have gone before – towards the glittering peaks beyond.
I cannot recommend a better book with which to introduce new people to New Zealand mountaineering.
When old I am and no more roam
On thrusting spire and corniced dome
Yet, ever wistful, long to see
The browntop flat with the mountain tree
The mountain tree, the mountain tree
I’ll rest my swag by the mountain tree
Powell, P. (1967) Men Aspiring. AH & AW Reed, Wellington, 183 pages