The art of guiding them over the top

Guide Geoff Wayatt enjoys his 24th visit to the top of Aoraki Mt Cook. Photo by Philip Somerville.
Guide Geoff Wayatt enjoys his 24th visit to the top of Aoraki Mt Cook. Photo by Philip Somerville.
Walk into the Mt Cook visitor centre and turn left and there, displayed on the wall, is a set of skis.

They once belonged to Wanaka guide Geoff Wayatt and they are displayed because, with John Blennerhassett, he completed the first ski descent of Aoraki Mt Cook 30 years ago.

In the history of New Zealand guiding there can be few, if any, with Geoff's experience and longevity.

He came from Tasmania as a 20-year-old with a thirst for climbing. Now, aged 66, he has a mere 46 years in the business.

I heard of Geoff several years ago from a mutual friend as we chatted during a tramp in the Silver Peaks near Dunedin.

I was told Geoff combined skill, knowledge and thoughtfulness with strength and stamina. He would have been, if he had chosen those routes, a phenomenal mountain runner or multisport participant.

But it was mountaineering and skiing that have been both his passion and his business.

''It's given me an interesting path to go down,'' he said. ''I've been able to create something for myself and I found I could do well at it.''

By 1967 he was a Mt Cook Hermitage employee, and in Wanaka in 1973 he set up what was to become the country's longest-running private guiding business, Mountain Recreation. He is still based in Wanaka, although he spent 10 years in Canada on skifields and working in avalanche control.

Mountain Recreation these days has been pared back to a one-man summer operation. During winter, Geoff is a senior manager at Cardrona Alpine Resort, with duties including supervising ski patrollers.

Geoff has climbed Mt Aspiring 87 times and Mt Cook 25. My climb was No24 and the following week, this time in deeper, soft snow, he did it again. The client, coincidentally and unknown to me until afterwards, just happened to be the husband of an Auckland cousin of mine.

It was little wonder I sought Geoff to help me with my Mt Cook ambition.

After all, it was he who was the last to climb (seven days before) the East Face of Mt Cook before a slice of the mountain and 10m off the top came crashing to the Ball Glacier.

When I sought his assistance, he was busy at Cardrona and also as a consultant for the Otago Southland coroner on three climbing fatalities. Geoff has, as well, been a search and rescue volunteer and adviser for more than 33 years.

He's someone who likes to think about what he is doing and about the wider picture. At the same time, he's built intense practical interests in meteorology (skiing and mountaineering are as weather-dependent as farming), geology and gear and how to adapt it.

He makes time to yarn with all sorts of people about matters small and large, and the respect in which he is held was obvious among those we met at Mt Cook airfield, Mt Cook village and in Plateau Hut.

He has no plans to stop climbing yet, remaining fit and strong.

''While mountaineering is basically a young person's game, I can modify what I do,'' he said.

''While the body is willing, I'll carry on.''