Takes the mind on journeys into the mountains

Phillip Somerville reviews To The Mountains: A Collection of New Zealand Alpine Writing, selected by Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey, published by Otago University Press. 

Anyone interested in the mountains will be drawn to this book.

They will then hike their way through an expansive range of terrain: recent, historical, poetry, reflective, tense, illuminating, idiosyncratic.

The editors have gone out of their way to broaden the choice beyond the common white male voices of mountaineering literature to include more women and Maori writers.

Both are already well known in the world of New Zealand mountain writing, Fearnley for her novel The Hutbuilder and for co-writing Lydia Bradey: Going Up Is Easy, and Hersey for several books. Their complementary strengths no doubt helped unearth the medley of contributions.

Anthologies are for dipping into, and so it is here. Reading handfuls of the 81 pieces at a time was plenty for me. And such is the variety - across 150 years, previously published and unpublished, five of fiction, professional mountaineers and amateurs - that you regularly change reading gears.

I was familiar with the background to a few stories and some of the history, like the story of the deaths of four members of the Wanganui Tramping Club when Three Johns Hut was blown off Barron Saddle, near Mt Cook, in 1977 with them inside. But most was fresh.

The descriptions and observations range from alpine tramping to hard-core climbing, giving scope from the extreme to the relatively mellow.

To create some order, the book is divided into four sections: Approach, Climb, Epic and Reflection.

The editors live in Dunedin and southerners are well represented; including Eleanor Adams, Derek Chinn, Dora Hallenstein de Beer, W Scott Gilkison, Christopher Johnson, Joseph O'Leary (brother of Arawata Bill), Tom Riley, Rebecca Smith, Philip Temple, Dorothy Theomin, Brian Turner, Hone Tuwhare and Allan Uren.

My favourite was a vignette from Ranfurly veterinarian Smith. It captured the anticipation and scurry of heading off on a trip while she was still at high school.

The book is a solid and impressive hard-cover production and excellent value at $45 for that.

But do not expect photographs or maps. This is a book for reading, not for gazing at.

One minor niggle. Some of the contributions have a short useful introduction outlining year and place. For others, however, I found myself distracted by having to bustle to the back of the book to find circumstances of the author and the time it was written.

To the Mountains is welcome as a significant and important contribution to New Zealand alpine literature. There is a lot within its pages to lead you on journeys of the mind into the mountains.

Phillip Somerville is ODT editorial manager and a keen alpine tramper

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