Mountain man talks work life

Gary Dickson at Wanaka LandSAR base. Photo: Kerrie Waterworth.
Gary Dickson at Wanaka LandSAR base. Photo: Kerrie Waterworth.
Wanaka’s Gary Dickson is a volunteer member of Wanaka LandSAR and was one of the rescuers who retrieved the body of the Czech climber who died climbing Mt Aspiring last month. He spoke with Kerrie Waterworth about the ups and downs of being an alpine guide and a member of the search and rescue team, and discussed his concerns for the future of mountain guiding in New Zealand.

Businessman and alpine guide Gary Dickson lives in Wanaka, where he has a store specialising in all things mountains.

However, he also works in Mt Cook National Park, Westland National Park, the Remarkables and Aspiring National Park. For the past 20 years the 51-year-old has also worked as a guide in Switzerland, France and Italy, and for eight years has run training courses for mountain climbing guides in Iceland.

Phil Melchior (left) and Gary Dickson volunteer their time with LandSAR. Photo: Kerrie Waterworth.
Phil Melchior (left) and Gary Dickson volunteer their time with LandSAR. Photo: Kerrie Waterworth.
Q When did you first start climbing mountains?

When I was 16, a high school physics teacher organised a "snowcraft" course in his spare time, and from then on I started tramping, going over snow passes and rock climbing. I had heard about a guy running mountain climbing courses at Arthur’s Pass and I thought that sounded like a good idea, so I started working with him.

Q You’ve been guiding people up mountains for a long time. Has it changed over the years?

The rope work to keep climbers safe is more sophisticated and avalanche education has changed a lot but the big thing at the moment for guides is global warming. The glaciers do not have as much snow as they used to, making them more complicated to travel on. Places that used to be held together by snow and rock or snow and ice are changing, and there is more rock being exposed, so you have to keep changing routes.

The alpinist and mountain guide at work. Photo: Mick Savage.
The alpinist and mountain guide at work. Photo: Mick Savage.
Q Do you have a baseline level of competency before you accept someone to go on a climb?

Yes, and over the years that has increased and I think that is a good thing. You have to have a moderate level of fitness, although everyone has a different interpretation of what those words mean, and preferably have had experience in rock climbing or trekking. Skype, phone and email help me to match the client’s expectations with what I can deliver but what I really like is for them to turn up without a big pre-planned programme and then I can customise to suit their capabilities. To be honest, I can get a good idea of what the client can do just by shaking their hand, looking at them and seeing what they are dressed in and once you rope yourself to somebody up on a mountain it is pretty full on, so you have got to get it right.

Q Who is your typical client?

Your single disposable income young professional, like a young Australian IT specialist or a manager who is between contracts, or maybe a doctor or a lawyer, but at the other end of the spectrum there is the older client who has made their money, their kids have grown up and moved away, and they are looking for the meaning of life, or they do not have any climbing partners and they want to make sure they’re safe — that’s my classic client.

Q What’s the best and worst parts of your job?

It’s incredibly physically and mentally demanding, it is always interesting and no trip is every the same.

Sure, there are days when you hate it because it’s raining, freezing cold, you are tired and things are not going as well as you would like but there are other days when you’re standing on top of a  mountain with a client who is ecstatic or you just taught them how to ice climb and you see it click and you go ‘I love this job’.

Q Why do  people climb mountains?

Because it makes them feel alive.

Q Do you think climbers are taking more risks these days?

We spend hours at LandSAR trying to work that out. The Czech guy [who died on Mt Aspiring last month] had good climbing gear and he was doing everything normally but at the particular place where he slipped, the consequence was death. I go climbing a lot with Wanaka police sergeant Aaron Nicholson, and we were talking about how there are places on Mt Aspiring where you can trip and die but there are other places where you can trip, land in a heap and get up laughing. Climbing  mountains is all about focus, weighing up risks and decision making — deciding whether to use a rope at a particular point or whether your skill, your concentration and your footing up are to taking you forward 20 metres. That is probably all we’re talking about with the Czech guy.

Q You were part of the volunteer LandSAR team that retrieved the Czech climber’s body. What was that like?

It was horrible ... but you never know what you are going to when you get the call. We have seen some amazing survival stories over the years, so you go out there mentally prepared to find someone with broken bones and bleeding but you know you are going to save them. The death thing affects you a lot.

Q In what way?

For a week or two afterwards I am really hard to live with as I am still processing everything. Phil Melchior [Wanaka LandSAR Communications] and  Bill Day [Wanaka LandSAR Chairman] are essentially my life mentors, my shrinks if you like, and we sit down and talk it through and Bill helps me to twist it around to put a bit of a positive spin on it by saying I have made a huge difference for the family. Time is also a great healer.

Q Search and Rescue team members are volunteers. Do you think it’s time they started being  paid for what they do?

For me SAR is very interesting, it’s like a jigsaw or a chess game that utilises everything a guide has been trained to do, from your climbing skills to your management skills to factoring in the weather — you name it — and so from that point of view, I don’t mind being involved. But the tricky part comes when it gets to a certain level of busy-ness and you have to ask how much can you keep giving for free? I have been working with Phil and the chairman, Bill, to try to work out a solution for the future because there is only a certain number of us guides here in Wanaka, it is pretty expensive to live here so you are not going to get too many buying a house and not all mountain guides want to go and retrieve bodies, the way I did the other day.

Q Do you think there are enough young climbers training to be guides?

We know there is not as many amateur climbers out there as there used to be and they are the ones who go on to train to be guides. There also are not as many doing climbing courses either. I spent the last six years as President of the New Zealand Mountain Guides Association [NZMGA] trying to work out what’s going on and why there has been this change and my theory is there are now too many job opportunities for guides. When I started you could be a mountain, kayak or a caving guide but now you can be a Milford track guide, a mountain bike guide or you can even strap yourself to a stranger and jump out of a plane. These are essentially all guide jobs and they’re diluting our pool a bit.

Q Is there still a demand for mountain guides?

Absolutely. You can’t hire a guide in New Zealand now because they are all busy and guiding companies are struggling to get work permits for internationally qualified guides to come and work here. We have Swiss, French, Italian and Canadian guides working in New Zealand and they are all very good but you still want your own industry. You want young people just getting into mountain climbing to have the dream of becoming a guide, the way that I did when I was 16 years old.

Q Would you recommend it as a job?

Absolutely. It’s a great profession.


What is LandSAR?

The national volunteer organisation within New Zealand providing land search and rescue services to the Police and public of New Zealand. It is the third most popular charity in the country.

Add a Comment