Monday, December 7, 2009

This Kiwi Christmas, think of the environment; kill a tree

These days the whole Christmas thing seems to be a bit past its used-by date. It’s had a good run: the festival that started out in the spirit of charity and camaraderie has been kicking on for nearly two millennia, well and truly outliving its Pagan creators.

Unfortunately, true to the laws of entropy, over the years the feel-good fest has decayed to a point where it’s now really just about absolving your guilt for neglecting friends and family by buying them crap they don’t need and you can’t afford. Bah humbug!

However, if you pick over the carcass of Christmas, moving carefully past the poisonous bits – the consumer fads, the nauseating carols, and inevitable family squabbles – you can still find some delicious titbits, sometimes in the most unexpected of places.

Take for instance the whole Christmas tree thing; the custom of chopping down a small evergreen tree, bringing it inside and festooning it with so much tinsel and fairy lights that the boughs creak under the strain.

There are a lot of theories floating around for why it’s become a tradition, the most logical being that in the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere, having a bit of greenery inside during the cold and dark of the winter solstice was a comforting reminder that spring is on its way – pretty irrelevant for forty-five degrees south, where Christmas falls in the heat of summer. Or is it?

You see, New Zealand’s South Island is faced with a bit of a thorny (or should that be needly) problem. Forestry is one of our biggest industries, earning us about 3.5 billion export dollars and directly employing over 20,000 people in 2007. In my limited understanding, as far as large scale agriculture goes, forestry is one of the good guys - turning atmospheric carbon into houses, books and stuff. But, from a local point of view, the industry has a big downside.

The average eight-year-old radiata pine, (the species of which 90% of our plantations are composed) will produce thousands of wind dispersed seeds each year – and spread them over a ten kilometre radius given the right conditions. The resulting seedlings, known as "wilding pines" out-compete our native plants, eventually turning iconic kiwi landscapes like Central Otago's alpine tussock meadows into very North American looking pine forests. It’s a phenomenon that, according to the Department of Conservation, threatens over 210,000 hectares of public land.

The good news is; the average seven-year-old radiata makes a particularly handsome Christmas tree, and if every household in the South Island had one decorated and dying in their house this year, we’d be well on the way to getting the problem under control.

So, this Christmas, rather than erecting a petrochemical plastic monstrosity in your living room, why not pick up a saw, head into the highcountry and chop yourself down a tree. You'll be doing the environment a favour.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Here's my excuse

I like to think of myself as being an optimist. But if, in fact, my life does prove to be a crashing failure, serving only as a warning to others, this’ll be why:

When you think deeply about life, love, culture and politics, from the United Nations General Assembly to Altitude Bar on a Friday night; it’s all really just biology.

When you look closely at biology; muscles, hormones, cell reproduction, and DNA; whether you’re talking about the physiology of an Olympic athlete or the mating behaviour of a Kakapo; it all boils down to chemistry.

When you study chemistry in its fundamental parts; molecules, protons, neutrons and electrons and the finely choreographed sub-atomic dance happening all around us; it’s all really just physics.

If you’re bright enough to study physics in detail; matter, motion, energy and force; it’s really all just mathematics...

...the thing is, I suck at maths.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mother Nature's gambling den - follow up

A bit of follow up from the last post regarding the Fine Line screening in Queenstown. I'll let Sophie from AdventureSkope do the talking:

"I'm delighted to let you know that last night's screening of the award-winning avalanche film "The Fine Line" at Queenstown's World Bar was a huge success!

The AdventureSkope Productions crew were hoping that about 100 people might attend, so they were overjoyed that almost 200 people braved the rain to be a part of this fantastic night.

Even more people wanted to see the movie - the AdventureSkope crew had to apologetically turn people away due to the World Bar having reached maximum capacity.

Proceeds from the film night, which are going to New Zealand Land Search and Rescue, have already exceeded $1,600 and further donations are still pouring in. Search & Rescue's Ed Halson is delighted with the result and has said that the money will be used to fund new "lost person rescue kits" a crucial ingredient in a successful backcountry rescue.

The event was very well supported by local businesses with over $2,000 worth of products being given away to thirty lucky people. Sponsors included Body Sanctum, Harris Mountain Heli-Ski, IO NZ, Joe's Garage, Onsen Hot Pools, Outside Sports, Petzl, Quest, The Studio Pilates & Physiotherapy and The World Bar; along with 3 Fold Print and Impact Print.

Thanks to everyone that supported and attended this event - without your help it wouldn't have been the incredible success that it was!"

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mother Nature’s gambling den

How to ski steep and deep... while stacking the odds in your favour.

To the average flatlander, skiers’ obsession with powder snow must seem a bit ridiculous. Why on earth would go to so much effort, so much expense and generally risk your neck for a bit of frozen rain?

The simplest answer I can give is this: riding steep untracked powder is an experience that leaves any other non-medicinal recreation for dead.

Why? Well, the nature of powder snow is such that you don’t so much travel across it as fly through it, piloting your skis or board in three dimensions. Plus the surface itself is incredibly forgiving, more so even than water, allowing you to drop cliffs and have wipe-outs that’d send you to the emergency room on any other surface.

Then there’s the whole kinaesthetic side of it. The rhythmic motion of linked turns in deep snow is a little like dancing to a steady, thumping baseline – the sort of rhythmic movement that awakens the primal hunter-gatherer part of your brain; the beast within - Grrr!

When you combine these things it’s like being a superhero for the day – flying faster than a speeding bullet, leaping tall buildings in a single bound, surviving blows that would kill any mortal man. It’s an endorphin rush, an adrenalin rush and a head rush all at once. Better than any drug… and way more addictive.

You see, there are no guarantees with snow – especially in a maritime climate like New Zealand – you can have champagne powder one day, slush the next, and ice day after that. It’s Mother Nature’s gambling den; you get a random reward with a random frequency. It’s no surprise people get hooked.

The problem is snow’s a tricky substance, when it’s freshly fallen it’s light as eider down, but given the right conditions it can form into dense layers (often hidden deep in the snow pack) that can peel off a mountainside when triggered by the weight of a skier.

To make matters worse, if you don’t know what you’re doing, it can be hard to tell just how securely things are stuck together– in effect, you won't know whether you’re playing a 20c poker machine or betting everything at the high rollers table.

So what’s a hapless powder-addict to do? One word my alpine amigos: learn.

If you're reading and this thinking "hey, that sounds like me" and you happen to be in Queenstown*, then a great way to get started is taking place on Thursday the 27th of August at the World Bar (yes… before you ask… you are allowed to drink beer at the same time), with the screening of the mould-breaking avalanche movie The Fine Line.

Event Director, Sophie Kennedy from AdventureSkope, who was one of the first on the scene at the recent avalanche that killed Ryan Campbell, says what she saw that afternoon inspired her to organise the screening.

“Although we weren't able to save Ryan, I hope that by screening this movie and increasing avalanche awareness in Queenstown, we might be able to prevent situations like this happening in the future.”

“If you have any interest in avalanches, snow sports, backcountry access or simply exquisite cinematography you should see this film. You just never know, someone's life might depend on it some day," she said.

The film’s cutting-edge cinematography which includes wire-cam, time-lapse, animation – and even a claymation cameo – has seen it win a swag of international awards including "Best at Festival" at the 2009 Fernie Mountain Film Festival, “Best Director” as the X-Dance film festival and "Absolute Winner - King of Films" at the 2009 Livigno Film Festival in Italy. Check this out to whet your appetite (or click here):

Doors open at the World Bar, Queenstown at 6.30pm with the film starting at 7.00pm. Tickets are $10 with all proceeds going to Search & Rescue. House drinks are $4 and entry to the spot prize draw is included.

If you’re a skier or boarder, and you’ve ever found yourself gazing wistfully at the untracked powder beyond the ski area boundaries, then $10 for a ticket – available at the door - could well be the best money you’ve ever spent.

*If you're not in the neighbourhood, then get on a plane... but seriously, if you visit Rocky Mountain Sherpas you can buy the DVD, or maybe track down a screening near you.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The eco-tourism paradox

Visit our country… or the monkey gets it!

Here’s an interesting concept… well at least I thought so: Is travelling to developing countries a good or bad thing for the environment. Could it be both in the same action?

In a lot of ways this whole economic downturn and the flat tourism market it’s produced are doing great things for the environment. People are taking staycations instead of vacations, thereby saving vast quantities of increasingly scarce fossil fuels and their associated carbon emissions.

By not travelling people generally consume less plastic, less paper, and less water – on the whole we just seem to consume less when we’re at home and we generally do so in locations that are better able to cope with the resulting waste.

But… and this is a really big but (think J.Lo), over the years tourism’s big gift to the planet is that it’s attached an economic value to nature. Developing communities have generally realised that the big old trees in the forest are worth more standing unharmed than they are chopped down for paper pulp. The monkeys swinging through their branches – they’ll educate the local kids.

However, when the economy slows down and the tourists stay home, those old trees start to look pretty tempting once again. It’s obvious to all that going back to the bad old slash-and-burn days is a short sighted solution, but in developing countries people often just don’t have the financial backing to ride out a global recession.

So what to do? Travel? Stay home? It might just be that we’re equally damned… and equally blessed whichever we choose.

As far as I can tell there’s no easy answer. The most likely fix is for travellers to exercise a bit of intelligence – ask some pointy questions before you make that booking: Is there a short-haul destination I could visit instead? Who owns this hotel? Where do you get your water? Is this food local, or did you fly it in?

But perhaps the most important thing you can do in terms of the environment while travelling is try to learn from the locals. Behave like a missionary in reverse. Odds are, if you’re travelling to a developing country your hosts will have a smaller ecological footprint than you. So look around, and see what ideas you can bring home.

Go forth, travel, think, learn and you might just land on the positive side of the paradox.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Order, chaos, ethics and the backcountry

Can we have unfettered liberty and powder for all?

In the seventies and eighties rock climbing went through an adolescence of sorts. As the pursuit’s popularity grew, the elite climbers of the day, guys like Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robins and Tom Frost took the existing concept of climbing “by fair means” and developed it into a code of ethics to ensure the newly mainstream sport wouldn’t collapse under the weight of its own popularity.

It was quite a feat, given the anarchic band of self-confessed degenerates and misfits that constituted the climbing fraternity of the time.

This set of ‘rules’, developed by the people at the lunatic fringe, dictated the big no-nos, things like chipping holds and retro-fitting bolts to a climb, as well as things to be avoided like scaring the rock by hammering in pitons and de-vegetating cliffs to establish routes.

At the same time they somehow managed to instil the concept of good or ‘pure’ style into the climbing culture. The epitome of which is the on-sight free solo; a lone climber ascending a previously unseen cliff, un-assisted by ropes or equipment, from bottom to top in a single push, then leaving it completely un-changed for the next person.

It’s a philosophical goal that not many climbers ever achieve, most are happy to accept impurities like anchors, a rope and harness, but the idea that climbing is really just about testing your mind and body against the rock and gravity is a concept that’s held the climbing community in good stead for half a century. By applying a little order to the chaos, climbers have created and preserved a sport that has a ‘soul’ like no other.

These days, looking at the steady crawl of people skinning out of the Remarkables , it would seem that backcountry skiing is going through a similar growth-spurt.

A new breed of burly touring bindings like Frichi Freerides and Naxo NXs mean that skiers can now carve up the resort’s groomers, tackle the terrain park, and tour the backcountry all with the one rig. Now you can have your cake and eat it.

Consequently AT bindings are becoming the SUV of the ski field. You can be certain that most of them will never make it off the piste let alone out of the resort. But even so, with sales of these all terrain vehicles booming the resort-adjacent backcountry that was a land of anarchic solitude just a few years ago is becoming decidedly, ahem, social.

So do we need to start thinking about a code of ethics and style for winter backcountry travellers? Can we apply order to the chaos? Should we?

I’m increasingly thinking perhaps we should have a go. Over the years the amount of people I’ve seen making ski touring faux pas seems to have increased exponentially. It seems every time you go out now you see skiers and boarders dropping into slopes with people skinning below them, skiing drunken descent lines that track-out a bowl in three runs and my favourite, heading out ridiculously under-equipped – armed with skins and a transceiver… but not much else.

The question is how do you do it? How do you get a bunch of people who’ve left the resort largely to escape the plethora of rules and regulations, to self-administer a whole new set of rules? I don’t think there’d be many who’d welcome (or who’d read) signs saying, “Welcome to the backcountry, please follow these rules or else… and have a nice day.”

Perhaps the answer lies in convincing the lunatic fringe to think level headedly about the future of the backcountry. Perhaps we need to get the professionals, the gear manufacturers, the mag editors, photographers, guides and of course bloggers to lead the concept of good ethics and pure style in the backcountry rather than just worrying about their sales or circulation statistics.

It might take a bit of effort, but I think saving the soul of the backcountry is probably worth it.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Glenorchy cowpoolers anonymous

Better living through bovine crime.

With tough economic times starting to bite, families everywhere are looking at ways to save a dollar or two from their grocery bill – everything from buying the cheap cereal to using tea bags twice and of course cowpooling.

What’s cowpooling? Well, it’s a little dollar saving trick where you get a few families together to buy an entire cow carcass direct from the farmer and then take it to your local butcher to get it chopped up. It’s a great way to have barbeques all summer long for a whole lot less than what you’d pay at the supermarket.

Now this is a new concept in some parts of the world, but it’s been happening for quite a while in Glenorchy. And as with many things, in GY they have a slightly different approach. Here’s a guide to Glenorchy cowpooling from one of the locals… who’ll remain nameless for obvious reasons.

Wait until there’s an All Blacks game on, preferably in Dunedin, so you can be fairly sure the farm hands on the property next door will be either out of town, or at least occupied for a few hours. Gather up a few mates, a four-wheel-drive, a jerry can of diesel, a chainsaw, a .22 rifle and a box of matches.

Drive into the forest immediately adjacent to the farmer’s property, and then jump the fence with the rifle. Select and shoot an appropriately tasty looking cow uphill from the four-wheel-drive then roll it down to the fence. Carve the carcass into quarters with the chainsaw then load the pieces into the four-wheel-drive ready to be chopped up into barbeque-sized portions later at home.

Lastly, pile the head, skin and entrails up somewhere in the forest and douse liberally with diesel, toss in a match and watch the evidence go up in smoke.

With the bounty safely in the deep freeze, invite your friends over for a big barbeque the following weekend, making sure to include the farmer next door... it’d be just plain un-neighbourly not to.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cloudy with a chance of anti-Semitism.

A few months ago I had the opportunity to spend the night in Siberia Hut. It’s a lovely little place just north of Mt Aspiring, looking out over a stunning glacial valley. However, the downside to its loveliness is it’s often a bit overcrowded.

This night was one of those occasions. The twenty-four-bunk hut was bulging at the seams with about thirty-five people. The dining room was like a war zone – flames shot from badly primed stoves, while pocket knives and hot plates flashed centimetres away from soft flesh as people blithely conversed in mutually unintelligible languages – predominantly German, and Hebrew from a large Israeli contingent.

It seems odd, but Israelis and Germans are two of New Zealand’s bigger tourist markets, sending about seventy thousand visitors our way each year. Most of these guys are young backpackers out here for an adventure, here to see the views, crawl the pubs and chase the skirts – racial tension and historical political conflicts are the last thing on their minds. But below the surface you can sense there’s a whole lot of latent animosity between the two groups. It’s just hard to gauge how much of a trigger it’d need to flare up.

In the end the two incompatible tounges co-existed perfectly harmoniosly, at least as far as I could tell. It was the Queen's English that was the troublemaker.

As the evening wore on, I found myself chatting with Dove, the hut warden. A Kiwi lad once Buddhist, now converted to Judaism, Dove was the essence of chilled out spirituality – any more laid back and he’d be horizontal - surely a safe conversational option in this slightly tense atmosphere. At least you'd think so.

Making small talk I raised the prospect of sleeping under the stars, “Looks like the weather’s going to hold, do you reckon it’s worth sleeping outside tonight?”

“Yeah, probably not a bad idea," He replied, "I reckon a few of these guys look like snorers.”

“Good call," I said, eyeing the room for likely members of the nostril orchestra, "but I hear the dews around here can be a real pain in the arse.”

Next thing I knew the conversation screeched to a halt, and I was faced with thirty people looking at me, sporks paused in mid-mouthful, jaws dropped with ‘oh my god did he just say what I thought he said’ looks.

Ahh, bless the English language. When even native speakers can confuse condensation with a religion and hence blindly wander into a half-century-old political conflict, it’s easy to see how wars begin.

Needless to say… I slept outside.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

D'Urville Island in reality.

As a kayaker, the map of D'Urville Island is a little off putting. Names like Skull Bay, Massacre Beach, The Bishop's Cauldron and Hell's Gate almost glow on the paper like a red warning light.

The island's geographical location, jutting into the Cook Strait, doesn't improve matters much. It's a piece of water known for funneling massive tides, and screaming gales between New Zealand's north and south islands. When these forces come together badly it creates seas that have sunk 9,000 tonne passenger ferries.

However, maps and reputations can only tell you so much. Sometimes the reality can be very different. Here's a few photos of the island in its mellow mode from a circumnavigation last week. Stay tuned for the accompanying story.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Love, fear and other cases of mistaken identity

If this bridge is rockin’…

Another Valentine's Day bites the dust. In its wake there will no doubt be countless readers out there in blogspace looking at their love life, wondering how they might go about adding a second person into it – Romeos looking for their Juliet, Barbies looking for their Ken, Parises looking for a Paris (or Nick, or Rick, or Stavros, or…). For those people I have but one piece of advice: fear is your friend.

It seems a little counter-intuitive, but next time you’re out to impress that special someone, the best approach mightn’t be roses and candle-lit dinners but instead some sparsely bolted overhanging rock, maybe a spot of downhill biking or even a double-black-diamond ski run if the snow’s in good shape (but remember, the goal here is to gently frighten – not kill or maim). It sounds insane, but it’s based on solid evidence.

Back in 1974, psychologists Donald Dutton and Arthur Aron from the University of British Columbia, put together a series of experiments involving rickety bridges and sexy researchers. Their hypothesis said that people should find an attractive person really attractive in the presence of a strong emotional stimulus – like fear.

The two canny Canadians set up a series of experiments, the most famous of which involved a good-looking female researcher who would interview randomly selected male subjects half way along two bridges – one safe; one high, windy, unstable and scary.

The at the interview she’d go through a series of decoy questions, then show the subject a picture of a young woman covering her face with one hand and reaching out with the other and ask “tell me what you see here”. At the conclusion of each interview she would hand out her phone number, “just in case you have any questions about the study.” The researchers then rated the sexual content of the picture responses and counted the number of calls, comparing between the two bridges.

The results showed the sexual content of the picture responses on the scary bridge to be double that of the sedate bridge and nearly five times as many subjects phoned the researcher after being on the scary bridge, compared to the sedate one. The conclusion; the unsuspecting guys were ‘mistaking’ their fear-induced heightened state of arousal for being head-over-heels love-struck for the researcher!

Other experiments in the study, as well as subsequent trials have, on the whole, confirmed their findings. These days the body of knowledge they developed is known as the “misattribution of arousal paradigm”. If you’re feeling geeky, you can check out the original study here.

Who would have thought, the secret that’s kept ski instructors’ and rafting guides’ beds warm for decades is actually an established scientific principle. Why isn’t it surprising that that the Canadians discovered it.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Culinary fundamentalism

What's with the backcountry food feud?

OK, you’ve checked the weather, booked the huts, fished out the map and left a note for the flatmates. All that’s left to do now is call the team and see what people want to do about food. That should be pretty straightforward, right? Wrong.

On most backcountry trips trying to get agreement on camping food is like herding cats with a stick. In any group of three or more people you’re certain to have at least one mountaineer who insists on going as light as possible, and one gastro-trekker who refuses to forgo even the smallest culinary detail.

Before you know it, normally chilled-out friends will be arguing with quasi-religious fervour over what to eat and how. The mountaineers will be proposing olive oil as an entire meal. The gastro-trekkers will say “not unless it’s served with flatbread and dukka... and followed by another three courses!”

If you’re lucky a grudging cessation of hostilities will hold long enough for the trip to take place. But many backcountry teams have split acrimoniously over culinary differences before ever heading into the hills.

So what’s the deal? Why can’t we all just get along?

Well, just like any good debate, both sides make a compelling argument. Proponents of the light and fast approach say travelling with less makes for a purer wilderness experience - and that means making some necessary compromises on the food front. Plus depriving yourself a little while on the trail makes that first meal at home taste all the better.

Whereas the gastronomers argue that good food will make a great wilderness experience even more enjoyable – why let a grumbling tummy take the shine off the moment. And besides with a little intelligence you can bring the finer things along without breaking your back.

The only thing both sides seem to agree on is that the worst thing of all is a compromise. The middle ground of leaving the wine and cheese at home but not going light enough for serious adventures is considered an abomination by all concerned.

It looks like the knives... forks and camping spoons will stay drawn for some time yet.