Safety  In the Mountains

FMC’s guide to all things mountains was first published in the 1930’s. Shaun Barnett has a close look at Safety in the Mountains, to see how advice has changed through the decades.

Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) was born just as New Zealand was experiencing a back-country boom. Following the establishment of the Tararua Tramping Club (New Zealand’s first) in 1919, a growing number of clubs began to form around the country, resulting in a flush of outdoor activity. In 1931 some 15 of these clubs decided to join together to create a national body, and FMC was the result. In the decade that followed, outdoor pursuits such as mountaineering, tramping, hunting and skiing enjoyed growing popularity, despite (or perhaps because of) the Depression.

Many of our modern tramping tracks and climbing routes were first pioneered during this so-called ‘Golden Era’ of the 1930s. Sometimes intense competition between clubs and members saw a whole host of virgin peaks climbed and much difficult terrain traversed for the first time. Clubbing together also enabled members to learn bushcraft and climbing skills, share route and gear information, and inspire each other. Basically, clubs enabled a more organised, systematic approach to the outdoors. By the mid-1930s, FMC decided to combine the collective wisdom of its club membership into a booklet suitable for carrying in a pack. Safety in the Mountains was born, with the first edition published in 1937.

The latest completely overhauled 2012 version is a 68-page booklet, brimming with sage advice and fresh illustrations, and one which can be easily slipped into a first-aid kit or pack pocket. It covers everything from wilderness first-aid to snow caves. On my bookshelf are five earlier editions of Safety in the Mountains: ones from 1949, 1963, 1978, 1990 and 2003.

Perusing the contents of these editions, it is often striking how little has changed. Take, for example, this advice offered in the 1949 edition (edited by N M Thomson) ‘Remember that climbers and trampers, as a whole, will be judged largely on your behaviour. Always think first how your actions will affect others, then put yourself in their place and you will not go far wrong.’

Sage advice from the past editions includes: ‘Mountains deserve respect’, ‘You don’t have to cross a river’ and ‘Smile – even when suffering’. Timeless stuff.

‘Mountains deserve respect’, ‘You don’t have to cross a river’

Other things, however, have undergone dramatic change. Some of the advice in earlier editions is sufficiently out-of-date that it will most likely amuse or surprise. Take, for example, attitudes towards the environment. Blazing trees, burying litter, chopping live firewood and using detergent in rivers are all practices once common but now frowned upon.

In off-track places, the hunters, climbers and trampers of the 1930s literally blazed trails. Blazing was essentially cutting a slice out of the bark of a tree so that a visible scar formed. While in most cases the tree suffered no enduring harm, the practice could open up vulnerable trees to infection and rot. While tramping clubs began to later use paint or jam tin lids to mark tracks, blazing was obviously still practised in the 1950 and 60s. My father, Grant Barnett, remembers being taught in the Boy Scouts during the 1950s to renew blazes on trees if they had become faint ‘We always had a hatchet with us, mainly for chopping firewood but we did use it occasionally to renew blazes.’

Old blaze on rimu tree, Tauherenikau valley – photo: Shaun Barnett

The 1963 edition of Safety in the Mountains suggested that routes in untracked bush should be ‘marked by blazes, broken fern, or broken twigs,’ although it did caution ‘Make blazes small so as not to harm the trees, and place them where they can be seen on the return. Avoid blazing valuable trees.’

Not only is there little need for blazing now, most of us would never dream of defacing trees. The pervading mentality when travelling offtrack is to leave as little trace of your passage as possible. That’s not to condemn those pioneers; they tramped and climbed in a different age; one when the country was untrammelled and sparsely populated. It’s only with increasing pressures on the environment that awareness has grown and practices changed.

Likewise, views on litter have shifted also. The 1963 edition states ‘No one likes to see pleasant spots spoilt by litter. Where [ … ] rubbish receptacles are provided, they should of course be used. Elsewhere, anything that cannot be burnt should be buried. Before being buried, tins should be burnt out to destroy food which might attract rats, and then flattened. Litter is not destroyed by throwing it into a river; it may come ashore lower down.’

Even when I started tramping in the mid 1980s, the idea of burying and burning rubbish was still current; I well remember the rubbish pits dug by the Forest Service beside huts in Kaweka Forest Park. However, soon after DOC was formed in 1987, rubbish pits were passé; ‘Pack-it-in, pack-it-out’ became the catch cry instead. Although some places still seem to suffer from thoughtless littering, over the last 20 years I’ve experienced less and less rubbish in the back-country. It’s been a welcome change.

Equipment and clothing has evolved over the decades too, of course. In the late 1970s, sleek internal frame packs began to replace the bulky external frame packs of yesteryear. SITM editor Robin McNeill remembers buying his first internal frame pack from Alp Sports in 1978 and ‘discovered that packs don’t necessarily have to be really uncomfortable.’ But even in the 1980s, frame packs still dominated. My first was a Hallmark frame pack, bought in 1985, but I soon ditched it for a Macpac Torre.

Gorge tramping at Mid Waiohine Hut in the late 1970s: beards are de rigueur, for the men, anyway. Back row (left to right): Lindsay Cuthbertson, Graham McCallum, Geoff Spearpoint, Sue Cuthbertson. Front row: Chris Thorn, John Gates Photo: John Gates

Also in the 1980s, oiled japara first gave way to Gortex. Polypropylene and polar fleece garments superseded wool (only for the latter to make a comeback in the 1990s).

The 1949 SITM edition advocated the following kit: ‘A flannel shirt, lumber jacket and shorts or longs are satisfactory according to conditions. Half puttees are excellent for keeping grit and stones out of the boots when fording rivers or for keeping out snow in winter. For the end of the day a complete change should be carried, namely, woollen shirt or singlet, sweater, longs, change of socks and sandshoes or slippers.’

The woollen shirt and puttees persisted through to the 1963 edition, but sadly, the slippers were out. Also recommended in 1963, amongst other things, were waterproof outer covers for your sleeping bag. ‘Essential,’ the booklet extolled, ‘the oiled japara type being widely used.’

By the 1960s nylon climbing ropes had largely replaced those made of hemp or manila, although nailed boots were still the norm even if ‘toe and heel plates are dangerous and should be avoided.’ For ‘extended high climbing trips’ the 1963 edition promoted pressure cookers, claiming they would save fuel and time despite their extra weight.

Even the manner in which Safety in the Mountains has been written provides something of a compass in the terrain of our evolving language. Some clubs, notably the Canterbury Mountaineering Club (CMC) did not allow women as members when they were first formed. Happily this has changed, and CMC has since had its first female president. During the 1960s however, before feminists questioned exclusively male language, sexist terms were the norm: all trampers or climbers were ‘men’; and a tent or hut was a ‘four-man’ not a fourperson one.

Other quaint turns of phrase have largely disappeared from our vocabulary too. From 1949: ‘Within the party good temper and good manners are as essential as in any social gathering, and it is the leader’s job to deal with any rubs.’ These days mention ‘rubs’ and you’re talking about blisters or massage, not social friction.

Of particular amusement to me are the sections detailing pace and style of walking, subjects that receive far less attention that they used to. In rather regulated tones, the 1949 edition stated: ‘Continuous progress is the essence of pace. While a party is in motion, the effort should be directed at keeping the pace constant, not at hurrying it. There will then be larger margins for completer rest stops at the proper halting times and places […] It is a great mistake to hurry men over their food; a due allowance of time should be made for both food and rest.’

‘Gradual beginning, gradual acceleration and uninterrupted moving on a steady top gear of comfortable pace keep a party fresh, and leave it to appreciate the beauty of the day or of the climb. Its mind is relieved of care as to a timely return, and it can enjoy a margin of leisure, when it pleases, in pleasant exploration, in essaying experimental routes or in the meditation that mimics slumber.’

‘Finally, every one must use care, even in apparently easy places and especially towards the end of the day. Never relax while moving.’

Likewise, the 1963 edition – edited by Bruce Mason – dedicated almost a whole page to ‘How to Walk on Rough Ground’. It stressed economy of effort. You could be forgiven for thinking you were reading about yoga, not tramping. ‘This entails moving steadily and evenly in the required direction with rhythm of movement and breathing.’

‘The eye should instinctively memorise footholds three or four paces ahead, and the knees should flex or straighten to remove irregularities. An unworried state of mind is also important.’

In a similar vein, the 1949 edition offered counsel for climbers. ‘As steady rhythm is a necessity for the tramper, so balanced rhythm is essential to the rock climber. The rock climber must overcome the primitive instinct of self preservation which causes him to swing and pull by the hands and frantically struggle to jam his body secure to mother earth.’

Few outdoor techniques have undergone as much change as river fording. The 1949 edition offered this suggestion: ‘Wear as little clothing as possible when crossing a stream. Trousers increase your resistance to the current and impede movement; wear shorts. But if prolonged immersion in gold glacial streams cannot be avoided, protect the legs with snow cream or other oily substance; close-fitting, long woollen underpants will serve as a substitute.’

Tramping in the 1980s. Auckland University Tramping Club students model fashions of the times, manly bush-shirts, at Ongaranuku Hut, Waitakere Range, May 1980 Photo: Mark Rattenbury

Weight saving obsessed the trampers and climbers of yore as much as it does now. The 1949 edition advised: ‘Remember in packing your swag that if you look after the ounces the pounds will take care of themselves.’ It’s something of a surprise, then, to see eggs recommended for breakfast.

One item rarely carried these days is tobacco. By the 1840s smoking had entered New Zealand mountaineering literature, with explorer Thomas Brunner complaining about lack of it. Irishman William Green was the first to attempt Mt Cook with Swiss guides Emil Boss and Ulrich Kaufmann in 1882. After narrowly missing out on the summit, they became benighted on a narrow ledge during their descent, suffering through a long wait for dawn in a nor’west storm. Green recorded that Kaufmann and Boss, despite having no tobacco, ‘sucked [their pipes] diligently at intervals, and, by sheer force of imagination, enjoyed several good smokes.’

John Pascoe and the climbers of the 1930s were diligent smokers too. Pascoe once wrote in an article ‘To those who cherish a glowing pipe, the tang of tobacco reeks well in camp, of calm or of storm.’ In Chris Maclean’s biography of Pascoe, he records that on one 16-day trip Pascoe and three companions found they had between them ‘420 cigarettes, 17 cigars, 23 ounces of tobacco and 20 ounces of pipe tobacco, which in total equalled the weight of the group’s dried meat.’ No wonder the 1949 edition of Safety in the Mountains offers this pearler on the subject of getting lost. ‘But what about a party, as so often happens, without experience or knowledge of the bush, which has gone blindly into difficult country with no sense of direction or power of observation? What should they do? I should say the first thing would be to sit down and have a smoke.’ If nothing else, you’d be burning off some weight.

Safety in the Mountains, the 11th edition can be purchased from FMC: click here,  or is also now available online: https://wilderlife.nz/in-the-mountains/

Wilderlife