Apparently, I have 78 friends. One of those friends has 587 friends; another, a mere 4. That’s according to Facebook. But what about real life? I know the 4 doesn’t reflect that persons’ reality, and suspect that the 587 doesn’t either. Who are our real friends? A comment by one of my FMC executive colleagues got me thinking – for many, particularly those who’ve been tramping and climbing most of their adult lives, a lot of our real friends are our tramping and climbing friends.

A few months ago, weather forced me into a hasty retreat from the Lewis Pass tops. Suddenly, I had most of a day to make my way to Nelson. What to do? As soon as I reached phone coverage, I rang my friends in Westport, an hour or so away, and invited myself for lunch. We’d spent 8 years together immersed in every aspect of the Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club’s life before they returned to their West Coast turangawaewae in 1992. We’d be lucky if we see each other once a year these days, and have only been in the hills together twice in that 23 years; yet as I settled in for a pleasant few hours in their home overlooking the Buller, it was like they still lived just down the hill from me. Real friends.

As I write this, I’m reflecting on last night, an evening spent enjoying a very different hobby, the appreciation of fine whisky. Yet many of our whisky circle are guys I’ve been tramping with for thirty or more years. Some of the rest have been dragged out into the hills occasionally. After all, that’s what we do with our real friends.

When I started university, I also joined the club that I’ve now been with for 35 years. So did a friend I’d been right through school with. Looking back, I think that with very different academic and career trajectories it was almost inevitable that we would have lost touch if we hadn’t carried on and built on our shared love of the hills. That’s what happened with all my other schoolmates. We only had three years in the club together – he left Dunedin for good and I stayed put – but it built a childhood friendship into a lifelong real friendship.

So what is it about tramping and climbing that builds friendships as solid as Darrans diorite? I like to think it’s a combination of the shared experience facing challenges and meeting objectives using our own resources, and the need to live a life pared down to the bare necessities (well, maybe the bare necessities plus a Thermarest) and spending several days often within a few metres of each other. You’re forced to see these people at both their best and their worst – and they see you the same. Real friends because we see each other as we really are.

That might also be a factor in the number of relationships that have their genesis in the hills. My club is often referred to as the Otago Tramping and Matrimonial Club, and most other clubs will share a similar experience. While aging clubs and decreasing marriage rates may have changed that a bit, couples are definitely still being formed on a solid base of time shared in the hills. Even in my Dad’s tramping group, at least two couples found second-chance love in their 70s or 80s – and carried on tramping together.

Tramping’s not always a social occasion. I like spending some time in the hills alone. But for me, and I’m sure for the vast majority of trampers, my life would be so much the poorer if I always tramped alone. I probably wouldn’t have many real friends.