I, and everyone I know, are very fortunate in that we have jobs that aren’t jeopardised by Covid-19. We were thus in a position to actually enjoy Covid-19 Alert Level Four, and we did enjoy it. Every one of my friends and colleagues reflects that they enjoyed the peace and tranquillity. Minor irritations and tribulations aside, I enjoyed working from home and not commuting. There was a sense of serenity. People enjoyed strolling along the roads, there was no road noise and there was no aircraft noise.

My old CUTC mate, Sammy Stoat (aka Bruce Reay), who lives in the Pyke River, told me that even in remote Fiordland he thoroughly enjoyed Level Four. As much as he welcomes visiting trampers, he enjoyed even more the lack of aircraft and jetboats. “It was fantastic,” he said. My colleagues, who work in the tourism part of the business with whom I work, went to Milford Sound shortly after we went to Level Two to see what was to be done. “It was so nice,” they said. “It was really relaxed. No aircraft. It was so peaceful.”

I felt resentful when we went to Level Two, for my serenity had instantly evaporated. I was also no longer catching up with distant friends with a glass of wine on Zoom. If there is a silver lining to Covid-19, it is that we have been reminded of what it is that we appreciate about New Zealand and our backcountry – we have also seen again what it is that our future overseas tourists may really value the most when they get here. Maybe it will be tranquillity and engaging deeply with our beautiful scenery, and not bungy jumps, jetboats and helicopters that they will treasure most from their visits in the future?

Visiting the Past

During Covid-19 Alert Levels Three and Four, the closest I could get to mountaineering was to make another attempt on Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain’ (in English). For me, too, time started slowly and accelerated. For both protagonist Hans Castorp and me, the passing of time ended up being a blur. A novel set in a TB sanatorium didn’t seem a country mile from my situation.

There was another reason for reading Thomas Mann. At Level Two, I was supposed to be working for a month in Germany, with the nearby mountains calling each weekend. Covid-19 stopped that. I instead reinterpreted the title of David Lowenthal’s seminal book, ‘The Past is a Foreign Country.’ If I couldn’t go to a foreign country, I reasoned, I would instead travel to the past, where they do things differently.

Accordingly, Hugh van Noorden and I spent Queen’s Birthday Weekend heading up the Rees Valley and on to Esquilant Biv in perfect weather, with light-hearted intentions of climbing Mt Earnslaw. It was a trip into the past I hadn’t been to the biv since we built it in 1989 — a joint Southland Section of NZAC and Southland Tramping Club effort commemorating a good friend who had died on O’Leary Peak behind the biv. Warren Herrick, who had organised the building effort, is tragically no longer with us either. As we wandered up the remains of the Birley Glacier to Wrights Col, it occurred to me that he wasn’t the only one missing. The past sometimes finds you, it would seem.

The Birley Glacier had weathered the years worse than me. My friends may privately express doubt from time to time at my condition, but compared to the Birley Glacier, I‘m in pretty good shape; the glacier is now just a series of permanent snow fields interspersed with rock steps. In 1989, we just trogged across the Birley Glacier and around to Wrights Col avoiding the occasional slot to get to the Biv. No longer, as I can’t trog and the glacier is no longer really a glacier.

On the other hand, Esquilant Biv has stood the test of time. Apart from a sticky door and a ventilation system that has never worked, it is as sound as it was when we built it. Sure, crampon spikes have given a patina to the floor and the windward Colorsteel corrugated iron was calling out for a new coat of paint, but basically that was all. The biv was the first hut to have the walls and roof built from single lengths of long-run iron, leaving no ingress route for spindrift and adding hugely to the structural integrity. I was chuffed that it had held up so well.


Hugh decided we should go as lightweight as we could to minimise the effort of climbing to Wrights Col at 2,264 metres from the 500-metre valley floor. I came to begrudge our only tiny, lightweight billy as I melted snow for water and tried to cook a meal. Ever an optimiser, Hugh had found that if you have patience, you can save on fuel and get the same end result by backing off the flame on his gas cooker. As a result, our fuel ration was predicated on that basis. He assured me that cranking the flame up to flat-whack wouldn’t speed things up much and would chew through the fuel.

Too Lightweight

Our efforts to go lightweight extended to our climbing gear. Queen’s Birthday is a pretty dumb time of year to climb high as the ice has formed in critical places, but has yet to decide if it wants to stay there. While we got through the crux okay, we could see that safely continuing really required a bit more gear than just an ice-axe each, three bits of pro and a rope. We didn’t regret turning around as we had both seen the view from the top a few times. We instead spent the rest of the day wombling around the mountain seeing if we could remember the route down. It was just as well we turned around, as the next day on the way home the bar on my 35-year-old crampons broke.

A prussik cord solved my immediate problem, but reasoning that they had probably come to the end of their economic life, with what should I replace these aged crampons? Jane Morris kindly researched the matter for me. She reports that, for the sort of tramping and basic mountaineering trips I do, either Grivel G-10s or the Petzl Hybrid Irvis would be a good choice. She notes that the Petzl Irvis crampons need to have a heel-bail as they don’t come in strap-on options, but they are by far the best light, functional and solid crampon. Grivel Air-Tech aluminium crampons are (of course) lighter and are great for carrying around on trips in March to tussock tops, but would probably bend under the first small incline encountered by a ‘Loaded McNeill.’ Jane hasn’t been a fan of Black Diamond crampons since they changed their design – the older-style ones were much better.

Smartphone Cameras

My weight-saving contribution was to leave my camera behind and rely on my new smartphone that had arrived at Level Three, after its predecessor died two days into Level Four. Did you know that you can’t take photos with your smartphone if you have your mitts, or gloves on? The fingertip identification function doesn’t work under such conditions either . . .

Ka kite,

Robin McNeill

This article was re-published from the August 2020 issue of FMC’s Backcountry magazine. To subscribe to the print version, please visit will be regularly re-publishing a number of stories from Uncle Jacko’s Cookery Column here on Wilderlife.