The Cold Inside, A story about mountains, friendship and doubt by Paul Hersey, Di Angelo Publications, 2022. Soft cover, NZD $30, 272 pages. Available through and NZ Alpine Club web page. Also available as an e-book.

Mountains allure. Beguile. Entrance. Bewitch. From the first glimpse, a mountain can cast its spell. Sometimes not even in the flesh. Few people understand this better than mountaineer-writer Paul Hersey (The Cold Inside, p 37):

‘Perhaps a few words in an old book is all it takes,’ … ‘Or a single, grainy photograph. Unexpected contours on a map. Blank spaces in a guidebook. Whatever the instigation, an inkling is formed, creating the first stage of desire.’

Hersey will be familiar to many readers as the author of two accomplished books, Where the Mountains Throw Their Dice (2008) and High Misadventure (2009). For much of his writing career, Hersey has grappled with the paradox of mountains. How these inanimate massifs of snow, rock and ice can so attract us. Reward us, teach us, kill us. Mountains often forge close friendships between climbers. Mountains teach us patience, caution, technique, when to dare, when to retreat. Mountains can provide the setting for some of the best experiences of our lives.

Except when they don’t. With little warning, mountains can wipe a precious human life from their flanks as casually as swatting a fly. Avalanche, storm, exposure, a small otherwise insignificant stone, flung like a bullet. Death in the mountains is sometimes a consequence of human error; other times a seemingly random act of god or nature.

Having appreciated Hersey’s previous mountaineering titles, I was intrigued to read The Cold Inside (great title). And rewarded too. This is his most introspective book, one where he bares his climber’s soul, grappling with that contradiction of rich reward versus unimaginable loss.

The book’s narrative follows Hersey’s changing relationship with mountaineering over a career spanning more than three decades. At its heart is Hersey coming to terms with the death of two friends, Marty Schmidt, and Jamie Vinton-Boot. Schmidt died on K2, the so-called savage mountain, with his son, while Jamie died in a seemingly minor accident in the Remarkables.

Naturally the death of a close friend is always difficult, but in the case of a climbing partner, there is the inevitable coming-to-terms with the fallout. The questioning of your own relationship with a pursuit that can be deadly. Mountaineers choose risk. Risk is integral to the reward. But when someone as careful and accomplished as Vinton-Boot dies, leaving a wife and small son, there’s so much added pain and questioning. Vinton-Boot, by Hersey’s account, was an exceptional person. Someone who loved crafting home-baked bread almost as much as he loved climbing. And he was daring but not reckless. After his son Mahe was born, Vinton-Boot deliberately steered away from riskier climbs in favour of more technical, safer routes.

Schmidt was a larger-than-life character, a gifted mountain athlete, an ambitious world-renowned climber. ‘Ahh, Marty,’ Hersey writes. ‘The world is a far lesser place without your energy and enthusiasm and drive to squeeze every fulfilling drop out of what life has to offer.’ (p 179)

Throughout the book, Hersey unpicks the diverse motivations why people climb; not as simple a subject as non-climbers might suppose. Hersey relates a climb of the Dasler Pinnacles with his mate David Newstead. On the summit (p 238)

‘David was leaning back against the rock with his eyes closed, like a lizard sunning itself. David’s face had a contemplative look. Then he opened his eyes. He took in the view again. “Climbing is such a qualitative pursuit,” he said. “Everyone’s experience and motivations in the sport are different and equally valid. While I understand, and sometimes find myself jealous of those motivated purely by chasing grades, I’ve never found that overly motivating. I just want to climb.” ’

Despite having several bold and original first ascents under his belt, Hersey considers himself a cautious climber. One who listens to gut instincts. Someone who backs off if it doesn’t feel right, and someone who has to live with the resulting self-doubt. ‘Those who know me know I can be a terrible starter in the mountains. Sometimes my nerves get the better of me, doubts intensify, to a point where I just want to go home. Only once I’m absorbed in the intricacies of the climb do my nerves usually fall away.’ (p 98)

At one point, Hersey makes the decision to quit. Too many close calls. The deaths of Schmidt and Vinton-Boot. But then he finds he can’t give up. He’s drawn back in. Mountaineering is too integral to his being. The satisfactions not matched by any other pursuit.

Hersey’s analysis of risk in the mountaineering context makes fascinating reading. ‘The reality is that the consequences of risk are only comprehended when something goes wrong.’ That rings especially true of my own experiences of accidents in the mountains. Then, the counter (p 114):

‘And while not wanting to support recklessness, accepting that risk has a place in our lives – that it adds value – is a good thing.’

Hersey interviewed Chris North, a lecturer in outdoor and environmental education at Canterbury University, who believes there is too much focus on avoiding all risk in the sector. ‘We are missing the point by having such a narrow focus on the potential consequences, rather than all of the possible benefits.’ (p 115) I think of the immense satisfaction I’ve had overcoming obstacles and dangers in the mountains, of planning and working towards a goal, and achieving it.

If I’m presenting The Cold Inside as a harrowing, overly serious book, I’m not doing it justice. There is plenty of beauty, companionship, and gentle humour too (p 69):

‘The call of the kea – sounding like the elongated cry of the vowels in its own name – echoed from somewhere above. … I hoped if the kea spotted our tents, it would choose Jamie’s over mine.’

There is also an interesting account of Hersey’s experiences living through the 2012 Christchurch earthquakes, and the devastation that brought to the southern city. ‘After all the risk and stress in the city, it felt like a relief to finally think about planning a trip to the mountains. To a place where, hopefully, things would be simpler, or at least made more sense.’ (p 96)

And unsurprisingly, there’s some fine writing about place, such as his descriptions of Fiordland’s Darran Mountains (p 243, 246, 251):

‘A chunky, perplexing range of diorites and sandstones, gneisses and granites.’ … ‘a land of extremes’ … ‘bush-choked and fjord chiselled.’ ‘One must scurry, mouse-like, up frightening terraces festooned with slippery mosses and grasses; sneak along broken shelves stubbled with hebes; and baulk at ledges that end abruptly mid-wall as often as not, all just to get to the real climbing.’ … ‘Here stretched a library of mountains, spine after spine, silhouetted against a gently warming sky …’

The Cold Inside is an absorbing, questing and honest book. Highly recommended.

The Cold Inside has been nominated for 2023 NZ Mountain Book Competition Award. For more insights into Paul Hersey’s writing, visit the NZ Mountain and Film Festival and join him at Words and Wine session on Sunday, 25th June.