Seeking the light, Climbing all 24 of New Zealand’s highest mountains by Gavin Lang, Potton & Burton, 2022. Hard cover, NZD $89.99, 192 pages. Available in bookstores around the country and online.
I’ve climbed two of New Zealand’s 3,000-metre peaks. There was a fleeting moment some years back when I considered the possibility of climbing the other twenty-two, but reality quickly bit. To do that requires much more mountaineering skill, strength, courage and commitment than I can muster. But the dream persists, which is why just hearing about Gavin Lang’s new book had me excited. And now it’s here I can tell you right off the bat, it was well worth the wait.
Lang settled on 24, but to start with there were 17 10,000 footers, then 27. Today it can be debated whether there are 24 or 32 3,000ers. But it doesn’t really matter, within those numbers lie all our highest peaks. Lang was the 11th of 13 to have so far climbed the 24 since their collective pursuit began about 70 years ago. What a challenge. And what a story to tell!
Lang is impeccably qualified to tackle the climbing challenge. He has climbed hard technical routes around the world, and in 2004 his mountaineering skills were judged to meet the very high standards required of New Zealand mountain guides. As I read about the climbs in his book it quickly became apparent that he often took on much more than the ‘easiest’ route up each 3,000er. Monster efforts from the road end to the summit, like his ‘trench foot’ climb of Mt Sefton, or his Torres Tasman winter traverse. New technical routes like ‘Hotline’ on Mt Haast and ‘Biophilia’ on Malte Brun. There is the occasional ‘bonus extra’ included too, such as his solo climb of the Caroline Face of Aoraki Mt Cook, that kept my stomach muscles tensed as I read. While Seeking the light is no guidebook, serious climbers will glean insightful tips, ideas and inspirations from its pages. Mere mortals like me can just feel grateful for being taken so vividly on these incredible journeys.
Which leads me to the heart of a book review – the storytelling. If you’re a history buff you might be a little disappointed. Lang provides some interesting background about defining the highest mountains in New Zealand, and about the tools of his trade(s) – of which there are two – climbing and photography. He has also woven historical titbits into his accounts, but far more could be written about the climbs and climbers that preceded him. Does that matter? In my opinion, not at all, because Lang has clearly set out to, and succeeded in, bringing his personal experiences to life – to put readers on the tips of his crampons, while also becoming acquainted with his temperament, beliefs, motivations, suffering and joy. He writes honestly – here at one point where he burnt his body out and had to cease guiding:
‘I’d foolishly thought I had my ego under control, but leading clients in the mountains was a responsibility I relished, and their listening-ears fueled my self-importance. What’s left when the rate-paying audience disappears? The silence was deafening.’
Another time when he made a simple mistake, something he openly admits to several times throughout the book: ‘I threaded my axe through my gear loop, but as I leaned back, the ice axe pushed up my thigh, back through the gear loop and spun off, tomahawking down the mountain out of view.’
The photographs. Oh, the photographs! I am a keen alpine photographer and know enough to recognize when images are aesthetically and technically excellent. Seeking the light is brimming with such images. Time after time I could feel the photographer envy brewing up in me – beautiful light, balanced compositions, climbing action, stunning locations – locations where only very competent climbers will ever stand, or at least balance on. This point should not be missed – many of the images are so sublime that it’s easy to forget how precarious the photographer’s stance was; how much suffering was required to get there.
Lang has added another ingredient, that when combined with his photographs and open, honest, often in-the-moment writing, is a brilliant touch – captions that always include the minute, hour, day and year when they were taken. This small detail, for me at least, added immediacy that made the whole story more alive, helping me to feel even more like I was there with him.
Lang also quite frequently uses his mountaineering experiences to reflect on wider issues. Having completed an arduous rubble-bash up Tasman Glacier on the way to the summit of Malte Brun:
‘If the success of a trip is measured by the intangibles of new awareness or raising of consciousness rather than by summits reached, then we had already filled our pockets with gold.’
At several points he reflects on the increasing tenuousness of mountain terrain resulting from global warming. And his parting conclusion: ‘You’ll inevitably find pain and suffering in your life, so choose your own flavour. Try something that takes you out of your comfort zone.’
In Seeking the light Gavin Lang has indeed found the light, telling a unique story in a unique way. His book is perhaps as magnificent as the terrain where it unfolds.
The original book review was published in November 2022 issue of Backcountry magazine. To subscribe to the print version, please visit https://fmc.org.nz/d2u
To get a taste of photography featured in the book, visit Nine to Noon Gallery on RNZ or order prints online.