Under the mentorship of Lydia Bradey ONZM, the first woman who summited Mt Everest without oxygen, and fueled by her trauma, she embarked on her course to the top of the mountain in her own backyard. The couple’s ascent of Mt Aspiring Tititea is the first step towards their goal and has been the focus of Te Ara the path, a documentary that won a Special Jury Award at this year’s NZ Mountain Film and Book Festival.

Te Ara the path trailer

But before this plan was hatched, Holly had walked another path, a different one.

After witnessing the sudden death of her father at a very young age, more tragic events followed. She was sexually abused as a toddler and then again at the age of 12. These traumas shaped how she saw life and the world around her. Strong feelings of fear, shame and guilt became part of her at a very early age and influenced how she perceived herself. Uncomfortable heavy feelings numbed when she discovered alcohol – and a new group of friends that came along with it. Early independence seemed encouraging, but it placed her in the world of adults and spiraled into the depths of alcohol and drug addiction, which lasted for over 15 years. What followed is a new maelstrom of multiple attempts of suicide, job loss, hospitalizations, rehabilitations and endeavors to get back on the right track through connecting with nature. One of these involved a year in Nelson when Holly committed to the study of an Outdoor Education programme through Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology. She loved the course and grew a strong interest in the outdoors.

Unfortunately, addiction took over. About four years ago, after another attempt to take her life, Holly woke up in a hospital bed with her mother by her side. Being welcomed back to life with enormous hurt in her mother’s eyes made Holly realize she needed to find another way. There was a long and hard path to rehabilitation. Due to a long waiting list, help was a few months away. The wait pushed Holly to the edge again, but also up the line. Rehab was horrendous – physical detox loaded her body with medicines, and social detox exposed her to the people she was running away from. It was an unsafe environment and highly triggering. Holly again resorted to self-harm. Except this time, while tilting between life and death, she had an epiphany: What would help that 12-year-old Holly? Perhaps if somebody shared their story, something she could relate to? What if she could have seen this on TV? What if she had known that there was another way to living?

Holly knew what she had to do. She needed to stay clean and sober, so she could tell her story and share it with others. Receiving no support from the rehab staff, she took herself to the hospital and was taken straight into the surgery. After recovering, she fully committed to rehabilitation. Ten months later, she enrolled in South Seas Film School, to learn how to make documentaries.

Today, Holly is a film director and is facilitating an addiction and abuse awareness programmes in schools; Photo: supplied.

Her first two documentaries He Ara Anō (There is Another Way) and Mana over Meth won multiple awards internationally. Based on Mana over Meth she co-developed a kura kaupapa school programme, creating safe spaces for children to talk about addiction and trauma.

Her work with Greenstone films production company led her down south. It was under the eye of Aoraki Mt Cook, that she met Lydia Bradey for the first time. And so the idea of another path emerged. This one involving two stong wāhine and maunga. Mt Everest and the first Māori wahine on top of it.

I caught up with Holly to talk about her friendship with Lydia, their mutual goal and the climb to Tititea Mt Aspiring.

Holly, Lydia and the mountain – three characters in Te Ara the path; Photo: supplied.

Holly, your story sounds very traumatic.

Yes. That trauma is now my motivation and inspiration to help others. I know I’m not the only one out there. I’m not special, I’m not unique. There are so many wāhine and other people out there who had the same experiences or even worse. I’m not going to let all that time spent in the rehab and all that hard work go down the drain. I did that for that 12-year-old Holly and all those other 12-year-old girls out there who have experienced the same.
The first doco I made at the South Seas School was called He Ara Anō, which means There is Another Way. It’s about two beautiful wāhine, who are in recovery as well. That was my first documentary and it has won over 20 something awards internationally. It’s done really well. And it has helped a lot of people.

Wow, that’s incredible. You must be content and proud of that. 

Yes, I am. After that, I went on making Mana over Meth, which is another documentary about another wāhine in recovery. That has done really well too. From that, we developed a programme for schools Mana over Meth kura kaupapa. We go to schools – Jess and I [Jess is the wāhine in the documentary]. We share our stories with rangatahi and find solutions for them. If they are struggling with addiction, have family members with such problems or if they need help, we help them.

Holly’s second documentary, Mana over Meth, was a catalyst for the Mana over Meth kura kaupapa school programme, which she developed together with Jessica Apanui; Photo: supplied.

How is that going? It must be delicate to talk about such topics in the school environment. But coming from outside and sharing your stories with them probably creates a safe place for them to open up?

Yes, it’s been an amazing experience. We’ve done Te Tai Tokerau, up North, Whangārei. The response from that has been phenomenal. We’ve been able to create that space for our rangatahi. They’ve opened up and we’ve been able to help a lot of children, who haven’t been able to get the help that they needed because they didn’t know how to express themselves. They’ve either related to my story or Jess’s story, and they were able to open up, which is amazing for them. We’ve had several rangatahi and wāhine, that would come up to us and they haven’t been able to talk to the counsellors or anyone, because they don’t know how to. But they were able to talk to me and we’ve been able to get them help. Some of them had plans to kill themselves and luckily we’ve been able to help them.

After the film school, you got the job with Greenstone TV and that’s how you met Lydia?

Yes. After I got out of South Seas Film School, I got straight into Greenstone and became a production coordinator. I was an assistant coordinator on the Explorer club. That’s where Lydia was guiding some kids to Mueller Hut. I was not meant to go on a trip, but they needed someone to carry the heavy bags with batteries and cameras, so I ended up coming along. And that’s where I met Lydia. We actually didn’t spend much time together during filming. It wasn’t till after we got back and we had dinner with the crew and the guides that we started talking. We realized we’ve got the same goals. She heard my story, I heard her story, and we were both just like… wow! [laughter] We talked for about an hour that night and then we hugged and said goodbye. We had thrown around the idea of Everest and I asked her if there’s ever been a Maori wahine on top and she said ‘No’. And I said – ‘That’s me then’. So we parted ways with that idea in our heads. Both of us were doing work in the background on how can we make this happen. And then I met her a year later, and we’re climbing mount Tititea [laughter].

It took Holly and Lydia only one short encounter to come up with the plan of climbing Mt Everest Chomolungma; Photo: supplied.

It’s crazy to think that you first came up with this idea and now you have a mentor, who is a NZ wahine and the first woman who ever climbed Mt Everest without oxygen as well. How cool is that?

Yes, it’s super cool. I can’t even believe it. The stars are aligned for that one. Just being able to have her as a mentor is like out of this world [laughter].

Yes, it is pretty obvious in the documentary, that you two get along really well. There’s some sort of synergy between you, one can tell the humor is completely aligned.

Yes, it was quite freaky. When I first met her, we only talked properly for an hour and then for a whole year, we didn’t really talk at all. It was just a message here and there. The first time I saw her again was when we met on the documentary. I actually didn’t know if I was gonna like her. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. We might not have got along, who knows…? But as soon as we met, we both had this kind of quirky sense of humor and we both enjoyed each other’s company. It was real spooky. I thought, ‘Wow, I’ve known this lady for years’ kind a thing.

The synergy between Holly and Lydia is obvious throughout the documentary; Photo: supplied.

It’s quite special when that happens. When you get the feeling that you’ve known someone before you met them.

Yeah, definitely. It was super cool and nothing I’ve ever experienced before. What I’ve experienced with Lydia was something I was scared of… When I was in addiction, I thought I would never ever have those sorts of experiences again. I was scared that I would never be able to make a connection with somebody like that without drugs. And I was completely wrong! [laughter] It’s been very special to be able to have a connection with Lydia like that. Being clean and knowing it’s real, authentic and genuine.

Do you think that having a mutual goal in front of you, which demanded a lot of energy, focus and preparation might have contributed to that? You were also in a completely different environment, out in the wild so you needed to connect.

Yes, we definitely do need to connect. I guess it’s nature. In the documentary there’s me, there’s Lydia and then there’s the mountain. There’s nature as a third character and that plays a huge part in what happens in our relationship. But also what I’ve noticed is that nature keeps me in the present. You need to be mindful, you can’t be wondering off, thinking about what you’ll do tomorrow, because you’ve got to really concentrate on your next step. I reckon it enhances the relationships – nature does. Keeps you very present.

Climbing is about connecting and feeling alive; Photo: supplied.

There’s a funny moment in the documentary when you’re talking about your research on climbing and how you got the impression that climbing is all about dying. After climbing Tititea, do you think that climbing is about living and being alive as well? 

Yes, 100%. It’s definitely about being alive and really experiencing life. It’s not all about dying. I’ve been doing stories as well and most of them have been about death. As Lydia said, whatever you do, wherever you go, as soon as you leave the house, there are dangers everywhere. I guess it’s just up to you and how aware you are of your surroundings. How present you are with yourself and the environment. It’s about living, 100%. Living life to the fullest.

Training on Albert glacier and Grey Peak; Photo: supplied.

It’s about being present, but it’s also about trust. I think you touched on that in the documentary. When you head out for an adventure you need to have trust in yourself, in your gear, in your mates, the surface under your feet, the weather. There’s so much trust needed, when you head out. Do you think it’s easier sometimes to pick yourself up and believe in yourself if that trust is coming from outside?

Hmmm, that’s a good question. I don’t know if it’s easier, but I do believe it helps. It definitely helped me. I guess deep down inside I must trust myself a little bit. I guess I do. After making the documentary and climbing up Tititea, I had a little bit of trust in myself that I could do this. That’s really hard for me because I’m still working on trusting myself.

Your days with Lydia were quite full in terms of learning too. How did that go?

It was really hard. I found it really hard to learn, especially the rope work. I remember when I was in my course at NMIT, I found the rope work hard and I couldn’t retain it. When climbing Tititea, our days were so full on, there was a point where I didn’t think I was gonna get it. I knew I just had to continue moving forward because once you stop, you’ve lost your momentum. I guess learning comes back down to trust. Trusting myself that I know how to tie this rope properly, how to put my crampons on properly, it was all focused around trust.

Learning how to climb was also about learning how to trust herself, says Holly; Photo: supplied.

There are a few things that you talk about during climbing and learning how to climb. In the beginning, you’re still trying to figure out who you are. During the documentary, it becomes clear that climbing is a way to redefine yourself and to find your way back to wairua. Could you expand on what was happening for you?

I think I have been searching for a while, but I didn’t really know what I was searching for. I knew there was something missing from me, and I didn’t know what that was. Once I got to Wānaka, I started experiencing nature, experiencing what it was like to be on a glacier, to be in those environments. I had never experienced that before. I didn’t know those environments existed. Let alone I didn’t know how they felt. Just being there made me feel connected to nature. It made me feel I was a part of it because it made me feel whole again. It really made me feel that’s where I belong. I had belonging. I have been out in the outdoors before, in the ngahere, in the green lush bush. But not in those environments, where there’s no greenery, where there’s just white. It was amazing because I could feel two different feelings – it was very uncomfortable, but at the same time, it also felt like home, I felt content and settled, which made me feel my soul had been missing a part of that. I didn’t have much belonging before that. I was always searching. I thought I belonged in the drug world, with all my drug people, because I connected with them. But Lydia has led me to nature. There are different elements of nature and different dynamics. Each had a place in my soul. I feel that’s what I gained while I was down there. My soul was slowly getting the pieces of the puzzle. There was something connecting there. Something spiritual. I know that’s where I belong. I do want to become a mountaineer, I want to invest most of my time into that because that’s where I feel I belong.

Being in the mountains helped Holly connect with her wairua and find a new sense of belonging; Photo: supplied.

How was the climb up to Tititea? I remember there were some not-so-fun parts…

Yeah, it was hard [laughter]. I was scared. Climbing up the mountain in the dark at the beginning – you can’t see anything. You need to dig your crampons in, because if you don’t, you slip and you’re gone. It was very scary. I also wasn’t a fan of just hanging on to a side of a cliff [laughter] and then trying to get to the next part. That wasn’t as fun. At the same time, I tried to embrace it. There were some points that really challenged me. Physically and mentally. I think mentally was the hardest for me. There were things going through my mind, I was having arguments with myself [laughter]. It was hard and tiring, but it was also a lot of fun. Lydia made everything so much more fun. Her guiding and her direction were amazing, especially the way she guided me up some really scary parts. The climb was hard, but I loved it and I would do it again, definitely.

The pair is hoping to ascend Mt Everest in 2025 pre-monsoon season; Photo: supplied.

What are your plans from here onward, especially in terms of getting back into the mountains?

I need to get back in to the mountains as soon as possible. The plan is to get to Everest in 2025 pre-monsoons season. This gives me time to try at least two more high altitude mountains, because at the moment I don’t actually know, if I can go to the high altitude. I just want to get back down to Wānaka and spend more time with Lydia, so we can go and hang out in the mountains and get some more experience up. I haven’t actually got to hang out with her [laughter]. We have, but it’s always been filming, there were always people around. It would be nice to have some real one-on-one time and get to know each other.

So Everest is only two years from now on.

Yes, we also need to secure funding to get us there.

Talking about funding, what was Tūpiki trust’s involvement in this project? 

Tūpiki gave us quite a large amount of funding, which enabled us to make the documentary and to do the climb. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to do any of it. They are the ones that started us off. I’m very grateful to Tūpiki, they’ve given us huge amount of support. I highly recommend them. If anyone else is looking at funding or any support, definitely go to Tūpiki. They’ve been absolutely amazing. Without them this would not have happened.

There’s a graphic on your web page which is also the tattoo you have on your arm. 

Yes, that’s my dad. In Māori culture it’s called manaia. Manaia is a guardian that looks after you and it’s in a shape of a bird. If you look at the graphic, you’ll see the beak and the eyes. It represents my dad, because he has passed. Within it there are little lines which are my heritage, Ngā Puhi. It’s Ngā Puhi design. It’s who I am, I guess.

So your dad was with you at the top of Tititea and your mum as well. You called her from the top, right?

Yeah, oh, that was pretty cool. It was really amazing that I got to call my mum.

Lydia and Holly at Te Ara the path premiere in Wānaka earlier this year; Photo: supplied.

FMC extends warm thanks to Holly for sharing her story in this interview and wishes her and Lydia all the best on their path to Mt Everest. Links to the full documentary can be found on Stuff web page.