Words: Liam Friary
Images: Cameron Mackenzie

When did you last do something that really scared you?

There are challenges in all aspects of life – and most of them are thrown our way whether we like it or not. But sometimes we need to take the helm and throw a challenge in front of ourselves. There’s great satisfaction if you can accomplish a challenge you’ve set yourself. I’m naturally driven by challenges but, with recent restrictions, it’s been hard to take any major ones on. This year, it’s been all about staying safe and not venturing too far; staying close to home and not doing too much. However, taking risks, feeling scared, pushing boundaries and not knowing what the outcome will be is part of life and helps us to grow. So, in recent months, I came up with a challenging concept that would really scare me.

The challenge: To complete four summits of the Ōhau Ski Access Road climb in one attempt – gaining a total of 3,800m. This is just over the height of Aoraki/Mt Cook (3,724m), New Zealand’s tallest mountain. I wanted to pay homage to the iconic destination and the old school climbers who had ascended the mountain in years gone by.

The climb: It’s 9.6km in length, gains 940m in elevation and is extremely steep, with a gradient average of 10.1%.

The region and its history: Aoraki/Mt Cook was originally known to Māori as Aoraki. It was later renamed Mt Cook by European settlers. In 1998 the mountain’s name was changed to Aoraki/Mt Cook to respect its Māori heritage. According to Māori legend, Aoraki and his three brothers were the sons of Rakinui, the Sky Father. They were on a voyage around Papatūānuku, the Earth Mother, when their canoe was stranded after striking a reef in the ocean. Aoraki and his brothers climbed onto the top of their canoe, but the cold southern wind froze them and turned them into stone. Their canoe became New Zealand’s South Island, which was then called Te Waka o Aoraki. Aoraki, the tallest of the brothers, became the highest peak. His brothers and crew became the other mountains of the Southern Alps.

Aoraki/Mt Cook was first climbed by Tom Fyfe, Jack Clarke and George Graham, on Christmas Day, 1894. On 3rd December, 1910, Emmeline Freda Du Faur became the first woman to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook. Her attempt was also the fastest ascent to that date. In 1949 New Zealand’s most famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary, along with Harry Ayres, made the first ascent up the challenging south ridge on the south peak. They also completed the grand traverse. On May 29, 2003, a bronze statue of Sir Edmund Hillary was unveiled outside The Hermitage, Aoraki/Mt Cook, looking out to the mountains Hillary climbed.

Lake Ōhau is a lake in the Mackenzie Basin of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s translation is “place of Hau” for Ōhau, but an alternative meaning could be “windy place”.

The challenge: Well, after a few weeks of hard training and mental preparation, the day finally dawned. I was on the edge of doing something that really did scare me! It was evident by the previous night’s restless sleep and the slight queasy feeling when my alarm sounded. I’d need to keep my mind on the task and try and not to let the day overwhelm me.

The morning sky was stunning and filled with a ton of texture; red light, dark clouds, wind and shadows from the sun’s first rays. It was almost like the mountains across Ōhau Lake were calling. Especially the largest one – Aoraki/Mt Cook – sitting at the northern end of the lake. I thought of the hard-pioneering climbers who had first ascended the iconic mountain. Their hardships would be nothing like mine, but I drew inspiration from them.

In the dawn light I clipped in and jumped aboard my bike for the day’s challenge. The first attempt helped me work out what was needed and how much energy it would take from me. It also helped me to mentally process how hard it would actually be. I’d need to explore my outer limits and face my fears head on.

I felt a ton of different emotions as the day went on. Keeping the mind focused was a game, and as the attrition of the day’s proceedings played out, so did the negative mindset. You know, the one that tells you you’re not good enough. Well, on my third attempt up the ascent, with my body slumping over the handlebars, I nearly let him (the mind) tell me I was no good. I listened but didn’t take his advice, and putting aside that negative voice I continued the fight for the summit. I stopped briefly to gather my composure – this was the first time I’d stopped on the actual climb, the whole day. The questions in my mind kept coming … ‘why do this?’, ‘what’s the point?’, ‘does it matter?’, ‘you’re not going to make it….’ and so on. I took a deep breath, refocused on my goal and disentangled myself from these stories. I struggled to the top – that ascent was the hardest.

That euphoric feeling came over me towards the start of the last ascent. I hadn’t completed it but nothing could stop me now. At this point my mind was unbreakable; the day’s earlier hardships gave me the strength to push on. My fears had been extinguished and I wasn’t feeling scared anymore. I rode the final summit in pure elation. I had managed to overcome the challenge and set a new bar for myself; the learning from this will continue to be with me for years to come. Now I’ll need to find something new that will scare me…