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February 2020 Issue
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Revealing the great unknown

Author and outdoorsman Geoff Spearpoint has shared his love of the Southern Alps in a new book The Great Unknown. 

What is The Great Unknown?
It has multiple meanings, really.  It is a metaphor for heading outdoors, discovering adventures, new places, new insights into ourselves. But for me, the name connects us to earlier trampers and climbers who named a peak at the western end of the Garden of Eden Ice Plateau ‘The Great Unknown’ in 1934. For them, it was a symbol of all the remote unexplored country in the peak’s vicinity. I’ve extended that to a personal discovery of all the Southern Alps.

Has your appreciation for the mountains grown as you’ve aged?
My appreciation of the mountains has always been strong. It has changed more than grown, developing a more intimate connection as I’ve got to know more places, experienced different things, added more layers with different trips. Time has also deepened the mountain experience, watching changes in the landscape, returning to places at different times, and in different seasons.

Have you become more wary of the mountains as your experience has grown?
I’m not so much wary as cautious, with a better understanding of the many options mountains have tucked up their sleeves to challenge us.

Do you worry that ‘the great unknown’ is disappearing in the social media age and with booming tourism?
In its strictest sense the great unknown had pretty much disappeared from the NZ mountains by the 1970s with the widespread use of helicopters for venison recovery. This, along with the Forest Service hut and track building sparked a reactionary attempt to protect what was left of wilder, more remote country as Wilderness Areas. These remain very important parts of our backcountry. But as individuals, all the Southern Alps is, in a sense, unknown to us as we begin our own explorations.

I am a bit over DOC’s pandering to tourism in our national parks, particularly at Aoraki/Mt Cook and Westland Tai Poutini. The result sometimes feels like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, encouraged by the very department meant to look after these special places. Social media does change our perspective on the land. So does internet connection, GPSs, PLBs, contoured maps, journals full of stories and photos.

It is not the great unknown it once was. We will inevitably find new ways to experience the land, but that need not be less meaningful. Bad weather still levels the playing field pretty quickly, and there are still many places where a sense of remoteness and isolation can be enjoyed.

Has the outdoors been a mental or emotional anchor in your life?
Yes, mountains have been part of who I am since I was about 12. The experience of wilderness has led me to believe that the mountains are much more in charge of themselves than condescending humans like to assume with their presumptions of mountain management. Come back in 1000 years and the mountains will still be grinding to their own processes. Humans may prove a little more fragile.

What was the lightbulb moment that sparked this book?
It was more of an evolution. I had been keeping diaries and taking mountain photographs for decades and had various book ideas. It surprises me there aren’t more books chronicling tramping and climbing adventures. Hunters aren’t so reticent and happily write about their adventures. I struggled with how to approach the topic.

After many ideas, I returned to the simplest of approaches, by letting the trips tell about the experience and the photos showcase the places. The more I wrote, the more that vision grew.

You’ve dedicated a lot of time and effort to preserving the backcountry – how can we ensure that kaitiakitanga continues?
Our hut and track network should be cherished as a cultural inheritance for New Zealanders, past, present and future. Fortunately, there is considerable goodwill in the community to look after our huts and tracks and through the Backcountry Trust we are well on the way to restoring many of them.

This will continue to require ongoing support from DOC, along with more outdoor people like me taking ownership to do some of the maintenance. It’s actually a heap of fun and provides a different perspective on the hills.

Buy Geoff’s book The Great Unknown here. Subscribers get a 10% discount.