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January 2013 Issue
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From small things come big ideas

Don French, left, with Terry Crippen on Mitre Peak. Photo: James Wright

A mission to climb 100 peaks is just the motivation Don French needs to get outdoors

For alpine climber Don French a small hut, bad weather and time to fill led to a mountaineering epic that spanned 20 years and is still going.

The Masterton climber was stuck in St Winifred Hut, near the head of Havelock river, when he got a bit carried away while hatching plans and rashly asserted he would “climb the list”.

That probably sounds straightforward enough, except ‘the list’ consists of 100 great New Zealand peaks, spread from one end of the country to the other.

French, however, is a man of his word, and more than 20 years later he is just five peaks short of holding true to his bold claim.

The now 54-year-old readily admits he had a bit of a head start, having already climbed 30 peaks on the list, but while there are some straightforward ascents to be had, the list includes many challenges.

More than 20 pitches of solid ice awaited French on the Arrowsmith Range’s Jagged Peak’s east face via the route known as Deep Throat. And on technically difficult mountains like Fiordland’s Sabre Peak “you have to have your act together just to climb it by the easiest route”, he says.

Other peaks take a lot of effort to get to. French had “at least three days’ approach march though wild west coast country” to reach the likes of Mt Dechen, Fettes Peak and Mt Ionia.

And even in New Zealand, for some peaks, surmounting the bureaucratic process can be as much of a challenge as the climb itself. Getting a permit to climb Fiordland’s Mt Irene, which was accessed via a restricted takahe area, “reminded me of Himalayan expeditions”.

There are still “a couple of biggies” among the last five French needs to summit to tick off all 100, including the over 3000m Magellan and nearby 2960m Drake and Mt Green, all in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park. Also waiting in Westland National Park is the “very steep and very pointy” Unicorn, as well Milford Sound’s Mt Pembroke.

Once he has conquered the 3049m Magellan, French will also have climbed all mountains over 3000m in New Zealand.

The 100 Peaks Challenge was put together by the New Zealand Alpine Club to mark its centenary in 1991. It is not the 100 highest, or 100 greatest, or even the 100 all-time classic peaks, French explains. Instead it was a carefully picked list to encourage people into the hills. It includes North Island and top of the South Island peaks that are do-able in a weekend, or long weekend, from the country’s major centres.

Even for a non-mountaineer, just reading the list is enough to excite the imagination as names like Mt Alarm, The Warrior, Climax Peak, Dasler Pinnacles, Stargazer and Mt Hopeless jump out.

Encouraging others to enjoy the mountains is something French, a business analyst by day, has a close affinity to, and he has instructed hundreds of budding mountaineers through the alpine club.

Completing the list is not an obsession, he says. Instead he is careful not to let the list take over.

“Particularly if you are in the hills it gets very, very dangerous because you start making irrational decisions. You have got to keep it in focus. If it’s not going to work out you do something else.

“I always make a bit of a rule of not forcing myself to cross that marginal river or dodgy snow slope.”

French isn’t planning a big celebration for the end, in fact he isn’t even looking forward to finishing, he says.

“It is just like climbing a mountain. Getting to the top is only part of the journey.

“I probably spent more time researching each [peak], than actually climbing them.

“The achievement is personal. It’s a personal journey to each summit. I don’t see it necessarily as ticking off the list. The list is only a motivating factor for decision making.”

So what happens when the list is done?

Well there is always the ‘B list’ – which French cheerfully confesses he has already started on.

The B list?

The 100 other peaks which should have been on the A list, of course.