Time spent outside helps forge friendships – and a love for U2 – that can last a lifetime.
It was 1987. I was in my first year at Massey University in Palmerston North, and U2’s album The Joshua Tree was taking the world by storm. I loved the black-and-white cover photo, and the music filled our hostel. Echoing through the corridors between the rooms.
‘With or Without You’ was the big hit, but others perhaps resonated more with me. ‘One Tree Hill’ spoke of my Auckland childhood, and ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ probably reflected what many of us new students felt, away from home for the first time.
Pretty soon I did find what I was looking for. Immediately after arriving to study zoology, I joined the Massey University Alpine Club (MUAC), and there met a group of like-minded people, many of whom became fellow adventurers. Some became enduring friends.
Somehow I managed to do MUAC trips nine weekends out of 10 in that first term, five out of 10 in the second term, and even three in the last term, and still found time to study and pass my exams. We went rock climbing at Baring Head and Tītahi Bay, we learned snowcraft at Ruapehu, and I discovered the joys and vicissitudes of the Tararua Range. On one trip I was impressed to find that – unlike anywhere I had ever tramped – it could actually rain uphill in the Tararua.
The Joshua Tree was that year’s soundtrack, and every chord still takes me back to those magical days of discovering the mountains with a crew of people who also took perverse pride in this crazy thing called tramping.
Another U2 album became the soundtrack for a long-lasting friendship that grew into a working partnership, eventually resulting in three books (Classic Tramping in New Zealand, Shelter from the Storm and A Bunk for the Night) as well as the TV series First Crossings and work with the Backcountry Trust.
Rob Brown, a year or two older than me, arrived at Massey University in my final year, 1989. Waikato-born and raised, he’d been living in Matamata and initially studied engineering before coming to Massey to work towards a degree in product design.
By that stage I was immersed, boots-and-all, in the alpine club, having served first as conservation representative, then as president. At the start of each year, MUAC had a big drive to recruit new members. We’d decided the best way to inspire people about the great outdoors was with a dazzling slideshow.
I know, so 1980s. We didn’t have laptops or Powerpoint or internet, but we did have two dual Kodak slide projectors, and so could stuff two carousels with 80 slides each – the pick of the past two years of mountain photography. Then by careful pre-planned wizardry – not easy with analogue gear – we coordinated a fade-in and fade-out between the carousels and combined it with a rousing soundtrack.
The first shot was one of my slides, showing the sun bursting above the Tararua horizon. ‘With or Without You’ began playing as we faded-in the sun to full brightness (get it, potential members? If you don’t join, look what you’ll miss out on!). The Edge riffs on guitar, the slow build-up, the sun grows brighter, then Bono starts crooning and – boom – we flash to a picture of Tim Kerr, one of the club’s more accomplished climbers. It looks like Tim is singing with Bono, kneeling on top of Ruapehu, arms wide, mouth open in joy (get it, new recruits? The mountains will make you croon like Bono, too!).
Midnight Oil’s ‘Beds are Burning’ provided a pulsing second sonic sound for more images of climbing, tramping, bush and mountains. Then another U2 track for the finale, ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ (get it? We go where there are no streets!). It worked. The effect was enough to get dozens of new members, sometimes as many as 300.
In that first-year lecture hall in 1989 was Rob Brown. Already a U2 fan, Rob later described the event as ‘a light bulb moment’ and he joined immediately.
Rob and I were soon tramping and climbing together and beginning our careers as photographers with the right blend of encouragement and gentle competition.
By 1990 I’d finished my BSc but was struggling to find work. I decided to stay in Palmerston North where I could continue to tramp with the club, and began flatting with Rob and other outdoorsy students. As soon as it came out the following year, Rob introduced me to U2’s new album, Achtung Baby.
His musical tastes were more sophisticated than mine and he had to work a little to convert me to the band’s more raw style. The songs were less stadium-anthem and more experimental and had European techno influence.
Soon enough, however, I was a fan. To this day I still get a spine tingle whenever I hear Edge’s raw opening riffs in ‘Zoo Station’, followed by the distinctive drum rhythm of Larry Mullen Jr.
By then I had become a reasonably experienced tramper with enough adventures to have my own stories. I had aspirations of climbing but lacked the steely nerve and drive to tackle serious stuff. I especially feared what I came to understand was not actually heights (I could handle those) but exposure – that clawing void felt when the mountain edge drops off into dizzying nothingness.
No such problems for Rob, who was rapidly developing a climbing prowess that saw him summit half of our great 3000m peaks – including Aoraki four times, once by the East Ridge.
In 1991 I spent a year at Lincoln University. Under the guidance of friend Steve Baker I became a passable rock climber, and even wrote a thesis on climbing at Castle Hill.
Rob led me onto the summit of my first 3000m peak, Lendenfeld, in 1990. In 1992 he reckoned we should have a go at a multi-pitch rock route on Aiguilles Rouge, one of the gloriously red peaks of the Malte Brun Range, just east of the Tasman Glacier. At 2950m, it was a worthy summit.
French for ‘red needles’, Aiguilles Rouges is an apt name for this shapely, pointed maunga. We would climb it, Rob said, from Beetham Hut, set in a picturesque location beside a babbling stream amid mountain flowers in a side-valley above the Tasman Glacier.
First, though, a trudge up the Tasman Glacier, which had a bad reputation. With tedious moraine mounds, ice hummocks and a fair bit of guesswork to find an efficient route, it could be a grind. We had no such problems. Two months before, on December 14, 1991, the entire summit of Aoraki Mt Cook had crumbled away, spilling a great avalanche of rock and snow right across the glacier, sweeping flat everything in its path and even pushing a few hundred metres up the valley’s far side. Instead of a moraine labyrinth, we had a smooth-planed highway where the grit of the debris had sprayed finely over the entire lower glacier. A joke at the time went: we were actually standing on the summit of Aoraki.
Despite the easy start, I feared the climb and my ability, and these doubts began to gnaw. Yes, I could lead grade 16–18s and once had even managed to lead a 20. But these were on bolted routes; I had almost no experience of placing natural protection.
We planned to tackle the north ridge, which involved at least four full pitches, before a final scramble along the summit ridge – the needles – then down a long snow gully to Malte Brun Pass. Was I up to this? Rob assured me I was.
We arrived at Beetham Hut to find it heaving with climbers. People bustled about cooking meals. I felt intimidated, out of my depth.
“Okay, mate?” asked Rob, sensing my disquiet.
“A bit nervy about tomorrow, Rob.”
“No worries,” he replied. “Look, I’ll cook dinner. Why don’t you go and chill out in the bunkroom? Listen to some U2 on my Walkman. It’s got the Achtung Baby tape.”
‘Zoo Station’ was just the distraction I needed.
Two-storey Beetham Hut had a communal sleeping platform with about 20 mattresses. I was distraught to find none were spare. Sleeping bags were laid out like herrings in a tin. Oh well, I reasoned, hut etiquette says there should be room for all. I shuffled several sleeping bags across, making space for Rob and myself, then crawled into my bag, pulled on the padded headphones and set the tape rolling. Oh yeah baby, bring on those big riffs. Achtung Baby took me out of my head, out of the mountains, took me to Berlin or someplace where there was only pulsating music and energy and no worries.
With the volume up loud, it took me a few moments to realise that – in the dim light – someone was standing over me. A woman. One of the guides. Brede Arkless. Welsh. Fierce. With a reputation. She didn’t look happy. She might even have been yelling at me.
I slipped off the headphones. “I’m sorry,” I muttered. “Are you talking to me?”
Brede’s anger seemed to die then, and she just grumbled about the fact that it was her sleeping bag I had squashed asunder.
Later, Rob told me that Brede had given me such a dressing down that the whole hut came to a standstill. Everyone listened as she castigated me in her broad brogue about being a useless, inconsiderate pleb. I’d heard nothing.
The following day was perfect for climbing. Rob seemed cheerful and committed as we cramponed up the Beetham Glacier towards the pass. I was heartened by the good weather but still anxious. As we took off crampons at the base of the buttresses, this drew to a head. Although the rock looked solid, red and melded, the ridge stretched a dizzying height above, hiding the actual summit beyond.
“I don’t know if I can do this, Rob,” I confessed, conscious that I would be disappointing him. At such times best friends step up, and Rob gave the perfect response.
“No worries, mate. Look, this is how we’ll do it. I’ll lead the first pitch, then belay you up to a ledge.” He patted the warm red rock. “This is good, firm stuff, well within your ability. You’ve got this.”
I must have still seemed unconvinced, because then he said the words I really needed.
“No pressure. If you aren’t liking this at the end of the first pitch, we’ll just abseil back down. No prob.”
Rob led strongly. He was working for Macpac and had these snazzy red-and-yellow rock pants, which seemed to fit the day and the maunga perfectly. Pitch done, belay on. “Come on up, lad,” he called down, with 50m of rope falling to me.
I started climbing. The rock felt good, the moves flowed, and the growing void beneath my rock shoes didn’t bother me. In fact, this was beautiful. Such stunning rock! Nothing like the crumbly crap elsewhere. Soon I was with Rob on the belay ledge, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
“All good?” Rob asked. “Wanna take the lead?”
I took the sharp end, climbed off. Rob was right. This was well within my ability. The climbing went smoothly, the moves linked. This was the bliss of a multi-pitch climb.
Some minutes later, Rob called out, “Hey, Shaun, you might want to stick some protection in at some point!”
Oh yeah, that would be smart. I pulled a cam off my harness and tried it in a crack. It seemed to work. A few metres further on I placed another one, then climbed on.
“Ten metres,” Rob called up. I was now 40m above his belay ledge and about 5m above my last piece of pro. I looked down and realised the last cam had walked out. Clearly I didn’t know how to seat them properly. The last piece of pro was now 15m down, meaning a 30m fall if I peeled off. Not great. But I was in my element, it didn’t matter. I had this.
Two more glorious red, slabby pitches on the ridge, one lead for Rob, then one for me and onto easier ground, moving together, roped-up through the needles. Finally, the summit.
“Thanks, man, that was the best!” We slapped arms around each other, drank, ate, then began the slow, concentrating descent back to Beetham Hut.
When I wrote about this climb later for Wilderness, in one of my earlier articles, I used the opening line: ‘Red, red rock, climbing all the way to heaven.’ Yeah, I know, a bit clichéd. But that’s how it felt.
In defiance of U2’s song from Achtung Baby, on that glorious Aiguilles Rouge day nothing could feel better than the real thing.
I recently stayed with Rob in Wānaka. We reminisced about our trips together, about mountains, huts and photography. Then we watched an excellent BBC documentary about the making of Achtung Baby.
That’s the soundtrack of our friendship, I thought. I’ve got to write about that.