One afternoon, journalist Hazel Phillips decided to close her laptop and head for the hills. She spent the next three years living in mountain huts and tramping alone for days at a time, all the while holding down a full-time job.
In her engrossing new book Solo, (Massey University Press), she explains how while going it alone in the mountains may be challenge enough for many, she — a self-confessed hermit — relished going solo and living an itinerant life in the backcountry.
We asked her ten questions.
Why go solo?
For me a big part of the joy of tramping is attempting things you think might be (too) hard. If you’re lured by the challenge, it can be tough to find people who want to do the same sort of masochistic caper you’re angling at. You’re trying to line up your collective free time, experience levels, location, gear supplies and so on. Sometimes it is easier to plan only for yourself. And going solo was a challenge on its own, in the early days.
I also have excellent conversations with myself and we always agree on everything. That said, I do also enjoy company! I’ve had a few really epic trips with likeminded mates, and I recall one in particular, over Harper Pass, that was about as exciting as poking a blancmange in terms of the track and terrain, but the company made it one of the best trips ever. We now have a standing tradition of giving Harper Pass a rude finger signal whenever we drive by the track ends. (Sorry, Harper Pass.)
Did you ever feel you weren’t going to make it home?
I’ve had a few moments, which are in the book, such as self-arresting on the crater face on Ruapehu. I lost my footing in a stream crossing once and it was close to feeding into a very swollen river. I actually did think I was about to get swept away and die, and so did my buddies — one of them said he thought I was a goner. I fought the hardest I ever have in my life to get up and out of that river — sheer adrenaline got me out. I had nightmares about it for a very long time after that.
What was your greatest challenge on a solo tramp?
Initially the mental hurdle of going alone, particularly the first time you spend a night at a hut properly by yourself and you have to go outside to the long drop in the dark. Ha! Otherwise I don’t find the solo aspect very challenging any more — I’d probably find it much harder to go in a group of people with difficult dynamics, because I’d just get frustrated. People often say to me that I should do Outward Bound; I’ve heard that the most challenging bit is spending a night by yourself out in the bush, but I suspect I’d find the social aspect harder. I’m a bit of a hermit sometimes and I’ve become quite conscious that I need to actively work to counteract that tendency.
What prompted you to write this book?
Lots of people commenting ‘I hope you’re writing a book about this’ on my Facebook photos. My friend David Fisher, who’s a journalist with NZME and whose work I really respect, told me seriously he thought I should write about being strategically homeless while tramping and working. He added that it needed to be more than just a travelogue (sort of ‘I did this, then I did that’) and he was absolutely correct.
While I was formulating the content and structure, I also read Freda du Faur’s book and became interested in backcountry history, and it all seemed to fit. I also had a couple of early readers who were very encouraging.
What was one of the most surprising things you discovered during your research?
The research itself, actually. I was stunned by how much information is out there about our backcountry history that isn’t immediately available at the surface, but how accessible it can be if you just ask. The good folks at the Aoraki/Mount Cook Department of Conservation visitor centre even let me into their archives to frolic about, for which I’m very thankful, and the DoC staff at Franz Josef were very helpful in trying to find answers to my weird questions. Not to mention the National Library’s ‘ask a librarian’ service — they must be well sick of me by now. I’ve also become addicted to Papers Past — the online newspaper archive — which is searchable and browsable, and hence can suck up a lot of your time.
The book includes stories about past mountaineers. Who would you most like to go on a tramp with?
The grand mountaineering egotist Samuel Turner, so I could have the satisfaction of suffocating him with a pillow. OK, not really; I’d for sure go with Freda du Faur, and if I could have a lady-adventurers group I’d add Constance Barnicoat and Betsy Blunden. I’d hop in my time machine to go meet them, and we’d wander up and down the glaciers in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park and visit all the old huts, including the haunted Hooker Hut. Then we’d pop over to the West Coast and find Tom Christie to warn him to be a bit more careful when he’s jumping across crevasses, because it ain’t gonna end well.
What motivates you to push yourself when the going gets hard?
Often it’s the lack of any other option; you’ve opted to put yourself into a challenging situation. David Goggins, an American chap who’s reputed to be the ‘hardest man on earth’ (he’s the only member of the US Armed Forces to complete SEAL training, Army Ranger School and Air Force Tactical Air Controller training), reckons that when you think you’re done you’re actually only at about 40 per cent. I think about that a lot. I’m also hugely inspired by New Zealand adventurers such as Lydia Bradey, Anna Keeling and Penny Webster (and more).
Working from home is now fairly common, but you took working remotely to an extreme. What were some of the biggest challenges?
The biggest hurdle is ensuring all your devices are charged. Powerbanks and solar charging devices are helpful, and many huts have great connectivity to mobile networks, particularly if they’re high up a mountain! A few times I emerged from tramping to discover I couldn’t get accommodation, so I’m no stranger to bunking down in the bush inside a bivvy bag from a lack of other options. At one point I had limited access to a washing machine, and let’s just say that put a handbrake on my social life.
There are stories about the attitudes of some male climbers to women getting out there and doing it. What are the barriers to women getting into the back country and mountains today?
These things are all social constructs — I don’t think it’s as simplistic as saying that sexism is something that men ‘do’ to women, but rather a way of thinking that we’re all socialised to perform. I think women can sometimes limit themselves, but this often plays out well in a safety sense — there is evidence, for example, that having a woman in a backcountry skiing group tends to lower avalanche risk. Then there’s the Instagram complex: thinking you’ve got to look a certain way to be out there doing it (you don’t).
I also think the ‘old guard’ of mountaineering could do well to self-censor some of their social media comments, which can occasionally tend to be mocking and belittling and act as a fear barrier to women’s participation; and perhaps think about how they could do more to foster open discussion and advancement for beginner mountaineers.
What is the next goal for you in the outdoors?
I’ve behaved like a regular human over the past couple of years while writing the book, with a corporate job and a fixed abode, so I’m throwing it all out the window to go off on an adventure bender again while I (hopefully) finish my Master’s in Creative Writing. At some stage I’d like to climb something substantial in the South Island, and I have a residual desire to knock off all the 11 summit peaks of Ruapehu in one day.
I’ve also taken up motorbiking and would like to adventure bike some of the remote South Island gravel roads, but for the moment I’m still getting road miles under my belt on my Honda Monkey 125, the world’s smallest motorbike.
Find your copy of Solo here.