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 challenges in front of us. There’s great satisfaction when you accomplish any challenge you set yourself. I’m naturally driven by challenges, but with this year’s pandemic restrictions it’s been hard to take on any major ones. It’s all been about staying safe, not venturing too far from home and not doing too much. However, taking risks, feeling scared, pushing boundaries and not knowing the outcome are part of life and it helps us to grow. So I came up with a challenging concept that would really scare me.
The challenge: To complete four climbs to the top of the Ōhau Ski Access Road in one day, gaining a total of 3,800 meters (12,500 feet). This is a little more than the physical height of New Zealand’s tallest mountain, Mount Cook. So I was paying homage to that iconic peak and to the old-school climbers who’ve ascended the mountain in years gone by.
The climb: The Ōhau climb is 9.6 kilometers in length and extremely steep, with an average gradient of 10.1 percent and an elevation gain of 940 meters (3,084 feet).
The region and its history: Mount Cook was known originally to the Māori as Aoraki. European settlers later renamed it Mount Cook. And in 1998 the mountain’s name was changed officially to Aoraki/Mount Cook to respect its ancient 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 their capsized boat. The cold south 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. As for Lake Ōhau, which is in the Mackenzie Basin of New Zealand’s South Island, it’s said to get its translation as the “place of Hau” (for Ōhau), but an alternative meaning could be the “windy place.”
Aoraki/Mount Cook was first climbed by Tom Fyfe, Jack Clarke and George Graham, on Christmas Day 1894. On December 3, 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 of the south peak. On May 29, 2003, a bronze statue of Hillary was unveiled outside The Hermitage, Aoraki/Mt Cook, looking out to the mountains he climbed.
After a few hard weeks of training and mental preparation the day of my ride finally dawned. I was about to attempt something that really did scare me! That was evident the previous night, when my sleep was restless and I was feeling queasy when the alarm sounded—I’d need to keep my mind on the task and try and not let the day overwhelm me.
The morning sky was filled with a ton of texture: red light, dark clouds, wind and shadows from the sun’s first rays. The mountains across Lake Ōhau were calling, notably Aoraki/Mount Cook at the northern end of the lake. I was inspired by the pioneering climbers that ascended the iconic peak, though their hardships were very different to mine.
After clipping in for the day’s challenge, my first ascent helped me work out what was needed and how much energy it would take from me through the day. I’d need to explore my outer limits and greet my fears. As the day went on, I had to keep my mind focused, fighting any negative thoughts. There’s one that tells you you’re not good enough. Well, on the third ascent, with my body slumping over the handlebars, I nearly let my mind tell me I was no good. I listened but didn’t take the advice. I stopped briefly to compose myself—this was the first time I’d stopped on the climb all day. The thoughts kept coming: “Why do this?” … “What’s the point?” … “Does it matter?” … “You’re not going to make it.” I took a deep breath, brushed aside those negative feelings and refocused on my goal. I struggled to the top—that ascent was the hardest.
A euphoric feeling came over me toward the start of the fourth and final ascent. I hadn’t completed it…but nothing could stop me now. At this point the mind is 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. The final summit was 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—and I’ll need to find something new to scare me.