Geoff Spearpoint: a love letter to the Southern Alps

From Nine To Noon, 10:07 am on 4 November 2019

Geoff Spearpoint has been venturing into the Southern Alps for more than 50 years, both tramping and mountaineering. He has been to some of the most wild and remote parts of the South Island and crossed the alps dozens of times.

Geoff is passionate about backcountry hut and track restoration and has written and co-authored several books, including two about remote huts.

His latest book, The Great Unknown, recounts his five decade long love affair with the Southern Alps and details 14 adventures from Kahurangi to Fiordland.

He explained to Kathryn Ryan that the title is from the name of a peak in the Southern Alps which was discovered by John Pascoe in the 1930s but is also a metaphor for exploring back country.

“Every trip, in many ways, is an adventure into the great unknown. It’s a very real life, it’s a life where you’re alive and what’s important is what’s in front of you and what’s happening in the next half hour or five minutes.”

Geoff began his expeditions mountain expeditions in the 1960s when he ventured out with a youth group to climb Mt Climie near Upper Hutt. He says that during that trip, a light switched on for him.

“I started pursuing the mountains from that day and still am. Every day is an adventure and every trip you look forward to, and you never know where it’s going to lead.

“You start with ideas about what you’re doing and where you’re going, but a decent trip is one with enough question marks and uncertainties about that where you end up, and the major things that happen on that trip are ones you haven’t necessarily predicted or expected.”

He gives the example of a Perth trip where he and a group went up the valley and climbed a peak. Everything went as expected until they were on their way back.

“Towards the end of the trip, we had some significantly bad weather. We were stuck in the valley between creeks and spent a few days there watching the Perth River rise up into the trees… it was a sight to behold. We stayed dry, we were lucky, but you could feel the rock – where we camped – vibrating sometimes with the power of the water, it was fantastic.”

Less fantastic was the time he and a group got stuck on a mountain in Patagonia for days without food. Having encountered bad weather on an ostensible day-trip, they had to build a cave in the side of a crevasse and wait out the weather.

“There was no possibility to be rescued because there was no one aware of where we were… there was no way they would ever find us buried under the ice at the top of the peak.”

On the eighth day on the mountain, the weather fined up and they managed to descend. For all their obsessing about food while they were stuck in the cave, they found themselves barely able to eat when they reached camp.