11 Jun 2022

Hazel Phillips: the joys of tramping solo

From Saturday Morning, 5:55 pm on 11 June 2022

In 2016, disillusioned with city life, journalist Hazel Phillips left Auckland with a pack, tramping boots, ski gear and her laptop. In the new book Solo, she writes about her adventures tramping from Mt Ruapehu to Fiordland in the years that followed.

Hazel Phillips

Hazel Phillips on the Routeburn Photo: Hazel Phillips Instagram / @hazelphilli

Although Hazel eventually went back to a corporate job, she tells Kim Hill that a couple of months ago she again quit the office and has "been on a massive tramping bender" since.

One of the tracks Hazel redid recently was the Routeburn where she paid tribute to people who'd died on the track that she learnt about while researching Solo.

Cover of Solo by Hazel Phillips

Photo: Supplied

Most of the available information about New Zealand's backcountry history relates to fatalities such as Czech man Ondrej Petr who died in 2016 and teenagers Heather McElligott and Bryan Lamb who were killed by a freak summer snowstorm in the early 1960s.

Crazy weather at any time of year is a big part of why New Zealand backcountry is so dangerous, Hazel says.

Two years ago, fighting to get out of a flooded creek in Kahurangi National Park, Hazel says her own enjoyment of crossing wild water came to an end.

"I felt my feet just go from underneath me. I let go of the others, which was a very silly mistake, and then had to haul myself out of [the creek] 'cause I was very close going into the brown and foaming and very violent river."


Although Hazel was tramping with other people that time, she prefers the challenge of solo tramps (the longest so far being nine days).

Being "relatively height-challenged", she tries to keep her pack lightweight but with a bivvy bag, Thermarest, cooker, fuel, food and a Personal Locator Beacon, it still weighs around 16kg.

As a self-described "hermit", Hazel says she doesn't mind going days in the wilderness without seeing or speaking to anyone. Her own lack of physical confidence does play on her mind, though.

While Hazel understands that foreboding track descriptions and DOC signs are aimed at inexperienced trampers, while she has significant wilderness experience, her response is still "Maybe I shouldn't go, I shouldn't even try".

"What I'm trying to do now very much is actually just give it a go and be prepared to turn around and come back. And that's been the big learning curve for me, I guess."

New Zealand's tramping fraternity can be pretty "blokey", Hazel says, and while sexism may not be deliberate, just like Palmolive dishwashing liquid "we're all kind of soaking in it".

While tramping, she is always aware of her temperature, hunger, thirst, and safety but feels that, as a woman, she's been "trained in self-doubt and self-limitation."

Lydia Bradey - the first woman to climb Mount Everest without oxygen - was refused admission to the Canterbury Mountaineering Club (which started accepting female members in 1980), she mentions.

  • Listen to Lydia Bradey read her 2015 memoir Going Up is Easy here.

The situation was even worse for pioneers like Freda Du Faur, the "completely hardcore" tramper who was forced to wear a skirt when she climbed Aoraki/Mount Cook in 1910.

  • Listen to a reading of The Conquest of Mount Cook and Other Climbs by Freda Du Faur here

Hazel says her own favourite spot in Mount Cook National Park, and in all of New Zealand's mountains, is Mueller Hut.

"You can look out at the valley opposite and see ice falls and hear them and you're right up in the mountains. There's so much history at that place."

When her brother asked recently why she loves tramping so much, Hazel told him it was the terrific feeling you get after calling it a day.

"When you get to a hut and you change your clothes and it's nice and warm and you snuggle up and have a hot drink and read your Kindle or whatever, there is this moment where it just feels really, really good."

Hazel Phillips on the summit of Te Heuheu

 Hazel Phillips on the summit of Te Heuheu, which she climbed in a skirt in honour of Australian mountaineer Freda du Faur. Photo: Supplied