What is the New Zealand Alpine Team?
The New Zealand Alpine Team is an initiative of the Expedition Climbers Club Inc. that represents a new concept for climbing in this country. It is born of a desire to support and encourage aspiring young Kiwi alpinists looking to improve their mountain skills. Some of New Zealand's best alpine climbers have volunteered their time to mentor a future generation of alpinists. In doing so, we are hoping to help a group of young climbers to learn valuable skills and knowledge that might have otherwise taken them many more years to acquire.
At its core, the New Zealand Alpine Team (NZAT) is simply a group of climbers from NZ (and a couple from Australia) who enjoy mountaineering.
Why the Team was set up
At various stages we've all struggled to find climbing partners. This might be due to the fact that even though both NZ and Australia share a long history of successful alpine climbing, there have been very few established, structured ways for climbers who wish to progress past the basic snowcraft and rope skills taught at club level, so that one could move onto more challenging projects with guidance from more experienced amateur climbers. For many of the generation of climbers aged 30+, you simply had to figure it out through a process of trial and error. It was fairly hard to meet up with other climbers around the country and find out who was actually keen for regular alpine trips, particularly people for regular overseas expeditions.
By mentoring young climbers, the NZAT addresses both issues – it addresses the main barrier to progress for young kiwi mountaineers, and also provides a group in which both established and aspiring alpinists can socialise, swap ideas and go on trips.
Mentoring in the NZAT means sharing your skills with someone keen to learn. It is also about building up climbing partnerships for future trips.
We have four types of team member – advising mentors, technical mentors, mentees, and general members. Criteria for membership is outlined here and has evolved a little with time. We started with a climbing CV-based system, but for our second team intake in 2015 we implemented a very successful trial. With clear direction on what would be assessed, we were amazed and pleased to be able to choose among a group of determined, fit and capable climbers who had already proven their commitment to training and their own personal improvement.
Our group has started small for a few reasons. One is that we want our mentors to be of high quality and able to commit a lot of time – of the people who meet the skills criteria, not everyone has the time to mentor, and vice versa. Secondly, we want the mentoring effort to be concentrated towards NZ’s best climbing prospects – that means people who are young enough to have time and energy to learn, and who will have the longest possible career of climbing (and eventually mentoring) once they complete their mentoring period. Thirdly, a small group means that we form an extremely close-knit group of mates – the sort of people you can share a tent with for a month, and still love at the end of the trip. Having said that, we’re keen to see the group of kiwis climbing at an international standard to expand, and for our group to expand with it. Our thinking is that this goal will take years, or even a generation to be achieved – but just like the ECC’s Expedition Capital Fund, we’re happy to put in the hard yards for many years to come.
How does mentoring work?
The NZAT has two meets per year where team members share skills in a structured manner. This has evolved a little in the first ~5 years of the team. Outside of the two official team meets, team members climb with each other both in NZ and out of NZ in a non-structured way as friends and climbing partners. There is no obligation on any team member to do the extra climbing time, they simply climb together if they enjoy each other’s company or share a common climbing goal.
For the next mentoring period 2019-2021, our program will work as follows. Each mentee climbs with and receives technical training from our technical mentors - this is coaching in the nuts and bolts of climbing technique, ranging from ice climbing skills to big walling skills. In addition, each mentee is assigned an advising mentor - basically an old legend of the mountains with many decades of experience - to be a point of contact, someone to discuss goals and issues with, and who takes something of a 'pastoral care' role for the young mentee. We have three advising mentors currently - Tim McCartney-Snape, Lionel Clay, and Allan Uren.
Team training week.
Once per year, all team members meet in Queenstown to climb together during the week prior to the Remarkables Ice and Mixed Climbing Festival (RIMF). This is the official team training week and is a time for us to meet as a complete group. We get to know each other, plan trips, and run skills clinics. The clinics vary each year depending on the upcoming team trips, that season’s climbing conditions and the skill level of the new team members. All mentored team members are obliged to attend, and the same goes for mentors. This is part of the commitment we make to each other and the group. Other members who have completed their first three years of mentoring with the group are also welcome to join.
2017’s training week will cover specific training days on avalanche skills, mountain medicine, frost bite and altitude sickness treatment, along with a couple of days mixed climbing prior to the Festival. From there, the majority of the team members will give up their weekend to help teach clinics and organise RIMF.
2016’s team training week was based at Wye Creek where we ran several ice climbing drills covering everything from building anchors, climbing steep ice, and efficient movement over various types of terrain. Last year’s clinic specifically focused on skills needed for the annual team trip - our Canada ice climbing trip which took place in January 2017.
Overseas climbing trips
In addition to our training week we have an annual trip overseas. These trips focus on skills that we cannot easily build up while climbing in NZ. There are three of these – one for each year of the three-year mentoring period. We start with an ice climbing trip to Canada, followed by a big wall climbing trip to Yosemite, and in the third year we finish off the mentoring period with an expedition. The final expedition for our first intake (2013-2016) was an extremely successful trip to Peru, after which four of the team (including two mentored climbers) were shortlisted for the 2017 Piolet D'Or.
On these trips, team members climb with mentors from the group who have a high degree of skill in that particular type of climbing. For example, the best ice climbers in the group lead the ice climbing trip, and the better big wall climbers lead the Yosemite trip. For the team expedition in year three, most team members will attend and climbing groups are formed based on friendship and skill level. It is common for other climbers who are not in the team to also participate in these trips, as happened in Peru.
This is a trip type we’re still developing a definition for, but basically this is an extra annual overseas trip (often to Patagonia) involving only the Team mentors. This is an opportunity to boost the profile and credibility of the team by attempting world-class climbing objectives, it’s an opportunity to test gear for our sponsors, and we also think it’s a good incentive to be a Team mentor. We sometimes offer a small subsidy towards this trip from our fundraised/sponsored funds, just like we support the official overseas training trips and expeditions. No different from our other trips, members pay the vast majority of their costs for these trips. As much as possible, Team cash is invested for long-term gain of the group as it grows over the years.
Attitude and culture
With our goals of promoting climbing, and with our public profile, we are keenly aware of the need to be good role models for the climbing community. We are keen to offer advice and skills beyond the core of the Team, which is why we help out at the Remarkables Festival and provide advice and trip beta on our website. Many of our members are also volunteers and committee members in other climbing groups, like NZ Alpine Club and Canterbury Mountaineering Club. We also embrace a culture of openness and transparency, and this article is intended to lay out clearly how we work and why we do what we do.
At the 2016 training week we took the opportunity of having everyone together to come up with a code of conduct and had several in-depth discussions on team culture, what we want the team to be, and how we expect team members to act when climbing with each other. We encourage a culture of respecting the mountains and respecting each other’s ability – we want to avoid any form of hero culture or be the kind of group that is pushing beyond its limits. All team members were part of these discussions, and our ideas of how the group would operate and respect each as we moved forward other stemmed from these talks. At the time, we were mindful of Ari and Jamie, two team members no longer with us, and were keen to ensure that while recognising the fact mountaineering will never be safe, as a group we could participate in the activity with the lowest possible risk.
Mountain climbing is a dangerous sport and we aim for our team members to participate in it together in the safest way possible. This does not mean we can avoid all risks associated with climbing - no one can. Sadly, the long list of competent Kiwi mountain guides and world-class alpine climbers who have died over the past decade is proof that no level of skill or experience can save you in some alpine climbing situations. To ensure team members don’t push or over-extend each other, we focus on a culture of honesty and open communication. At all team meetings, and on casual weekend trips we constantly discuss ways to mitigate the risks of what we do. We actively teach this culture to the new team members and quickly bring any overly risky behaviour to their attention. This is backed up with daily debriefs on all team trips. At these debriefs we have a no-blame culture - everyone is encouraged to openly share any mistakes they made during the day, discuss what went wrong and talk over the best solutions for future climbs. Both mentors and new team members share in these discussions. We also get feedback on mentoring style and try to continually improve/adapt if any particular teaching method is not working.
We recognise that all our members have different strengths in different aspects of climbing. Within the group, there’s no culture of competition – one of the things about climbing is there is so much that you need to be good at, someone will always be better than you at something. So, while the process to get into the team is based on a competitive trial (what sports team isn’t?), once someone is accepted, they are in the group as long as they choose. We are more concerned about building good friendships that will endure the many days spent suck in a tent while out on an expedition. All sponsorship is shared equally, opportunity to come on trips is open to everyone, there is no benefit to compete with any other member of the group.
Expectations throughout the year
Our views on this as a group have changed since the team began. Originally, we asked members to submit a weekly training log, with the idea being that by seeing what each other was doing, you would have more motivation. After a couple of years we realised this didn’t really work, and that the motivation to train has to come from within. For our current intake of climbers there is no requirement to do any specific form of training. People are only in the group because they want to be, and as such they need to provide their own motivation to train and to climb. We also changed our selection process, to help ensure the people joining the team had a more complete climbing background. The essence of this approach was to ensure climbers had a good grounding in the basics of mountaineering, rock climbing and ice climbing.
There is a general expectation that all team members will do some alpine climbing each year. After all, we are a mountain climbing team. The amount and difficulty is up to the individual. As a guideline, we say to the new members to aim for one alpine trip per month. We give no guidance as to what this is to be. Basically, we are happy to see people out in the hills no matter if it is for a transalpine tramp, moderate snow route or a technical climb. We also put no pressure on the mentored team members to come and climb with the mentors outside of the training trips.
What happens after the three years of mentoring?
Once a team members has completed three years with the group they are invited to stay part of the team structure. They may remain in the group as long as they choose. Our goal is that some will move on and become mentors for the team. After all, this is the point of having an organised structure. We want to see the group outlive our own individual involvement - all mentors and team members put in shared effort to see something that lasts far longer than their own personal involvement. One key to being a mentor is our requirement that all team mentors must be at least 30 years old. This requirement relates directly to team culture - while any good young climber can complete the technical aspects required to be a mentor in advance of becoming 30, we are looking for other skills in the people we choose as mentors – perhaps call it ‘life skills.’ It is important to us as a group that anyone joining the team as a mentor not only has a solid climbing background, but also the common sense and character needed to be a mentor capable of teaching less experienced climbers.
While we are lucky enough to get a bit of gear from our generous sponsors, there is no one who makes a living off being part of the NZAT. No trips are fully subsidised (not even close!). A month climbing overseas can cost $5,000-15,000 per person and we simply can’t fund the ambitions of a dozen climbers. For example, we put $5000 of Team cash in total towards the 2017 Canada trip – about a $500 subsidy per climber. So in fact, all members of the group make a huge personal financial and time commitment to the team- all pay their own way to get to team training weeks, and pay the bulk of their costs on team trips. Consider an average mentor with a regular job, and four weeks annual leave: some might use their entire annual leave some years just to help mentor new team members. This basically means they gave up their holidays to stand on belay, usually in the cold to help see another climber improve. Although the time and financial costs of doing this are large, we believe they are balanced though by the enjoyment and satisfaction gained from sharing skills and working together as a group.
The NZAT is intended to promote the highest level of climbing and training for years to come. We greatly appreciate all the support we get from friends, family, sponsors, and from you. See you in the hills.