The shadow side of inspiration

Fear and self-loathing in the mountains.

I’m balanced on a rock, my hand sweating against the granite. There’s a 14-kilo pack on my back, a scramble and a jump ahead of me, and an eye-watering incline beside me. If I slip and fall, I won’t stop falling for some time. Legs aching, two days’ worth of hike behind me, and I am frozen. I am afraid.

I have been desperate to reach the top of this mountain – Fiordland’s Mt Titiroa – for some time. In fact, this is my third attempt. The white granite makes its peak look snow-capped year-round, and it’s possible to hike the summit as part of a traverse, approaching from Hope Arm up the Garnock Burn or from North Borland, then ending up on the other side. I’ve twice tried from North Borland, but conditions turned me around.

This time I’m approaching from Hope Arm, tagging along with a party of highly experienced, monumentally fit hikers (think GODZoners). This is a walk in the park for them. In fact, the day before this trip, they completed a traverse of The Remarkables en route. If I don’t make it in their company, during a sun-kissed Easter-weekend weather window, maybe I never will.

It is beautiful up here, a couple of hundred metres from the summit. Moonlike terrain, views in every direction. Half the group has summited already and have headed down to make camp; I am slow, unused to this amount of sustained effort, and my balance falters the longer it takes and the more tired I get. Part of me is sure the others must be wondering what I’m doing here. I wonder too.

It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I make it. It takes me so long that I strike the summit at golden hour, in step with the most incredible sunset I have ever witnessed. Worth it, I whisper, worth it.

But it’s not over. I must descend to camp with the folk who’ve waited for me. Under the impression nothing will be harder than what we did today, it’s a shock to me that there’s some concern about the ridgeline crossing in the morning. We elect to start before sunrise, and I know it’s partly because I’m slow, and the others can’t leave me unsupervised up here. I feel rotten about that, though they’re very kind. I wish I could shut up the negative self-talk, but a voice is whispering. I’m holding others back. If I was going to try again, I should have tried alone, even if it took twice as long.

Despite lagging behind, I still pause to take pictures, thinking I might not make it up again. And so far, I haven’t. High winds on Lake Manapouri stopped a later attempt to approach by sea kayak, and windfall and an un-forecasted downpour scuppered another attempt by foot, as well as picking the wrong line up the Garnock Burn and getting bluffed out.

In the meantime, I’ve also been turned around attempting a river-crossing in the Siberia Valley, a traverse from Mt Burns to Mt Eldrig in the Borland, and even from summiting Barrier Knob (after a laughable look at whether I could get down Gifford’s Crack afterwards to visit Lake Adelaide, exiting via the Moraine Creek route). I can’t always equate the lines on the topo with the reality, but I am getting better at that.

Every time I’m foiled, with a taste of fear in my mouth and a weight of failure on my chest, I ask why. Why am I up here? Why do I keep attempting something I’m not very good at? I started reading Dave Vass’s remarkable memoir Not Set in Stone (which won the 2023 New Zealand Mountain Book of the Year award), after dragging my bedraggled self out of sodden Fiordland Forest on one such failed mission. I’d slipped more than once.

And I started to ask myself even harder questions. Dave was one of the country’s top mountaineers, until an accident on a walk out from a climbing trip ended his career in the hills. If the most skilled alpinists can fall in the places they know and love, am I courting disaster by attempting these overambitious adventures? For what?

This is the shadow side of inspiration. When I think of where my motivation comes from, it’s the lure of big nature, big being key. I don’t just want to go for a walk in the park. I want to touch the tops of the peaks. I want the awe that comes with high altitudes. I’m friends with adventurers and follow others on Instagram. And perhaps, as a British-born city girl who’s purposefully plonked herself in remote Fiordland and made friends with Kiwi mountain goats, I’m trying to prove something. I also attend a lot of mountain film festivals, where the scale of people’s achievements is jaw-dropping. Some of the most remarkable movies involve a high degree of death defiance. And that’s where I’m getting stuck. I want to know how these people push past the fear, and the questions, that freeze me.

I seek perspectives from a couple of local adventurers. The first is Crystal Brindle, a landscape photographer and Department of Conservation (DOC) ranger, who captures Fiordland’s wild beauty in a way few can. Crystal is no stranger to fear (she’s worked on the Alaska Peninsula, surrounded by bears on a daily basis). When I ask about her motivation and risk perception, she’s thoughtful. Given she’s in the outdoors so often, and has been for so long, she suggests there is a process of “normalising the abnormal”.

This was brought home for her working for the National Park Service in the United States and again at DOC. Her personal bias leans towards empowering others and underplaying the difficulty of certain terrain, but she has had to be conscious of what she puts out there publicly. She now takes the time to find a sweet spot by speaking very directly with people to gauge the right level of route recommendations for them.

This directness is something evident in Crystal’s social media presence. Her accounts offer not just scenes of staggering beauty, but also descriptions that bring to life what it took to get there, Instagram tiles serving as windows into the reality of touching these special places. “In backcountry photography,” Crystal says, “the process of getting there is as important as the process of taking a picture of a pretty scene.” I get it – I’m after more than a money shot too.   

When it comes to her adventure goals, Crystal has also placed a focus on fitness, endurance, and capability. I feel put to shame. Perhaps rather than overthinking, I should be training harder to achieve the level of fitness and technical skill required to do the things I want. Crystal hasn’t had much experience of failure, and because of this she knows what she’s capable of. She describes it as a “cookie jar” of experience, which she can draw on for comparison during any given challenge. But she’s also less risk-tolerant now than she used to be, and she’s okay with that. While valuing doing hard things, it’s clear to her when not to push, and she’s now unwilling to risk injury or death.

Crystal suggests allowing yourself to do the things you enjoy, which makes me want to nail down what it is I’m truly seeking. I don’t like the technical challenge and pumping adrenaline of a spicy ridgeline so much as several days spent somewhere remote, without a phone signal. Perhaps I need to rethink my obsession with the concept of the summit.

My next port of call is Fiona Lee, who owns Wild Fiordland and runs charters on the beautiful Breaksea Girl. An expedition kayaker with some serious adventure under her belt, Fi is a strong mentor in the outdoors for me. She humours my more ambitious starts and lets me work out what I’m capable of, rather than stopping me from trying things. Then she helps me absorb the learnings in the aftermath.

Growing up with three brothers, Fi was exposed to a competitive environment early, as well as to risk-taking. Her childhood infused her with a sense of adventure and her schooldays were foundational. She mentions partaking in the Duke of Edinburgh Award as a kid, sampling lowkey adventures where you go out alone and prepare to get wet, then progressing on to Outward Bound, Aoraki Polytech, and Outdoor Ed. Getting into whitewater kayaking, she would get scared, but going out with strong kayakers made her feel safe. This enabled her to grow a toolbox, develop her skills, and get comfortable with calculating risk.

Fi says, “The more often you’re scared, the better you cope with fear. The more exposed you are, the more you build coping mechanisms and are able to do what you like.” Muscle memory – something Crystal mentioned as well – is important. But Fi also draws a distinction between perceived risk and inherent risk: what might appear incredibly risky from the outside actually isn’t if you’re prepared and equipped to tackle it. That being said, Fi does comment, “It’s not enjoyable if it’s too easy. The journey needs to have elements of risk that excite you, that test your capabilities. There’s a hit from that.”

Part of my frustration has come from approaching adventure in a top-down manner: inspiration first, then trying to emulate those more capable, then feeling bad for not keeping up. This, instead, a bottom-up approach: investing in training, learning by doing, figuring out what I could be capable of. 

I’ve decided if fear is the shadow side of inspiration, then the joyful side hinges on self-belief. As with most things, this can be bred via hard work, experience, and preparation. There’s no shortcut to the summit. Slowing down, upskilling, and investing more time in more medium-sized nature might yet set me up for big nature success.

In the meantime, I’ll be upping my running, swimming, and climbing. Perhaps I’ll keep those film festival pipedreams, but train for big adventures in smaller increments, playing the long game, building confidence rather than hoping it will magically appear on top of a mountain. And then, maybe, one day it will.

Words & photos: Sara Litchfield