Back Country adventuring in the hills

By Tony Orman

In 2016, disillusioned with “what Auckland had become” Hazel Phillips headed for the hills and spent three years wandering as a free spirit around Mount Taranaki (Egmont), Ruapehu the Kawekas, Fiordland, Arthurs Pass and a few other wilderness areas.

“I left — packed up my whole life — except for a tramping pack, boots and ski gear — and cut a fast track south.” she writes.  She wore out three pairs of boots in the time! 

The book details her experiences, wandering mountain trails. It reminded me of a Tolkien quote, “Not all those who wander are lost.”  She was never lost, carefully avoiding that predicament which is so easy for the unwary and inexperienced to blunder into.

Lessons from experience and the history

The author ranged from the North Island to South Island mountain areas. Yes, there were potential dangers and some experiences that were rugged lessons. But Hazel Phillips confronted danger and while occasionally felt loneliness, she grew in both backcountry knowledge and most importantly in confidence. 

Her narrative is punctuated with intriguing history of areas and particularly wilderness adventurers before her. One critic said too much focus was on tragedies and fatalities but I felt it underlined the respect that mountains and the wilderness demand, especially when solo.  

Enjoying the sweet solitude was a major factor in enhancing her rambles. At the same time her own philosophies and emotions plus her experiences add overall a strong open personal touch.

Outdoor adventure is great for women

Hazel Phillips philosophises “Confidence is a funny thing. The so-called confidence gap in the workplace and in learning environments is well documented.” Especially for women. She advocates that “in the world of outdoor adventure — women stand to rapidly gain confidence when they engage in challenging outdoor pursuits.”

There is a tendency for men wanting to help women and in the outdoors. “They see a woman struggling, perhaps not able to carry as heavy a load or perhaps a little slower going up the hills.”

“The tendency to help is done out of affection and it’s an admirable thing and usually quite welcome. But left to its own devices, let unchecked, it can make you feel like you’re always in need of help, that you couldn’t do it on your own.”

“Before you know it, you feel like you can’t do it on your own anymore.”

Hazel Phillips found she had got to that stage — lacking confidence. “Not enough time battling solo can lead to a gradual erosion of confidence.”

That underlined her motivation in going alone but with judicious caution. “I guess going on adventures solo makes me feel like I am actually capable and competent under my own steam.”

This is a well-produced book, written in engaging style and amply illustrated. Strongly recommended.

(Solo sub-titled Back Country adventuring in Aotearoa New Zealand by Hazel Phillips is published by Massey University Press.)