Taking it to the limit

01:58, Jul 15 2014
Derek Grzelewski
POWDER PARADISE: Derek Grzelewski training his personal avalanche dog Maya. "Not much official progress but a lot of fun."

Author, fly fisherman, powder skier and explorer Derek Grzelewski takes his readers to extremes in his latest book. Debbie Jamieson reports.

Sometimes you have to go to extremes just to find room to breathe.

So says Wanaka writer Derek Grzelewski in the prologue to his latest book Going to Extremes, Adventures in Unknown New Zealand.

Derek Grzelewski
Derek Grzelewski with his avalanche dog Maya.

Faced with a 1986 military summons in his native Poland for three years service under a Communist government that had declared martial law, the 22-year-old's resolve for freedom took over.

An experienced mountaineer, he lay hidden in a rock crevice on a mountain pass bordering Poland and Slovakia as soldiers completed a patrol on the snowy mountain tops. After they departed he headed down the couloir into the freedom beyond "tentatively at first, stabbing the ice axe into the snow for safety and balance, punctuating my gait. Then, finding a newer, freer rhythm, opening up the throttle of the soul, I went from small steps to giant leaps and moon-walked down the slope, confident the snow would hold.

"The Iron Curtain did not have many cracks, but I had just found one and there was no turning back."


In an interview he downplays the extremity of what he was doing in those dark days.

"It seems quite extreme to someone on the outside but when I was doing it, it was pretty ordinary. There was nothing else I could do."

Grzelewski was reacting to a repressive regime in the only way he knew.

"I was born under this cover. The borders were closed. Everything was controlled. It really grated me. I thought there has to be more. There's got to be better ways to live and relate to things.

"It was very much Big Brother society but they didn't have the technology so there were a few holes."

After his escape Grzelewski eventually made it to New Zealand and after working as an abseiling window cleaner and exploring the country, he applied for a job at National Geographic in 1992.

He had no portfolio, no previous experience and English was his fourth language.

However, he and editor Kennedy Warne were "both burning with the same fire, the curiosity for life, the treasure hunter's lust to go out into the world and find the nuggets of the best stories, and to bring them home, polish them up as best we could, and offer them for others to experience and, hopefully, savour."

Grzelewski has gone on to be the most published writer in New Zealand Geographic and Going to Extremes, which will be launched at the New Zealand Mountain Film Festival in Wanaka next week, is a collection of some of his most memorable stories published in the New Zealand Geographic and the Smithsonian.

The title came about from a story he wrote on the struggle to save the kakapo. It was written for the Smithsonian and retitled by the United States editors.

"The idea was that the people here were going to extremes to save these endangered species but when you talk to those people they didn't think they did anything extreme. You just do what you do."

In the case of the kakapo one of those people was Don Merton. In Grzelewski's book Merton is described as "a kind of ambulance man and extinction buster for avian kind." He died in 2011 but not before playing a key role in the establishment of kakapo on Codfish Island and the slow but sure upswing in kakapo numbers.

"Meeting Don Merton is probably one of the most remarkable things of all the things I've done," said the author. "Seeing him with the kakapo - his eyes just glaze over. You never see that level of affection . . . He'll do whatever it takes to save them. To get to be with people like that - it rubs off."

The idea of extremes is relative, he says.

For someone like Guy Cotter, climbing Mt Everest is not that extreme.

"It's what he does. But for someone who has a stroke, relearning to drink coffee is extreme. We are fed these images of what's extreme but the most extreme things happen in daily life."

So although the stories in Going to Extremes cover some of New Zealand's most famous adventurers including Kelly Tarlton, Arthur Lydiard, Jean Batten and accidental explorer Alphonse Barrington - they also examine the corners of the every day.

"There's a story there about [volunteer] firefighters delivering a baby. Ordinary people doing their job - their beeper goes off and this superman or superwoman appears.

"I did training with them [during a practise house burn] and it's one of the most extreme environments I've been in. Climbing mountains is pretty easy in comparison."

"That's where the stories are," Grzelewski says. "You start off with extreme adventures and move to the extremes of daily life."

Other stories in Going to Extremes cover the last cruise of the Mikhail Lermontov, an exploration of New Zealand's caves, a first hand account of saving kiwi and the science of snow and avalanches.

The characteristic that binds them together is that they are all examine life at the extreme - that place "where evolution takes place, where growth occurs, where we test ourselves and are tested to and beyond our limits."

PICTURED ABOVE: Chris North and Guy White during the 1997 ascent with Derek Grzelewski of the Kaipo Wall, New Zealand’s largest rock face in Fiordland’s Darran Mountains. White died climbing in Italy two years later.

Going to Extremes is Grzelewski's third book. The first two, The Trout Bohemia and The Trout Diaries concentrate on his passion for fly fishing and are international big sellers.

"They kind of present New Zealand as the ultimate fly fishing destination."

Now, he says, trout have become an inconvenient truth - their health reflecting the health of our waterways in the age of dairying.

"I don't crusade against farming - I grew up on a dairy farm. But it's they way they do it. It's totally industrialised. The people who own the farms never go there or put their feet in cow shit. They live in the city.

"The workers are often seasonal labour. They just do the job, get the cash and go - so you don't have any downstream responsibility of what's gong on. It's all about profits and margins. It's not about land care and animal welfare."

It is the clear New Zealand waters that make fly fishing the art it is, he says.

"It's very hard to get into it. It's like powder skiing. You need to get quite good. The entry level is quite high.

"When you fish you walk the river and look for fish. There's an incredible intensity to it. You see the fish and see what it's doing and you cast to it and you get a response."

Recently he has returned to some work as a fly-fishing guide, mostly at the urging of his readers.

"Plus I'm trying to live a bit as well. I spend too much time in front of a computer."

This week he is involved in the 12th New Zealand Mountain Film Festival, in Wanaka and Queenstown. He is using the festival as an opportunity to officially launch Going to Extremes and presenting the festival's first adventure writing workshop - a two-hour introduction to story telling.

"We all can write but the whole story telling is a whole different thing," he says.

"People have amazing stories to tell and I'd like to offer them the tools to tell the story better."

And although he believes books are magical, "even if it's on Kindle now", there's a whole spectrum of for telling stories, including films, podcasts and blogs.

However, the accessibility of the various media has meant some loss in quality control and Grzelewski believes writers need to be aware of their responsibilities.

"If you want to write it for someone and have it seen in print or other media you're not writing for yourself any more. There's a responsibility to the reader or viewer. You're taking up their time and have to give them something worthwhile in return.

"Writing and story-telling is a learnt skill and there are certain things people need to be aware of. It's not just about saying what happened."

For him, part of his story telling has been about raising awareness, whether it be the destruction of trees in Australia and Brazil or waterways in New Zealand.

"I think it's the writer's role to at least ask questions and speak for those who don't necessarily - to raise issues that are maybe uncomfortable.

"My journey has been that and I've got to meet all these amazing people and go places."

He has become friends with his subjects, engaged with them and learnt from them. He has found their extremes and he has shared that journey to the extraordinary, unexpected and inaccessible.

The 12th annual New Zealand Mountain Film Festival

What: A combination of events from July 4-12 in Wanaka, Queenstown and Cromwell.

Films: 74 of the best international and New Zealand-made adventure films with than $3000 in prize money to be given away.

Speakers: America's leading female ice climber Kitty Calhoun, Australian Tim Cope on his three-year adventure and book On the Trail of Genghis Khan, New Zealander Kieran McKay talking about his caving exploits, ESR scientist Ellen Ashmore on pesticide residues and our food and Dr Mike Joy on pollution in NZ's waterways.

More information: mountainfilm.net.nz

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