Winston Aldworth talks to the chief guide of Southern Lakes Heliski, a veteran of Antarctic missions
Grab any opportunity. After I'd climbed Mt Aspiring with a client back in 2005, I got approached by a guy at Mt Aspiring Hut. He said: "We need someone to come to Iceland and run a guiding business." I followed it up, went over there and lived in a tent in Iceland for three months. We'd get a little food parcel every two weeks from Reykjavik, a four-hour drive away.
The main walk I'd recommend to any foreigner visiting New Zealand is the Gertrude Saddle, in Fiordland. Magic. And for drives, you've got to send them up to Glenorchy or on the Greymouth-to-Westport road.
In Iceland, I ate some interesting things, like puffin. They've been through such hard times, they eat everything off a sheep — at the supermarket, you see sheeps' heads. They eat this dish called hakarl, which is basically fermented shark. They wrap it in cloth and bury it for a couple of months. In the old days they'd piss on it, too. They don't piss on the shark any more, but it smells like they do. It's the most disgusting thing I've ever eaten. By a mile. They have a shot of Brennivin — which is rocket fuel — straight away, to take the taste away.
Talk to Icelandic people and they'll tell you they're the only people who have won a modern war against England — the Cod War. They're really proud of that fact. Beautiful looking people, though.
It was a very unregulated industry compared with what we have here. So some of the safety stuff was a bit loose. I had one group of Danish guys who wanted to climb all the highest mountains in each Scandinavian country. They were doing one mountain a day, so hopping from each country. Hvannadalshnukur, the tallest in Iceland, was their last one and conditions were not good. They insisted on going. I took them up there, but — honestly — it was so cloudy I could have taken them up any old hill and told them they were there.
I didn't have any close calls in the Icelandic mountains, but Reykjavik is another matter — when all the locals go hard on the diesel until 3am. They are seriously crazy drinkers. Chucking glasses out the window of the bar, that sort of thing.
After school I had the chance to take up scholarships to do sculpture at Elam. But, growing up on the West Coast, I always wanted to be in the outdoors. It's not something you do lightly. The financial commitment to becoming a mountain guide is comparable to a university degree — the cost of all the safety courses adds up.
A job came up with the Australian Antarctic mission, overseeing outdoor safety for scientific teams. I jumped at it. Having 24 hours of daylight is pretty freaky. Especially when you're hanging out with Australians.
I've done a few summers on Antarctica now. It's a stunning place. You get 120-knot winds and you're locked down in your building. On the eastern side where the Australians are, there are no features and with any wind over about 30 knots, the snow blows, it lifts off the ground like a blanket. If it's blowing at 60 knots, the snow is blowing to about head height, so if you poke your head up it's a blue-sky day with clear views while all the snow is whistling past at a metre-and-a-half off the deck. Spectacular.
Half the time, I wonder why all the countries are down there — it's all about maintaining territory, although the Kiwis do a good job of actually doing scientific work.
My favourite mountain to climb in the world is Mt Tasman, our second-highest mountain. I proposed to my fiancee, Tracey, on the top of that. I thought: "If I get her up on top of this, she'll need me to get down again." She said yes — which is good, because it could have been a very awkward descent.
Mt Cook is the most dangerous place I've been. I had a mate die up there while we were guiding with two clients. You can see the climate change happening — the glaciers are shrinking, so there's more rock. New Zealand mountains have pretty loose and scraggy geology; the ice holds those mountains together, so when the ice melts, there's lots of rock and ice falling. But with any mountain, it all depends on the route you take. Go along the ridgeline and you're safer; take the face and it's completely different.
The heli-skiing clients we get in Wanaka are a mixed bag. There are very rich Europeans and Americans, but we also get the "Cubs" — Cashed-Up Bogans — from Australia. Guys who have worked in the mines or who are running their own tradie businesses. Good sorts.
There are still a few places I'd like to go, for sure. I'd love to go to Patagonia. Canada is a great place, I lived there for two years and would love to see more. The people are so relaxed — I overstayed by six months and on my way out, the guy at the border said: "Yeah, it's probably time you left."
Further information: see heliskinz.com