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Adventurers Alastair McDowell and Hamish Fleming knocked off New Zealand’s 24 peaks over 3000 metres in 31 days in December last year. Wanaka reporter MARJORIE COOK talks with McDowell about what seemed an impossible mission, ahead of his presentation at the New Zealand Mountain Film Festival from June 24 until July 2.

New Zealand Alpine Team member Alastair McDowell is not really into peak-bagging, though it might seem so when you learn the Christchurch climber and his adventure partner Hamish Fleming, of Queenstown, “enchained” 24 of New Zealand’s tallest peaks last December.

The motivation was to provide material for a chapter in a climbing book being written by Christchurch mountaineer Penny Webster, who had knocked off the same 24 peaks but over 37 years of climbing. (To be clear, Webster is no slouch. She also climbed many other peaks in New Zealand and overseas.)

Enchainment means linking several peaks in one expedition, using passive (human-powered) transport between.

The one-month time frame seemed impossible but was created by work deadlines, McDowell (30) said.

“Hamish had to be back at work so we only had a 34-day time period,” McDowell said.

It sounds fairly straightforward, as 23 of the peaks are grouped around Aoraki-Mount
Cook in the Southern Alps.

But the near-impossibility was hammered home by weather delays throughout the month.

To achieve their goal, they pulled out a 280km bike ride in pouring rain in a single day to get from Aoraki to Mount Cook for the 24th and final peak, Titetea-Mt Aspiring.

The Wanaka-based New Zealand Mountain Film and Book Festival celebrates its 20th birthday in June and McDowell, a member of the NZ Alpine Team since 2015, is the keynote speaker.

He won the festival’s epic adventure award last year with a 10-minute film covering a ski traverse from Arthur’s Pass to the Godley Valley, and is now working on a film about the 24 Peak Challenge for next year’s festival.

McDowell and Fleming are believed to be the 12th and 13th people to have enchained New Zealand’s 3000m peaks in the last 70 or so years.

There are several enchainment lists in New Zealand – some metric, some imperial, some short, some long – but it is accepted that records started in 1953 when Canterbury climber Andy Anderson became the first person to officially climb all 17 of New Zealand’s 10,000ft mountains.

Some climbers make epic expeditions in their enchainment attempts.

In 2015, Swiss climber Ueli Steck took 62 days to enchain 82 of Europe’s 4000m peaks.

McDowell said he’d bumped into Webster at climbing club events and learned she was writing a book.

“She said to me, there’s one thing missing from my book. It is the enchainment. I want you to write that chapter for me.

“She said, ‘You would be good to give this a go. Why don’t you have a look’.

“At first I thought that’s not me, I don’t really go around ticking off lists, it’s a postcard, stamp collecting sort of thing.

“But then I thought it was a quite fun challenge that had never been done this way.

“You had to be quite creative, dream up which order you would do them, how to plan the logistics, put food in the huts in advance, how much time would it take, what gear would you take and how would you make it feasible and who would you do it with. It was a fun project to have.”

McDowell works as an engineer but spends his spare time volunteering for the Canterbury Mountaineering Club and mentoring new alpine team members.

While McDowell’s background is alpinism – he started with the Auckland University Tramping Club as a student before moving to Canterbury in 2014 – his friend Fleming is an elite adventure racer.

McDowell initially turned Fleming down when Fleming suggested they climb Aoraki-Mt Cook together, because of his relative lack of experience at that time.

Fleming made it his mission to get more experience and became McDowell’s immediate choice to share the enchainment venture with.

“When we did this trip together he still didn’t have a huge amount of mountaineering experience so I was kind of mentoring him. But the thing is, he has this extreme fitness and endurance from adventure racing, which was enough to do this trip.

“I had the technical skill and he had the endurance so together we made a good team,”
McDowell said.

“We worked out it would take about a month and we haven’t been able to go overseas due to [Covid] conditions and thought this is a cool way to do an expedition here.

“Most mountains only take five to six days to do on their own, but if you have a whole list of them, you have a challenge that will take you a whole month.

“And by doing them in a style where you don’t go in and out of the mountains, you retain that expedition feel. It’s quite good for your brain to disconnect for a while.”

The 24-peak challenge was the hardest thing he has done to date, McDowell said.

“We had a few days quite full on, then days stuck in a hut, resting and relaxing . . . but once we got a chance to stop, reflect, rest, it was quite exhausting. The last eight days we had no rest days to finish on time.

“The weather was coming in and we wanted to finish before the bad weather and we had a time line . . . It was improbable in multiple ways, to doing it within that time, with unsettled weather and also just being able to get up all the peaks.

“It was like flipping the coin 24 times and each time you had to accept that you could not afford one of those times it could be tails. If you failed on any one of them for any reason, it would be [the end].”

McDowell is presently enjoying a break away from hugely ambitious goals.

Instead, he was focused on Canterbury Mountaineering Club trips, volunteering for the Christchurch Alpine Cliff Rescue Team and planning a “Symphony on Skis Traverse” – a classic four-day alpine, ski-touring route from Lake Tekapo to Fox Glacier.

He also has more work to do on his 24-peaks documentary, which won’t be finished in time for the NZ Mountain Film Festival, although he hopes to screen a trailer.

Hear McDowell: Saturday, June 25, 8.00pm, Lake Wanaka Centre; Thursday, June 30, 7.30pm, Queenstown Memorial Centre.
Tickets: Go to the film festival website.