Graeme Dingle: They don't make 'em like they used to
INTREPID talked to this kiwi icon about his journey and the things he’s learned along his narrow mountain path of a life, which has seen him climb all over the world. Dingle was the first to climb all the European North Faces in one season, and the first to traverse New Zealand’s Southern Alps in winter. He’s also been involved in numerous Himalayan expeditions and spent two years circumnavigating the Arctic. With all of the world’s major peaks climbed, are there any more challenges left for Graeme Dingle? “There’s always going to be mountains for me to climb,” Dingle says.
Dingle’s white hair and beard stand out like a beacon in the Albany Foundation for Youth Development (FYD) office full of his younger colleagues, but even though he’s past 60, it’s obvious he can still climb. Last year, Dingle and his partner Jo-Anne Wilkinson climbed in the Andes, and Jo-Anne is still keen to conquer a 6000 metre peak. With Dingle as a climbing partner, her goal should be within reach. His experience would be priceless, given that he’s guided countless numbers of climbers in his life. Dingle says he first made movements towards mountains “when I was in my mother’s tummy.” His mother, he says, “felt the strangest cravings to climb mountains,” during her pregnancy. Graham, the youngest of three children, couldn’t walk until after his second birthday. Once he’d mastered locomotion, he remembers chasing the end of a rainbow trying to find the pot of gold, only to be found hours later by his family, miles from home in a swamp.
He remembers his early years being dogged by bullies who he was “too afraid” to defend himself from. “I was a spindly weak little kid who longed to be brave,” Dingle recalls. High school wasn’t any easier for him, as he was still small, still weak, and he longed for something more. He felt like he was destined for greatness, but didn’t know how he’d achieve it. He developed a love for art, with an 80 percent pass in School Certificate, but failed in Latin and French, and scraped through in the rest. He recalls his finest moment in high school was when a rugby ball was stuck up a 20-metre tall tree. Several boys had tried to summit the tree, to no avail, and with a crowd forming at the trunk Dingle stepped forward to give it a shot. He couldn’t have been more scared, edging out towards the flimsy top branch that held the ball, but as he reached it, the crowd began to applaud. He returned to ground with a ‘well done’ from his teacher, which gave him a great sense of accomplishment. He remembers climbing other trees after his first success, but one prefect didn’t see his climbing efforts in the same light. “He asked me to write out 200 times, ‘I must not demonstrate my anthropoidal tendencies by swinging on the trees surrounding this institution.’”
While in high school he looked beyond the trees, and started to climb hills and mountains. He conquered his first snow peak with his friend, Ian Jowett, in 1960, despite an early inclination to give up after a treacherous beginning due to lack of gear; tramping in wet jeans and soft shoes didn’t make for comfort. “I felt an immeasurable rush of excitement when I reached the top,” Dingle says. “I’m glad I stuck it out. It reminds me of one of my favourite quotes – ‘when you’re really stuffed, save any decision about the future until you’ve had a cup of tea.” Climbing helped him realise his inner strength and ability to persevere. His new favourite subject became the mountains. After school, while still in his teens, he put his second-favourite subject to use and worked as an apprentice signwriter. Living in Wellington, every weekend Dingle would take a bus or train to some distant hills and tramp with friends. He had heard of a man dubbed “Cyclone” Sinclair who had made a record breaking “Southern Crossing” of the Tararua Ranges in seven hours and 14 minutes. Dingle was inspired, and in a little red notebook he wrote, ‘do a Southern Crossing in less than seven hours’. A few months after setting his goal, a small, skinny-legged, “Forrest Gump looking,” teenager with a pack on his back set off to do the very same Tararua Southern Crossing.
Six hours and 31 minutes later he reached the end at Otaki Fork, and he realised he could push himself to the limit - and he set out to see what else he could achieve. By the age of 19 Dingle has reached a remarkable level of fitness and had many more goals written in his notebook. By his 20th birthday he’d completed 15,000 metres of climbing over the ranges near Eketahuna.
By 1966 Dingle was a qualified tradesman, but he wanted to launch his career as a mountaineer. Other than guiding, he wasn’t sure how he’d do it, but he had made plans to do an end to end traverse of the Southern Alps. He also wanted to save up and go overseas to fulfil his climbing dreams. Along the journey Dingle made many good friends and climbing acquaintances, including Jill Tremain, Murray Jones, Mike Gill and Jim Watson.
“I suspect I was destined for mountaineering from the beginning,” Dingle says. Two wives, a child, ten books, and a world of travel and adventure later, Dingle can look back on a remarkable life. His latest book, ‘Dingle: Discovering the Sense in Adventure,’ is full of stories from his excursion through life. There may also be another book on the way. There are plenty of other achievements and honours: Dingle is the founding chairman of the New Zealand Outdoor Assembly, and has received numerous awards: the Governor General’s Award for Mountain Rescue, the MBE for service to outdoor pursuits, the Award for Services to Recreation and Sport in New Zealand, the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Service Award, as well as being an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit.
“I’m always proud when I achieve something. I think there’s always a bit of irony in receiving awards, because I see myself as a second place getter,” says Dingle. “If I was ever winning a race I’d always engineer a way to come second or third.” When asked what his proudest achievement has been, he replied, “None really stand out above the others. Although a huge surprise was at a New Zealand Top 200 business dinner, when on the big screen it started to describe this wonderful man who had achieved so much, and I thought, ‘hold on a minute this joker is me.’ I had been voted Visionary Leader for that year.” Dingle also says he was “surprised and delighted,” to win the Montana New Zealand Book Award for best biography.
There have been many New Zealanders who have pushed the limits in their respective fields, and achieved the remarkable. INTREPID asked Dingle what he thought the next great feat would be in mountaineering in New Zealand or even worldwide.
“With new technology, it exposes new things to do, and people get new ideas about what the human body can achieve. People have always told me, ‘Surely all the challenges are gone,’ but these people just have a limited imagination. For example no one has gone to and from the South Pole unsupported on their own strength. These things are dangerous and hard, and – I know people don’t like hearing this – but people aren’t as tough as they used to be,” he says.
‘Tough,’ describes Dingle well. It seems they just don’t make ‘em like they used to. The amount of ridges, peaks, valleys and ranges he’s crossed are testimony to his will power, not to mention the various tumbles Dingle has taken while climbing.
“I got caught in an avalanche in the Southern Alps one time and tumbled down 300 metres before landing on a spur; the avalanche continued to part around me falling off a giant cliff. If I hadn’t landed on that spur I would have been gone,” he says, reflectively.
Regardless of his injury track record, people tend to be very safe when Dingle is guiding, and maybe that’s because Dingle will always jump first. “I’m very proud that no one has been hurt with the hundreds and thousands I’ve instructed and guided over the years,” he says.
Not every trip has been smooth sailing. Dingle recalls when he guided ten people over Mt Tasman. “My guiding partner and I were the only ones who could handle the hard ice on the decent, so we decided to abseil the whole party down. We joined all ropes together, and did the abseiling in sections until we came to this ice shelf. I thought, ‘Its no big deal,’ so I jumped the gap off the shelf about 20 feet high onto some soft snow. The rest of the party was looking down at me from the top, and one at a time we all encouraged each other to jump too. It was a bit dodgy really, but everyone managed to do it except one guy who was left at the end, 20 feet above us. He was nervous and was stepping from one foot to another preparing himself to jump. The movement must have loosened the ledge, and the lip broke and he fell over the edge and landed on his head. We all laughed and luckily he was alright, but that was a slightly out of control guided situation.” Dingle’s sense of humour has had him laugh off plenty of “out of control situations.”
Once, in the Himalayas, Dingle and a team of mountaineers were taken by the Pakistan military at gunpoint and held hostage, accused of spying. Dingle decided he’d try to change the tone of the situation by doing something funny. It turned out to be one of those classic, embarrassing moments he’d never forget. “I thought I’d lighten the mood by pretending to be a blind man falling over a cliff. So I was going to somersault over a fence holding on to the top rail, and keep holding on to land properly. But in Pakistan that was a very stupid thing to do, because things are often not made of premium quality materials. The fence ran along the edge of a steep rocky bank, and as I did my flip in front of everybody, the top rail I was holding onto departed. I went flying down the cliff below. The first thing to hit the cliff was my thumb, and it was immediately dislocated. And then my left arm was dislocated, and I bent my shoulder, and finished with a crack, as my head hit a rock. I even had broken ribs to boot. You could say over my time I’ve had some big falls.”
Many people know of Dingle as a mate of Sir Edmund Hillary, and he remembers him well. “Ed was always a good hard worker, who had a lot of common sense. He set very courageous goals; he wouldn’t go to Nepal and build a school, he would go there and build three schools, and a couple of bridges. I’ll miss him tremendously.”
Sir Ed was an outstanding achiever, but Dingle has also followed the path of a hard working, down to earth, honest bloke, who has achieved some commendable feats along the way – when you consider that he’s often called the “father of outdoor pursuits.”
“I think it’s a nice sentiment, but it does make me sound a bit old and doddery,” Dingle says.
The Outdoor Pursuits Centre in the Central North Island, commonly known as OPC, was set up by Dingle in 1973. The first pilot program ran in 1972, and he named it the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre. Since starting OPC, and in between his mountaineering exploits, Dingle has also been involved in starting other projects. The Foundation for Youth Development, which was started in 2004, oversees Project K, Stars, and Kiwi Can. All three programs are designed to help stem the devastating suicide, crime, and depression rates in New Zealand youth by providing a positive outlet. At the moment, a few pilot programs are being established to focus on youth offenders, one focusing on the Pacific Island community, and another as a Marae-based program. “Our main theme is to be proactive, to make sure kids don’t fall over the cliffs out there,” says Dingle.
Dingle loves New Zealand for its natural beauty and the outdoors, so readily available at his doorstep. “I’m very Catholic in my appreciation of stuff. I love the Fiordland area, and lots of coastal areas for sea kayaking.” Dingle owns a bit of coastal land in Leigh, north of Auckland, although he admits he’s never been much of a surfer. “Most people either choose the mountains or the beach, and I choose the mountains.” Dingle does like to ski from time to time, but prefers to summit a mountain and use skiing as a way to come down. “I hate ski fields with all the overcrowding, rules and lift lines,” he says, sounding a bit rueful. He tells of a time he went to Cardrona and climbed a mountain opposite the ski field. “Some people saw me go up, and there was a posse waiting at the bottom to virtually arrest me, because I had crossed some road and illegal boundary, but I said ‘how would you know mate, there’s no signs!’”
Dingle has mostly stayed out of trouble in his years, and has rubbed shoulders with famous New Zealand politicians, climbers and some interesting world leaders like Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai, who was known for drinking his own urine. Dingle also spent an afternoon with the Dalai Lama in Tibet. “I was taken by his childlike humour. I’d see him driving around in his Landrover, and he would give us a cheeky smile and wave. He is a lovely man.” In recent times Dingle has been appalled by the way the Chinese have oppressed the Tibetan people and “completely ruined their culture.”
“I’ve seen pictures of an ancient Tibetan city that was completely bombarded and destroyed for gun practice,” says Dingle. He thinks there must be a better way, and that things need to change, “Although I think it’s impossible for them to withdraw completely, they could be a lot fairer in the way they govern the place.” He says he doesn’t “have it in for the Chinese,” and supports the Olympics being held in Beijing. “I’ll watch the games, as it will only improve the way that different countries relate to China. The Games are a great way to create a good connection with the rest of the world. China will soon be the most powerful nation in the world, and other countries need to keep a good dialogue with them.”
Another hot topic is climate change, and Dingle has a few insights of his own. “For a long time I’ve said that climate change isn’t totally man made. We have a huge influence, however, and we need to be far better caretakers of the earth. We’re incredibly wasteful creatures, and we need to change that. I think these sharp wake-up calls about greenhouse gas emissions are good, or else we’ll just get more complacent.”
Dingle is passionate about having wilderness areas for all to enjoy, as he’s enjoyed plenty of stunning scenery in his life. He appreciates the way the world works, and says he’s not religious but believes in a ‘life force.’ “I’ve had many things happen to me that are inexplicable, many things I can not explain. There are still great mysteries out there, which I think are very important.” His old friend Jill Tremain, said, ‘life is a cup to be filled, not a measure to be drained.” Dingle believes his cup is fairly full, and that working at FYD, and helping others gain new and exciting experiences, fills it even more.
Robert Ardrey said, “Man is essentially a bad weather animal.” Dingle loves this quote, and his life is testament to the achievements born of adversity. Despite his success, Dingle has included service to others in his adventures, and he continues to help others conquer their own issues, by pushing them outside their comfort zone, and away from the mundane blur of life. “I believe we’re at our best when we’re under a bit of pressure,” he says. Knowing Dingle, there’ll be more adventures, challenges and excitement around the corner, and he’ll continue finding new mountains to climb.
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