Alpine guide could have chosen many paths

By JOHN HENZELL - The Press | Saturday, 23 August 2008

Gottlieb Braun-Elwert, mountain guide: Born Germany, February 2, 1949; died Two Thumb Range, August 14, 2008, aged 59.

Determination, planning, and inner resolve. Those attributes made Gottlieb Braun-Elwert one of New Zealand's best known mountain guides but they were also present in other less well-known aspects of an impressively diverse life.

The nation knew of Braun-Elwert the mountain guide, mostly because of one of his most regular clients was Prime Minister Helen Clark, dating back to the time when she was opposition leader.

But it took until his sudden death while on a skiing trip with Clark in the Two Thumb Range near Tekapo for other accomlishments of his life to begin to emerge to a wider public - the nuclear physicist, the photographer, the mentor, the conservationist, the father, and the businessman.

The mountaineering record was impressive enough, starting with joining the alpine club in his native Germany at the age of 12 and then qualifying as a mountain guide while still at university. Many of his successes were of peaks known for difficulty among climbers but are little recognised outside of that field - the first full ascent of Mont Blanc's Peuterey Ridge, a winter ascent of Cerro Fitzroy in Patagonia, climbing all of New Zealand's 3000m peaks in a single winter, two crossings of the Patagonian icecap, the "symphony on skis" traversing from the Godley to Fox Glacier, and a month-long traverse of Denali, North America's highest peak. The Cerro Fitzroy climb won him the Macpac mountaineer of the year award in 1993, although the award always recognises the overall climbing career as much as a single notable ascent.

But Braun-Elwert had an impressive academic career, earning a masters in nuclear physics. That could have been his career but instead a trip to New Zealand ignited a passion for the Southern Alps, and specifically the wide open spaces, emptiness, and wilderness that no longer existed in the European Alps. And an introduction from one of his climbing companions on that trip led him to meet Anne, a Kiwi woman on her OE who became his wife and they formed a formidable partnership.

They moved to New Zealand in 1978, where the masters degree in Germany got him a teaching job at Christchurch's Linwood High School and he also worked occasionally as a mountain guide for Alpine Guides at Mount Cook Village. It did not take long before he started his own guiding company, Alpine Recreation Canterbury based in Tekapo.

The determination and planning, and an occasional healthy dose of serendipity, helped make the company a success.

He recognised the ski touring potential at the head of Lake Tekapo and arranged to build a hut in the Two Thumb Range, initially on farmland and then relocated onto Department of Conservation land.

The Rogernomics revolution led briefly to the prospect of private huts within national parks and Braun-Elwert seized on the chance, getting permission to build what became Caroline Hut on the range between the Hooker and Tasman glaciers. The window of opportunity quickly slammed shut again and Caroline Hut is the only private hut in the Aoraki Mount Cook area.

Serendipity came in the form of a savage storm that devastated the access route to the Copland Pass, one of the classic alpine tramping routes in the area, and made it both difficult and dangerous. Ball Pass gained in popularity as a result.

One of the most influential factors of his time in New Zealand was being approached by a young Christchurch woman who wanted to know how to become a mountain guide. That was Erica Beuzenberg, with whom he formed a formidable climbing partnership - ascents included Cerro Fitzroy and all the New Zealand 3000m peaks in winter - and she began guiding for Alpine Recreation. She became like a third daughter, which made her death and that of two clients while she was guiding a Ball Pass trip in 2005 the biggest single blow Braun-Elwert suffered in life.

Braun-Elwert retained a clear social awareness, volunteering his time and expertise for the Mackenzie College outdoor pursuits class by taking them mountaineering and ski touring. His absolute belief in the value of the outdoors to the young meant he took into the hills other senior students and even teachers at the college. In the last two years, he sponsored Ngai Tahu's Aoraki Bound programme by taking young members of the iwi over Ball Pass.

The New Zealand Mountain Guides Association became a much more professional organisation under his influence, a transformation it would have made anyway. It did so quicker with his urging but not without alienating some of the more laidback members of the guiding fraternity.

Braun-Elwert's belief in the wilderness values that drew him to New Zealand prompted him to become part of the Aoraki Conservation Board, an appointed group that advises the Conservation Minister.

Among his particular interests were decreasing the noise pollution of aircraft in alpine areas and battling to stop light pollution in the night sky. Caroline Hut could have been a very profitable heli-hike operation and there was nothing stopping him cashing in on clients who were cash rich and motivation poor but he chose not to take advantage, so every person who sleeps in Caroline Hut has had to walk there from the end of the road.

His fearlessness in tackling difficult or controversial topics remained notoriously undimmed but although those who clashed with him found his views steadfast, few could claim they were not thoroughly researched.

Anchoring everything was a remarkable family. As his funeral was told, Anne was a partner in everything he accomplished, in support if not on the other end of the rope. His daughters Elke and Carla - at 14, the former held the record for the youngest female ascent of Aoraki-Mount Cook until beaten by a few days by Carla, who retains the record - are known for being grounded, confident, and successful.

Braun-Elwert's belief in the importance of the mountains to youth continues after his death. Instead of flowers, they asked for donations to the Gottlieb Braun-Elwert Trust Fund to give young people opportunities to be introduced to the mountains.


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