Gottlieb Braun-Elwert: Alpine battler

The Press | Thursday, 14 August 2008

LOVE OF CLIMBING: In 1993 Gottlieb Braun-Elwert
was named Macpac Mountaineer of the Year, for his
climb of Fitzroy in Patagonia.

In a piece published in The Press in January 2000 Gottlieb Braun-Elwert told Nancy Cawley that climbing is like life in general.

Braun-Elwert was a physicist at the University of Munich before he came to New Zealand but he has since discovered friends in high places.

Three years ago, he became mountain guide for the Leader of the Opposition, Helen Clark, and her husband, Peter Davis. The couple recently returned to climb in the Mount Cook region but this time as Prime Minister and First Husband.

Braun-Elwert describes the couple as easy company. Parliament is, however, a very different place to the mountains, and Helen Clark has always found the need for an initial period of adjustment to the high country.

"It takes her about 24 hours to tune out of her special work environment, and then she's like everybody else," he says.

Braun-Elwert has been impressed with the Prime Minister's determination. On each trip she has been a little fitter, a little more assured in her climbing. He says she goes to the gym two or three times a week, working hard and systematically on cardio- vascular and upper-arm exercises.

"'The first year she struggled on a very moderate mountain in the Two Thumb Range.

"Last year, I took her on the Hochstetter Dome (a 2822-metre snow peak at the head of the Tasman Glacier), and this year I took her on a couple of very nice trips on the Fox neve. She climbed Kilimanjaro last year. I wouldn't be surprised if, one day, she comes and wants to climb Cook. But I don't like pushing people. She is very realistic, and she will decide."

In 1976, German-born Gottlieb Braun-Elwert was invited to New Zealand as an academic - he held a master's degree in physics from the University of Munich and had written a thesis on nuclear physics. But he was also a qualified alpine guide, and took the opportunity, while in the country, to climb Mount Cook.

Two years later, he returned to New Zealand to teach at Linwood High School, but dreamt of a job in the mountains. These dreams led to the establishment, with his New Zealand-born wife, Anne, of an alpine recreation company, Alpine Recreation Ltd at Lake Tekapo, two decades of high-grade climbing and skiing and an involvement in national and international guiding.

In 1993, he was named Macpac Mountaineer of the Year, for his climb of Fitzroy in Patagonia, with a guide on his staff, Erica Beuzenberg.

Braun-Elwert has climbed Mount Cook 22 times. In 1997, he hit the headlines when he took his daughter Elke, then 14, to the 3764-metre summit, making her the youngest person to have climbed Mount Cook. This year, Gottlieb's second daughter, Carla, also aged 14, repeated her sister's feat - taking her record by four days.

Braun-Elwert calls New Zealand's highest peak "a very committing mountain".

"It's a big mountain, and every time I climb it, I am still impressed ... " He thinks that, too often, people fly into Plateau Hut, and so are not sufficiently acclimatised and ready for the challenge ahead. Walking in has its complications, too. Since Aorangi was first approached, the standard access route between the Tasman Glacier and the Grand Plateau has been the rocky Haast Ridge; now the ridge is badly weathered and crumbling.

But, at 50, Braun-Elwert is not taking the easy option. "With the girls, I flew in to the Grand Plateau and walked out. But I have walked in many times. It gets tougher every year, with the glaciers shrinking and the moraines getting ugly. I usually go up the Freshfield Glacier on skis - with good snow-cover, you just zigzag up quite fast."

Much of the Tekapo guide's motivation for living and working in an alpine environment, and helping others to enjoy to enjoy it, is a belief in the wide- ranging benefits of the mountain experience. This can mean enjoying the scenery at valley level, or ski- touring on a lonely neve, but, for himself, as a passionate alpinist, reaching the summit is always important.

"Climbing a mountain is like life in general. When you make a decision, you must put up with the outcome - good or bad. I would say that, if you are able to pull off a climb on a mountain, you will see personal difficulties from a distant perspective. Fewer and fewer pursuits in life are as creative, as personally challenging, and as satisfying as being in the mountains."

The more structured our lives, our jobs, our relationships become, the more we need the freedom of choice that mountains offer, Braun- Elwert suggests. "The great thing with mountaineering is that there are no traffic cops, no traffic lights. Is it a law that you must have a helmet when you go climbing? No, nothing is law. You make your own rules."

For some people, Braun-Elwert stretched the no- rules idea when he applied and was granted permission to build a private hut in the Mount Cook National Park in 1985. The Caroline Hut, sited on the eastern slopes of Ball Pass, is a staging post for the approximately 170 clients his company guides annually on the two-to-three-day crossing of the pass.

"Right from the start, it was argued, very sensibly, that the first hut in the park - the old Ball Hut, built in 1891, was a private one, owned by the Mount Cook Tourist Company. Our hut has an emergency shelter which is always open to the public, and all our toilet waste is flown out."

He has been a constant battler. As soon as Alpine Recreation was up and running, Braun-Elwert began lobbying for the abolition of Alpine Guides Ltd's monopoly in the Mount Cook National Park, and concessions for independent mountain guides. It took six years of fighting the bureaucracy, helped by "The Three Bs" - Russell Brice, Nick Banks, and Gary Ball, of Mountain Guides, Twizel, he says.

"The then Minister of Lands, Jonathan Elworthy, was not in favour of independent guiding. But Jim Sutton got behind us. He won the Waitaki Electorate in 1984, so Elworthy was out, Sutton was in, and we got our concession."

Braun-Elwert was also instrumental in the affiliation of the New Zealand Mountain Guides' Association with the Union of International Mountain Guides, a crucial development for New Zealand guides wanting to work overseas.

Gottlieb Braun-Elwert continues to give his free time to the mountain industry. For the last five years, his company has sponsored groups of sixth formers from Mackenzie College, Fairlie, on a Ball Pass trip in summer, and a ski tour in winter. The pupils' sole cost is for a second guide.

But, always, his best trips are those with the family. "Both this year and last year, we all spent a fortnight in Canada, climbing and ski touring in the Selkirk Mountains and the Rockies ... when children become teenagers, they begin to distance themselves from their parents, but my climbs with my daughters on Cook have created a real bond."


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