Call of the unknown
University of Otago parttime professional practice fellow in the School of Pharmacy David Woods climbs unsummited mountains. Margot Taylor asks him how he came to enjoy venturing into the unknown and what keeps him going back for more.
THE next time you use GPS to find a shop two streets away, think of mountaineer David Woods (61).
The University of Otago parttime professional practice fellow in the School of Pharmacy casts maps and wellknown routes aside when he climbs.
The unknown, he says, has always excited him.
He has been among the first people, if not the first person, to summit a number of peaks throughout Greenland, the
Indian Himalaya, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia and Kazakhstan since he started climbing untouched peaks in 2011.
‘‘I just started googling unclimbed mountains and went from there.’’
The expeditions are a long way from the tame rockclimbing walls he started climbing while a teenager in Northern England.
‘‘My father was a keen hill walker and for me, that led into climbing.’’
Rockclimbing walls were soon replaced by the European Alps.
‘‘I lived in the Lake District in England and Scotland. I tended to go and live in areas where there were mountains around.’’
When he moved to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s with his wife, Terri, and the highest peaks were sand dunes, he knew mountaineering wasn’t just a passing hobby.
‘‘It was a different environment; we lived close to the border of Jordan and then close to Yemen. We did a lot of exploration but there wasn’t a lot of climbing that went on there.’’
He was drawn to New Zealand’s mountains when a Kiwi expat showed him a
Reader’s Digest illustrating New Zealand.
‘‘My eyes lit up when I saw the pictures and I thought yeah, that would be a pretty cool place to go and explore.’’
The couple arrived in New Zealand in 1988 for what they thought would be a twoyear stint to climb and for David to work at the university.
Almost 30 years on, they are still here, but unmapped peaks and the opportunity to work as a consultant on the development of national drug lists pulls David abroad frequently.
‘‘I quite often combine a climbing trip with work . . . It can be quite an interesting shift because I was on an expedition in Kyrgyzstan and then a couple of days later I was at a conference in Kazakhstan, so it can be a really quick change of focus.’’
While they were entirely different, climbing the unknown and working as a consultant were linked by challenge, he said.
‘‘It is certainly a buzz and a challenge to travel to these places,
especially to go into areas that really have not been explored and work in new and exciting environments.’’ He says the highest peak he has climbed is 6500m and it is getting to the base of the mountain that is often the toughest part.
‘‘A lot of unclimbed peaks . . . are not overly difficult; it is more their remoteness and access.’’
His first expedition to an unclimbed mountain, in the Nubra Valley of the Indian Himalaya, involved a sevenday trek just to get to it.
‘‘The maps we had were very basic, so a lot of the route planning is done by sight. You look at the mountain and think OK, there looks to be a way up there. There is no guidebook and that is part of the attraction.’’
This attraction to the unknown almost proved lethal for a fellow climber on an expedition in Mongolia last year.
‘‘We were climbing a new peak in a very remote area and one of the group was hit by a rock and got a very nasty injury.’’
The group stabilised the woman, who had a badly crushed leg, and cared for her overnight before assisting her down the mountain and organising for her to be evacuated by horse.
The ‘‘very scary incident’’ did not prevent the expedition from regrouping and summiting the peak via a different route.
Witnessing the accident had not put him off.
‘‘Going into these areas, you have to accept if something does go wrong it is not just a matter of setting off a locator beacon or calling someone on a satellite phone and saying send a helicopter.’’
His mother felt differently.
‘‘My mother, who is 88, has probably been saying for the past 10 years that I’m getting too old for this, but she’s probably just about given up on that.’’
The path to Everest is out of the question. He says he is too old to take it on and climbing with hundreds of others is the opposite of what attracts him.
As long as there are unclimbed peaks, he is likely to feel the pull towards them.
‘‘I think when I started this, it seemed quite important to catalogue and name them, but as I’ve moved on it’s become less important. It’s more of a personal thing.’’
The expeditions are not about making it to the top, either. ‘‘That’s one thing.
‘‘But it’s the getting there. There are a number of emotions but it’s really that collective feeling of achievement with the team you are with.’’
He also gets to interact with local people who have often had little exposure to outsiders.
‘‘The expeditions I go on usually put something back into local communities and this can be via local charities and good causes.’’
During a recent expedition to Kyrgyzstan, he spotted an ‘‘enchanting peak’’ that he hopes to climb. He is also considering joining an expedition to climb Labuche Kang 111 East which, at 7250m, would be the highest peak he had climbed and is the highest unclimbed peak on Earth.
In October, he will return to Dunedin, a ‘‘great place’’ but lacking in mountains. He intends to enjoy the company of family and friends whose support has enabled him to ‘‘live the dream’’.
While he is looking forward to returning home, he admitted it was unlikely to be long before he went back to his second home, an unclimbed mountain not on any map you or I have.
First human contact . . . Mountaineer David Woods reaches the peak of a neverbeforeclimbed mountain in Greenland in 2013. Left: Peak with a view . . . David Woods’ view into the Greenland wilderness during an expedition.
Cold comfort . . . David Woods prepares to enter his tent in Mongolia in 2006.
First steps . . . David Woods and other members of an expedition group start to climb an unexplored glacier in Greenland in 2013.
Where no man has gone before . . . David Woods embarks on an expedition into an unexplored part of the Kalapani region in Indian Himalaya.