Living her dream
Living her dream
Wanaka based Adventure Consultants is a world-renowned mountain guiding company that takes expeditions to some of the worlds highest peaks, and treks to remote corners of the globe. Based in the alpine resort town of Wanaka, Adventure Consultants has a large on-ground team led by the General Manager, Suze Kelly. It’s funny when you know someone through work via email and my dealings with Suze in the past have always been related to marketing and I pictured her sitting at a desk stuck behind her computer, dealing with the on-ground logistics of running a company. So, when I began researching Suze for this issue of Adventure I was quite shocked to see she was an experienced and accomplished mountaineer in her own right. Suze has climbed numerous mountains, including Mt Kenya, Kilimanaro (three times), Mt Aspiring, Aconcagua, Lhotse and Mt Cook, however I was most blown away by the fact that she had summited (and safely returned) from the highest peak in the world, Mt Everest.
So, it was a real pleasure to interview Suze and I must admit to being somewhat in awe by the time I had finished. I hope you enjoy as much as I did…
You are based in Wanaka, an obvious perfect location for NZ mountaineering, how much time do you spend here vs on expeditions? My role at General Manager at Adventure Consultants is full time and keeps me busy for most of the year so I’m home in Wanaka for most months. For the past few years I have spent the whole pre-monsoon season in Nepal, which is April-May time, either climbing, leading treks or working in logistics for the company. Last year I guided a trek on Kilimanjaro in January, then was climbing Everest during April-May and in December I got the opportunity to visit Antarctica and join one of our expeditions climbing Vinson, so that was more time away than I’ve had before. I expect to be home in Wanaka for more of the year this year!
Tell us a little bit about yourself? I was born in Masterton, and I come from a rural background, growing up on sheep farms in the Wairarapa and near to the Hutt Valley. I’m the youngest of five and have four older brothers and definitely had a very outdoorsy background roaming around the farm, riding horses and bikes from a young age, although I did get sent to ballet lessons whereas my brothers learnt how to ride motor bikes and went hunting. I was really into skiing as a teenager and was fortunate to be able to spend school holidays in the South Island hanging out with brothers who were working as ski patrollers.
I did Duke of Edinburgh awards at college and experienced my first tramping trips, led by nuns, combined with science projects in biology and geology that we would do in the field. It was fascinating!
Once I finished my university studies I moved to Wanaka to take up a job working as a ski host at Treble Cone ski area and climbed my first mountain, Mt Aspiring, when I was 21. A group of friends who are guides invited me along and we did a walk in/walk out ascent, climbing from French Ridge hut, which is not often done today. I skied a lot, and spent seasons in Whistler, Canada and Verbier, Switzerland. I worked for Harris Mountains Heli-skiing in administration from the age of 23 and got to heli-ski a fair bit. My ski mountaineering carried on from there and that led to more climbing. What I love about the South Island and Wanaka in particular, is that you are so close to the Southern Alps with seemingly endless wilderness to explore and you’re able to access it quite easily.
You have a postgrad degree in science, how has that applied to the work you do now? I always say I like to only employ scientists, as their approach to problem solving and the structured rational way that a scientist thinks is very handy when you’re doing logistics like we do. However, these days that’s not entirely true, as we have people from all walks of life on our team. For me, being curious about the world and all who inhabit it, I feel comes from a science based approach and being able to be methodical and exacting makes the work less daunting. The art of what we do is something else and can only be described through the experiences that we enable people to have.
Which came first, your passion for the outdoors or your job/career? What I mean were you an adventurer who found work in the outdoors or did you find work and become the adventurer? I think I’ve always had the passion for the outdoors, and I specifically chose not to live in a big city in order to be closer to a life of adventure, so I did choose adventure over a career. The career has managed to track me down though and I do work long hours to achieve what we achieve. It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to facilitate the types of adventures for people that we do, and to see them returning changed by their experience and emboldened for new challenges is really a highlight of my job.
What is it you love most about climbing/ mountaineering? The time spent outdoors in simply amazing places is what makes it all worthwhile, and I have to say the people that you get to spend such quality time with is super stimulating and the basis for all the fun. I do really love finding out what is just around the corner, which with climbing you are always experiencing when you go to new places though even the same places have different conditions when you go back to them. Moving through the landscape and overcoming challenges are also huge highlights.
You have spent a lot of time in Everest Base Camps, can you tell us a little of what it’s like there? On my first visit to Nepal and Everest Base Camp in 2000 I was surprised at how such a barren moraine covered place could have such rich textures, smells, and sounds
associated with it. Colourful rocks abound and birds sweep past at unexpected moments. I’ve returned on many other occasions and enjoy the rarefied air and simpler life that you lead whilst there. As part of a big expedition there is always something going on and it can be quite social. We’re quite self-contained with our size at AC and tucked up a side ‘valley’ so to speak so you can be there for weeks without seeing many other teams these days. A walk up to a higher view point to stretch the legs and lungs is always a treat and the views are gobsmacklingly amazing. I’ve spent so much time there that it feels like a home of sorts but you also realise when packing up camp that it quickly packs away into storage and is only temporary and you are always glad to see the end of a long expedition.
You summited Everest last year – I am in
awe! What was that like? It was a very special experience, being able to go above Camp 4 / South Col, traversing what I call hallowed ground. We left at 9pm from camp 4 and I made it to the South Summit at 3am, which is too early, so we made efforts to slow down our pace. It was still dark then but the whole summit ridge was lit up by the lights of other climbers and I felt like I was on the steps of a cathedral. On summit day I was climbing with our Climbing Sirdar Kami Rita Sherpa and after the Hillary Step we stepped off to the side of the ridge, sheltering behind a rock in order to wait for the sunrise. A few others were also waiting, and we chatted and sipped hot tea from a thermos. We were checking regularly but then someone noticed the first glow of the dawn coming, so it was time to get going and make our way up the last few minutes onto the summit, arriving at 4.20am. It was mild enough to only need glove liners and there was a bit of a party going on on the summit with all the excited people who had arrived, from both the south side and north side. Incredible views and elation. I was the first from my team to arrive and as the others arrived I could give them all a hug and share in their elation. After about 40 mins I did start to feel the cold and it really was time to get moving and get down. We got back to Camp 4 at 8.30am, and even though it had been a perfect day there were three deaths on other teams in the preceding 24 hours, and a lot of high drama. Once back in my tent I sat down and sobbed and let it all out, a release of the stress and tension of what we had seen and what it takes to pull off a successful summit day on Mt Everest. More was to come though as we had super high winds that night and we spent the next morning holding down our tents on the col.
Having made it to the summit (and more importantly back again) can you explain what it is that drives people to put their lives at risk? It’s about being really alive, and making the most of your capabilities. We’re really not here for a long time on this planet and without accepting some risk in your life then you may as well consider that you’re not really living life to the full. We’ve evolved our lifestyles as humans in a very short space of time with the aid of technology to exist in a very comfortable environment, and it’s easy to sit back and just observe. There are levels of risk that can be mitigated with skill and planning so what may feel risky to some folk is just everyday life to others. Going through the Khumbu icefall on Mt Everest is one of the riskier sections due to the potential for collapse or the objective danger of serac ice fall from above, however if you analyse the statistics the for the amount of people who pass through compared to the overall amount of incidences, then the risk is diminished. It doesn’t go away though!
What are the greatest risks in mountaineering? I would say your own ego is the main risk, as everything else external can be evaluated and mitigated. But avalanche risk and rockfall is probably my biggest fear.
Where would be your favourite place to visit and why? Ooh, deepest darkest Fiordland is my favourite place at the moment. It’s such a powerful environment to spend time in with a pre-historic feeling. And remoteness, to be really remote in a place like that brings a feeling of deep peacefulness to me.
What’s the most challenging thing you’ve experienced in your adventures? Sometimes the physical output required when mountaineering is absolutely enormous and you fail, as you’re not strong enough. Conversely if you can overcome an obstacle by finding some strength that you didn’t know you had, then that’s super rewarding.
What’s the scariest thing you’ve experienced in your adventures? Being in the path of rockfall down the Lhotse Face on Mt Everest rates right up there. I’ve been lucky enough to climb a lot with my partner Guy, who is the CEO of Adventure Consultants, and on one occasion when we were coming off the Lhotse Face I had already descended and moved into a safe zone whereas he was guiding someone slower and they were still directly in the path of table sized rocks coming down. It was a huge relief when they also joined us in the safe zone unscathed.
What’s the most memorable thing you’ve experienced in your adventures? In 2013, when I was within a few metres of the top of Lhotse, the 4th highest mountain in the world, I had a realisation, ‘oh my god, you’re about to climb an 8000 metre peak’ which is something I just hadn’t thought possible until that point. It was one of those life changing moments as for years I’d believed that climbing at super high altitude was for other people, yet there I was stepping on to the summit of an 8000m peak. I get pretty excited on summit days generally.
Where’s the most beautiful place you have visited? I think Lake Hawea where I live is the most beautiful vista of all. The ever changing light on the lake and mountains is astounding. It is hard to just pick one though – visiting Glenorchy in winter last year tops the list and the last time I went up the head of the Tasman Glacier, well, wow just wow.
Have you had to face any challenges being a female in the climbing environment? None that I can think of for high altitude mountaineering and in other disciplines such as rock climbing and ski mountaineering, it’s only your own selfimposed limits that can hold you back. There are so many kick arse women in the world of climbing, you don’t have to look far to find inspiration.
Top left – Atop Kilimanjaro in 2007Top right – On the Nelion route, Mt Kenya Bottom right – On the summit of Aoraki / Mt Cook with Guy Cotter, 2011 Bottom left – Summit ridge of Aoraki / Mt Cook
LEFT: Approaching the summit of Kilimanjaro, 2011 RIGHT: Suze the summit of Mt Everest, with AC guide Rob Smith, 22 May 2017