In December 2015, Stuart Hollaway and Dale Thistlethwaite died climbing Mount Silberhorn in New Zealand’s Southern Alps. To celebrate their lives regular VL contributor, Chelsea Brunckhorst, has pulled their collected writings into a book, the Path of Manolin. The book brings together their finest pieces, originally written for Melbourne University Mountaineering Club’s magazine, The Mountaineer, and New Zealand Alpine Club’s magazine, The Climber. These 15 stories offer glimpses into their personalities, their philosophies and their raison d’êtres.
The following piece is an edited excerpt of Chelsea’s much longer and very beautiful introduction to Path of Manolin.
Tuesday 28 December 2015 was the last day anyone heard from Stuart Hollaway and Dale Thistlethwaite. They made a radio call from high on 3300-metre Mount Silberhorn, a graceful peak in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.
Stuart and Dale fell from just below Silberhorn’s summit as, presumably, they were starting their descent. Their bodies were recovered from an avalanche runnel above the bergschrund, four days after their last radio call. They were roped together. Stuart was 42 years old and Dale was 35.
Stuart was a qualified mountain guide. In 1995 he got a NZOIA Rock Level 2 qualification. In 2000 he joined the NZMGA. In 2013 he qualified as an IFMGA mountain and ski guide. He lived in Melbourne, Australia – where he was Head of the English Faculty at Wesley College – but flew to New Zealand during summer and winter school holidays to guide in the Southern Alps. He had climbed ten different routes on Aoraki / Mount Cook, eight on Rarakiroa / Mount Tasman and four on Mount Aspiring. He spent 23 consecutive summers in New Zealand.
Stuart’s magnum opus was Resolution (NZ 6+). Climbing Aoraki / Mount Cook via a buttress, Resolution is a big-mountain route that takes a huge corner running 11 pitches (480m). It is a serious undertaking on NZ’s highest mountain.
Yet most climbers probably wouldn’t know who Stu was. I liked to think of him as an old soul. He was only 42, but he had old-fashioned habits – like wearing flimsy running shorts at the crag (popular in the ’90s in Australia) and wearing Five Ten ‘Pinkies’ (an iconic and standard-setting climbing shoe of, again, the ’90s). Technology – computers, laptops and mobile phones – were not his forte and I swear he typed using only his index fingers.
Stuart was a natural-born chief. When Stu and I worked on our guidebook Cape Woolamai Rockclimbing in 2011–2013, our team looked to Stuart for guidance when it came to field days at the crag. To get to the sea stacks at Cape Woolamai, we had to hike for 45 minutes: either by following a sandy, undulating trail above vegetated sand dunes, or by crossing a long, flat beach with dark basalt flows interrupting its crescent sweep of compacted sand. If the tide was low, we opted for the beach route. Woolamai Beach is a vast flatness wreathed in surf mist. Waves roll in large and languorous. On an April morning, the sky glows pacifically. Hastening along the shore, Stuart carried a red, 80-litre pack that was almost as big as him. Hoicked on his shoulders, it poked the sky, bulging with all manner of ropes and karabiners. The weight didn’t dull Stuart’s pace. Soon he was a red speck in the distance, hopping over rounded boulders at the edge of a crumbling headland. His entourage of climbers flocked behind him, like ducklings shadowing a drake.
Dale’s eyes were the palest blue. Crisp, they cut through the soul. Outwardly Dale’s manner could seem caustic. There was a sting to the way she spoke. Her hair was long, blonde and straight. A pair of smart, sleek spectacles were poised on her aquiline nose. She was self-assured, intelligent and beautiful.
In the microcosm of the historic Melbourne University Mountaineering Club, Dale was a wealth of information. She served on the club’s committee for ten years as Mountaineering Officer, and was a member for 15 years. In 2013 she became an honorary life member (a recognition that Stuart also received earlier, in 2009).
I don’t think Dale had peaked, in terms of her mountaineering achievements. She wasn’t a born mountaineer. I remember her telling me once, ‘It’s fun now that I can actually do it.’ When I first joined the club, I recall someone saying to me that Dale could lead grade 12. It struck me as a low number given her panoptic knowledge on everything to do with climbing. But she did say, in the couple of years before she died, that her climbing ability had changed remarkably over the years. For instance I know that at one stage she redpointed a 21, and in her final years she followed Stu up climbs graded in the low 20s regularly. I think the turning point was in 2010 after a failed attempt at a Grand Traverse of Aoraki / Mount Cook. With Stu, Dale had slogged up Hooker Valley to Gardiner Hut, only to be shut down by bad weather. But not before she got a taste for what was to come. She resolved that the following season she would return fitter and stronger. It turns out, Dale was methodical and disciplined in her approach to training. Typically she woke in the early hours to swim laps before suiting up for work on Collins Street. At the end of the day she would log several kilometres running. In a matter of months she shed a pile of weight. In fact she grew so sinewy I wondered when she would disappear entirely.
In 2012 Dale became the second of only two female MUMC members to complete a Grand Traverse of Aoraki / Mount Cook – that is, traversing Low, Middle and High Peaks with 3000m of ascent, 44km of horizontal distance and 3000m of descent. A ‘GT’ of Mount Cook was something Dale never imagined she could achieve.
On the written page, Stuart and Dale expressed themselves frankly. In my opinion, there was nowhere else where they were more vulnerable (apart from, perhaps, in the mountains). On the page, Stuart and Dale’s fears and dreams materialised in the many articles they wrote for The Mountaineer and The Climber (magazine of New Zealand Alpine Club). Reading their words, it became apparent that mountaineering, for them, was more than a pastime; it was a necessary part of their lives. Their stories are not about world firsts. The ascents they describe are not even necessarily uncommon. Their writings about the deadly game of mountaineering are both introspective and deeply personal. Importantly, they reveal why climbing mountains nourishes the human spirit. Through their writing Stu and Dale examine the human capacity to summon the physical resilience and emotional resolution needed to transcend hardship, and ultimately transform one’s self. Compellingly, Stu writes in his article, ‘The Dream of the Dutch Sailors’:
The indifferent, irresistible mountains offer a canvas onto which we can project our imagination; a pedestal from which to see the world, and the abyss, into which we stare as at a mirror.
The mountains are a place of grim beauty. In that luminous space where bloodless peaks weld with the cold, bare sky, it is a world of contradictions: an alternate reality where people die to live, and hit rock bottom while climbing high. When I first laid eyes on Mount Silberhorn, I was struck by how beautiful it was: a perfect pyramid of unsullied snow, arcing heavenward. Somewhere up there, the memory of them drifts between pain and love, beauty and horror, and the end and the ideal.