Saturday, 3 August 2013

Chris Jillett, The Man and the Mountaineer

Chris Jillett on the summit of Mt. McFettrick, Westland National Park. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The recent tragedy of Marty and Denali Schmidt has brought the potential dangers of the mountains into the news.  There have been several such news stories over the years.  As a blizzard struck Mount Everest on 10-11 May 1996, tragedy was imminent.  The event was to claim the lives of eight people and attract worldwide attention and discussion.  Among the victims were New Zealanders Rob Hall and Andy Harris.  The rescue party attending the incident included fellow kiwi, and respected mountain guide, Chris Jillett; little did he know that fate would tragically bring him full circle before too long.

A ‘Normal’ Guy from New Zealand
Chris was a kid from New Zealand who studied law, played guitar, and loved mountains; outwardly normal, but extraordinary in his zest for life and influence on others.  He began his guiding career in 1985 at Fox Glacier, where he impressed everyone with his charm as well as his obvious guiding ability. The legacy of Chris, and his fellow guides over the years, can still be felt at Fox Guides which prides itself on a family like environment that is down to earth and friendly as well as professional and expert.  Following in the footsteps of guides like Chris are those who participate in the tours available such as ‘Fox it Up: Heli Ice Climbing Adventure’.  This eight to nine hour experience presents the adventurous with an introduction to the sport of ice climbing in the exhilarating atmosphere of the upper part of the Fox Glacier.  Guides are expertly trained to ensure that they in turn provide impeccable tuition.

The Dangers of Nature
There can have been few guides more expert than Chris Jillett; with his skills he was instrumental in creating a Glacier Guides credential through the New Zealand Mountain Guides Association.  The Association was established in 1974 to create a consistent training program for those entering the professional mountain guiding field.   Of course not everyone who loves the mountains takes them into their professional lives; climbing holds a fascination for many who participate as a recreational activity.  Whatever the status of a climber, negotiating a climb is a serious enterprise; the unpredictability of mountains was shown in the 1996 Everest tragedy.  The unexpected can always happen, and the outcome is sometimes in the hands of Mother Nature alone, but being prepared and well informed helps to tip the odds in a climber’s favour; as does being accompanied by a guide with as much experience and talent as Chris. 

A Mountainous Career
Both the talent and the experience were put to good use throughout Chris’s career.  He continued in his connection with the Fox Glacier as well as going on to work as a member of the ski-field patrol team at Treble Cone which today is the largest ski resort on New Zealand’s South Island with a longest run of four kilometres which also has a vertical drop of seven hundred metres.  In the mid-1990s Chris worked at Harris Mountains Heli-skiing in New Zealand’s Southern Alps  as a safety office where he put all his expertise into ensuring the safety of the heli-skiing experience.

Chris Jillett leads Mike Browne towards the summit of Mt. McFettrick in 1991. Tatare Saddle  centre and the Fritz Range on the skyline. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Gone too Soon
Not long after joining Harris Mountains Heli-skiing Chris witnessed the terrible power of nature first hand with the 1996 Everest tragedy; and now to complete the circle that robbed the world of an adventurous and generous soul.  Having worked as a guide in the area for the previous twelve months Chris entered the Himalayan valley of Kullu, Himachal Pradesh, with his party, on Friday 6 March 1998; it was to be his final adventure.  The slope had already hosted four groups that morning and Chris was approximately fifty metres into his run when a client entered the slope above him and the slope broke away creating an avalanche that was approximately five hundred metres wide and three to four metres deep at the point of fracture; Chris was swept seven hundred metres away.  Hampered by incoming clouds those searching for the popular guide found Chris forty minutes later, face down under two metres of snow.  Despite vigorous resuscitation attempts lasting for an hour and a half Chris was pronounced dead at the hospital.  He has left memories with those whose paths he crossed from those like canvas repairer Donald who still uses Chris’s old day pack that he was gifted, to Eric Napier, 
the Wanaka operations manager for Harris Mountains Heli-skiing at the time of Chris’s death who described Chris as “a man of integrity -- very balanced, very dedicated to his job; a total professional."  Having affected many lives, at the age of only thirty two, Chris Jillett died as he lived, in the mountains.

Lisa Williamson. 

 Lisa Bonet nee Williamson, has written this article at no cost as she was motivated to honour the life of Chris Jillett. She is a very competent free-lance writer and here are some links to other recent articles she has written.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Chris Jillett with Mike Browne on Mt. McFettrick

 Mike Browne right, climbing up the slopes of Mt. McFettrick in Westland National Park with Chris Jillett. This was the first climb Mike did after his accident in 1987. We had the indomentable Ed Cotter with us. What a memorable trip and the last I did with Chris. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Your name comes up a lot.

Dear Chris

I stayed with Donald Lousley over New Year and your name popped up from time to time. I have met other friends of yours while back in New Zealand for a few weeks and you are remembered fondly in different ways, by different people. I spent New mYear's day with Kim Logan under the gaze of Earnslaw and he spoke warmly about times you had together.

When I flew over the head of the Whataroa a week or so back, I saw Tatare Saddle and Mt. McFettrick, we climbed with Mike Browne and Ed Cotter, 20 years ago. Yesterday I had lunch with Ed Cotter and he recalled our climb of  Mt. McFettrick and we laughed about the diversity of the group.Do you recal Ralph Fegan looking at us before we left Franz and after closely examining us he said we were " the village geriatric, the village fat-man, the village cripple and the village guide."

Looking across the Spencer and Whataroa with McFettrick above Tatare Saddle. Photo: Bob McKerrow

From the head of the Tasman looking at many of the high peaks you climbed Chris. Photo: Bob McKerrow

From Lake Pukaki to the 'big one.' Photo: Bob McKerrow

Looking down the Fax Glacier, your workplace for many years. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The Minarets, de la Beche and Graham saddle. Photo: Bob McKerrow

We miss you Chris. Take care where ever you may be.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Email addresses for Gollum and Donald

Hey guys, I need your email addresses as I now know how to permit you to post direstly on Chris's Blog.

send them tto

Chris would have seen this view many times just south of Hokitika at Mananui beach and I think he must have climbed most of these. You can actually see McFettrick, which we climbed together.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

A tribute to Chris

I knew Chris for nearly 20 years. We were in the same Laws 101 tutorial back in 83 I think it was. I was already a few years out of school and had recently come off a bad experience in the mountains when a friend was nearly killed falling from the Spence - Scissors ridge. As nasty a spot as I have ever seen. Smooth, shiny slabs on the Landsborough side and a 2,000 foot drop on the east down into the Dobson. I turned my back on the hills for a while and stayed in the valleys.

Our tutorial group met on Friday afternoons and Chris would come to class with his crampons and ice axe ready to get away with the OUTC crowd. I thought he was a total prat at the time - I mean who brings crampons to a law tutorial. I don't think I ever spoke him the entire year.

I met him again a couple of years later when he was looking for a flat. By one of those strange twists both our respective girlfriends had been at the same school and so Chris turned up at our place and stayed with us for the year. I think that was his last year before he went to Fox but I could be wrong. It was Chris who got me back into climbing. We had some good times in the hills, always with an epic element thrown in for good measure. A few tales worth telling another day.

I eventually moved away from the South island on the career trail. I saw Chris once in Wellington around 91/92 when we were living up the top of a hill with a view down over Cook Strait towards the south. He had just cycled down from the Waikato complaining about having been subjected to a couple of weeks of rugby, racing and beer. We caught up on a lot of things that had gone on in his life and mine and the next day we sent him down to the ferry and waved him off. I never saw him again.

I left New Zealand in 96. In March 98, out of the blue, I got the sudden urge to contact him. I didn't have any contact details and so I sent a fax to the Fax Guides trying to get a number. They came back that Chris had died 2 weeks earlier. That was a truly depressing moment.

Chris was an old head on young shoulders. But for me, the one thing that stood out was Chris's ability to avoid confrontation. With one exception, I never saw him angry at anyone or involved in any kind of situation. He just had this ability to steer clear of personality clashes etc. I never really knew anyone who had a poor opinion of Chris and the fact that people still hold him in such high regard is a measure of the man.


Monday, 2 August 2010

Another tribute to Chris Jillett

I have a trade which involved canvas work and I repaired Chris's day-pack a few times. When he thought it was no longer strong enough for guiding he gave it to me. To this day I still use it on day outings, and it's a lovely concept to carry in more ways than one! On the back in faded marker pen it says "Chris Jillett Rig Pig.

When my son Dougal was 5 yrs. Chris had to shift a bunch of firewood from Hawea to Wanaka. I had a truck so off the three of us went to do a few loads. This was the time I so treasure to recall... I'll never forget it: Chris and Dougal chatted and worked together non-stop like a couple of little old men. For myself on the edge of such a special exchange was a privilege, and I became aware Chris was a mentor to many young guys in many ways.

A few years later after the above when I had a bit more time each work day to actually achieve something, during an intense work period Chris rang and asked me to come for a walk up Mt Maude with him to try out some new boots. Normally I'd have declined, but for some reason I said yes, and I organized myself accordingly.

On the walk it soon became apparent Chris needed to talk, and so it went. In retrospect I tend to think it was fortuitous that I could repay all of the great company he'd been to myself, when I was bogged down with being at home parenting. Now he was bogged down with confusion over a few things. Sure I was older, but I did not have all the answers to changes that were occurring in his life, so I just listened.

Little did we know that only a few weeks later we'd both be facing bigger changes!

His of course you know. Mine: In one of our more remote mountain spots I developed a near fatal lung infection.

I recovered slowly and I was only well enough to make it to Chris's funeral. Like many others there I realised the effort he'd made with so many people to be their friend through thick and thin [we'd often discussed his and my own childhoods, which saw us in constant contact with widely diverse age groups. This type of interaction I believe gave him the skills to be such a good communicator]

Even today I ponder at the way it all played out, often thinking "why did he meet an untimely, and not myself?"

I'm so grateful I said "yes" to our walk. We don't always get these chances in life, and the lesson is to always listen to our intuition, and value our friends!

His legacy gift, is I believe, for us to always be inspired by his caring way of living.

He often pops into my thoughts and I feel he's just dropped by again, and just as in the past, broadened my outlook!

Donald Dec 2010