Growing up with a father who was a mountain guide, it’s hardly surprising that Elke Braun-Elwert (35) was drawn to the mountains from a young age.
Elke is the daughter of Gottlieb and Anne Braun-Elwert. Originally from Germany, Gottlieb was a nuclear physicist. A keen mountaineer, he first ventured to New Zealand in the 1970s where he met Anne’s brother, John Sweney. Years later on her big OE, Anne caught up with him in Germany, love blossomed and they were married. Through their guiding business Alpine Recreation, Gottlieb shot to fame as regular guide for then Prime Minister, Helen Clark.
“As kids we were introduced to the mountains and the outdoors from the time we could walk. Most of our school holidays were spent doing the great walks of New Zealand, but because Alpine Recreation’s peak season was during the summer, we did them from May onwards which led to some amazing adventures,” explains Elke.
While she wouldn’t necessarily recommend tackling some of the walks in the off-season, being exposed to it from such an early age meant they thought nothing of it. “It was never something Dad forced upon us; we climbed because we wanted to.”
At age six, she climbed her first peak, scrambling up Mt Sebastopol. A mere 1468m, it’s the closest peak to Mt Cook Village. “Apparently I was disappointed because it wasn’t covered with snow and ice, so much so, I asked Dad when I was going to climb a real mountain,” she laughs.
She was hooked. It was to be the first of many climbs. “Dad never promised it would be easy, but if you were willing to work hard enough and train for it, it can happen.” A week before her fifteenth birthday, Elke joined mountaineering’s elite, scaling New Zealand’s highest peak, Aoraki Mt Cook (3724m), for the first time. “It had been on the cards for quite a long time, but it had to be between the guided trips and had to be in good conditions.”
Although she was heart set on following in her father’s footsteps, he pushed her to explore other options. “Dad said you still need a tertiary qualification to fall back on. It was not so much what you learn, but that you can teach yourself to learn that was important,” she says.
With a strong science and maths background, on leaving high school, Elke headed south to Otago University where she completed a Masters degree in the new field of Computational Biomechanics (scientific programming).
Each summer during the university holidays, she went ski instructing in Switzerland working towards her international certification, learning the art of instructing before she became a guide. “It gave me the opportunity to know if I really wanted to do it, or not. Guiding has such a large instruction or coaching component,” she says.
Having initially worked in Dunedin after graduating, a year after her father’s unexpected death at age 59 of a ruptured aorta while guiding a group including Helen Clark, Elke returned home to Tekapo to work for Alpine Recreation.
Founded together by her parents in 1981, it was the first outdoor adventure company in New Zealand to offer ski touring using cross country and telemark skis. Over the years it had built a reputation for being one of the leading mountain guiding companies in New Zealand.
Since joining the company, Elke has held many roles. Now, when she’s not guiding, she helps her mother in the day-to-day running of the company, doing everything from web design, IT support, marketing and advertising, to logistics, hut restocking and staff training.
Elke lives in Tekapo where their main operations base is, but they spend a fair amount of time just up the road at Aoraki Mt Cook. They have two private huts – the Caroline Hut in the Aoraki Mt Cook National Park and Rex Simpson Hut in the Two Thumb Range in the high country above Lake Tekapo.
It’s busy, with clients coming from around the world throughout the year. New Zealand is considered one of the world’s greatest training ground for people wanting to get into mountaineering worldwide because it requires “full on” technical skills but at a low altitude so climbers don’t have to deal with all the problems associated with altitude sickness.
Peak climbing season runs from October through to mid-January, while trekking from November through to the end of April, and ski touring from the end of June right through to October, explains Elke.
It’s very varied work. No two weeks are ever the same. Trips last anywhere from one or two days right up to seven to ten days. Usually guides get one to two days off between trips. It’s a risky business. There have been more than 230 fatalities in the Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park since the first recorded death in 1907. Worldwide hundreds of climbers die each year, but Elke insists she’s had more close calls on the road between Tekapo and Mt Cook Village than she ever has in the mountains.
“At least in the mountains I have the choice whether I want to expose myself to the risks or not. On the road, I don’t have a choice. We only hear about what can go wrong, often there is little about what went right. It’s accidents that make the news.”
Despite the perceived dangers associated with being a mountain guide, Elke can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s a job she loves, and one she’s passionate about.
The role of a mountain guide is multi-faceted, she says. Not only is she responsible for all the logistics, providing all the equipment, gear checks, booking helicopters, weather analysis, being team leader and chief instructor, but cooking the meals and ensuring the huts are left clean and tidy.
But it’s about more than that. People go on guided trips for many reasons, from feeling safer, being unfamiliar with the local conditions, and wanting to push themselves to wanting a more luxurious experience and not having to do the thinking.
At the end of the day, the key is getting to know their clients quickly. It’s also undoubtedly their greatest challenge. “Some people over-estimate their abilities and some under-estimate. It’s human nature,” she says. “We have a stringent enrolment process so we can get a better idea of what people expect and want out of the experience, and we try to establish what their skill level is. Everybody has their own accepted level of risk; some people want to take more risk while others are more risk adverse. It’s about finding out what people are comfortable with while keeping the risk at a manageable level.”
It’s also about building a trust relationship, says Elke. “It’s a lot to ask people to put their faith in you in a challenging environment. It’s also a huge responsibility [as a guide] to be solely responsible for other people. This can add a lot of pressure.”
As a company, their aim is to deliver a really good product and great service, but over time, Elke has learnt one big thing she can’t control is the weather. Being an island, New Zealand’s weather is incredibly changeable which is what often catches people out. “I think of the weather as my boss and I just have to deal with what it gives me. There is nothing I can do to change it.”
Instead she focuses on what she can control, and that’s the same with people. Often it’s about getting them to focus on what they can do, not what they can’t. “Sometimes you feel like you are being a life coach or a psychologist,” she says.
While Aoraki Mt Cook is on many climbers’ bucket lists to climb, Elke says it deserves the utmost respect. There are more than 48 routes up Mt Cook ranging from the easier Linda Glacier route to longer, technical routes. “We don’t ask our guides to do it more than two times in a season unless they want to. The easiest route isn’t dangerous because of the technicality, but because of the ice falls above you. We minimise the risk by spending as little time underneath them as possible. We spend a lot of time talking people out of climbing Aoraki Mt Cook.”
For Elke, the greatest reward is getting to a new area or a place she hasn’t seen before. She also gets a huge thrill out of being around happy people, whether it’s because they have learnt a new skill or seen something for the first time. “While it might not be as technically challenging, it’s challenging because you haven’t done it before. I love teaching people something new; it’s so rewarding. Sure, there are still peaks I want to go out and climb, but for different reasons.”
In September 2015, Elke and her sister, Carla, a natural history filmmaker, retraced their late father’s daring traverse of the Southern Alps from Tekapo to Fox Glacier, and made it into a film called Symphony On Skis. “My sister had always wanted to film the route and with Dad’s passing it seemed fitting. It wasn’t so much about the route, but what he enjoyed about being in the mountains. We first did it with Dad when we were just 15 and 17 years old.”
Thanks to Carla’s expert skills, the film has been a huge success featuring in many film festivals since its launch in October last year. For both Braun-Elwert girls, Symphony on Skis was a huge achievement. It required a lot of courage to follow their father’s footsteps and confront his passing at such a young age, says mum, Anne.
[ WORDS Annie Studholme, IMAGES Supplied ]