When Maddy Whittaker set off on a three-month traverse along the spine of the Southern Alps after a year of planning, she had no idea of another – more confronting – journey she’d find herself on.
Crossing remote backcountry, glaciers and mountain passes in sometimes extreme weather, Whittaker reached a point where the expedition took a toll on her physical and mental health and she had to make the difficult decision to step back.
Now the 22-year-old Dunedin mountaineer and ecologist hopes her documentary, “Traversing the Night” – honoured as the best New Zealand-made film at the 2022 New Zealand Mountain Film Festival – will resonate with audiences around the world.
“This film is for the third of the audience who will experience a significant period of ‘extended mental distress’ in their lifetime,” Whittaker says. “And the fifth of the audience who has a current depression diagnosis. You’re not alone.”
In 2020, Whittaker and three of her best friends planned the 651km traverse of the Southern Alps, from Arthur’s Pass to Fiordland.
Preparations for the trip took 12 months, drying food for the journey and carrying it into remote huts in large plastic drums that formed their lifeline down the spine of the mountains. They would spend less than two percent of the entire expedition on established tracks, climbing 50km vertical – the equivalent of scaling Mt Everest from sea level six times.
But two months into the journey, Whittaker made a decision to step back from the group and her goal to make it to the finish in Fiordland; leaving the mountains between Haast and Mt Aspiring.
“I had only really envisioned someone wouldn’t complete the traverse if they broke a leg,” Whittaker admits.
“As someone who’s quite incredibly driven and who really sets out to complete the things that I want to do…the story of me finishing up early was quite a different ending to what I expected. It took me a really long time post-traverse not to see my journey as a failure.”
As the climbing group approached Haast Pass, Whittaker says she found herself in a physical and mental space “where it would have been destructive to keep pushing through it.”
As an experienced mountaineer who’d always thrived in the face of challenges (she also walked the South Island section of the Te Araroa Trail as a 17-year-old), Whittaker realised her most important priority wasn’t to push through and carry on with the trip – but to pause and step back, making space to breathe and look after her mental health.
“I always had this goal of growing myself into a better and stronger person, and if that‘s not what [the trip] is doing, then it’s time to reassess that. It was the hardest thing to do, to put my mental health first,” Whittaker recalls.
“It wasn’t necessarily convenient, but it was time to be vulnerable and take time for myself.”
Whittaker didn’t leave the mountains but took a detour – spending six weeks in Fiordland climbing and camping. She knew there would always be time for expeditions, and she needed time and space to value herself and her mental health first.
“On the traverse, as part of the team, I wasn’t the Maddy who would usually thrive there, and I wasn’t able to feel excitement and hope around the rest of the journey and life in general,” she says.
She realised it was time to ask for help, to rebuild her resilience and rediscover the joy she’d always found in life.
“There are things so many people go through,” Whittaker says. “I was lucky to be able to pause and take the moment to ask for help.”
The devout climber and alpinist said she never had role models who put their physical and mental health first, in front of a big goal. “No one had ever given me permission to step back.”
Once the decision was made, Whittaker was able to recognise the next opportunity – setting an example for others.
“You’ve got this whole culture around climbing, and strong people keep going and overcome all the challenges they come up against,” Whittaker points out. “I didn’t want to feed into this culture of ‘you’ve got to be strong all the time’. My story could help someone struggling in their own mind to consider that stepping back isn’t something to be ashamed of.”
Whittaker says many people still insist on asking, ‘Why didn’t you finish?’ She’s often been surprised by the focus on failure and giving up.
She hopes her documentary answers these questions once and for all – and her answer will resonate with many in the worldwide audience.
“Traversing the Night” has earned Whittaker the prestigious Hiddleston/Macqueen Award for the best Kiwi-made film and a $2500 prize.
She recalls she felt almost as excited at documenting the journey as the journey itself.
“I started taking photos and videos to record the immense amount of magic I was seeing around me everywhere. Some people say film and photography can take away from your experience of being present. I’ve found it sort of enhances mine,” Whittaker says.
“I just didn’t quite expect the story to come out the way it did.”
Whittaker carried a Sony RX100 “tiny camera” and captured 800GB of footage.
“There wasn’t really an option to carry anything heavier,” she points out. “We were carrying up to 12 days of food at a time.
“I had only ever made your classic YouTube summer compilation,” she confesses. “In 2021, I did a week-long course with the Adventure Film School. I had all the footage from the traverse, and they brought in a series of experts in audio, editing and storytelling. They came in to show us what’s possible. It gave me the resources to know what’s out there.”
Whittaker applied what she learned to “hundreds and hundreds of hours of editing” after breaking her leg in January 2022. The avid alpinist and climber sustained the pivotal injury while walking on a flat track less than one kilometre from the DOC hut where she was based for work. Her ranger role involves monitoring New Zealand’s kakapo population.
Following the break, Whittaker was resigned to over three months of non-weight bearing activity – which meant she could focus fully on editing the traverse footage.
“If I’d told my story straight after the traverse, it would have been too emotional,” she reflects. “I’d have felt like a fraud making a film about the adventure when I didn’t finish it.”
Whittaker is an esteemed member of the NZ Alpine Team and continues to monitor kakapo on Whenua Hou (Codfish Island – west of Stewart Island). Her responsibilities include using telemetry aerials to locate the critically endangered birds, conducting general health checks and getting them in the best shape for when they breed.
The great outdoors remains central to Whittaker’s wellbeing strategy. She still goes tramping and climbing as often as possible, and spends four weeks at a time on remote Whenua Hou, 14km square in size.
“You spend such a long time in such a special environment that it kind of fills you up with a little bit of magic, which then enables you to continue to see more and more magic in the world around you,” she says.
Only a week after Whittaker submitted her NZ Mountain Film Festival entry, her best friend took her own life.
“I don’t get to go back and say some of the things I’d like to, to my friend,” she says. “We’ve just got to talk about this stuff more, I guess.
“If I could reach one person who might feel alone…it will make putting my story out there feel worthwhile.”
* Today is the last day of the 20th NZ Mountain Film and Book Festival in Queenstown. Traversing the Night can be viewed online here until July 24.