The man and the mountain

Sometimes we have to climb a mountain to find ourselves. Epic adventurer and mountaineer Graeme Dingle reveals what he’s discovered along the way.

Graeme Dingle has seen four continents from their mountaintops, the Amazon river from a balsa wood raft and 28,000 kilometres of the Arctic from a small inflatable boat. He was the first to traverse the Southern Alps in winter, climb the six most difficult north faces in Europe in one season and trek the length of the Himalayas from end to end.

Yet these feats of strength and endurance are only a small part of what he’s achieved. Each year, almost 20,000 New Zealand children and teens find new purpose and self-esteem thanks to programmes founded jointly by Graeme and Jo-anne Wilkinson, his partner in life and work.

Feeling tired yet?

Born in 1945 in Gisborne, Graeme was a “spindly, weak little kid” bullied at school, where he excelled at art but not much else. At 15, he climbed his first snowy peak with a friend who was a member of Boy Scouts (Graeme’s family couldn’t afford the uniform) and the course of his future was set. By 20, he’d summited Mt Cook and set his sights overseas, working as a signwriter and outdoor educator to fund his climbing expeditions.

Graeme might have stayed solely a mountaineer were it not for a chance moment on his 1971 traverse of the Southern Alps. He was partway into the 100-day trek with fellow climber Jill Tremain when she commented out of the blue, “You know, Graeme, life is a cup to be filled, not a measure to be drained.”

“It was a gentle way of telling me I was a selfish prick,” he says, laughing. It upended 26-year-old Graeme’s view of the world, and a year later he set up the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre on the edge of Tongariro National Park. Following his firm belief that the great outdoors could teach valuable lessons that the classroom never could, the centre took high school classes for week-long adventure courses that encouraged participants to think for themselves, use their initiative, help classmates and find their true physical limits.

Graeme stepped back from the OPC after ten years, but his work with young people wasn’t over yet – and another hostile, wintry environment provided a second dose of inspiration. Jo-anne joined him for 4,000km of his record-setting circumnavigation of the Arctic from 1992-1993 – “When he invited me I felt I couldn’t possibly do it, so I thought, ‘Well, I should probably say yes’.” Along the way, the couple was struck by the problems they observed in remote communities they passed through.

“We saw all this really dysfunctional stuff happening and felt really lucky to be from New Zealand,” says Jo-anne. But with a return home came the realisation that “we’re not too flash ourselves”. The film Once Were Warriors had just opened in cinemas and was the last straw. “But we knew it was not just a cultural issue – it was across New Zealand.”

New Zealand might be a beautiful country, Graeme adds, but “it’s not pretty to have some of the most negative youth statistics in the world – incarceration, drop-outs, teen pregnancy, suicide, poverty.” Graeme and Jo-anne also knew that kids needed more support than a week-long outdoor education course could provide, and in 1995, the pair launched Project K.

It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing – in the early days, Jo-anne continued to teach and practice law, fitting in Project K work on the side, while Graeme volunteered full-time. Still running today, Project K measures the ‘self-efficacy’ of Year 10 students in participating schools, and invites those lacking confidence and motivation on a year-long programme to transform how they see the world. “We’re challenging them to look after other people and to take care of nature – to be resilient and courageous,” says Graeme. “Life’s not always smooth, and if you don’t have resilience you fall apart every time there’s a little crisis.”

Bringing kids into contact with risk is also crucial. “If you don’t allow them to fall out of trees and fall off their bikes, they don’t understand risk until they get behind the wheel of a car,” says Graeme.

Mentoring forms an equally large part of the programme – Graeme knows first-hand how much difference stray comments from adults can make. He recalls how an intermediate school teacher once told him he had the makings of a great artist. As a result he devoured books on Renaissance painters and taught himself to write backwards like Leonardo da Vinci. “She could have told me I would be a great shoveller of horse manure,” he laughs. “It was just that she told me I could be great at something. It set me on a path – and what was important was that path.”

With the charity’s path in mind, Jo-anne researched and wrote Project K’s curriculum so that it could be replicated by partner organisations across the country. What started with 48 students and 12 volunteers in 1995 has grown under her leadership to 18,000 students and more than 500 staff today.

Next, Graeme and Jo-anne launched programmes for different age groups, collected under their Foundation for Youth Development (FYD). There’s KiwiCan, for primary schools; Stars, which helps Year 9s with the transition to high school and connects them with Year 13 mentors; and MYND, a programme to help youth offenders turn their lives around.

Highly successful at keeping young people out of prison, MYND saw a 70 percent decrease in serious offences by participants in 2011, and in 2012, launched an extension for participants’ siblings. “The government estimates that we save them about $300 million a year,” says Graeme.

And the future? “There’s lots on our bucket list,” says Jo-anne – climbing a peak over 6,000m being one goal. Currently she’s involved with planning FYD’s future, while Graeme helps raise more than $8 million a year needed to keep it all going. What’s clear is that Graeme doesn’t feel his mission has ended. “When you stop filling the cup, you’re out of here,” he says. “You stop having dreams – you’re nearing the end.”

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