From pioneering mountaineer to award-winning author

May 04, 2023

David Vass, one of New Zealand’s leading mountaineers, has been named as the recipient of the Nankervis/Bamford NZ Mountain Book of the Year for 2023 for his book Not Set in Stone. The $2000 grand prize is awarded in the NZ Mountain Book Competition as part of the long-running NZ Mountain Film and Book Festival.

Dave Vass

Not Set in Stone tells Vass’ own story from a life of adventure and a career as a mountaineer and guide, establishing numerous first ascents and descents in the country’s hills and canyons, to an accident in 2015 which resulted in a broken neck and incomplete tetraplegia, forcing a change of direction. With humour and poise, Vass shares both colourful tales and thoughtful perspectives on the importance of connection with nature, and what happens when we are separated from it. 

Judges Marjorie Cook, Hazel Phillips and Allan Uren were impressed by the standard of entries in this year’s competition.

“I found the books overall to be of an incredibly high calibre - both in print production and quality, and writing/photography,” says Phillips. It was an absolute joy to read through the finalists and live vicariously inside the pages of these amazing books. Congratulations to all the finalists, and to our winners, who should be rightly proud of what they've created.”  

Vass said he was ‘chuffed’ with his win. "After many years in Wānaka I have just moved away, and this award makes a truly great farewell present. I've been much humbled and gratified by the feedback I've received so far — it seems to have moved people in a similar way to how I felt writing it — the highs and the lows….  And, if I think about it, to be awarded the Nankervis/Bamford feels somehow fitting, now that I’ve finally become an armchair mountaineer myself!"

Vass will be speaking at the NZ Mountain Film and Book Festival in Wānaka on Tuesday 27 June alongside Robbie Burton, whose book Bushline – A Memoir was highly commended by the competition judges. Burton will also be part of the popular Words and Wine Session on Sunday 25 June.

The Mountain Book Competition covers literature on the world’s remote places, expedition tales and stories about people and their adventures. Submissions were invited for two categories: Mountain and Adventure Narrative for stories and accounts about specific adventures, fiction or non-fiction; and Mountain and Adventure Heritage for guidebooks, coffee table or picture books, history books, analyses, reflections on culture, environments or ethics and advocacy.

The Heritage Award goes to Wānaka mountain guide and adventure photographer Gavin Lang for Seeking the Light. Lang set himself a challenge not only to climb all 24 of New Zealand’s 3,000 metre peaks but to photograph them, as well. His book captures the tension and drama of mountaineering in Aotearoa and brings it all to life with stunning imagery.

Lang says he is "proud and honoured to be recognised as having contributed something significant to our mountain photography and literature."  He will also be speaking at the festival alongside Australia’s Backyard Adventurer, Beau Miles on Monday 26 June. 

High Risk: Climbing to Extinction by Brian Hall takes out the Narrative Award. Hall’s book speaks to an extraordinary era in the history of Himalayan mountaineering, from the mid 1970s to the ‘80s, and pays homage to the generation of climbers who pushed adventure to the edge.

“It is an honour and a privilege to be awarded the Best Mountain and Adventure Narrative for 2023,” says Hall. “As the NZ Mountain Film and Book Festival grows in stature each year, delivering an outstanding programme, it is fantastic that literature is an important part of the event.

Hall continues, “Over the three years it took me to write High Risk: Climbing to Extinction I was worried that I would not do justice to my friends who can no longer speak. I was also aware that I had a duty to retell the climbing counterculture of the 70’s and 80’s. And, also, to describe the importance of this era as heavy weight expeditions were replaced by lightweight alpine style; a period often called the ‘Golden Age of Himalayan Climbing.’

“Receiving this award gives me confidence that my writing gives the reader an understanding of why we took so many risks while enjoying our climbing.”

Festival goers will be able to enjoy a reading from High Risk: Climbing to Extinction by book competition judge Al Uren at the Words and Wine session.

Before selecting the winners of the 2023 NZ Mountain Book competition, the judges had a difficult task narrowing the entries down to six finalists.

Head judge, Marjorie Cook said, "The books submitted this year made impressive and inspiring reading. I laughed, I cringed with fear, I could not sleep - and I wondered - what on earth!

 “The authors are evocative, relatable and well-connected to the environment - and just damn good story tellers. I particularly liked it when the Kiwi writers wove Maori context and culture into their adventure stories, used Te Reo and referenced creation stories.

"One thing I missed this year were female voices. I encourage every adventurous woman to enter their story next year.

"The production quality of all the entries was high. Once again, I found it challenging to choose six finalists and I'm thankful the festival permitted the addition of four highly commended books to the programme.”

The 2023 finalists were:

Mountain & Adventure Narrative Award 

Paul Hersey - The Cold Inside 

Dave Vass - Not Set in Stone 

Brian Hall - High Risk: Climbing to Extinction 

Mountain & Adventure Heritage Award 

Derek Morrison - Living the Dream 

David Towns - Ahuahu: A conservation journey in Aotearoa 

Gavin Lang - Seeking the Light 

The following were Highly Commended by the judges: 

Beau Miles - The Backyard Adventurer 

Robbie Burton - Bushline 

Jeff Smoot - All and Nothing: Inside Free Soloing 

Carrie Miller and Chris Taylor - A Diver's Guide to the World: Remarkable Dive Travel Destinations Above and Beneath the Surface 

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