Genevieve Lasenby (Willis) 1987 – 1991
Daughter of Ann Willis (Free) 1955 – 1959
Aunt of Zoe and Amelia Willis (current students)
When travelling south, past Lake Pukaki most people stop and get their photo taken, especially if the weather is clear and Aoraki/Mt Cook is visible. A few of us might think about climbing the mountain one day. Very few of us would ever do it.
On one of those days whilst in her early 20s, Genevieve took her own photo and resolved to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook. 25 years later in 2021, after travelling, partnering up, having children, and just generally dealing with life, she did it.
Genevieve was not entirely new to the adventuring business. She and her husband Jon were instructors at Outward Bound for many years and when her eldest daughter was just two years old the family travelled home to New Zealand from England in their 10-metre yacht. But that’s a story for another day.
RROGA Board Representative, Charlotte Gray caught up with Genevieve to ask about the climb in between her sessions as a counsellor at Nelson College for Girls.
Tell us a bit about your school days, what you enjoyed both academically and culturally at Rangi Ruru?
When I think back to my school days, I just remember the fun I had and the friendships I made with women that are still close to me today. We loved to party and go to all the balls and get up to mischief. Academically the culture at Rangi Ruru that it was cool to succeed benefited me. I had one particular biology teacher who when I was heading off on study leave in 7th form said to me, ‘you know you could get a scholarship in this subject,” and I was thinking no surely not. But she had planted a seed and it inspired me to work hard and sure enough I got the result. She then rang me at home to congratulate me. I was super awkward at 17 talking to her on the phone but I have never forgotten her thoughtfulness and going the extra mile for me. Teachers can make a real difference. Culturally, I loved the clan performances, the singing and the end of year celebrations on stage singing farewell as we finished our time.
Tell us about your most memorable moment while at school.
I got on the Spirit of New Zealand and sailed from Lyttleton to Hawkes Bay. It was the amazing experience of sailing this beautiful tall ship through the night under the stars that inspired me to have sailing in my life. Equally learning to scuba dive in 6th form opened the underwater world up to me. I still use these skills now, diving with my kids in magical places.
What did you do straight after leaving school?
I was on the GAP scheme and went to England and worked at a YMCA Outdoor Adventure Camp. We taught school groups to climb, kayak, sail and basically have fun in the outdoors. I went on to travel, skied in France, beer festival in Munich and lots of other adventures throughout Europe. It was an absolute eye opener to the world, especially when I worked in a bar in London, with bomb scares and the cardboard city just down the road. After a year I came home and studied to be a PE, Health and Outdoor Education teacher at the University of Canterbury.
Before we talk about the climb, can you tell me about your job as a counsellor. It can’t be easy, so how do you handle it?
I hear the worst of the worst, domestic violence, and abuse. It is heavy work but a complete privilege to see into these family situations and help guide young people through. Listening to difficult stories can take a toll on my own outlook so I try to prioritise my self care. My own mental health is very important to me, so outside of my work at Nelson College for Girls I make a big effort to counter what I have been dealing with by spending a lot of time outdoors in nature and making sure I have fun with my family and friends.
And speaking of outdoors, what inspired you to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook?
My friend Wendy and I, who is also a Counsellor at Motueka High School, talked about wanting to do it over the years. When our children became older, we felt like we were ready to do it. It is cool to have a goal to work towards.
Did you use guides?
We used guides. My mountaineering skills were rusty, and the guides have access to the latest information on possible dangers. They set the route to avoid crevasses or other obstacles to ensure a safe path. They know where the ice-bridges are.
Did you have to do any specialised mountaineering training?
I had to complete a seven-day ice climbing course to undertake the climb. We had to practise crevasse rescue training and become at ease using ice axes and crampons. I loved the training, I felt like Arnie Schwarzeneggar, I felt very powerful.
How did you get fit for the climb?
I used to go on crazy 20-hour solo hiking missions. I had been told the climb to the top would take 18 hours, so to get fit I would take off from home at 4am into the Richmond ranges or Kahurangi mountains with a 16kg backpack on. Oh my gosh, the blisters!
Wendy and also I spent a bit of time at Rainbow ski-field. We would pick a slope and climb it. I loved it all, probably because it was a bit nuts. When it came time for the actual climb, even though I almost felt like a mountaineering “imposter”, I pretended that I knew what I was doing and hoped my fitness and strength would see me through.
Were there any scary moments up there?
I became very cold just before the sun came out when we set off at 1am. I didn’t bother putting extra clothes on because I thought I would heat up fast, but the sun came up much more slowly than I anticipated. It was steep and hard, and I had to move fast to keep warm. I managed to get through by remembering what my friend had told me before she passed away the year before. She had asked Wendy and I to take her ashes up the mountain with us and scatter them at the top. She told me that if we did this, then when the going got tough, she would “lighten my load”. I honestly felt like a rope had been attached to me and I was being lifted up.
When you got to the top, what theme song was playing in your head?
It was U2’s “Beautiful Day”. We got to the top at about 11am and it was clear, sunny, beautiful, and spiritual and magic. Only U2 would do for that moment.
I must ask, what did your Mum and Dad, husband and kids think of your plan to go to the summit?
My mother is used to my grand schemes, so she begrudgingly accepted the idea. For her it was more like “Oh my gosh, what is Genevieve doing now.” Dad on the other hand was really excited about it but he was also aware of how dangerous it was, so he was a bit nervous. Both my grandfather and uncle had made the climb years before. Dad was eager to hear all about it and it was good to share the whole adventure with him, especially when everything went to plan, and we were able to reach the summit.
My husband Jon was very supportive, and my kids were excited and especially pleased to get in contact from us the day following the climb when we were back at Mount Cook Village. When I got back to Nelson my daughter Skye made me an Aoraki/Mt Cook cake to celebrate.
I hope it was topographically correct Genevieve. Thank you so much for talking to me about this. Keep up the good work, you’re amazing. And one last question . . .
Any advice for young women today who want to “climb every mountain?”
Work hard to make your dreams a reality, good things take time, it’s never too late!