A life outside: Q&A With Anna Keeling

Anna Keeling is an IFMGA-certified mountain guide, former ski and adventure racer and one of the early Macpac ambassadors in the ‘80s. In 2019, she came back into the Macpac family. We’re so lucky to have someone with her depth of knowledge, experience and passion for the outdoors (re)join the team.

Tell us about your background. How did you get into mountaineering and guiding?

I’m from Christchurch originally, but now call Castle Hill Village home. My family and I are also based in Salt Lake City, Utah for half of the year as my husband Scott is from there. I’m an IFMGA guide and I’m very involved in guide training in both New Zealand and the US. 

I got my outdoor confidence and fitness through ski racing initially and later, adventure racing. I won the Coast to Coast about half a century ago (so it feels) and also the world’s first adventure race, the Raid Gauloises which took place here in New Zealand, in 1989. These days, I’m also a mum and business owner.

How did you first get involved with Macpac?

“Macpac gave us a ton of gear [for the Raid Gauloises] that had been modified to be lightweight. We won the event. It was a new thing and very exciting at the time.”

L-R: Sandy Sandblom, Russell Prince, Steve Gurney, John Howard and Anna Keeling and her mum, at the start of the Raid Gaulouses. The clothes are all Macpac 80s.

Macpac is a homegrown Christchurch business and as mentioned above, I was born and raised in Christchurch. My father knew the founder Bruce McIntyre through business. I was also friends with product designers – Claire Cosson, Fraser and managers like Guy Wynn-Williams back in the 90s. 

In 1989, I joined Steve Gurney, Sandy Sandblom, John Howard and Russell Prince to race in the world’s first ‘modern adventure race’ – the Raid Gauloises. Macpac gave us a ton of gear that had been modified for lightweight. We won the event. It was a new thing and very exciting at the time.

You were one of our early ambassadors. What did that experience mean to you?

At the time, I was very young and didn’t really have much of a concept of what it meant to be a somewhat pro athlete. I travelled around New Zealand on a speaking tour for Macpac with Guy Wynn-Williams and Dan Callison and other reps. It was fun and felt like I was part of a family.

In your opinion, how has Macpac evolved today? 

It seems to me like Macpac went through this transition which resulted in it coming back to its roots:  New Zealand and Australian outdoors people.

Macpac’s a lot bigger now and the competition has changed. The outdoor industry as a whole, is more professional and global. The Macpac staff seem younger but that’s only because I’m older!

Why was this the right time to come back into the Macpac family?

It’s been a long time since I last competed in anything; these days, I love the outdoors because I love being in the outdoors. After a talk I gave in 2019, Macpac reached out to me and I knew it was a good time to rejoin the team.

Basically, Macpac asked me to come on board as me. I didn’t have to win a race or go on an expedition or hit a certain climbing grade. This was a relief to me.

Could you describe Macpac in a word?

Deep-rooted.

How has the sport of mountaineering changed over the years? What does an outdoor gear company need to do these days to keep up with the change?

Gear is so specialized now. I have ice axes and crampons for every activity. I must have 7-8 sets of each accumulated over the years! An outdoor company – like any business – needs to look at it’s community and identify its core values – its reason for existence and who it serves. 

Right now we are on lock down due to the Corvid 19 virus and this seems like a great opportunity to regroup, to go inside and figure out what is most important to us moving forward. It’s a good time for reflection.

For anyone getting into mountaineering these days, I honestly recommend seeking professional instruction if you want to get into mountaineering. It used to be the case that we learned the skills from our friends. These days however, I think that can be dodgy. In avalanche speak, we talk about heuristic traps and one of them is the “expert halo” – the situation where we agree to do something because someone else who we perceive as an expert, is doing it. But we may not know why this person is an expert .

Take an avalanche class, learn CPR and sign up for a first aid course. Then start to get instruction while seeking experience at your level. Don’t try to do too much too soon but do work on your fitness. Good fitness increases resilience and stamina. It’s the basis of me still being out guiding comfortably and happily at the age of 50.

What piece of Macpac kit would you never leave home without?

My favourite Macpac kit would have to be the enduring Pursuit pack. It’s a total classic.

Back in the Raid Gauloises in 1989, we used a specially made lightweight version of the Pursuit pack. The one I have now is still true to the original design. It’s a total classic and I love when someone shows up on a trip with an older version that is still going strong. 

I also love my Alpine Series Fitzroy jacket – I’ve been using it this past winter in North America tons. It repels water well so it’s perfect for ice climbing and ski touring in all weather in this drier climate. It’s also a very cheerful blue. Colour is important to me because people need to be able to see me – especially in fog or trees. It also cheers me up on grey days!

Tell us about your favourite expedition or best day in the outdoors. 

That’s a tough call. Sorry, I can’t commit to one place! It might even be my next trip – whenever that happens. The Craigieburn Haute Route, my signature guided trip, is close to my heart. Last year I tramped the classic Three Pass trip in Arthurs Pass with my family and two others. I lived for almost a decade in Wanaka and Central Otago is still special to me. So is Aoraki/Mt Cook and Banks Peninsula.  

The thing that is so fabulous about the South Island for me is it’s proximity to such diverse climate bands – coastal, dry high desert areas, high mountains, temperate rainforest, glaciers. Sunny Nelson, epic coast lines like Kaikoura or the Catlins. We’re super lucky. 

I also have a great affinity for two places in the US: the Utah desert and the East side of the Sierra Nevada mountains in California.

If you had to sum it up, what does the outdoors mean to you?

Initially – when I first started my career – it was a competitive thing. Even now I enjoy the sensation of moving quickly and efficiently through terrain. My close friend Adele told me she remembers that I always wanted to play outside, even if it was raining. I guess it’s hardwired.

As an outdoors person and professional guide, how has the current situation around COVID-19 impacted your day-to-day?

The past two weeks feel like months for the epic amount of change we have all gone through. I’m supposed to be guiding in Iceland right now and next week I’m supposed to be examining an Eastern European Ski Guide exam in Austria. 

My husband Scott, is a documentary filmmaker and was scheduled to film in Nepal. Yesterday, we were supposed to take one of the last flights back to New Zealand. Our son has been out of school for two weeks and the ski areas all closed two weeks ago and work has dried up for months. It’s been a time of turmoil with many decisions to make. The biggest has been whether to leave Utah for New Zealand.  At the 11th hour, we decided to stay. My husband’s parents are here – so is our community.

I know that New Zealand is doing all the right things to flatten the curve but the US isn’t; even though it doesn’t feel particularly safe to stay here, it would feel worse to abandon our community here. It was a hard decision to make, but I trust that we will be able to get back to New Zealand at some point.  Stay tuned from the frontlines!

What are you most grateful for?

My family.  My husband’s loyalty, my son’s equanimity.  My parents and brother have passed away, but I’m grateful I had a really close connection with them. I’m grateful for my friends and community.  Especially my friends. I just love my friends. Shout out to you all good people…

My reliable body and health.

The mountains – for my calling.

Writing as a means to share.

My morning routine of self care (sunscreen, hydration, yoga and foam rolling, meditation).

Healthy food choices with plenty of quality chocolate (Whittakers, that’s you)  thrown in to balance it.

From all that – I guess I believe in love, community and healthy habits!

Family is obviously a huge part of your life. What would you recommend to others looking to adventure with their families?

It’s not that complicated. Don’t overthink it. When my son Obie was a baby, we did a ton of rock climbing and biking with him. He was very portable. He’d nap in a hammock or on a sheepskin. The Macpac Possum baby carrier was handed down from several families to us and that thing was legend. I never needed a pushchair after Obie got big enough for the pack and we went far and wide. The added bonus was that I had pack fitness when I returned to guiding!  

Once this is all over, what are you most looking forward to?

Getting back to New Zealand.

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Thanks so much for your insight Anna. Stay safe! Find out more about Anna on her website, or follow Anna on Instagram.