Janet Romanes played a pivotal role in the birth of New Zealand adventure tourism having married Walter (Wally) Romanes, one of the best climbers in the country.
Now 88, the Edmund Hillary resident was an active member of the famous Alpine Sports Club and, in fact, met her future husband through joining.
Wally and his friend Mike Gill were the instructors on a day of rock climbing at Rangitoto that Janet had signed up for and with Mike also being a colleague of Janet’s at Middlemore Hospital, introductions were made and their lives together were set on course.
Wally already had an impressive track record at this point. Having been into mountaineering since he was a teenager, he was picked to be part of the 1960-61 Himalayan Scientific and Mountaineering Expedition initiated by Ed Hillary and Griffith Pugh.
Says Janet: “Wally was well known in climbing circles. He had climbed a virgin peak in the Alps, the Black Tower, which people had been trying to climb for years.
“He applied to go and he got the job because he had worked as an electrician and had building experience which came in useful in the Himalayas.
“I met him the year after the expedition to Everest.”
The purpose of the expedition was three-fold. Firstly, to conduct altitude testing in order to determine whether Everest could be climbed without oxygen; secondly, for meteorological, radiation and glaciological studies and thirdly, the reason that captured many imaginations – to search for the Yeti.
While that gave the expedition an exciting edge, for the most part it was not.
Left: The cover of the book about the expedition and right, images showing Wally Romanes (wearing a checked shirt) during that time.
“The doctors would make them pedal like mad on a stationary bike until they were blue in the face. They got very bored as there wasn’t much to do except for skiing.”
After the expedition Wally helped to build the first school for Sherpa children and later Janet got the chance to visit the region herself.
“Wally set up Venture Treks, arranging annual trips to Everest.
“I went on the first one, and then he branched out to Kashmir and the Andes, we did South America, Macchu Picchu and the Galapagos. And later the Fiji Highlands, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
“We would swap our three kids with some very good friends in order to go!”
Trekking in the Everest region left an indelible impression, at once completely draining but also inspiring.
“You straightaway learn what great people the Sherpas are. They carried all your goods, your cooking gear, everything, and they were always cheerful and bright,” recalls Janet.
“We’d be trekking and they’d race past us, talking and laughing, and by the time we’d arrive at camp they’d have everything set up, all the tents, and the billy on for cups of tea.”
Janet walked 10 days into the main village of Khumjung which is where they had to decide where to go next.
Left: Hillary with a 'Yeti skin', which was actually that of a blue bear but helped to publicise their scientific efforts and right, Wally Romanes, Ed Hillary and others constructing a hut.
“Basecamp was basically like a rubbish dump and you couldn’t get a good view of Everest. We decided Kala Patthar was better. You can look up the Khumbu icefall straight up to Everest.
“We got up there and we really started to notice the altitude sickness. It was like Mt Eden in size and covered in dry grass but you could only do three steps and you’d have to stop.
“We got to the top, probably not for very long, just enough to look at the view, and coming back down, you felt you were walking into soup.
“I have never felt so totally exhausted. Some people acclimatize better than others!”
Being in a relationship with Wally meant Janet socialised within the climbing community too and she recalls being invited to dinner at the Hillarys when they got engaged and a few times after too, with the connection made easier since Ed’s first wife Louise was a few years ahead of Janet at Diocesan School.
“I thought he was a very strong man but he had this soft side too,” says Janet.
Looking back at Wally’s legacy, she says he was fortunate to do what he did.
“I’m proud of Wally and what he achieved. He was active in the heyday of Himalayan climbing and he was lucky with the timing of it.”