Mountaineering and Covid volunteering; an eventful retirement for the outdoor educator

Hazel Nash, founder of outdoor education provider, Whenua Iti Outdoors, returns to New Zealand after twenty eventful years abroad, including several months in charge of a shelter for hospital staff during the epidemic of Covid-19 in the UK.

MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF

Hazel Nash, founder of outdoor education provider, Whenua Iti Outdoors, returns to New Zealand after twenty eventful years abroad, including several months in charge of a shelter for hospital staff during the epidemic of Covid-19 in the UK.

It was humbling to see doctors and nurses returning from the front line of the Covid-19 attack on the UK, says Hazel Nash.

Workers emerged battle-weary after 14-hour shifts at hospitals in south-east England, where “large numbers” were dying from the disease.

‘I don’t think New Zealand knows what it has been missing out on,’ says the former Kiwi outdoor teacher and educator, who ran a shelter for NHS staff at Britain’s prestigious Eton College when it first UK virus wave in early 2020. .

By the time the UK reported flattening the epidemic curve in April 2020, 26,000 people had died.

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Nash was nearing retirement and the end of a 13-year stint as a ‘lady’ (housekeeper) in Eton, when the first deaths from Covid-19 were confirmed in the UK.

She volunteered to help manage emergency accommodation when the men-only boarding school offered some of its temporarily vacant boarding schools to hospital staff ‘with nowhere to go’ – those brought in from other districts or with a vulnerable family at home.

Workers had to make day-to-day decisions about who could use a ventilator and who couldn’t, and tell patients they couldn’t have their families with them, she said.

Hazel Nash, founder of Whenua Iti, and her husband Fred Kahl, on top of Mount Elbrus in Russia.

Supplied/Nelson Mail

Hazel Nash, founder of Whenua Iti, and her husband Fred Kahl, on top of Mount Elbrus in Russia.

“I’m a little angry here because people don’t realize how lucky they are and how shielded they have been from all of this.”

Carried away from retirement by the pandemic, Nash returned home to the top of the South Island last year.

Sitting in the office of the outdoor education organization she founded near Nelson 36 years ago – Whenua Iti Outdoors – the petite figure of the 73-year-old belies the physical achievements she has had abroad.

The mountain peaks she conquered included Aconcagua in Argentina, Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Elbrus in Russia, and Kosciuszko in Australia (“a beautiful walk in the park”).

Frostbite to her fingers near the summit of Mount Vinson in Antarctica prevented her from reaching the top of the continent’s highest peak.

While held hostage with a group en route to climb Carstensz’s pyramid in Indonesia, he ended that plan around 10 years ago, Nash said the trip was “a huge education” on the unrest around a gold and copper mine in the region.

Hazel Nash, who founded Whenua Iti Outdoors atop the South Island 26 years ago, is returning home after two turbulent decades abroad.

MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF

Hazel Nash, who founded Whenua Iti Outdoors atop the South Island 26 years ago, is returning home after two turbulent decades abroad.

Nash has also raised funds for youth charities overseas, including for Udayan, a school for children of lepers in Kolkata, India. She launched a health center there in the name of her husband, Fred Kahl, who died four and a half years ago.

Nash and Kahl moved to England in 2001 to be near Kahl’s elderly mother. The couple, who both worked in schools, made the most of the long holidays; climbing in the Andes in Bolivia, multi-day river trips in the gorges in France, biking in southern China, Laos and Cambodia and rock climbing in Spain.

In Nash’s last job, at the traditionally aristocratic Eton College, she channeled her efforts into “bringing a bit of New Zealand egalitarianism into the mix”, trying to treat everyone the same, while the school was open to students from the other end of the social spectrum. .

“At Eton it seemed they knew what face to wear to succeed, and [there was] as a strong push to earn their millions before the age of 30.

“I put all my energy into rewarding them for being who they really were and not putting on a mask. And I think that mostly worked.

Whenua Iti Outdoors founder Hazel Nash led a trek to Everest Base Camp just over two years ago.

Supplied/Hazel Nash

Whenua Iti Outdoors founder Hazel Nash led a trek to Everest Base Camp just over two years ago.

Nash is no stranger to “being real” with youngsters.

In 1998, she was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for Youth Services, having established Whenua Iti Outdoors in the mid-1980s (with the help of a “huge support group”) .

The focus then was on running outdoor programs for at-risk people between the ages of 15 and 25, she said.

The organization now offered programs for all children between the ages of 5 and 18, but was “there for the same purpose” as when it was founded; helping young people connect with nature and develop self-awareness through this.

It was “incredible” to be back and part of the planning again, said Nash, for whom the outdoors had brought lifelong joy.

“It’s my home sport to be in the mountains and cramp on crisp ice, with good people.

“You make good connections on the outside.”