New Zealand Law Society - Alison Douglass, lawyer and climber

Alison Douglass, lawyer and climber

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Alison Douglass
Alison Douglass

Climbing mountains in faraway countries has been as big a part of a Dunedin barrister’s life as practising law.

On the very day Alison Douglass was due to graduate with her law degree at the University of Canterbury in 1985 she flew to South America to climb a mountain.

“I went on a climbing expedition in the Andes with a group of Kiwis. We climbed several 6,000 metre peaks, including the Huascaran (6,768m), the highest mountain in Peru and the second highest in the Andes.”

The Andes stretch from the southern tip of South America to the continent’s northernmost coast on the Caribbean. It’s the longest mountain range in the world, spanning seven countries and boasting some of the highest peaks.

It was during this climb that Ms Douglass got frost bite on her feet.

“It happened when we were caught out overnight on top of the mountain. I had to organise my own rescue. When you get frostbite, your feet swell up and you can’t walk. I had a donkey ride out. I was then flown back to New Zealand and a few months later I had five and a half toes amputated,” she says.

The lack of toes didn’t slow Ms Douglass down, as once she had recovered she began training for a marathon run, despite having none on her left foot.

“All the surgeon told me was, you’ll never be a sprinter.”

Ms Douglass began her legal career in Nelson following an interview with now Environment Court Judge Jon Jackson and lawyer Bill Rainey.

“The best part of the interview was that both these guys were also into the outdoors so most of the interview was about my adventures … and they employed me.

“Bill had injured himself rock climbing so we swapped notes about our injuries. It wasn’t the normal sort of interview,” she says.

Eventually, Alison Douglass relocated to Wellington where she practised law as a solicitor, a law firm partner at Tripe Matthews and Feist and also as a consultant. In 2008, Ms Douglass went to the independent bar.

“I think I normalised the idea that you could take periods of time off to go on adventures climbing overseas. I was quite possibly more interested in practising  law during the early days of my career,” she says.

Ms Douglass has been based in Dunedin since 2011 and in 2014 she was awarded the New Zealand Law Foundation international research fellowship. In July 2016 she published a law reform report, Mental Capacity: Updating New Zealand’s Law and Practice, after undertaking a comparative analysis with the UK Mental Capacity Act 2005.

However, over the last three decades, while she has reached a few peaks in the law, the mountain climbs outside work have been equally challenging.

“I have enjoyed exploring different corners of the world. I’ve climbed in the Indian Himalaya, the Karakoram in Pakistan, the central Asian states of the former Soviet Union such as Uzbekistan, east Africa and the European Alps.”

Ms Douglass doesn’t consider herself a ‘hard core’ climber and hasn’t climbed Everest.

“That’s not really a climber’s climb, in the sense that it is mostly guided and something that people pay to do and most have little climbing experience.

“I’m sure it is a tough climb but it does seem like a lot of money for the experience, although I do have friends that guide there.”

More to climbing than just climbing

Alison Douglass
Alison Douglass on the Maximillian Ridge of Elie du Beaumont while on a six day climb from the Whataroa catchment on the West Coast to Mt Cook.

Alison Douglass says mountain climbing has given her confidence in her everyday work.

“I was never certain that I was going to practise as a lawyer. There’s an expression in climbing about ‘being on the sharp end of the rope’ when you’re lead climbing. I’ve had to learn advocacy skills and I didn’t think I was a particularly born litigator, but climbing has helped me gain the confidence to look a judge in the eye and feel like I have something to say,” she says.

Climbing also involves risk assessments, as does litigation, she adds.

There’s a determination about her which began with the climbing and it is clearly still running through her bloodstream today.

“Practising law can be very intense and stressful, so going away into the hills helps clean the slate and being out of cell phone range is good too,” she says.

In January, Ms Douglass went with a party of eight to climb Mt Gordon, a small peak along the range from the 2,643m-high Mt Dechen on the South Island’s West Coast.

The climbing party included her husband, two sons, who are teenagers, and four other friends.

Adventure not without its challenges

“We camped above the bush line and climbed Mt Gordon during a small window of fine weather. When we returned to the valley floor we attempted to cross the Landsborough River twice but backed off as the river was too high,” she says.

She says they were hit by a ‘weather bomb’ and the river became very swollen but that didn’t stop them from taking a raft down it.

“A rafting company flew in and we rafted the river over two days down to where the river joins the Haast highway. There were grade four to five rapids and very dramatic Lord of the Rings south Westland scenery with fresh snow on the tops,” she says.

All women climbing teams

Over the past 30 years Alison Douglass has also climbed and summited peaks with all women parties.

“In 1993 during suffrage year — the centenary for women gaining the vote — our small network of women climbers organised ‘Summits for Suffrage’. That was an event where several thousand women across New Zealand climbed mountains or hills. I was with a party that traversed Mt Cook,” she says.

In 2010, another centenary was acknowledged by the same climbing party with another ascent of Mt Cook.

That time, they celebrated the life of Freda du Faur, who was the first woman to climb Mt Cook in 1910.

Ms Douglass says she also enjoys supporting the local women lawyers in Dunedin on the OWLS committee.

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