Graeme Dingle: Changing Lives In NatureGraeme Dingle: Changing Lives In Nature

Story: Marie Knowles
Photos: Tom Powell; archive

December 21, 2018

A growing number of at-risk teens in New Zealand are turning their lives around thanks to a ground-breaking program, Project K. We caught up for a chat with Sir Graeme Dingle, who has swapped epic Himalayan and Arctic adventures for humanitarian endeavors alongside his wife, Jo-anne Wilkinson, Lady Dingle, with stunningly uplifting results.

You’ve climbed some of the world’s most challenging peaks. Now you focus on helping young people climb their own metaphorical mountains. What led you to this path?
It goes back a long way to when I did the first traverse of the Southern Alps, with Jill Tremain. It was the middle of winter, cold as hell. About 25 days into this 100-day traverse, she suddenly said to me, “You know, Graeme, life’s a cup to be filled, not a measure to be drained.” And I went, “What does that mean?” And she said, “You think your cup is full, but actually it’s empty. And you’re boring because you can only think of climbing mountains the hardest way and you’re selfish because it doesn’t help anyone else. You won’t fill your cup until you do things that are good for other people.” I was 26 at the time. It had a profound impact. I set up a charity that is now the Hillary Outdoors [named for Sir Edmund Hillary; formerly OPC – Outdoor Pursuits Centre] and that led to developing programs for at-risk kids, and Project K was the first program.

Why at-risk kids in particular?
New Zealand has such negative youth statistics, and places like Outward Bound and OPC weren’t attracting the kids who hang their heads and don’t see any hope in the future. To help them, I realized we would have to go out and actually round them up and get them involved in some way. After lots of thinking it was quite obvious that schools were the way to do that – capture them while they were still in school and try and keep them engaged and try and inspire them with some hope in their future.

How did you work out which kids to help?
Initially we measured self-esteem – essentially how they felt about themselves. But we realized that wasn’t holistic enough. We needed to measure how they felt about themselves as well as the world around them, about school, the future. We needed to measure their self-efficacy – how much power they have to change what’s wrong.

What do young people get out of Project K?
We work specifically with at-risk, year-10 students, who are at an instrumental time in their lives. Before the program, they typically feel powerless, unhappy, with little hope in the future. We take them out of their comfort zone for at least 20 days, based on research by Kurt Hahn [the founder of Outward Bound] and they do something they never would have imagined they could do: they cross mountains or paddle rivers or stretches of ocean. They learn self-reliance and team work. By the end of the first phase, the wilderness adventure, they look like they’ve grown in height – they have new-found confidence. Then we take that and apply it to the real world.

That sounds like you make a huge difference in their lives.
We had one kid, who before she finished the wilderness adventure… she had been thinking about committing suicide. She went to her mentor after the wilderness bit and said, actually what I’ve discovered is I’m a girl trapped in a boy’s body. Her mentor was an old guy with no sense of humor – and his mouth dropped open, and he said, “OK, what are we going to do about it?” And she went and became this beautiful young woman, huge career in front of her, gorgeous, confident.

That’s an incredible story.
It’s not uncommon. We find so many kids who have been thinking about suicide and it’s just taken this new experience to change their lives. So then we help them take the confidence they’ve learned in the outdoors, and apply it to school and their future. They set a number of goals, which have to be measurable. Two of the goals are mandatory: an education goal and a health goal. Their mentor supports them for 12 months to get there. And you can measure the results. You can prove that they reached their goals.

So, setting goals and getting out of their comfort zone helps them. Is there an element of nature itself having a positive effect?
I think the business of getting involved in nature makes you very honest about yourself. It’s a bit like Jill giving me that lesson – I’m a bit thick, so it took me a couple of weeks to get it completely – but you’re in that environment where life has become incredibly simple. It’s having to confront yourself and be really honest – everything’s stripped bare. We’ve complicated our lives so much when you compare it to how simple it can be.

You’ve tackled some vast challenges – your 5,000km Himalaya trek, your circumnavigation of the Arctic. How does your work now as a humanitarian compare to those challenges?
The fact that it led to me being able to help young people, it’s everything. I look back on the mountaineering stuff and say, well that was a buzz, but actually the stuff that has really filled my cup is being able to help people to have better lives. The end game for me is that we do create a country that is the best in the world for kids. And we will. The government’s saying it now.

What motivates you?
I’ve got an incredibly fortunate nature that I’m totally optimistic, and I guess constantly exploring – I never wake up thinking, oh shit, another day. I always wake up like an enthusiastic puppy-dog all the time.

What next for the Graeme Dingle Foundation and Project K?
Ironically, Project K is the smallest of our programs but it should actually be the biggest. We want to drive it so that it affects many more kids. We’ve recently approached the government to develop Project K as a referral program. And we’re thrilled that New Zealand Rugby has just chosen the foundation as their official charity. We’ve also got a fundraising adventure coming up in Vietnam in April 2019 – the Trek to Transform Young Lives.

And finally, what does nature mean to you?
It’s just a complicated puzzle which has me in constant celebration of the intricacies of everything. I look at the climate change and I say, so what’s going on there? And people say, well it’s the Gaia [earth’s life force] fighting back – so if the winds are stronger and the waves are rougher, the exchange of gas in the atmosphere is easier, it’s just a natural reaction of nature… but to come up with that simple solution. It’s the wonderment of it all.

"New Zealand has such negative youth statistics, and places like Outward Bound and OPC weren’t attracting the kids who hang their heads and don’t see any hope in the future."

1969, pausing for a rest while belaying on the north face of Cima Grand

Pausing for a rest while belaying on the north face of Cima Grand di Lavaredo, Italy, in 1969. Photo, Auckland Star archive.

Project K climb

Taking part in a Project K wilderness adventure.

Sir Graeme and Jo-anne Wilkinson

Sir Graeme and Jo-anne - In the early stages of the Graeme Dingle Foundation, Dingle and wife Jo-anne Wilkinson took their kayak and dog, Jenny, for an information-gathering paddle. Photo, Auckland Star archive.

Graeme Dingle, Teton-du-Nord.

Sir Graeme exploring the Teton du Nord

Sir Graeme Dingle, Acer Ah Chee-Wilson

Sir Graeme Dingle with Acer Ah Chee-Wilson, Project K graduate and winner of the Sir Edmund Hillary Youth Achievement Award. Photo, Sylvie Whinray.