Zhi Yuen Yap

Pathologist, alpine guide, photographer

“They say a photograph tells 1000 words, but for me, a photograph only tells part of the story. When you look at a photograph, you are missing out on the sensation of the area, being out there in the cold and the wind. The satisfying way your crampons stick on the ice. There is a lot that you can never capture in a photograph.”

“The first time I did the Tongariro Crossing, I couldn’t walk the next day. I’d never walked 20km in my life before. But after a while you forget the pain, and start thinking that it was so pretty that you want to do it again.”

As a kid growing up in the flat concrete megacity of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Zhi Yuen Yap dreamed of mountains, but never thought he’d climb one. And although he followed the family-expected path into medicine, his heart secretly imagined a different one: working as a geologist like the ones he had watched on the National Geographic channel.

During his studies, Zhi moved to New Zealand, and captivated by the beauty of the landscapes, began taking photos on sightseeing trips. Eventually he realised they looked just like everyone else’s holiday snaps.

“Just hop out of the car, take a photo, hop back in the car. So I started hiking in the hope of getting photos that were a bit different to other people’s.”

His first mountain trek was the eight-hour Tongariro Alpine Crossing. “There are mountains in Malaysia but they are three days from the city and there are no well-formed tracks where you can hike. Tongariro is surrounded by state highways, and there are lots of good networks of tracks. Even if you have done the Tongariro Crossing, you can go back many times and always find something different. It’s an active volcanic landscape. Even in 2012, the mountain split open and a new vent occurred. It’s ever-changing.”

So he kept going back – sometimes every weekend, for 10 years. As he walked and photographed and read and talked to people, he came to know the volcanoes so well that he was asked by one of the crossing operators to become a guide.

Today, he divides his time between pathology work in his home base of Auckland, and weekend trips to the mountain, to capture the rare moments when “everything comes together – the clouds, the light, the mountain”, and lead other people across the landscape he has come to love.

"When I was young, I admired the scientists who could work on volcanoes all the time,” he remembers. “Now I’ve managed to work on a volcano myself. So I am living the life that I really wanted to as a kid.”