A chameleon comes home


A former mountain guide who re-invented himself as a business type is now pushing Queenstown to the world as a study destination, writes David Williams

Some people can re-invent themselves at will. The late David Bowie was proof of that.

But Aaron Halstead takes some topping.

He’s a former army officer, paramedic, travel and mountain guide and ski patroller. Now he’s a business type, a desk jockey - with a Master of professional practice to prove it.

He and wife Megan, and their young daughter, moved to Queenstown from Melbourne last year so he could head Study Queenstown.

But Halstead has owned a house here since 2004 - using it as a base for offshore contract-hopping in places like Canada, Sweden, Norway, China and Antarctica.

It was Hollywood that first brought him to Queenstown in 1999.

He came here for Vertical Limit, Kiwi director Martin Campbell’s mountain rescue epic, starring Chris O’Donnell.

He was a climbing or body double for stars like Scott Glenn, Steve Le Marquand and Bill Paxton.

“It was great, loved it, had a great time. And Queenstown was a very different place 16 years ago than what it is now.”

Coming to the resort launched his mountain guiding career and he spent the next seven years guiding in New Zealand and overseas. That led to Antarctica - he’s been part of more than 40 major expeditions to the ice.

He also did voluntary mountain rescue on peaks around Queenstown for 12 years.

After years of being in the outdoors, however, he felt like he needed a break. And one conveniently landed.

A job at the Royal Flying Doctor Service came up five years ago and the chief executive reckoned his skills were transferrable.

After all, he’d managed teams in the outdoors, is adaptable and able to think quickly in pressure situations.

He started in business development but rose to become a regional manager, based in Melbourne.

He was tasked with expanding its patient transport arm - on the ground, with road ambulances.

“We went on a huge business development campaign to grow staffing, vehicles, contracts. When I started we only had a couple of million dollars’ worth of contracts. The biggest contract I negotiated just before I left, the total value was $A67 million.”

Staff went up from 120 to 320.

Things were going well, but their family was expanding and Halstead felt the pull of home - of friends, of family and returning to his own backyard.

When the Study Queenstown job came up, he thought it was something he could sink his teeth into.

He was breaking new ground, setting the strategy. The potential is huge – world-class education in a world-class setting.

“When we go into China we’re seen as very small. They say how many high schools have you got? One.”

Queenstown’s a niche market, he says. It needs to push high quality, and the location.

Halstead’s had some high-profile outdoor highlights. In 2012, he led the expedition to conquer the summit of the world’s most remote island, Bouvet Island, in the southern Atlantic Ocean.

He was part of an Antarctic expedition that searched for and found a new emperor penguin colony, in East Antarctica - ”I couldn’t spend enough time looking at the penguins, they just do it for me.”

But one of his personal highlights was the rescue of 15-year-old Australian tourist Katherine Holdsworth from the Jura Glacier, a short helicopter ride from Glenorchy.

Hodsworth plunged eight metres into a hidden crevasse after taking a scenic flight in July 2009.

She was wedged at the bottom, with an 80m drop below.

When Halstead arrived - after being plucked by helicopter from The Remarkables skifield - he had visions of her falling to her death. He calls it an “oh, shit” moment.

“It was just that panic - get down there fast or she’s not going to be there.

“I think her parents got that, I think they got how close she came to dying.”

The gravity of the situation came home to him while he was living in Melbourne - ”someone from here has gone to NZ on holiday and nearly died”.

So now he’s helping people in a different way, bringing them to Queenstown to study.

But his outdoors life isn’t over.

“I can do some heli-ski guiding, I can do some mountain guiding. It doesn’t mean I can’t go back to Antarctica or the Arctic. Rather than going for three or four months, I might be able to go for a month.

“And who knows where I’ll be in five years’ time? This town’s got a lot of options, it’s a very innovative and entrepreneurial town.”