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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 12, Issue 2 (May 1, 1937)


Evening light and shade on the Shelf Glacier—from the Southern Cornice of Mt. Evans, South Island, New Zealand

Evening light and shade on the Shelf Glacier—from the Southern Cornice of Mt. Evans, South Island, New Zealand

In 1932, Sir William Ellis, of the Alpine Club, London, addressed a gathering of mountaineers in Canterbury. In the course of his address, he said: “You have before you a magnificent opportunity of developing climbing in New Zealand, but you should approach the task with respect and care. The Alpine Club has always stood out for climbing with safety and basing progress on experience. I hope you will not let your vigour over-reach your discretion and so bring discredit on climbing. I wish you good fortune in your pioneer work.” These remarks were made by one who realised the great difference that exists between mountaineering in the European Alps and the Southern Alps of New Zealand. In Europe, all the mountains have been ascended many times, and some of the peaks are dominated by hotels on summits and cols, and alpine railways traverse their ridges.

In the Southern Alps of New Zealand there are no summit hotels, no mountain railways, and many peaks are still unclimbed. New routes exist in a distracting profusion, and, weather permitting, young climbers and old, can blunt their ice-claws on untouched ice falls, and test their agility on virgin rock. Some remote valleys are, as yet, even untrodden—especially in parts of Westland, difficult of access—but these are fast being explored.

In fact, access to the New Zealand mountain valleys is often difficult. It is only in the Arthur's Pass, Hermitage, Fox, Franz Josef and Milford regions, that hotels exist. In other valleys a primitive musterer's hut, or a sturdy alpine hut provides the only accommodation; but the majority of ravines nestle in solitude, only to be disturbed by visiting, parties in search of deer, gold, or mountain climbing.

These difficulties of access entail the perfection of a technique that has to deal with a wider range of subjects than the mere mastery of rope, snow, ice, and rock, with which the European mountaineer is mainly concerned. It is necessary for the New Zealander to acquire merit in the crafts of cooking, river-fording, track finding in untrodden jungle, compass-reading, map-making, and organisation.

Serious accidents in the Southern
A great flood in the Wllberforce River, Canterbury, New Zealand.

A great flood in the Wllberforce River, Canterbury, New Zealand.

Alps have been few and far between. This is fortunate, because the difficulties of rescue work are proportionate to the inaccessibility of the country to be traversed. On the European peaks the hordes of inexperienced tourists tend to make mountain accidents frequent and inevitable. In New Zealand the majority of the parties in the ranges possess a self-reliant leader, who, in anticipating trouble, is fitted to meet it with the precision born of foresight. In the latter ranges it is customary for a party making a three weeks' trip not to see any other men after they leave the back-country homestead. There is no one in the valley to observe through a telescope their struggles to gain the summit. If they meet trouble, it behaves them to find their own way out. Therefore, the Southern mountaineers seldom climb “solo.” Climbing in pairs in new country is discouraged by the elders. Three, or four, is a safer number—if less mobile in transit and more unwieldy on difficult climbs.

When any accident occurs one man must set out for the nearest habitation, there to send a message for help. Quick organisation will bring a relief page 40 party to the nearest valley and the rescue follows naturally.

When a whole party is overdue, the problem of relief assumes more serious proportions. Mountaineering expeditions are usually combined with a transalpine crossing of the Southern Alps from Canterbury or Otago to Westland. The intricate system of high passes on the Main Divide, and saddles on the sub-ranges, make it possible for a party to be bewildered with the variety of routes which it may traverse “over the range.” Would-be rescuers may be more bewildered. Parties overdue in bad weather may be assumed to be held up by flooded rivers. Many a party has turned up safe, with no record of accident or disaster, and yet has been a week late for work. The New Zealand rivers run deep, but belie the proverb, and are never still.

Would-be rescuers must use their initiative in cases of doubt, and their common-sense at all times. It is the unwritten law for the leader of a party that, before he sets forth for the high country, he must leave with his friends in the town a detailed list of the routes, and alternatives, to be followed. Notes as to progress are left in tobacco tins in huts or under bivouac rocks, where ashes will tell the tale of a camp fire. Yet sudden storm or unexpected floods can change the plans of a party on the crest of the Main Divideitself. Early in 1934 a Canterbury Mountaineering Club party had made the first ascent of oft-beleagured Mt. Evans, in Westland. They had traversed the three peaks of the mountain to an arctic benightment on the Red Lion Col and returned to their camp by way of the County and McKenzie Glaciers. It was decided to reach Westland habitation by a first crossing of the Full Moon Saddle of the Bracken Snowfield. A note to that effect was left in a cave camp. The party set out in a snowstorm. The blizzard on the high-level route became worse. The compass had been lost in a previous snow bivouac. Visibility was nil. The Full Moon Saddle could not be found, still less crossed. A forced camp was splayed on the Erewhon Col, and a retreat subsequently made to the Rakaia Valley in Canterbury. Through circumstances beyond their control the climbers had changed their plans. If accident had delayed them, and a relief party ultimately found the note in the cave camp, the latter would have crossed the Full Moon Saddle and sought in vain for their friends. As it happened the party was lucky, and retreated from the trap, having lost only a tent. But it all goes to show the problems that confront rescuers in New Zealand.

So much for theory. It is time to leaven the subject of alpine rescue-work with the spice of fact. Narratives of four relief expeditions are recounted to illustrate the nature of searches, when accidents do occur.