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The conquest of Mount Cook and other climbs : an account of four seasons’ mountaineering on the Southern Alps of New Zealand

Chapter I — A Rèsumè of Mountaineering — in the Mount Cook District, between — 1862 And 1909

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Chapter I
A Rèsumè of Mountaineering
in the Mount Cook District, between

1862 And 1909

A handful of workers seeking the star of a strong intent,
A handful of heroes scattered to conquer a continent.

On! tho' we grope and blunder, the trend of our aim is true!
On! there is death in dalliance whilst yet there is work to do,
Till the land that lies like a giant asleep may wake to the victory won,
And the eyes of the Master Worker may see that the work is done.

I Can find no record of Interest being taken in the Southern Alps of New Zealand before 1862. In that year Dr. Julius von Haast, an enthusiastic scientist and botanist, first penetrated to the Tasman Glacier, which he ascended to the Hochstetter Icefall at the eastern base of Mount Cook. After spending a few days there, he transferred his camp to the Hooker Valley, on the western side of Mount Cook, and devoted some time to exploring the Hooker and Muller Glaciers, and in investigating the geology and botany of the locality. His companion, Mr. Dobson, succeeded meanwhile in making a sketch and topographical survey of the district. The published results of Dr. von Haast's expedition created considerable interest both in New Zealand and abroad. So much so that in 1873 the Governor of New Zealand, Sir G. F. Bowen, offered official aid to any member of the English Alpine Club who would undertake the ascent of Mount Cook.

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For some years the offer was not accepted, but in 1882 the Rev. Spotswood Green, of Dublin, an English A.C., had his attention drawn to the Southern Alps, and came out to New Zealand accompanied by two Swiss guides, to lay siege to Mount Cook. As the pioneer of mountaineering in the Southern Alps he faced many dangers and difficulties. An interesting record of these may be found in his book, "The High Alps of New Zealand." After two unsuccessful attempts he succeeded on the third in reaching a point he considered within 50 feet of the summit. Here the party were overtaken by bad weather; they had only an hour before the fall of darkness, so considered it would be foolhardy to attempt to finish the ascent. They beat a hasty retreat and reached the last rocks just as darkness closed down upon them. Here they were forced to spend the night balanced upon a three-foot ledge, shivering, wet, and food-less. They survived the night and succeeded next morning in safely descending to their bivouac. The expedition occupied sixty-two hours and was a fine piece of work. Readers of Mr. Green's book will always regret that so fine a performance was not crowned with the complete success it deserved. He was under the impression when he retreated that he was within a few feet of the summit. Careful consideration of his records and the knowledge of Mount Cook gained in later years have led authorities on the subject to believe he was only within about 200 feet of the summit.

In 1883 Dr. von Lindenfeld surveyed the Tasman Glacier and made the first ascent of the Hochstetter Dome, a fine snow mountain of 9,258 feet at its head.

During the years 1886 to 1890 Messrs. G. E. Mannering and M. Dixon made four attempts to climb Mount Cook by the Rev. Green's route, and on the fourth attempt succeeded in reaching a point within 140 feet of the summit. Want of time and bad weather forced them, page 19as it had forced their predecessors, to descend without ever standing upon the highest point. During these four expeditions they also made an attempt on Mount De la Beche, and a successful ascent of the Hochstetter Dome. When leaving the Tasman Glacier they crossed over the Mount Cook range by a saddle at an altitude of 7,426 feet on the main south arête leading to Mount Cook. This saddle they named the Ball Pass, and from it descended into the Hooker Valley; from whence a seven-mile tramp landed them at the Hermitage, a hotel in the Hooker Valley which had been opened since Mr. Green's time. Great credit is due to Mr. Mannering for his enthusiastic work in the Mount Cook district. He and his friend laboured under the disadvantage of not being trained mountaineers. For two novices to attempt to climb Mount Cook, and gain their mountaineering knowledge in the painful school of experience without the assistance of trained guides, argues a very real love of the mountains, and the possession of a fine courage and self-reliance.

In 1891 a few enthusiasts formed the Alpine Club of New Zealand, with a view to preserving the records of the pioneers, to encourage New Zealand men to take an interest in mountaineering, and to assist in opening up the mountains to the general public.

During the five years of its existence the club did good work, but in 1896 it lapsed from various reasons. Though there is still cash in hand, and the beginnings of a fine library, no one of the younger generation of mountaineers seems to have sufficient enterprise and energy to set the club on its feet again. Considering the evergrowing interest in the New Zealand mountains, and the rapidly increasing number of English and other climbers, it seems a thousand pities that no one can be found to set the club in working order.

In 1893 T. C. Fyfe and Malcolm Ross made the first ascent of the Minarets.

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In 1894 several important ascents were made from the Tasman Glacier, the chief of these being Mr. T. C. Fyfe's ascent of Mount Malte Brun (10,421 feet). Mr. Green had remarked on this fine rock peak, comparing it to the "Matterhorn minus its highest tower." It is undoubtedly the finest rock climb in the Mount Cook district.

In the same year Dr. Franz Kronecker, with T. C. Fyfe and Jack Clark, made the first ascent of Mount Darwin (9,715 feet), and later T. C. Fyfe and G. Graham climbed the Footstool, a fine peak next to Mount Sefton and within easy access of the Hermitage.

The years 1894 and 1895 proved record ones in the Mount Cook district, In December of the former, T. C. Fyfe, George Graham, and Jack Clark, fired by the news that Mr. Edward Fitzgerald and his Swiss guide, M. Zurbriggen, were on their way out to climb Mount Cook, decided if possible to forestall them. After attacking the mountain on its east or Tasman side, as all their predecessors had done, they made the final attempt from the west or Hooker side. Fyfe and Graham first tried climbing to the saddle between the lowest and middle peak, and from there reached the summit of the latter. Finding the distance between it and the highest peak much greater than they had expected, and the ridge between the peaks badly corniced, they decided to descend and make a direct attack on the highest peak, from a bivouac near the head of the Hooker Glacier. In this expedition they were joined by Jack Clark, and on Christmas Day, 1894, they succeeded in making the first complete ascent of the highest peak. The performance was a fine one, and great was the joy of the New Zealanders at their success; for they had no desire to surrender the first ascent of their highest mountain to an Englishman, even though he was better equipped and trained than the colonials had a chance of being.

Disappointed in being second in the field, Mr. Fitzgerald made no attempt to climb Mount Cook. Zurbriggen, page 21however, made the second ascent of the highest peak by a new route from the Tasman Glacier.

Mr. Fitzgerald and Zurbriggen devoted most of their time to conquering Mount Sefton. After several attempts they succeeded in making the ascent by the eastern face. Mr. Fitzgerald had a narrow escape of losing his life during the climb, and left Mount Sefton with the reputation of being the most difficult and dangerous mountain in the Southern Alps.

They also made the first ascents of the Silberhorn and Mount Tasman. The latter is the greatest snow climb in the Southern Alps, as well as being the second highest peak (11,475 feet). They made first ascents of Mount Hardinger (10,107 feet), a fine square-topped peak to the north of Mount Tasman, and of Mount Sealy (8,631 feet). They also discovered an easy pass to the west coast.

Between 1895 and 1903 little or no climbing seems to have been accomplished; by the latter year the Government had taken over the Hermitage and installed a competent manager. Tracks were made and two huts erected—the Ball hut on the scene of Mr. Green's fourth camp, and the Make Brun hut twelve miles farther up the Tasman Glacier. They also secured Jack Clark, one of the three New Zealanders who first climbed Mount Cook, as guide, with one or two porters to assist him. A coach service ran from Fairlie to the Hermitage, a distance of 96 miles, three times a week. With these improvements to encourage them, tourists and climbers from all over the world began to discover the charm of the Mount Cook district.

During 1903 and 1904 the only climbs recorded in the Government reports were two unsuccessful attempts to climb Mount Cook by Mr. Claud McDonald of New South Wales, and the ascents of Mount Darwin, Mount Sealy, and Rotten Tommy by Messrs. Tennant and Bambridge.

In 1905 Dr. Teichelmann, the Rev. Newton, both of the West Coast, and Mr. Lowe of Scotland, with guides page 22Jack Clark and Peter Graham, made the ascent of Mount Cook, by Zurbriggen's route.

In 1906 Mr. Sillem, an Alpinist of European note, made the first ascent of the third or lowest peak of Mount Cook, accompanied by Clark and Graham. A few days later they ascended the highest peak. Mr. Sillem also conquered Mount Elie de Beaumont (10,200 feet), a fine snow peak at the head of the Tasman Glacier, Mount Malte Brun, and Mount Sealy.

In the same year Messrs. Turner and Ross, with Peter Graham and Fyfe, made the first traverse of the highest peak of Mount Cook from east to west.

A West Coast party consisting of Dr. Teichelmann, the Rev. Newton, and Mr. Lowe, of Scotland, with guide Alex Graham, made the first ascent of La Perouse (10,101 feet) from the West Coast. The same party, minus Dr. Teichelmann, who had hurt his foot, made the first ascent of St. David's Dome (10,410 feet).

In 1907 the same party from a high bivouac on the West Coast made first ascents of Mount Douglas (10,107 feet), Torres Peak (10,576 feet), Mount Haast (9,835 feet), Mount Lendenfeld (10,551 feet), Mount Conway (9,511 feet), and Actone and Glacier Peaks (10,017 feet).

In 1908 Dr. MacKay of the Nimrod ascended the Nun's Veil.

In 1909 Mr. Claud McDonald was again twice turned back from Mount Cook by bad weather, once when within 200 feet of the summit. He was, however, successful in making the first traverse of Mount Malte Brun and Mount Sealy with P. Graham and J. Murphy as guides, and the first ascent of Coronet Peak (9,263 feet).

Dr. Voltmann, of Peru, a member of the German and Swiss Alpine Clubs, made the ascent of the Nun's Veil; and with Dr. Teichelmann and guides Peter and Alex page 23Graham made the first ascents of Mount Green (9,305 feet) and Mount Walter (9,507 feet).

Mr. L. M. Earle, A.C., made the ascent of Mount Cook with A. and P. Graham and Jack Clark, the first ascent of Aiguille Rouge (9,731 feet) with guide Peter Graham, and the first ascent of Mount Sefton from the West Coast. He was accompanied in the last expedition by Captain B. Head.

Mrs. Lindon, of Geelong, Victoria, was the first woman to do any climbing in the Mount Cook district. With her husband she made the ascent of the Nun's Veil. They also crossed over Graham's Saddle to the west coast and returned via the Copland Pass.

At the end of the same year 1909 I also ascended the Nun's Veil and traversed Mount Sealy.

When you come to study this list of climbs, it is curious to note how few of them have been accomplished by New Zealanders. If you except the New Zealand professional guides, who up to date (1913) number five, and turn to the amateur high climbers you will find at the present moment they can be counted on the fingers of one hand; and that as compared to English and foreign climbers, and English and foreigners resident for the time being in New Zealand, their climbs both in number and difficulty rank lower. When one considers how great were (and are) proportionately their chances, and how the way has been opened up for them by the New Zealand pioneers, and later by the assistance of professional guides, their want of enthusiasm and enterprise seems rather extraordinary. The want of money is often brought forward as the reason, but I am sure that this alone would never account for the little interest displayed. If we take it for granted that there are many men debarred by want of money and physical fitness who would climb if they could, what about the men who have these requisites, the men who play polo and go deer-stalking, page 24and vary the monotony with trips abroad? As a matter of fact, the men in New Zealand who do climb, with few exceptions, are poor men—men who have but one short holiday a year and save so that they may spend it mountaineering. When I think of the men who live in the South Island, and read in their newspapers the accounts of climbs as they are accomplished, and more particularly the men whose homes are within sight of the mountains, on the great sheep stations that extend to the very base of the Mount Cook range, their want of energy and interest does seem rather appalling. It argues for one thing such a lamentable lack of imagination.

This subject came up for discussion one night, and some one suggested that the young colonial is not intellectual enough to appreciate mountaineering, that he has not sufficient resources within himself to be happy away from his kind. He loves physical exercise, but he likes it in company and before an admiring audience, as on the football field and tennis ground. When, following out this argument, one pauses to consider who were the men who first took up climbing in the Swiss Alps, and who continue to do so to this day, it is at once evident that they are mainly members of the scholastic professions. Nor can one deny that as well as splendid physical exercise they do find intellectual enjoyment; in fact, it is this very combining of the physical and intellectual that makes mountaineering the finest sport in the world. Being a colonial myself, I do not like to hear my countrymen and women considered unintellectual and unimaginative, but if it is the case by all means let us know it and so be able to take some steps towards a remedy.