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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 XIX — The Hermitage Flood

page 209

Chapter XIX
The Hermitage Flood

And this is in the night:—Most glorious night!
Thou wert not sent for slumber! let me be
A sharer in thy fierce and far delight,—
A portion of the tempest and of thee!
How the lit lake shines, a phosphoric sea,
And the big rain comes dancing to the earth!
And now again 'tis black,—and now, the glee
Of the loud hills shakes with its mountain mirth,
As if they did rejoice o'er a young earthquake's birth.

As if to further emphasize our good luck, the weather turned bad the day after our return from Mount Cook. For ten days the rain came down steadily and the only suitable garment in which to take one's daily walk was a bathing dress. To add to the melancholy caused by the weather, I received news that the photographs taken on the Mount Cook Traverse were all ruined—this was a bitter blow indeed. I had had the chance of a lifetime, and had taken advantage of it to the full, to make what I hoped would be a splendid series of pictures of the arête. I carried two cameras, a 3A Kodak, which had done splendid work for two seasons, and a new panoramic, purchased specially with an eye to views from high summits. This latter camera was the saving clause. From it I got two good pictures and two inferior ones; owing to my not being used to manipulating it, all pictures had too much sky. My old camera, on which I had put the burden of the work, must have got wet either page 210at the Hermitage or the bivouac; it rusted and the lens remained open the whole time. A roll of twenty blank films returned to me by the man who does all my photo-graphic work caused me much grief. Impetuously I planned with Peter Graham to go back at any rate as far as the middle peak, and take the photos again. I could not bear the thought of having so little to show of our greatest climb. The guides too were woefully disappointed at the failure and quite willing to make another expedition. Somewhat comforted by this arrangement, we settled down again to wait for the weather. This remained more than usually bad. For sixteen days we never saw the sun; the first fourteen it rained steadily day and night, but the last forty-eight hours it came down in solid sheets, each drop seemed to contain about a bucketful. After twelve hours of this the hotel manager rushed to Graham, with whom I happened to be talking, to say the Muller River was coming down Kea Point. We frankly didn't believe him, but of course went to see what was the matter. When we reached the front of the hotel we beheld a yellow flood coming straight for us, sweeping everything before it— shrubs, uprooted trees, boulders, and ice were churned about in its raging waters. Fortunately for the writer and the rest of the inmates of the hotel, it received a check at the front gate; here the stream divided in two, one rushing down the road towards Pukaki, and the smaller one making for the Hermitage. A few yards from the front door is a small pond (dignified by the name of a lake) with an isle covered in willow-trees in the middle. The on-coming stream flooded this, and soon the front of the building was surrounded by water. However, no one seemed particularly alarmed. In fact, we all took it as a pleasant excitement after our two weeks' deadly dullness. There were various excitements: two calves were stranded on an island at the side of the house, their ropes twisted round them, and a raging torrent between them and the page 211mainland. It looked for a while as if the poor little brutes would surely drown. At last an oilskin-clad figure, which looked suspiciously like my favourite guide, began wading towards them, amid the appreciative silence of the onlookers. Twice he was nearly carried off his feet, and it looked as if those calves might cost us dear. At last he safely reached them, cut the ropes, and drove and persuaded the frightened little beasts on to a bit of higher ground, which their ropes had prevented them from reaching. Then he returned by more perilous ways. I was dying to cheer, but knew I would never be forgiven if I did, so held my peace, and listened to the murmurs around me: "There's a fine man," "Always on the spot, that chap," "Easy to see who has the coolest head in this place," etc., all of which was quite true, as the tourists who did not know it already had ample time to discover later.

It was now about six o'clock in the evening; the rain seemed to have ceased slightly, and as most of our new river went down the road, nobody entertained thoughts of any damage accruing from the storm. We went inside to dinner and later to our rooms as usual. The people in the front rooms were a bit uncomfortable, but were told there was no need for alarm, and those of us who were in the older part of the hotel at the back, which is on higher ground, were still high and dry. I must have fallen asleep, though I was under the impression that the flashing of the lightning, which was very vivid, and the roar of the thunder had kept me awake all night. Some time in the dim hours of the early morning I was awakened by a terrific crash: it sounded as if Mount Sefton was falling into the valley, and shook the house from end to end. I tumbled out of bed, slipped on a coat, and flew down the hall. The lamps were all alight and the drawing-room filled with a shivering, whitefaced crowd and their most cherished possessions. The water was flowing under the front door and over the floor of the page 212new building—twenty rooms added the year before and known as the annexe. These rooms are joined to the drawing-room by a small hall, to which one descends by a couple of steps. Outside fitful flashings of lightning and the first gleams of daylight showed a raging torrent sweeping beneath the annexe windows and gurgling through the piers on which the building is raised. The roar that had waked me was the grinding together of a great mass of boulders swept down from the Muller moraine by the river and deposited not ten yards from the front door. If instead of being blocked by a slight rise in the ground they had been dashed against the walls of the annexe, the latter would have caved in like so much brown paper. Fortunately it was only water that swirled and swept about the doomed building. For about half an hour no one knew what was going to happen, then the water began to recede slowly but steadily, and as no more moraine came down the danger was over for the time being. It was some time before the more nervous of the crowd could be persuaded to believe it, but at last they all returned to their rooms. Now thoroughly waked up, sleep was the last thing that occurred to me; I went to my room and put on a climbing costume with all haste, and then withdrew to the smoking-room, whose window was a good spot from which to view the flood. Here I found Graham and a couple of the maids and we soon all enjoyed a cup of tea. My eminently more sensible friends went to bed and slept till breakfast, I wandered round. Graham had flung a couple of 6-inch rafters across a raging torrent in the backyard, and had gone to the rescue of Duncan McDonald, who had been cut off the night before while away across the road (now river), milking the cows. When he was out of sight I got my camera and sneaked across too. They sagged in the middle, those rafters, in a most uncomfortable manner. I found a spot where the water was not deep and pro-page break
Mount Cadogan and Mount Du Faur from the Hooker River.

Mount Cadogan and Mount Du Faur from the Hooker River.

page 213ceeded
to take photographs of the hotel surrounded by the flood.

Presently Graham returned, accompanied by Duncan and the milk-pails. I was promptly hustled over the torrent because the bank was being washed away. Having once tasted excitement I flatly declined to go in, and as nobody else seemed to want rescuing, I suggested to Graham that we might go up to Kea Point and investigate the cause of all this trouble and try for some photographs. We waded through water up to our waists on the road to the left of the pond, and made across the flats for the new river. It had already cut itself a channel half as big as the Hooker, and was racing down, bringing with it moraine, blocks of ice, uprooted trees, and shrubs. It was still raining hard, but I tried some time exposures, and then we went on. Twice I had to be carried across side streams, where the water was running so swiftly that my additional weight helped Graham to keep his feet. We battled along inexpressibly wet, but cheerful, and eventually reached the Muller Moraine. In fine weather there is a tiny lake at the junction of the Kea Point and the old grass-covered moraine beside which the Hermitage is built. This lake is usually only a few feet deep, and sometimes dries up altogether. The last fortnight's deluge, besides being of considerable volume itself, was a warm rain that had melted the snow in all directions; these conditions caused the lake, which is a well that receives a large portion of the drainage of the Muller Moraine, to rise about 20 feet, then the pressure of the water burst the bank of moraine separating the lake from the valley, and came down as described. Above the lake the sides of the next wave of moraine were washed to a clear wall of ice, through the cracks of which water was gushing in every direction; but the main stream came from round Sealy Point and was the drainage from the head of the glacier. We page 214followed along the shores of the lake, on shingle slopes saturated and unstable. Here I had the doubtful pleasure of watching the shingle give way under my guide's weight and deposit him in the lake; certainly it did not make him any wetter than before he fell in, as that was not possible; however, I took considerable precautions not to follow his example. After seeing all there was to be seen, we returned home via the old moraine and had a look at the Hooker River, which is always a grand sight in flood. We arrived home in time for breakfast, and I there raised the envy of my friends by describing our doings while they had been peacefully sleeping.

After breakfast it was decided that if a breakwater could be built to turn the main course of the stream away from the Hermitage it would be a great advantage. After watching a couple of the guides at this work for about half an hour, three of us (all women) decided we could not bear inactivity any longer, so shedding as many garments as was compatible with decency, we started out to help. Never have I spent a more strenuous morning. We dragged the trees, shrubs, and boulders deposited by the flood, and piled them upon the wall. We were working all the time in icy water, which varied from ankle to waist deep. After two hours we had dragged all that our strength, single and combined, could cope with, but the stream was diverted and the wall well on the way to permanency. The hard exertion kept us moderately warm, and when the icy water began to be too much for us, we had only to take a wild sprint up the valley in search of more driftwood to return glowing and ready for the fray once more. We all enjoyed the fight immensely, and wondered how the rest of the tourists (not a man offered to help) could sit placidly on the verandah and watch the proceedings without wanting to join in. They in their turn, no doubt, thought we were qualifying for a lunatic asylum, if not already fit to be page 215inmates. Leaving the guides to finish the good work, we went down to view the Hooker River once more before we changed into dry garments. During the afternoon the rain almost ceased, and the waters receded steadily. Next morning it was fine, but the prospect was desolate: our front lawn was a mass of slime; our lake had disappeared, and instead there stretched a waste of grey water-worn boulders of every shape and size, and most surprising of all, the new river had dwindled to a tiny stream flowing between the high banks that the flood of the previous day had cut. Most people seized the opportunity of flying from such a desolate region as soon as a car could be got down to Fairlie.