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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 II — Reasons for Taking up Mountaineering

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Chapter II
Reasons for Taking up Mountaineering

Only a hill: earth set a little higher
Above the face of Earth: a larger view
Of little fields and roads: a little nigher
To clouds and silence: what is that to you?
Only a hill; but all of life to me,
Up there between the sunset and the sea.

I Have been asked so often "What made you take up mountaineering?" that perhaps it will be wise to devote the first few pages of this book to answering the oftrepeated question, and endeavouring to explain the fascination the mountains exercise over me.

To begin with, I sincerely believe that the true mountaineer, like the poet, is born, not made. The details of their craft both of course must learn, but the overmastering love of the mountains is something which wells up from within and will not be denied. An unsympathetic environment and want of opportunity may keep this love hidden even from its possessor; but alter the environment and give the opportunity and the climber will climb as naturally as the sparks fly upward.

The majority of my readers will know that Australia possesses no permanently snow-clad mountains; so the average Australian may perhaps never see snow and ice, and has nothing in his environment to encourage a love of mountaineering. My own life was no exception page 26to this rule. I lived in the bush happily ignorant of both mountains and mountaineering. My home from the age of seventeen was situated four miles from anywhere, on the edge of a twenty-five miles Government reserve. This reserve, left absolutely in a state of nature, is a series of ridges with valleys of from 300 to 400 feet in depth on either side. These ridges and valleys are for the most part unexplored. They are of sandstone formation, and are a regular paradise for wild flowers. Lured by the flowers, I explored ridge and valley for miles, usually with no other companion than a hound, who deserted me whenever so inclined, to chase iguanas, 'possums, and native bears. During five years of scrambling I gained a very considerable knowledge of rock-climbing.

Indeed, I faced some very pretty problems without either the moral or material support of a rope or a companion. The support was all given to my dog, who would frequently sit and howl dismally on the top of a cliff that I had just succeeded in scrambling down, until I returned and found an easier road for him or deserted him until he found a way for himself. Besides rock-craft I developed a love of exploring and adventure, and a self-reliance which caused my parents some alarm. However, the expected never happened: I neither broke my neck, sprained my ankle, nor was bitten by a snake, but always returned home intact; so they ceased to worry, and left me to my own devices, which all unconsciously laid the foundation of my mountaineering career.

For some years I spent my summers in the North Island of New Zealand, but I don't remember ever hearing of the Southern Alps. I used to strain my eyes to see Mount Egmont, and on a clear morning was sometimes rewarded by the glimpse of a white pyramid across the sea: but it was too ethereal and far away to wake any mountaineering ambitions.

In 1906 I went south for the first time, to see the page 27Christchurch Exhibition. There I saw my first picture of Mount Cook, and met people who had visited the Southern Alps. As my interest in the mountains increased, the charms of the exhibition waned, and I decided to go to the mountains. I had no thought of climbing, I was merely filled with curiosity to see something that was quite outside my experience, so at the end of December I set out.

People who live amongst the mountains all their lives, who have watched them at sunrise and sunset, in midday heat or moonlight glow, love them, I believe, as they love the sun and flowers, and take them as much for granted. They have no conception how the first sight of them strikes to the very heart-strings of that less fortunate individual, the hill-lover who lives in a mountainless country. From the moment my eyes rested on the snow-clad alps I worshipped their beauty and was filled with a passionate longing to touch those shining snows, to climb to their heights of silence and solitude, and feel myself one with the mighty forces around me. The great peaks towering into the sky before me touched a chord that all the wonders of my own land had never set vibrating, and filled a blank of whose very existence I had been unconscious. Many people realize the grandeur and beauty of the mountains, who are quite content to admire them from a distance, if strenuous physical exertion is the price they must pay for a nearer acquaintance. My chief desire as I gazed at them was to reach the snow and bury my hands in its wonderful whiteness, and dig and dig till my snow-starved Australian soul was satisfied that all this wonder of white was real and would not vanish at the touch.

To a restless, imaginative nature the fascination of the unknown is very great; from my childhood I never saw a distant range without longing to know what lay on the other side. So in the mountains the mere fact page 28of a few thousand feet of rock and snow impeding my view was a direct challenge to climb and see what lay behind it. It is as natural to me to wish to climb as it is for the average New Zealander to be satisfied with peaceful contemplation from a distance.

The night of my arrival at the Hermitage the chief guide, Peter Graham, was introduced to me. Knowing his reputation as a fine and enthusiastic mountaineer, I felt sure that he, at least, would understand my craving for a nearer acquaintance with the mountains. I asked him what it was possible for a novice to attempt. After a few questions as to my walking capabilities, he suggested that I should accompany a party he was taking up the Sealy Range. Only an incident here and there remains of that climb. Firstly, I remember fulfilling my desire to dig in the snow (at the expense of a pair of very sunburnt hands) and joyously playing with it while the wiser members of the party looked on. Likewise I remember a long, long snow slope, up which we toiled in a burning sun, never seeming to get any nearer to the top. At length, when the summit came in sight, the others were so slow I could not contain my curiosity; so I struck out for myself instead of following in Graham's footsteps. Soon I stood alone on the crest of the range, and felt for the first time that wonderful thrill of happiness and triumph which repays the mountaineer in one moment for hours of toil and hardship. On the descent I experienced my first glissade; it was rather a steep slope, and I arrived at the bottom wrong side up, and inconveniently filled with snow. These facts, however, did not deter me from tramping back to the top just for the pleasure of doing the same thing all over again. At the end of the day I returned to the hotel fully convinced that earth held no greater joy than to be a mountaineer.

My day in the snows had taught me several things, but chief of them was the knowledge that I could never page 29be content to worship the mountains from a distance. This raised the question: Had I, besides the inborn love of climbing, the other requirements of a mountaineer? Had I the physical strength, courage, endurance, and perseverance without which nothing worth doing could be accomplished? My time was so limited that it was useless to expect to find the answers to these questions. So I decided to return and test my capabilities at a later date.

Fate, in the shape of an urgent cablegram, made it necessary for me to leave even sooner than I had expected, and I returned home almost at once.

It was two years before I was able to take a holiday again. When the chance came I set out for the Southern Alps with my enthusiasm by no means impaired. From various causes my holiday was limited to a fortnight, but short though it was it was long enough to settle the question of my capabilities. I was fortunate in always going out with parties that were under the charge of the chief guide, and which usually included no other woman. Very soon Graham realized that I was always the most enthusiastic, and often the fittest of the party at the end of the day, so he began to watch me carefully. One day three of us climbed with him to a pass immediately beneath the third summit of Mount Cook; it was the highest point to which I had ascended. As I stood on the summit I felt that my question was answered. I could do what I would. Silently I gazed at the thin, jagged ridge in front of me leading up to Mount Cook. Then and there I decided I would be a real mountaineer, and some day be the first woman to climb Mount Cook. When I had made this decision I was half afraid of it. I knew the history of every expedition hitherto undertaken; knew how trained men and guides had been beaten back time and again, and how fierce was the struggle of those few who had succeeded. Thinking of these things I wondered at my own presumption, and wisely decided to say nothing of my ambitions.

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On our return I interviewed Graham, and said I would like to come back the following year and do some high climbing if he considered I was fit for it, and would undertake to train me in snow and ice work, of which I knew nothing. He willingly agreed to do so, saying he say no reason why I should not make a mountaineer. Mount Cook was never mentioned by either of us, and the next day I left for Sydney.