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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 III — The Hermitage Again

page 31

Chapter III
The Hermitage Again

Mountain gorses, ever golden,
Cankered not the whole year long,
Do ye teach us to be strong,
Howsoever pricked and holden,
Like your thorny blooms, and so
Trodden on by rain and snow,
Up the hillside of this life, as bleak as where ye grow?

In the spring of 1909 I had word from Graham that if I still wished to keep to our arrangement of the previous year I could not do better than come over early in the season before the Christmas rush of tourists made serious demands upon his time.

Nothing loath, I made my arrangements, and on December 6th left for Lyttelton by the s.s. Marama. I am ever unhappy at sea, so the less said of the five days' voyage the better. The fact that I willingly undergo such days of misery every year may give some idea of how deep is my devotion to New Zealand.

Once on land again I ceased to feel so wilted, and by the time the south-bound train moved slowly out of Christchurch life was worth living once more, and the rattle of the wheels resolved itself into a joyous refrain, "Mountain bound, mountain bound!" The houses were soon left behind, and the wide, barless windows framed picture after picture. First, a field of growing grain, swaying before the soft spring breeze; bounded by hedges page 32of golden gorse and protected by breakwinds of slender poplars standing like sentinels against the sky-line. Then a wide, grey river-bed, with silvery streams, curling and twisting through its great expanse; here and there shone patches of vivid gold, where broom and gorse turned the grey wilderness to a patch of burning colour. The miles flew past, and through the window was wafted the unmistakable salt savour of the sea; marshes stretched on either hand leading to the curved grey beach and vivid emerald waters of the little seaport of Timaru, where a long, straight breakwater stretches out into the ocean, affording sole protection to all the vessels rocking so peacefully at the wharves. After half an hour's wait at Timaru we were transferred into the little train that conveyed us to the end of the railway at Fairlie. A peaceful, placid little train this, which pursued its way with many pauses through fertile hills and valleys—hills so steep that one wondered how the ploughman guided his team and prepared the land for the wheat, oats, and clover that waved on either hand.

Fairlie was reached in the gathering darkness, and as I stepped on to the platform I was greeted with the first keen breath of mountain air.

Eight o'clock next morning saw the start for the final stage of the journey, a motor drive of 90 miles. Perched on the box-seat and tingling with joyous excitement, I left behind me all the worries of everyday life and felt free and irresponsible as the wind that stung my cheek. A sudden turn in the road, an elbow cut out of the hill, with a stream winding below, disclosed a beauty that made me catch my breath. A wall of broom, pure gleaming, glistening gold, towered above me till it met the blue sky. Those "streets of pure gold," the wonders of the New Jerusalem, that used to capture my childish imagination, faded suddenly to something dead and sordid before this wonder of living bloom. It scintillated and burned against its blue back-page 33ground, looking more like flame than blossom. The air was filled with perfume and the eye with colour till sight and senses swam, and I turned almost with relief to the cooling crystal stream flowing over grey waterworn pebbles, its banks fringed with the tender green of osier willows. On we dashed over the narrow bridge and up the winding road to the little hamlet of Burk's Pass, where we paused to deliver the daily mail. Then away down the other side and across the long stretches of brown tussock grass, which undulate for mile after mile. Slowly we crept up the shifting sand-hills, and at last gained the crest of the ridge. Eagerly I strained my eyes for the first glimpse of the mountains. Clearly they rose up before me, a long silvery line of snow-clad peaks, breaking the blue of the distant horizon. Rapidly we descended again, and presently Lake Tekapo lay before us, a turquoise in its setting of brown plains, and rivalling in colour the blue sky overhead.

Morning tea was served at the little hotel on the borders of the lake. Through the open window, looking on to a garden gay with poppies and cornflowers, the beds edged with a brilliant border of tulips, and sweet with the scent of two great bushes of lilac, drifted the peaceful lap, lap of the lake, and the swish of swaying pine-boughs that fringed its margin.

On leaving Lake Tekapo the road makes a detour of 30 miles to avoid the Tasman River, whose great expanse is too costly to bridge. It runs through mile after mile of sun-scorched tussock grass, the brown expanse of which is broken here and there by plantations of willows and poplars which shelter some lonely homestead. Sheep browsed beside the road, and scattered with wild leaps and bounds at the sound of the approaching motor, which stopped at the paddock gate to deliver the daily mail—often to some shy country girl sitting gracefully astride her horse waiting for the five minutes' chat which links up the lonely station with the world beyond. About lunch-time we page 34arrived at Lake Pukaki. The wonderful chalky blue of this great lake comes as a revelation in colour to those who are unaccustomed to snow-fed waters. Peak after peak rises into the sky at its head, and miles of brilliant blue water merges in places to sheets of rippled silver under the sun's rays. Just above our stopping-place the water swirled under a bridge, foaming in fierce rapids over the boulders that broke its course; farther down it formed into a basin, on one side of which is a steep clay wall past which the stream rushes in a series of rapids. Away to the left it widens to a shallow, where wavelets ripple on the grey beach of a little wooded isle. After leaving Pukaki the road followed along the shores of the lake for some miles; parts of it were very rough, with now and then a sharp corner that required the skill of an expert driver. On reaching the head of the lake the road wound through low foothills, which shut out the view of the evernearing mountains. At last at about 4.30 p.m. we came out into the plain at the foot of the Mount Cook Range. This plain is surrounded on three sides by snow-clad mountains, the Mount Cook Range dividing it in the centre into two narrow valleys; on the right hand glisten the white peaks at the head of the Tasman Glacier, which flows down for eighteen miles in waves of white ice. This is one of the largest glaciers in the world outside the Himalayas or the Arctic regions; it is longer than the largest glaciers in Switzerland. At the left hand is the valley of the Hooker, in which the Hermitage is situated. The left side of the Hooker Valley is shut in by the great white wall of Mount Sefton, the highest peak of the dividing range, which separates the east and west coasts. In the middle of the valley Mount Cook towers high above all else, and the minor peaks of the Mount Cook Range shut in the valley on its eastern side. At the base of Mount Cook flows the Hooker Glacier, and from its terminal moraine the Hooker River gushes out, and after flowing about 10 miles page break
Panorama of the Hermitage Valley.

Panorama of the Hermitage Valley.

The Red Lake, Mount Sebastopol. To face page 34.

The Red Lake, Mount Sebastopol. To face page 34.

page 35merges into the Tasman River, which lower down absorbs the Murcheson River and then empties into Lake Pukaki.

The Hermitage is beautifully situated at an altitude of 2,510 feet near the terminal face of the Muller Glacier, which winds in a northerly direction under Mount Sefton and the other peaks of the dividing range. The front of the hotel affords a beautiful view of Mount Sefton, and a few minutes' walk from the back brings one to a fine viewpoint for Mount Cook. We arrived about 5.30 p.m., and I spent the hours till dinner-time in wandering about renewing my acquaintance with the mountains.

I found that Graham was away in charge of a party up the Tasman Glacier and would not be back until the following evening, and until his return I could make no plans as to the course of my future training. The following day was wet, so I had an enforced rest, which no doubt did me good after my week's travelling. Graham came back in the evening and suggested a couple of minor excursions to put me in touch with the mountains again. The first of these took the form of traverse of Mount Kinsey and Mount Wakefield. We had a glorious day, and returned home after ten hours' scramble sunburned, hungry, and happy. This climb had the effect of convincing Graham that I was in excellent condition and fit to tackle bigger things without more preliminaries.

We decided therefore to climb Mount Sealy on the first fine day, the weather having turned bad after our day on Mount Kinsey. Mount Sealy requires a bivouac, as it is some distance from the Hermitage, and there are no huts in that direction. This fact did not trouble me, but I soon learnt to my sorrow that I had to reckon with the other people in the house. As I was a girl, travelling alone, the women in the house apparently considered themselves more or less responsible for my actions. On Mount Kinsey I had been accompanied by a tourist who wished to join our party. As soon as I cheerfully announced, when asked, page 36that I was going to climb Mount Sealy alone with a guide, I found myself up against all the cherished conventions of the middle-aged. In vain I argued and pointed out that I had come to the mountains to climb, not to sit on the veranda and admire the view. If I were to limit my climbs to occasions on which I could induce another woman or man to accompany me, I might as well take the next boat home. At the moment there was no one in the hotel who could or would climb Mount Sealy; there was not the ghost of a climber on the premises, only women who found a two-mile walk quite sufficient for their powers. This they could not deny, but they assured me in all seriousness that if I went out alone with a guide I would lose my reputation.

The fact that the guide in question was Peter Graham, whose reputation as a man was one at which the most rigid moralist could not cavil, made no difference. They acknowledged it was true, but seemed absolutely incapable of applying it to the facts of the case. One old lady implored me with tears in her eyes not to "spoil my life for so small a thing as climbing a mountain." I declined gently but firmly to believe that it would be spoilt, and added, with some heat I am afraid, that if my reputation was so fragile a thing that it would not bear such a test, then I would be very well rid of a useless article. Though not convincing me that I was doing anything wrong, they had succeeded in worrying me considerably. I turned over plans in my mind, seeking a way out of the difficulty; for about ten minutes I almost succeeded in wishing that I possessed that useful appendage to a woman climber, a husband. However, I concluded sadly that even if I possessed him he would probably consider climbing unfeminine, and so my last state might be worse than my first, and the "possible he" was dismissed as unhelpful at this crisis of my affairs. Instead I sought out Graham and told him that the female population was page 37holding up hands of horror, and asked what we were going to do about it. He suggested a compromise in the shape of taking a porter with us. I agreed to this, but felt vindictive when I thought of the extra expense entailed, and threatened to send the bill into my tormentors. Graham agreed that advice was cheap and that they might feel rather different if they were asked £1 a day for it. However, it seemed like the thin edge of the wedge, and later I would probably be beyond their advice. I sighed, not for the first time in my existence, over the limits imposed upon me by the mere fact that I was unfortunate enough to be born a woman. I would like to see a man asked to pay for something he neither needed nor wanted, when he had been hoarding up every penny so that he need not be cramped for want of funds. I don't wish to pose as a martyr, but merely to point out the disadvantages of being a woman pioneer even in the colonies, where we are supposed to be so much less conventional than elsewhere. I was the first unmarried woman who had wanted to climb in New Zealand, and in consequence I received all the hard knocks until one day when I awoke more or less famous in the mountaineering world, after which I could and did do exactly as seemed to me best.

Fortunately in this world, the wonder of one day is taken as a matter of course the next; so now, five years after my first fight for individual freedom, the girl climber at the Hermitage need expect nothing worse than raised eyebrows when she starts out unchaperoned and clad in climbing costume. It is some consolation to have achieved as much as this, and to have blazed one more little path through ignorance and convention, and added one tiny spark to the ever-growing beacon lighted by the women of this generation to help their fellow-travellers climb out of the dark woods and valleys of conventional tradition and gain the fresh, invigorating air and wider view-point of the mountain-tops.