The conquest of Mount Cook and other climbs : an account of four seasons’ mountaineering on the Southern Alps of New Zealand
Chapter VII — Westland
Could tints be deeper, skies less dim,
More soft and fair,
Jewelled with milk-white clouds that swim
In fairest air? The soft moss sleeps upon the stone,
Green tendrils of the scrub vine zone,
The dead grey trunks and boulders red,
Roofed by the pine and carpeted
But far and near, o'er each, o'er all,
Above, below, Hangs the great silence like a pall
Softer than snow.
At 4 a.m. on February 2nd a shadowy party assembled for breakfast in the dim light of the Hermitage dining-room—Mr. Earle, his cousin, Jack Clark, Peter Graham, Mr. Frind, and myself. Mr. Earle's party were off up the Tasman Glacier and we for the Copland Pass. It was a merry breakfast in spite of the ungodly hour. Professor Spencer, in scanty attire, graced its end, and with much handshaking and wishes of good luck we took our separate routes at 4.30 a.m.
The morning was perfect, and the well-known way up the Hooker gained a new charm at that early hour. The rising sun flushed the cold mountains to life and outlined the far blue foothills against a sea of crimson and gold.page 74
We reached the foot of the pass about 7 a.m., and paused awhile for a second breakfast before beginning the climb. Our way lay up a long, steep rock ridge which presents no difficulties, only a steady grind for 3,000 feet. The hot summer sun blazed on our backs, and we paused frequently to mop our dripping faces and moisten our parched throats by eating the oranges with which a thoughtful member of the party had stuffed the rucksac pockets. All about us clumps of the New Zealand edel-weiss clung bravely to the rocks; their fat little white flowers and silver-grey leaves peeped out of every nook and cranny with a cheerful optimism that was infectious. We gathered a handful and decorated our hat-bands, and then pursued our upward way. The rock ridge merges into a steep snow slope about 200 feet from the summit; as this was somewhat more crevassed than usual we put on the rope. We had, however, no difficulty in making our way, and safely reached the summit at twelve o'clock.
Eagerly I gazed over the rocky parapet which forms the narrow, jagged wall of the pass. The great dividing range was conquered at last, and Westland spread before me. Below lay a steep and narrow valley, through which the Copland River ran like a silver riband; dark green forests rose from its banks and led up to sombre rock ridges and snow-capped peaks. Far away at the river's mouth a white line marked the waves breaking on the beach, and beyond blue sea merged into blue sky. Behind me lay Mount Cook, glistening silver-white in the morning sunshine; cold, cruel, and careless the great peak pierced the sky. "It slayeth and it saveth, nowise moved, except unto the working out of doom." The half-forgotten lines rang in my mind as I turned away and looked sadly at the soft and lovely land of promise, which, for all its beauty, could never excite that passionate thrill of exultation and devotion which lured me to battle in the icy heights of the great mountains.page break page 75
We scrambled over the wall, and descending the rocks were soon enjoying a wild glissade down the steep snow slopes. Then came a scramble over some rocks which led to the grass slopes and to a great isolated boulder. Here we paused for a meal. While wandering round looking for firewood, I was attracted to the ravine at the back of our boulder by the roar of falling water. The snow slopes drained into this ravine and quickly formed a rushing mountain stream, which just below us leapt from off a shelf of rock and fell sheer to the valley below; it was a dark, sunless, eerie spot, into which these gay and restless waters tumbled. From where I stood it was impossible to see the bottom, and only in imagination could I follow the silver shower. Unfortunately our way lay in the opposite direction, and we had no time to spare, or I would have attempted to get a view from below of these precipitous cliffs and the wonderful fall.
After our meal we set off again over slippery snow grass slopes which at last brought us down to the head of the Copland River. We followed along the left bank as best we could, scrambling through the thick scrub and undergrowth, or walking over the top of the tough alpine vegetation. I was unhampered by a swag, so had a comparatively easy time of it. The men, laden with bulging rucksacs, were caught and pulled back at every yard. We had to cross two foaming mountain streams by jumping from boulder to boulder—this is a pastime I always enjoy, not yet having fallen in. At 5.30 our destination, Douglas Rock, was in sight; the approach to it is through thick tropical bush, where moss-covered tree-trunks and creeping ferns abound. The rock is a large overhanging shelf closed in on three sides, and the front opening on to dense bush. A fireplace occupies the middle of the open space, and serves to keep the inmates warm and drive away the sandflies and mosquitoes. The floor was thickly strewn with dried ferns, which were a great im-page 76provement on the pointed stones of my last bivouac. A previous party had left two new sleeping-bags, which they had found too heavy to carry farther, so the bivouac was really quite luxurious, and we spent a most comfortable night. The fire went out towards morning, and this was the signal for a vigorous attack from sandflies, and no doubt made it easier for us to get up at 5 a.m. We started off at 6.30 a.m., travelling for miles on a narrow track cut through the dense bush. Beautiful ferns and moss clustered at the roots of the trees, and their gnarled trunks and overhanging branches were covered deep with moss, licapodium, and creeping ferns; here and there a ray of sunlight penetrated the dense growth, lighting it to exquisite tints of green, or a foaming mountain stream dashed in silver cascades over mossy boulders. Sometimes the path led us down to the Copland River, giving us beautiful peeps of snow-clad mountains with a foreground of forest and rushing stream. These excursions into the open were a great relief. The atmosphere in the bush is like that of a hot-house; the sun or wind rarely penetrates into it, and everything is dripping with moisture. One soon ceases to wonder at the tropical vegetation; it could hardly be otherwise in such an atmosphere. After about five miles we came out on an open grassy plain on the left side of the river, known as Welcome Flat. Dotted about it were great rata-trees, beautiful in their symmetry of glossy deep-green leaves and their wonderful crowns of crimson blossom. In striking contrast the opposite side of the river was fringed to the water's edge with the pale tender green of the ribbon woods, which hung their graceful boughs over the water and showered down myriads of silver-white blossoms, only comparable in beauty and purity to the shining snows of the distant mountains. We walked along the left-hand bank for about a mile, seeking a suitable ford where the water was not too deep and strong for safety. At last Graham picked page 77out a spot, and taking off putties, stockings, and boots, proceeded to roll up his knickerbockers as high as they would go; then he donned the boots again as a protection to his feet, and with the swag on his back waded into the river. In the deepest part it was nearly waist-high, and running strong, but he managed to cross safely, and leaving the swag on the farther shore, came back again and insisted on carrying me over. Mr. Frind had in the meantime waded to the opposite bank and seized the opportunity to take a photograph, the result of which was mainly wildly waving limbs and large nailed boots. I wisely confiscated this interesting negative, much to the artist's sorrow, but with great peace of mind on my own part. Once more we penetrated into the bush and toiled along in the moist, heated air, too enervated to properly appreciate all the wonderful beauty around us. At 11.30 a.m. we reached the Copland Hot Springs, which are hidden away in the bush, and only to be traced by the continuous cloud of steam that hovers round the tree-tops. To our disgust the water was too hot to bathe in, as we had been looking forward to doing the whole morning. This was my first experience of a hot spring, and I examined it with great interest. I suppose it occupied a space of about ten square yards, and was surrounded on every side by the forests. There were four pools of varying sizes and heat. The boiling one fiercely bubbled over and ran into the next, which was the usual bathing pool, but with the influx from the boiler was too hot for humans on this occasion; on the other side were two small lukewarm pools covered with scum and most uninviting to look upon. The ground between the pools was hot to the feet and crusty, forming into terraces which shaded from yellow to chocolate brown. The air was pervaded with a saline sulphury smell, that requires a week's residence before it can be assimilated with tolerance. Not being so inured, we shortly departed to a shady green page 78glade, and propping ourselves against the moss-covered tree-trunks fortified the inner man with lunch. After our meal we set off again for the last few miles of our tramp, horses having been engaged to meet us at Architect Creek. About a mile above Architect we came on a camp and several men clearing a track through the forest, the Government having at last begun the long-talked-of path which is to connect the West and East Coasts via the Copland Saddle. Judging by the rate of progress, we observed it seemed likely that the happy day when the visitor from the Hermitage could ride from the foot of the Copland Pass to Scott's house was still many seasons off. At Architect Creek we were met by a boy with three horses. My pleasure at the thought of a ride was some-what damped by discovering that they all had men's saddles on. However, the track was so rough and steep that it was rarely possible to ride at a faster pace than a walk, so I was not as unhappy as I might have been. The road follows along the river bank most of the way, giving lovely views here and there. The rata were particularly fine on the left bank, the blossom making great masses of glowing crimson amongst the deep-green forest foliage.
Early next morning there was a thick fog and light rain, so we did not get away till about 9.30 a.m. We followed a good bush road, winding through typical West Coast forest until we came to the Cook River. This is the usual New Zealand river, a huge bed of grey stones with four or five streams meandering through it in all directions. Sometimes it is both difficult and dangerous to cross, but on this occasion we managed it with little trouble. About a mile farther on we came to Williams's farm, where we paused for lunch and an hour's rest. Here we had some disappointments in the matter of scenery, the mountains remaining obstinately concealed in the mist, and of the Fox Glacier we had but one little glimpse before the clouds closed down upon it again.
We left Williams's at 2.30 p.m. for our seventeen-mile ride over the range to Waiho Gorge and the far-famed Franz Josef Glacier. We followed a rough mountain track, the embankments of which were smothered in a profusion of beautiful ferns and mosses. It rained lightly all the way, just enough to obscure the distant view and keep us cool.
For Graham the ride was a triumphal progress, he having lived all his life, till he became a guide, in this part of the world. Every one we met knew him, and stopped to have a yarn; or he had friends on the farms who could not be passed by without a word of greeting.page 80
We mere tourists, being of no account, used to race off for a gallop where the road permitted. I am afraid we left a reputation for wild riding behind us, and Mr. Frind announced sadly that he would have to take his meals "off the mantelpiece" for the next few days. At 5.30 p.m. we reached the populous town of Waiho, which consists of Batson's hotel, Mrs. Graham's cottage, to which is attached the post-office and store, and three bark humpies, sole relic of the gold-fever days. I earned an undesired reputation for sarcasm by stopping at one of these huts and asking to be directed to Waiho; Graham was away behind somewhere, yarning as usual. We stopped at Mrs. Graham's cottage, which is situated with a beautiful view on to the Franz Josef Glacier. The garden was full of bright flowers, the first cultivated ones I had seen after leaving Fairlie, and the veranda was covered from end to end with many-hued geraniums, the whole making as picturesque a spot as could well be imagined. We were warmly welcomed by Mrs. Graham and her youngest son Alex, and fed with delicious tea and cakes. Mrs. Graham is a wee woman of only about five feet. She looks incredible as the mother of four strapping sons, all of whom are over six feet and broad in proportion. She is over eighty years of age, but still enjoys life, and dearly loves to meet people from the outside world from which she has so long been a stranger; she can tell many a tale of the old wild gold-digging days in Australia and New Zealand. Her two big sons look after her and adore her in a manner charming to see; but as they both have the call of the mountains in their blood, and have to be much away, the "little mother" spends many an anxious day and night when they are out on hazardous ascents and fail to get back to time.
We strolled over to Batson's about 6.30, and there found Dr. Teichelmann, a well-known West Coast climber, and Mr. Linden, of Geelong. They had both been waiting page 81some days for a chance of crossing over Graham's Saddle to the Hermitage. They were starting the following morning under the guidance of Alex Graham for a bivouac up the Franz Josef. We decided to spend at least two days at Waiho Gorge and explore the glacier, and then, weather permitting, follow the others across Graham's Saddle.
The next morning was gloriously fine, and the view from Batson's something to marvel at. We stood on a flat of tussock grass, strewn thickly with intense scarlet lichen-covered boulders; beyond, the Franz Josef Glacier rose abruptly from a tropical forest, the trees of which seemed to fringe its very banks. Giant tree-ferns and crimson rata hung over the white ice, which rose steeply to the lovely peaks at its head. These shimmered in the sun, standing out with dazzling purity from a background of cloudless sky. Never had I dreamed of anything more lovely, and I ceased from that moment to be a scoffer at the beauty of this wonderful Westland, except now and again to tease some proud West Coaster to defending it with all the ardour of a true son of the soil.
At the back of the hotel is a grand swimming pool of some mineral water; it is delightfully soft, almost oily. In it I disported myself most of the morning, and emerged feeling as if I had a skin made of velvet and much invigorated. In the afternoon we took a leisurely walk through the bush to the glacier; it was too late and we too lazy to go on to the ice. Mr. Frind, with the gallantry of the true Canadian, climbed a large rata-tree to get me some flowers; he was very stiff and sore from riding, and when he got up he could not get down. I sat on a boulder and endeavoured to look sympathetic and shouted directions. Fortunately, he also had a sense of humour, so when he ruefully reached the ground and presented me with the hard-won blossoms, we joined in a joyous peal of laughter over his unhappy plight. The next day, Sunday, was wet, page 82and we amused ourselves as best we could; I spent most of the morning in the swimming hole. Just as we were finishing dinner there came a sound of heavy boots and weary voices in the passage. It was Dr. Teichelmann and Mr. Linden, who had been driven back from their bivouac for the third time that week by bad weather. The doctor was unfortunate enough to have a toe slightly frostbitten, so retired to his room and was not visible that night. Their account of the days spent in the bivouac so diminished our desire to do the Graham's Saddle trip that we decided to return as we had come, endeavouring to piece in the missing bits of the view, and, weather permitting, spend a few hours on the Fox Glacier.
Next day was too wet to start. We did make the attempt, but had to turn back, deciding it would be wiser to stay in our comfortable quarters than arrive at Douglas Rock wet through, with no chance of getting dry again. We engaged a Maori who was at Scott's to come over with us as porter. Mr. Frind had had enough of his swag on the forward journey.
Down in the stockyard in the afternoon we watched our new porter break in a buck-jumper. It was as fine an exhibition of horsemanship as I have ever seen, and put the professional buck-jumpers at the Christchurch Exhibition altogether in the shade. By the end of the performance the vicious, ugly brute, finding it impossible to dislodge his rider, was quite cowed. Next morning, when his master mounted him prepared for trouble, he was quite amenable to reason, enforced with a stockwhip.
We left Scott's at 8 a.m., the day being quite fine, and arrived at the Springs about 10.30 a.m. I had a hot bath, but did not enjoy it much; the mud was so slimy, it conjured up visions of all sorts of loathsome reptiles, and the sandflies made a good meal while I dressed. After lunch and an hour's rest we set off again, and reached Douglas Rock at 7 p.m. I had a glorious bath in a snow-fed stream; it was icy cold, but an immense improvement on the muddy old hot spring. We spent a peaceful night, as the fire did not go out this time and the sandflies were baffled. It began to rain at daylight, page 85and our prospects of crossing over the Copland Pass looked rather dim. Both Mr. Frind and I were booked to leave by the motor the following morning, and if we missed it could not get away for three days. Fortunately the weather showed some signs of clearing, so at 9 a.m. we made a start. In a few minutes we were drenched by the wet scrub and trees, but when the sun came out we dried again and were none the worse. We reached the summit of the pass at three o'clock. Clambering down, the long rock ridge seemed endless, but at last we reached the bottom. We wended our way along the right-hand side of the Hooker instead of the left, as we wanted to look at the site chosen for the new hut to be built for the convenience of parties crossing over the Copland Pass. I was specially interested, as I hoped this hut would save me one bivouac next year when I tried for Mount Cook again.
We arrived at the Hermitage at 6.30 p.m. After dinner I had to spend all my time packing, so had no chance of indulging in vain regrets over the end of my holiday. I found that the professor and Mr. Earle were also going down on the car, so we had quite a merry party. No sooner had I got to Sydney than word came through from Graham that the New Zealanders, fired by my attempt to climb Mount Cook, were putting up a woman candidate of their own to save New Zealand from the reproach that an Australian was the first woman to make the ascent. They did me the honour to imply that I would not fail on my next attempt, so were anxious to put their candidate in the field at once. A well-known guide declared he would "get the lady in question to the top if he had to carry her there." The Hooker route being closed for the season, they proposed to climb from the Tasman side and follow the Rev. Green's route.
The lady had no experience whatsoever in high climbing, and it struck me forcibly that she had no con-page 86ception of the kind of expedition she was undertaking. The same cannot be said of the promoters of the scheme, who were mountaineers of sufficient standing to have had more sense than to take an untrained woman on such an expedition. Fortunately, I think, for all concerned they were overtaken with bad weather at the bivouac, and the expedition was given up. The enthusiasm seems to have been short-lived, as nothing was heard of it again.
At the risk of giving some offence I would like to point out that it is expeditions like the last-mentioned that will in the future spoil the splendid record the Southern Alps have so far maintained. In the twenty-eight years since the Hermitage has been opened to the public there has only been one bad climbing accident. This happened to an experienced mountaineer who was climbing alone, and fortunately was not fatal. The reason for this immunity is not far to seek. Climbers have been few, and they and the tourists who now come in hundreds every season have been supplied with competent guides. The tourists have been discouraged by every possible means from attempting even elementary mountaineering unless some competent persons were in charge of the party. A glance at the terrible death-roll of the European Alps is enough to convince any one of the folly of incompetent and reckless climbing. Any one who cares to look up the English Alpine Journal for May 1912 will find an illuminating list of the fatal alpine accidents in 1911, giving their number (114) and probable causes. The following remark is appended to this appalling list: "One thing is quite clear from all these records, and that is, that an accident of properly equipped and practical mountaineers is rare."