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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 15, Issue 1 (April 1, 1940)

The First Ascent of Mt. Egmont — Centenary Of Dr. Dieffenbach's Climb

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The First Ascent of Mt. Egmont
Centenary Of Dr. Dieffenbach's Climb

Asuggestion was recently made at Hawera, that alpine clubs and other interested organisations such as local bodies should meet to discuss the best means of celebrating the centenary of the first ascent of Mt. Egmont by a European, Dr. Ernest Dieffenbach having reached the summit of the mountain on 23rd December, 1839. On the 16th of August, 1839, the New Zealand Company's vessel Tory came within sight of the shores of the North Island. On board the little ship was Dr. Ernest Dieffenbach, a naturalist in the employ of the company. He was destined to become known as one of the most painstaking and reliable of the early explorers. This man of science has left behind a splendid record of the New Zealand that was, and it is characteristic of him that whilst he writes vividly and in an interesting fashion of his discoveries and geological and botanical findings, he tells us but little of himself. We can, only by reading between the lines, as it were, get a glimpse of his indomitable courage in the face of hardships and difficulties.

To read his two volumes, “Travels in New Zealand,” published in London in 1843, is to draw aside a veil and be transported to a land that we find hard to believe was our own New Zealand a hundred years ago.

It was late in the month of November, 1839, when the ship was sailing up the West Coast of the North Island, that Dr. Dieffenbach first saw Mt. Egmont, and he was filled with a desire to climb it. He wrote: “I scrutinized the sides and lofty summit of Mt. Egmont, which, once thrown up by the mysterious fires of the deep, was now apparently in a state of repose, to discover whether there was any possibility of ascending it, an undertaking which had never yet been achieved.”

The Maoris of the coast were friendly, but they could not understand his intention of making an ascent. They told him that there were moas and reptiles on the mountain, and that the latter would eat him.

On 3rd December, accompanied by a tohunga (priest) and an “American man of colour,” he set off. For eight days this oddly-assorted little party wended their way southwards. Their troubles soon began. It rained heavily practically every day, and worse still, their scanty supply of food, which consisted of dried shark, potatoes and maize, began to give out. They were reduced to eating the roots of ferns and the hearts of cabbage trees. It was not until the sixth day, that a clearing in the dense forest afforded them a glimpse of the mountain with its summit veiled in the clouds.

They were a considerable way up the Waiwakaiho Valley, when conditions became unbearable. There were no signs of the weather abating, no dry wood, and their food supply was exhausted. Hungry, and wet to the skin, they decided to abandon the trip. The return to the coast was hurriedly made by a different route.

The resolute doctor was not easily discouraged, however, and on the 19th December, he set out again. In addition to his companions of the previous trip, there went with him a European whaler named Heberley, and E Kake, a Maori chief. The latter had two slaves with him, one of whom was sent ahead.

Rly. Publicity photo. Mt. Egniont (8,260 ft.) as seen from Lake Mangaulahoe, Taranaki.

Rly. Publicity photo.
Mt. Egniont (8,260 ft.) as seen from Lake Mangaulahoe, Taranaki.

After a march of four days, the foot of the mountain was reached and the ascent commenced up a ridge that runs from the summit to the north-east. With only fifteen hundred feet to climb, they came to the snow-line. The two native attendants began to pray and refused to go higher. Their feet were uncovered, they were feeling the effects of the intense cold, and in any case, was not the mountain forbidden ground? Accompanied only by Heberley, the doctor continued the ascent. His narrative records:

“The slope of the snow was very steep and we had to cut steps in it as it was frozen on the surface. Higher up we found some support on large pieces of rugged scoriae.”

And so they reached the highest point.

“A most extensive view opened before us and our eyes followed the line of coast between Kawhia and Waikato. I had just time to look towards Cook's Straits when a dense fog enveloped us and prevented all further view.”

The years have passed and the face of the province has changed. Egmont rises up, not from the wild country that Dieffenbach knew, but from an expanse of rich farming land. As it beckoned to men on those far-away days, so is its call answered to-day by the young climbers of Taranaki. To them it is “The Mountain,” a mountain beloved.

There is the “swish” of ski on rounded slope and the crunch of bootnails on the ice. “Tapu” is no more.

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