Peter Graham was born at Three Mile Beach, Okarito, south Westland, New Zealand, on 27 April 1878; his brother Alexander (Alec) Carter Graham was born there on 5 September 1881. They were the fifth and sixth children of Isabella Kathleen Ford (formerly Garland, née Newberry) and her husband, David Millar Graham. Isabella was nurse and midwife to much of south Westland and David was a ferryman, a goldminer and then a baker.
Although Isabella was just over five feet tall, her six sons grew to over six feet. She shared her love of literature by reading to the family, and taught kindness by example. Peter and Alec attended Okarito School, a three-mile beach and boulder scramble away, then worked at goldmining and other ventures, and cleared land for farming at Waiho (Franz Josef Glacier). After David Graham died in 1900 the family moved to Waiho, and when their brothers left the area Peter and Alec took over the farm. Isabella Graham became postmistress, ran a store, took in paying guests, and was nurse and friend to all. She died in 1918.
Peter and Alec enjoyed climbing on Franz Josef Glacier, and were taken deeper into the mountains by miner and explorer Arthur Woodham, a close family friend. Expeditions with Dr Ebenezer Teichelmann and the Reverend H. E. Newton, initially up the Fox Glacier, led them to take up careers in climbing and guiding.
In 1903 the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts employed Peter Graham as assistant guide at the Hermitage Hotel, Mt Cook, and from 1906 to 1922 he was chief guide. Stressing enjoyment as well as safety, he made 13 ascents of the high peak of Mt Cook, including six of the first eight ascents, the first traverse, a new route, and the first grand traverse of all three peaks. On this last climb and many others, often with Alec, he guided Australian-born Freda Du Faur as she defied convention to pioneer women's climbing in New Zealand. These climbs, and his numerous other first ascents and new routes, were made from relatively low camps, with hemp ropes and no crampons, and with clients to care for; many climbs were marathons of step-cutting on steep ice. In 1924 Peter led the first ascent of Fiordland's Mt Tutoko and in 1931, with Alec, he climbed Mt Sefton from the west.
Peter Graham was not only one of New Zealand's finest-ever climbers; he also built and maintained huts and tracks, advised hotel guests on outdoor activities, and informed them about mountain plants ( Ranunculus grahamii is one of three named after him). Early in his career with the Tourist Department, during winter closures of the Hermitage, he gained administrative experience at head office, Wellington, and worked as a ranger at Rotorua. On 1 October 1913 in Wellington he married Elizabeth Muriel Pringle, an accomplished piano player and teacher. They were to have four children. Muriel was the first New Zealand-born woman known to have climbed Mt Cook, ascending with Peter in December 1915.
Meanwhile, Alec Graham remained at Waiho, developing guiding and climbing facilities with the same insistence on enjoyment and safety. His speciality differed from that of Peter; swagging heavy loads, often including Teichelmann's full-plate camera, he led exploring and climbing trips in the Cook, Waiatoto, Rakaia, Wanganui and Matukituki river valleys. He also made major ascents on Mt Cook, Mt Tasman and other peaks in the central alps, many with his brother. Among his pioneering climbs were first ascents of Mt La Perouse and Mt Aspiring. In his 50s he guided in the Copland, Cook and Arawata river valleys. He also took numerous parties on easier Copland Pass and Franz Josef Glacier trips.
Adept at making people comfortable in camp and encouraging them over difficult terrain, and equally at home in bushed gorges and on steep rock and ice, Alec Graham was perhaps New Zealand's most versatile mountaineer. As guides the brothers were very similar: strong, of remarkable stamina, always gentle and considerate to clients and trainee guides alike. Both rescued many after mountain accidents; neither had an accident himself.
In 1911 Alec Graham bought the small hotel at Waiho together with Jim and Rose Graham, his brother and sister-in-law. Assisted by their other brothers David and Jack, Alec and Jim winched the building by hand up a river terrace to a flood-free site and added a second storey. The family atmosphere created by Rose as hostess and Alec as guide gave the Franz Josef Glacier Hotel a unique character.
During the First World War, from August 1917, Alec served as a stretcher-bearer in France and in October he was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry. Subsequently wounded and twice evacuated to England, on 22 January 1919 in London he married Louisa Lydia Woodham, Arthur Woodham's niece. The couple were to have four children.
Jim Graham died in 1921 and in 1922 Peter resigned from the Hermitage and he and Muriel moved to Waiho. Their ease with guests and his administrative skills complemented the abilities of Alec and Rose. Together they ran the Franz Josef Glacier Hotel for nearly 25 years, their hospitality and their guiding services renowned throughout and beyond New Zealand. Their hotel also served as post office and community and first-aid centre. The brothers helped to build the Anglican St James' Church, constructed a hydroelectric station to supply the village and the hotel, and through their involvement with Air Travel New Zealand encouraged air services in south Westland.
Although from the late 1930s Peter Graham was increasingly hampered by a painful hip, he continued to act as administrator and host. In 1934 Alec gained the certificate in marine engineering necessary to operate their tourist launch. In 1947 the Grahams sold the hotel to the government but spent their retirement at Franz Josef Glacier. Peter was appointed MBE for services to mountaineering in 1956.
Alec Graham died in Greymouth hospital on 12 July 1957, survived by three daughters and a son; Louisa had died the previous year. Peter Graham's wife, Muriel, died days after Alec, and Peter died at home, pen in hand while writing his memoirs, on 7 April 1961. He was survived by two sons and a daughter.