Horace Henry Ayres (Ayers), better known as Harry Herbert Ayres, was born on 31 July 1912 in Christchurch, the son of Ellen Matthews and her husband, Henry Ayres, a gardener, carpenter and plasterer. Harry attended Waltham and Sydenham schools. The family was poor and his relationship with his father was distant. His mother died when he was 12 and he soon left school, already accustomed to an outdoor life.
At 16 Ayres moved to the West Coast, where he worked as a farm and railway construction labourer. Employment on the road between the Franz Josef and Fox glaciers and then farm work at Weheka (Fox Glacier township) led to involvement with glacier trips. In 1931 Frank Alack introduced him to longer mountain trips, and a major expedition – up the Mahitahi River in 1934–35 – indicates that he was acquiring the skills of a climber and guide.
By 1936 Ayres was an experienced second guide, but bored because he was given little responsibility. Hoping to reach England, he became a stoker on a ship. However, life on board between Westport and Nauru was so grim he signed off when the ship called in at Auckland. After short-term labouring and five months’ working in the Waitomo Caves, he became a guide at Tongariro National Park. This confirmed his love for mountaineering, and late in 1937 he returned to the Southern Alps. While working at the Hermitage he made his first ascent of Mt Cook.
After moving to the West Coast, Ayres met Catherine May Guise at Weheka. The couple were married in Christchurch on 31 January 1939 and shifted soon after from Weheka to Waiho (Franz Josef Glacier township). Harry seemed set in his guiding career, but the Second World War intruded. He enlisted in May 1942, and apart from a brief return home for ill health in 1943 he was in the Pacific from late 1942 until July 1944. His health was severely affected by recurrent tropical diseases and he did not approach his previous fitness until late 1945.
The next 10 years saw Harry Ayres at his prime as a mountaineer and guide, and he was clearly the best climber in New Zealand. His own abilities and the willingness of skilled clients enabled him to achieve a number of new and significant climbs. In this period he made nine ascents each of Mts Cook and Tasman by a variety of routes. With Mick Sullivan he led Edmund Hillary and Ruth Adams up the south ridge of Mt Cook on 30 January 1948. Soon after, he was involved in the rescue of Adams from the slopes of Mt La Perouse. He also made a series of difficult ridge climbs and traverses, especially with Bruce Gillies.
As Hillary noted, Harry Ayres’s greatness as a climber and guide lay in his ‘safe but forceful mountaineering’. He was very careful, but also decisive, quick, and highly skilled on ice. His fast reactions served his clients well in emergencies. He was extremely fit, knew the mountain weather, and seldom turned back on a climb. High on the peaks he was at ease with himself and was great company.
Out of the high peaks he could be very sociable, but he was often moody and indecisive. His personal life did not run smoothly as he was always attracted to women and was a lifelong gambler and searcher for gold. His work also required absence from home for long periods. These factors contributed to the end of his first marriage in April 1948. A year later, on 5 April, he married Jeanne Ette Cammock in Christchurch.
In Antarctica with the New Zealand party of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition from late 1956 to early 1958, Ayres had a useful and satisfying time. He found routes, laid depots, explored and surveyed, all the time taking responsibility for dog teams. This was a significant overseas experience after previous disappointments: war and lack of money had prevented him from climbing in the Himalayas in 1940 and 1951, and although he was chosen for the 1953 British Everest expedition, he was excluded when John Hunt replaced Eric Shipton as leader. Ayres was not known to Hunt and he had no high altitude experience. He was also a professional guide and Hunt did not want to compromise the amateur status of the expedition.
Soon after his return to New Zealand, Ayres became chief ranger, Mount Cook National Park Board. There were many issues to be tackled: administration, guiding, construction and maintenance needed attention, and relationships between the park board, its staff and the Tourist Hotel Corporation of New Zealand had to be worked out. Although significant progress was made, Ayres was no administrator and found the pressures difficult.
In August 1961 he resigned and went to run a motor camp at Hanmer. In 1972 the family moved to Christchurch, where Ayres was gardener at the historic Mona Vale estate for 10 years before final retirement. At both places he found the outdoor work enjoyable and fulfilling. He managed a few climbs in these years and was made an OBE in 1981. However, on 16 July 1987 he went missing; after an extensive search, his body was found on 11 August in Lyttelton Harbour. The coroner’s conclusion was suicide through drowning. He was survived by his wife and their three children.
Harry Ayres was the greatest climbing guide of his period, and one of New Zealand’s finest mountaineers.