Story: Mountaineering

Page 2. Beginnings

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Māori ascents

The record of early Māori ascents is scant. In tradition, Ngātoroirangi, who arrived on the Arawa canoe, climbed Tongariro to establish his claim to the land around it. Members of the Taranaki tribe climbed Taranaki (Mt Egmont) to assert their rights to the mountain. Later, tapu (spiritual restrictions) kept Māori from the summits of most mountains.

European mountaineering

Modern mountaineering began when people started to scale peaks in the Alps in Europe. They were driven mainly by scientific curiosity about glaciers and alpine plants. Attempts on Mont Blanc began after a Swiss scientist, H. B. de Saussure, offered a prize for the first ascent, which was made in 1786.

The late 18th- and 19th-century Romantic movement in literature, music and other arts also stimulated interest in mountain climbing. The Romantics’ reverence for the picturesque and sublime in nature led them to climb for the chance to commune more directly with the natural world, and for the pleasure of physical and mental effort.

The Alpine Club was formed in London in 1857. The craft of climbing was perfected, and a group of professional guides emerged. Edward Whymper, who was in the party that made the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, was a modern mountaineer in that he pursued the activity as the world’s first ‘extreme’ sport. By 1885 all the major European peaks had been climbed.

New Zealand ascents by Europeans

Mountain climbing began in New Zealand with an ascent of Mt Sparrman in Dusky Sound by four of James Cook’s men in 1773. Their main aim was probably to get a view of the country. The climb is comparable in difficulty to James Bidwill’s 1839 ascent of Ngāuruhoe, previously regarded as the first significant European ascent of a New Zealand mountain.

In defiance of Māori tapu, Taranaki was climbed in 1839 by whaler James Heberley and scientist Ernst Dieffenbach. Jane Maria Atkinson’s ascent of Taranaki in 1855 was the first notable climb by a European woman.

In November 1849, Lieutenant-Governor Edward John George Eyre made an attempt on Tapuae-o-Uenuku in the Kaikōura Range. One of the Māori with Eyre, Wiremu Hoeta, slipped and was killed – New Zealand’s first recorded mountain fatality. The first successful ascent was probably in 1864.

Climbing on Ruapehu was restricted by tapu. Governor George Grey partially ascended the North Peak in 1853, but the South Peak was not climbed until 1879.

Subsequently, climbers were active on North Island mountains mainly for recreation and instruction. There are difficult winter ice-climbing routes on Taranaki and Ruapehu. Taranaki has claimed many lives, and on 26 July 1953 six died on its slopes.

Explorers and surveyors

Until the last decades of the 19th century, New Zealanders had little interest in climbing for recreation. Those who did go climbing were explorers and surveyors. During arduous journeys, these men climbed to high points, not for fun, but to establish trig stations or, in explorer Charlie Douglas’s words, ‘to get a view’. 1 Douglas and Gerhard Mueller made a notable ascent of Mt Ionia up the Arawata valley in 1885.

Colonial blockheads

In 1886 G. E. Mannering noted that New Zealanders did not favour mountaineering: ‘There does not seem to be much prospect of starting a club here, fellows are such blockheads and cannot see any good in climbing mountains. The main colonial idea is to make money … few of the rising generation have any poetry in their composition in this out of the way part.’ 2

Recreational climbers

The descriptions, sketches and photographs of surveyors like Edward Sealy and George Roberts inspired those who, a few years later, ventured into the mountains not to clarify topography but to climb the peaks.

On the eastern side of the Southern Alps, Edward Sealy’s trips on the Tasman and Godley glaciers in the late 1860s and early 1870s paved the way for later mountaineers. Sealy climbed almost to the top of Hochstetter Dome.

In the early 1890s, Charlie Douglas was accompanied up some South Westland valleys by one of the ‘fathers’ of New Zealand mountaineering, A. P. Harper. Douglas also gave advice to Ebenezer Teichelmann and Henry Newton, South Westland’s first mountaineers.

  1. John Pascoe, ed., Mr Explorer Douglas. Wellington: Reed, 1957, p. 151. › Back
  2. Guy Mannering, The Hermitage years of Mannering and Dixon. Geraldine: GM Publications, 2000, p. 51. › Back
How to cite this page:

John Wilson, 'Mountaineering - Beginnings', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 10 December 2023)

Story by John Wilson, published 24 Sep 2007, updated 1 Feb 2017