The golden age of guided climbing
After the first ascent of Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1894, the government bought the Hermitage accommodation house, and engaged Tom Fyfe and Jack Clarke as mountain guides. For the next 40 years, professional guides dominated New Zealand mountaineering. Clarke was chief guide from 1897 to 1906, when Peter Graham took over. Graham and his brother Alec had been nurtured by the West Coast climbers Ebenezer Teichelmann and Henry Newton. In 1922 Peter Graham returned to Franz Josef Glacier, where Alec had remained. For more than two decades, the Graham brothers were the most important figures in New Zealand mountaineering.
Other notable members of this first generation of New Zealand guides were Darby Thomson and Frank Milne, who succeeded Peter Graham as chief guide. On the West Coast, members of the Te Koeti and Bannister families became New Zealand’s first Māori guides. In 1912, George Bannister was the first Māori to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook.
Guiding flourished in the central Southern Alps into the 1930s because there were clients, many from overseas, able to afford their services. The most famous was a young Australian woman, Freda Du Faur. In only her second season of serious climbing, in December 1910, she became the first woman to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook. She was also the first woman to climb Mt Tasman and was on the first Grand Traverse of Mt Cook in 1913.
New Zealand’s highest mile
Aoraki/Mt Cook has three peaks – the unimaginatively named High Peak (3,754 metres), Middle Peak (3,742 metres) and Low Peak (3,595 metres). They are all higher than New Zealand’s second highest mountain, Mt Tasman (3,498 metres). The route along the 1.5-kilometre Summit Ridge connecting the three peaks is known as the Grand Traverse, and is recognised as one of New Zealand’s premier climbs.
Among the overseas clients were Lawrence Earle, Bernard Head and Samuel Turner. Turner settled in New Zealand and became a leading figure in mountaineering.
New Zealanders, such as Malcolm Ross, Hugh Chambers, Hugh Wright and Jim Dennistoun, occasionally climbed with guides. But more often they climbed on their own and kept alive the amateur tradition begun by Guy Mannering and Marmaduke Dixon.
Early mountaineers carried canvas tents, or found what shelter they could under overhanging rocks. A camping site partly protected by a bivouac rock on the Haast Ridge leading up to the Grand Plateau below Aoraki/Mt Cook was the most famous of these.
Because of difficult access, the early attempts became major expeditions. Packhorses carried food and equipment up the lower valleys. Until the age of ski-planes and helicopters, climbers had to carry large packs or swags up long river valleys or glaciers before they reached the mountains.
The torture of heavy swagging was described by Guy Mannering: ‘[H]ave you ever carried a swag, a real swag – not a Swiss knapsack – but a real, torturing, colonial swag? … Down you go, and the wretched thing worries you, whilst you bark your fingers and swear horribly, bruising your knees and shins … you try to walk, but stagger about like a drunken man; … your back tendons are puffy and tired like those of an old horse, your head swims, and your eye is dim.’ 1
The first huts
Climbing huts were first built in the central Southern Alps by the government for guided climbers. The first Ball Hut was built in 1891 where William Green had pitched his fifth camp in 1882. In 1898, the Malte Brun Hut was built beside the Tasman Glacier. Another in the Hooker Valley, at the foot of the Copland Pass, was built in 1909–10. The high King Memorial Hut (first used in the 1917–18 season) was built on the site of the Haast Ridge bivouac. Sydney King, with guides Darby Thomson and Jock Richmond, had been overwhelmed by an avalanche on the Linda Glacier in 1914. This was the first fatal accident in the central Alps.