Skip to main content
Logo: Te Ara - The Online Encyclopedia of New Zealand. Print all pages now.


by  John Wilson

Since the late 19th century, adventurers have been drawn to the treacherous terrain of the Southern Alps, and to volcanic Taranaki and Ruapehu. Today’s climbers may use skiplanes and high-tech gear, but reaching a summit is still as exhilarating as it was in the days of packhorses and canvas tents.

The New Zealand scene


Mountaineers differ from trampers, tourists and other visitors to the mountains: they want to get to the top. They do it for adventure, for a sense of physical well-being and for fun. This is despite significant risk. Between July 1981 and June 1995, 46 mountaineers died in Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park – an average of more than three each year.

Most New Zealand mountaineers are amateurs, and only alpine guides make their living from climbing. Although mountaineering is, and always has been, a fringe activity, a New Zealander who learned to climb in the Southern Alps became one of the world’s most famous mountaineers – Sir Edmund Hillary.

Why climb mountains?

Mountaineers usually avoid having to explain why they climb. Edmund Hillary was 20 when he first visited Hermitage hotel near Aoraki/Mt Cook. His reaction to the mountains partly explains his passion: ‘It was a perfect day and the great peaks seemed to tower over our heads. I looked on them with a growing feeling of excitement – the great rock walls, the hanging glaciers, and the avalanche-strewn slopes. And then, strangely stirred by it all, I felt restless for action.’ 1

New Zealand’s mountains

The main region for New Zealand mountaineering is the Southern Alps in the South Island. These mountains are not high by global standards, but they lie in the path of the winds known as the roaring forties. Uncertain weather and heavy snowfall make the alps second to none for difficulty and danger.

The glaciated central Southern Alps are the main focus of mountaineers. Peaks in Mount Aspiring National Park, the Darran Mountains in Fiordland and at the heads of the Rangitātā, Rakaia and Waimakariri rivers also test climbers.

In the North Island, only Mt Ruapehu and Taranaki, the two highest summits, challenge climbers. Taranaki is the most dangerous mountain because of its ease of access and often icy slopes.

    • Edmund Hillary, High adventure. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1955, p. 14. › Back


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 maunga 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. As the craft of climbing was perfected, 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 the sense 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 surrounding country. The climb is comparable in difficulty to James Bidwill’s 1839 ascent of Ngāuruhoe, long 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 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 of Tapuae-o-Uenuku was probably made in 1864.

Climbing on Ruapehu was restricted by tapu. Governor George Grey got some way up 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. Some climbers take Taranaki too lightly and it has claimed many lives. On 26 July 1953, six people 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, as explorer Charlie Douglas put it, ‘to get a view’. 1 Douglas and Gerhard Mueller made a notable ascent of Mt Ionia from 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 … [F]ew 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 such as 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.

    • John Pascoe, ed., Mr Explorer Douglas. Wellington: Reed, 1957, p. 151. › Back
    • Guy Mannering, The Hermitage years of Mannering and Dixon. Geraldine: GM Publications, 2000, p. 51. › Back

Aoraki/Mt Cook

The highest peak in New Zealand, at 3,724 metres, Aoraki/Mt Cook in the central Southern Alps became the focus of early mountaineering.

First attempt

New Zealand mountaineering in the European alpine tradition began in 1882. A visiting Irishman, Reverend William Green, and two Swiss, Emil Boss and Ulrich Kaufmann, discovered the Linda Glacier route on Aoraki/Mt Cook but had to turn back within 60 metres of the summit. It was a remarkable achievement.

Pipe dreams

William Green and his companions spent their first night in the mountains high up Aoraki/Mt Cook. During the long, rain-soaked night his mates, whose tobacco was stowed far below, sucked at their pipes and ‘by sheer force of imagination, enjoyed several good smokes’. 1

Green, and Edward FitzGerald after him, were representative of the many European climbers who, from the late 1860s, attempted unclimbed peaks all over the world.

New Zealand mountaineers

The first accommodation house near Aoraki/Mt Cook, known as the Hermitage, was built in 1884–85. This made attempting the high peaks easier, and New Zealanders began to take on the challenge. Guy Mannering was the first to take up high climbing as recreation, and made his first attempt on the mountain in 1886. In 1890, with Marmaduke Dixon, he repeated William Green’s near-success.

Also making early attempts on the peak were Dunedin brothers Malcolm and Kenneth Ross, and A. P. Harper, who returned to New Zealand in 1889 after two seasons of climbing in the Alps. From 1893 three young men who worked at the Hermitage, Tom Fyfe, George Graham and Jack Clarke, began climbing on their days off.

Between 1884 and 1894, this small group of men brought New Zealand climbing into existence. The tradition of self-taught climbers, carrying in swags to set up alpine camps, and finding routes without the help of guides or guidebooks, is the main strand in the country’s climbing history.

The first ascent

At the end of 1894 the New Zealanders trying to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook learned that an English climber, Edward FitzGerald, was coming to claim the prize. The locals were determined the summit would be first reached by a New Zealand party, without the help of a guide.

In late 1894 Fyfe, Graham, Kenneth Ross and Dixon climbed onto the ice cap up the Linda Glacier, but failed to complete the ascent. Fyfe and Graham then turned their attention to the Hooker Glacier side of the mountain. On 20 December they climbed the Middle Peak, but the High Peak eluded them.

Finally, on Christmas Day, the trio of New Zealand climbers, Fyfe, Graham and Clarke, reached the summit from the difficult North Ridge. This route was not repeated until the 100th ascent of the mountain in 1955.

Christmas triumph

Tom Fyfe recorded the moment the summit of Aoraki/Mt Cook was reached for the first time: ‘[T]he reckless way in which we romped over those last rocks was very fool-hardy, but one would indeed need to be phlegmatic not to get a little excited on such an occasion. The slope of the final ice-cap was easy and only required about 100 steps … at 1.30 on Christmas Day we exultantly stepped onto the highest pinnacle of the monarch of the Southern Alps.’ 2

FitzGerald, piqued, refused to attempt Aoraki/Mt Cook, but he and his Swiss guide, Matthias Zurbriggen, climbed Mts Tasman, Silberhorn, Sefton, Haidinger and Sealy. In March 1895, Zurbriggen made the first solo ascent of Aoraki/Mt Cook.

Other early climbs in the central Southern Alps

Significant ascents in the central Alps had already been made. In 1883, Robert and Anna von Lendenfeld climbed Hochstetter Dome, the first ascent of a major peak in the central Alps. Fyfe and Graham climbed The Footstool and Mt De La Beche, and Fyfe and Clarke climbed Mt Darwin. Most impressively of all, Fyfe made a solo ascent of the north face of Malte Brun.

Early equipment

From the start, New Zealand climbers had the use of ice-axes, nailed boots, ropes and goggles, some secured from Europe with the help of William Green, but some improvised locally. When Mannering was preparing for an attempt on Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1886, he reported that ‘ice-axes of excellent design and finish had been turned out by a Rangiora smith which were found to answer admirably on the mountain.’ 3

    • Jim Wilson, Aorangi: the story of Mount Cook. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1968, pp. 70–71. › Back
    • Aorangi: the story of Mount Cook, p. 99. › Back
    • Guy Mannering, The Hermitage years of Mannering and Dixon. Geraldine: GM Publications, 2000, p. 22. › Back

Guided climbing

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 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 became 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 (3,724 metres), Middle Peak (3,717 metres) and Low Peak (3,595 metres). All are 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. 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 the difficulty of access, early attempts were major expeditions. Packhorses carried food and equipment up the lower valleys. Until the age of skiplanes and helicopters, climbers had to carry large packs or swags up long river valleys or glaciers before they even reached the mountains.

Swagging in

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 at the site 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.

    • Jim Wilson, Aorangi: the story of Mount Cook. Christchurch: Whitcombe & Tombs, 1968, p. 76. › Back

Beyond the central Southern Alps

Outside the Aoraki/Mt Cook region

Guided climbing was based at the Hermitage hotel, but the early climbers also visited ranges beyond the central Southern Alps. Harry Birley climbed the East Peak of Mt Earnslaw in 1890. Guy Mannering climbed the Low Peak of Mt Rolleston, above Arthur’s Pass, in 1891. Cloud obscured the High Peak, which was not climbed until 1912. Mannering attempted Mt Arrowsmith in 1893.

Jim Dennistoun, Lawrence Earle and guide Jack Clarke made the first ascent of Mt D’Archiac in 1910. Mt Arrowsmith was climbed two years later. Up the Waimakariri, A. P. Harper climbed Mt Davie in 1912. In Fiordland, the great prize was Mt Tūtoko. The first serious attempt was made by Malcolm and Kenneth Ross and William Hodgkins in 1895. The peak became an obsession for Samuel Turner, who finally succeeded in February 1924, guided by Peter Graham.

Mt Aspiring was first attempted from the Waiototo River in 1905, but not climbed until 1909, by Alec Graham, Bernard Head and Jack Clarke.

A remarkable pair

On the West Coast, an unusual team made an indelible mark on New Zealand mountaineering. Australian-born Ebenezer Teichelmann was a doctor in Hokitika from 1897 until 1926. Englishman Henry Newton was vicar at Ross from 1901 until 1907. Newton and Teichelmann initiated climbing from the West Coast side of the Southern Alps. Often climbing with Alec Graham, the pair completed 26 first ascents, culminating with Mt La Perouse in 1906.

A mixed group on top

Ebenezer Teichelmann, R. S. Low, Henry Newton and Alec Graham made the first ascent of Mt La Perouse in 1906. It was noted that there were ‘a Scot, an Englishman, a German/Scot born in Australia and a New Zealander sitting on a peak named after a French navigator.’ 1

Access from the west

On the eastern side of the Southern Alps broad valleys, with little forest, give relatively easy access to the high peaks. The western flank of the range is much steeper and has a higher rainfall. Heavy forest, deeply gorged rivers and steep icefalls guard the peaks. Teichelmann and Newton were among the first to force routes onto the West Coast neves (the high snowfields that feed glaciers).

    • Bob McKerrow, Ebenezer Teichelmann: pioneer New Zealand mountaineer, explorer, surgeon, photographer and conservationist. New Delhi: Tara-India Research Press, 2005, p. 161. › Back

The age of the amateur

In the late 1920s and 1930s, climbing ceased to be a sport dominated by guides as young New Zealanders took to the hills under their own steam.


The adoption of the crampon (a framework of spikes that fit onto boots to prevent them slipping on ice) stimulated this change. Edward FitzGerald and Matthias Zurbriggen had used crampons in 1895, but their example was not copied. Then Harold Porter, an English climber who first visited in 1923, climbed Mt Tasman and completed a traverse of the middle and high peaks of Aoraki/Mt Cook using crampons.

Attitudes to guided climbing

Harold Porter was accompanied by a Swiss guide, Marcel Kurz. But as New Zealanders began adopting crampons they found that, being able to move fast over steep ice, they could do without guides, who cut steps.

Some amateur climbers expressed disdain for ‘tourist climbers’ who were led by guides, but the high reputation of guides like Vic Williams ensured the division between amateurs and professionals never became acrimonious.

Exploring new areas

Amateur climbers in the 1920s and 1930s extended the geographic range of climbing. Mountaineering was no longer concentrated at the Hermitage and the West Coast glaciers.

Canterbury climbers began to make trips up the Waimakariri and Rakaia rivers in the late 1920s. Notable first ascents in the Rakaia included Mt Whitcombe in 1931 and Mt Evans in 1934. Mt Evans was for years the goal of the man who personified the new amateur climber, John Pascoe.

The 1930s saw Otago climbers frequent the Darran Mountains in numbers, but the remaining first ascents there (notably of Sabre Peak in 1954) were made after the Second World War. Otago mountaineers also made new climbs from the Dart and Rees valleys and on Mt Aspiring.

One measure of the growing popularity of climbing is that although the second ascent of Mt D’Archiac was not made until 1933, 23 years after the first, in the next five years there were 11 further ascents.

Amateur climbers did not ignore the central Southern Alps. In 1931, Rod Syme and Dan Bryant made the first ascent of Mt Tasman’s Syme Ridge, the first major new route in the region since the first Grand Traverse of Aoraki/Mt Cook 18 years before. In 1938, Bryant and Lud Mahan climbed Aoraki/Mt Cook’s difficult East Ridge.

Improved equipment

Except for crampons and weather-proof parkas, the amateur climbers of the 1930s used much the same equipment as the climbers of the 1890s. But while Freda Du Faur had climbed in skirts, women were now wearing trousers.

After the Second World War, front-point crampons allowed speedier climbing on steep snow and ice. Rubber replaced leather and hobnails on the soles of climbing boots, and nylon replaced hemp (which absorbed water) in climbing ropes. Karabiners and waistbands made tying into ropes easier. With ice screws and pitons, it was quicker to create anchor points for ‘protected climbing’ (when one climber on a rope makes himself fast to the mountain while the other climbs).


The food that climbers ate in the 1930s – rice, beans, bread and butter, pemmican (a dried meat), bacon and dried soup and fruit – was much the same as in the early days. But from the late 1940s new dehydrated foods made for lighter packs. Freeze-dried meats and vegetables, milk and egg powder and salami became readily available in the 1950s. Lightweight stoves, fuelled by white spirits, then gas, also reduced the load.

Clubs and huts


Amateur climbers formed clubs. Climbing is an individualistic pursuit and many leading climbers have been, at best, passive members of clubs. But since the 1930s, clubs have been an important feature of New Zealand mountaineering.

The New Zealand Alpine Club was founded in 1891, but went into recess in 1896. A. P. Harper modelled it on the Alpine Club of England, where climbing first developed as a gentleman’s amateur pursuit. The New Zealand club was the only other alpine club in the world which restricted membership and excluded professional guides.

In New Zealand, however, climbing was never dominated by the upper class, and the division between amateur and professional was always blurred. Most early New Zealand climbers were middle-class professionals, but the first three men to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook were working-class. The egalitarianism of New Zealand society was reflected even more markedly in mountaineering from the 1930s.

DIY swags

Although A. P. Harper championed the conservative tradition of the Alpine Club in London, he acknowledged that New Zealand climbing was more egalitarian. He noted that while English climbers thought that even carrying rucksacks was beneath their dignity, in the colonies it was quite natural for climbers to carry their own swags.

The New Zealand Alpine Club was briefly revived in 1914 and again in the 1920s, and became more active in the 1930s. The Otago section, formed in 1930, became the club’s strongest. Its 1931 camp in the Rees Valley was a milestone in the growing popularity of climbing.

The Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club was founded in 1923, and the Canterbury Mountaineering Club in 1925. In the North Island the Tararua Tramping Club of 1919 was followed by a proliferation of similar clubs. Tramping clubs became a new basis for mountaineering.


As clubs spread, so did mountain huts. After the founder of the Canterbury Mountaineering Club, Gerard Carrington, drowned in 1926, the club completed a hut in the headwaters of the Waimakariri and named it after him. Subsequently, it built huts in other Canterbury valleys including, in 1953–54, the highest hut in the country, Empress, at the head of the Hooker Glacier.

The Otago section of the Alpine Club built huts in the Aspiring region, beginning with Cascade Hut in 1932. The high Colin Todd Hut was built in 1960. The Alpine Club also built high huts in the central Southern Alps. In the 1950s and 1960s, digging snow caves on high snowfields was popular where there were no huts.

Guiding in an age of amateurs

From the 1930s, though clients were fewer, the guiding tradition was kept alive by successive chief guides, Vic Williams and Mick Bowie.

In the 1940s Junee Ashurst became the first woman to make her mark as a guide. After the Mount Cook National Park Board took over guiding in 1958, Harry Ayres became chief ranger and de facto chief guide. Later the guiding tradition was kept alive, just, by other National Park rangers.

Climbing faces

The last hard ridges

Immediately after the Second World War, the remaining difficult ridges of major peaks were climbed. The last (south) ridge of Aoraki/Mt Cook was climbed in 1948 by Harry Ayres and Mick Sullivan (guides) and Ed Hillary and Ruth Adams (clients).

Shortly after this climb, when the same party attempted Mt La Perouse, Ruth Adams was injured near the summit, and had to be carried on a stretcher virtually over the summit and through deep gorges to the West Coast road. It was the most arduous rescue in New Zealand’s climbing history. The last ridge on Mt Tasman, the Balfour Rib, was climbed in 1959.

Face-climbing begins

The next challenge was to climb the faces. These are the slopes under ridges, which are harder to climb because they are so steep, and are often threatened by falling rock or ice. Face-climbing began before the last ridges were conquered. Notable face climbs of the 1950s included the South Face of Mt Tūtoko (1952), the East Face of Mt Sefton (1953) and the Hooker Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook (1956).

On bended knee

During the first climb of the East Face of Mt Whitcombe, Mike Gill looked down to see Ian Cave using his knees. Phil Houghton wrote later that ‘Mike rebuked him, saying even if he was bone-weary there was no excuse for such bad technique when climbing. Ian looked up with a mystified air, ‘Climbing? Who’s climbing?” he said. “I’m praying.”’ 1

The arrival of climbers from Europe (where face-climbing already had a 20-year history) spurred further activity. In 1960, Eberhard von Terzi and Hans Leitner climbed the East Face of Mt Tasman. They were just beaten to the East Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook by a party of New Zealanders and British immigrants, Don Cowie, Peter Farrell, Lynn Crawford and Vic Walsh.

The ‘great prize’ was the Caroline Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook, climbed in 1970 by Peter Gough and John Glasgow.

Later face climbs

The last great challenge was the South Face of Mt Hicks, first climbed in 1970 by Murray Jones and Graeme Dingle. Face routes on Mt Hicks preoccupied the era’s ‘young gun’ climbers. Bill Denz, at the forefront of this group, made the first ascent of the Balfour Face of Mt Tasman in 1971 with Bryan Pooley.

Memorable lines

The direct line routes of the 1980s were given imaginative names: Gates of Steel, and Sodom and Gomorrah on the South Face of Aoraki/Mt Cook, Heaven’s Door on the South Face of Mt Hicks, and The Mists of Avalon on the Balfour Face of Mt Tasman.

The ‘edge’ of climbing then moved to forcing direct lines on such faces as the Balfour Face of Mt Tasman and the South Face of Mt Hicks, and then to solo or winter ascents of the harder routes. Winter ascents were not without precedent. Aoraki/Mt Cook had first been climbed in winter in 1923. But winter climbs of faces became common only in the 1970s.

Faces beyond the central Southern Alps also challenged climbers. John Pascoe had thought the East Face of Whitcombe was ‘likely to remain inviolate’, but it was climbed in 1962.

Later in the 1970s, the best climbers concentrated on winter face-climbing in the Darran Mountains. The 1984 winter ascent of the South Face of Sabre Peak by Bill Denz and Kim Logan was the culmination of this development.

    • Quoted in Hugh Logan, Classic peaks of New Zealand. Nelson: Craig Potton, 2002, p. 120. › Back

New equipment and new people


In the 1960s equipment changed and climbing became increasingly technical. Ice axes became smaller and were later replaced, for exacting climbs, by curved ice-climbing tools.

The use of pitons and ice screws became widespread, and climbers began wearing helmets. In the 1980s plastic boots, reverse-curve ice picks, titanium ice screws and fast-drying synthetic clothing began to be used. The reverse-curve ice pick was a far cry from the heavy, long-shafted ice axes used by earlier climbers.

Skiplanes and helicopters

After the first successful skiplane landing on the Tasman Glacier in 1955, climbers began to fly in to the peaks. For many, skiplanes and helicopters did away with the traditional long walk in, carrying heavy packs.

Mountain rescues changed in character once injured climbers could be lifted out by helicopter. New high huts were built – the first on the Grand Plateau in 1963–64. Flying in to a well-appointed hut became common. Most climbers no longer believed that a mountain had not been properly climbed unless the mountaineer had walked in.

Women climbers

More men than women have climbed throughout New Zealand’s mountaineering history, but the precedents set by Anna von Lendenfeld in the 19th century and Freda Du Faur in the early 20th have been followed by many other female climbers. Although there were relatively few women among the amateurs of the late 1920s and 1930s, Margaret Lorimer and Katie Gardiner (sometimes with guides) completed fine climbs.

Honouring Freda

Although Freda Du Faur’s name stands high in New Zealand’s climbing history, after her death in 1935 she lay in an unmarked grave in a Sydney cemetery until the early 2000s. Then a Sydney resident, originally from South Canterbury, arranged for a block of greywacke from the Mackenzie Country to be placed on the grave. New Zealand climbers helped pay for the placing and inscription of the stone.

After the Second World War more women climbed. In 1953, Mavis Davidson, Doreen Urquhart and Sheila MacMurray made the first all-woman, guideless ascent of Aoraki/Mt Cook. Other important women climbers of the 1950s were Beverley Price, Beverley Tweedie and Margaret Clark. In the 1980s several women – Jos Lang, Lydia Bradey, Erica Beuzenberg and Brede Arkless among them – became notable climbers and guides.

Australian climbers

Freda Du Faur was one of the first Australians attracted across the Tasman Sea by high mountains. After the Second World War, Australian visitors climbed mostly in the Aoraki/Mt Cook region, but few reached the forefront of climbing in New Zealand.

Mountaineering today

The revival of guiding

By the late 1960s guided climbing had all but ceased. The Hermitage hotel served tourists not mountaineers, and rangers were no longer guiding clients.

Guiding re-emerged in 1968, when two leading amateur climbers, Lynn Crawford and Pete Farrell, started Alpine Instruction Ltd, based at the Ball Hut. Besides taking individual clients up high peaks, guides now offered training in mountaineering skills, which young climbers had in the past gained on club courses. Clubs continued to offer instruction.

The new guiding companies were initially based at the Hermitage and the Fox and Franz Josef glaciers. In 1973, Geoff Wayatt established Mountain Recreation at Wānaka. By the early 2000s there were also guiding firms based at Lake Tekapo and Twizel.

The New Zealand Mountain Guides Association was formed in 1974 to ensure professional standards were maintained. The association became affiliated with the Union Internationale des Associations des Guides de Montagne.

Rock and sport climbing

In the later 20th century, rock climbing became an independent sport. Alpine climbing had always required at least rudimentary rock climbing skills, but a distinction developed between general alpine climbers and those expert on steep rock, who were sometimes content to climb on rock faces without tackling alpine peaks.

Bouldering and crag climbing became as popular as alpine climbing. Places like the Mt Eden Quarry in Auckland, the Titahi Bay cliffs near Wellington, and Castle Rock on the Christchurch Port Hills became destinations in their own right, no longer just training grounds for the mountains.

Some rock climbers later applied their skills to alpine routes. Some walls in Fiordland exceeded 500 metres, and Cloudy Peak in Canterbury was the scene of exacting new rock climbs.

The distinction between rock and alpine climbing was evident in the rock climber’s lack of interest in summits, and preoccupation with technique and style. Most alpine ascents were classified crudely as easy, moderate or hard. Rock climbers graded climbs more exactly and could compare their performances with those of others.

With the advent of indoor walls for the sport, climbing ceased to be an exclusively outdoor activity.

New Zealand climbers overseas

In 1953 Edmund Hillary reached the top of Mt Everest with Sherpa Tenzing Norgay. Hillary's achievement gave New Zealand mountaineers a secure place in world history. Through the second half of the 20th century, New Zealanders climbed in all the world’s major ranges.

The Himalayas

The first New Zealander to climb in the Himalayas was Dan Bryant in 1935. The previous year he had climbed in Switzerland, and he then joined Eric Shipton’s British Everest Reconnaissance Expedition. Shipton, impressed by Bryant’s brilliant ice climbing, would include New Zealanders in his 1951 Everest reconnaissance. A Canterbury Mountaineering Club party was set to attempt Kanchenjunga in 1939, but war intervened.

In 1951 a New Zealand Alpine Club party of Edmund Hillary, George Lowe, Ed Cotter and Earle Riddiford climbed in the Garwhal Himalaya. Subsequently, Hillary and Riddiford joined Shipton’s 1951 reconnaissance of Everest and then Hillary and Lowe joined the successful 1953 British Everest Expedition. In 1955, Norman Hardie was one of the first to climb Kanchenjunga.

Other overseas ranges

New Zealanders first climbed in the Alps in the 19th century, but made a significant mark only in 1968 when Murray Jones and Graeme Dingle climbed six major north faces in the season, proving that New Zealand’s best climbers were the equal of Europe’s.

From the 1960s New Zealanders climbed overseas every year. Several parties of New Zealanders made fine ascents in the Andes, notably in Peru. In 1960, New Zealanders made the first ascent of the formidable Nevado Cayesh in the Cordillera Blanca, and a party that climbed in the Cordillera Vilcabamba in 1962 made no fewer than eight first ascents. In 1975 the Canterbury Mountaineering Club sent its Jubilee Expedition to Patagonia. This was one of the last overseas expeditions organised by a club. After that, most New Zealand mountaineers were active overseas as individuals or in small groups.

In 1988, Lydia Bradey became the first woman (in 2020 she was still the only New Zealander) to reach the top of Mt Everest without using supplementary oxygen. The previous year Bradey had climbed an 8000-metre peak in Pakistan alpine-style (climbing self-sufficiently, and without using fixed ropes or supplementary oxygen) – probably also a world first for a woman.

Two of New Zealand’s best-known climbers of the later 20th century, Rob Hall and Gary Ball, ran a successful business guiding clients in overseas ranges. In 1990, the pair climbed seven summits (the highest peaks on each continent) in seven months. Both later died in the Himalayas.

In 1982 Mark Inglis lost both legs below the knee from frostbite on Aoraki/Mt Cook. Nevertheless, in 2006 he climbed Mt Everest.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: John Wilson, 'Mountaineering', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by John Wilson, published 24 September 2007, updated 1 February 2017