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 the very high risk. Between July 1981 and June 1995, 46 mountaineers died in Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park – an average of more than three every 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. But peaks in Mt 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 Taranaki and Mt Ruapehu, the two highest summits on the island, challenge climbers. Mt Taranaki is the most dangerous single mountain because of its ease of access and its often icy slopes.