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