Kōrero: Mountaineering

Whārangi 6. The age of the amateur

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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.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

John Wilson, 'Mountaineering - The age of the amateur', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/mountaineering/page-6 (accessed 20 June 2024)

He kōrero nā John Wilson, i tāngia i te 24 Sep 2007, updated 1 Feb 2017