American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Long Ago on Mount Cook

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  • Publication Year: 1932

Long Ago on Mount Cook

Conrad Kain

THE climbing season in New Zealand is from November to April. Mt. Cook (12,349 feet), in the Southern Alps, has the reputation of making its own weather. In the season 1915-16 I made four attempts to climb the mountain, and on these fruitless expeditions I gathered first-hand information on this matter. There is no mystery in the evil reputation the mountain has ; it is simply based on natural laws of precipitation and evaporation. Mt. Cook towers about 1,000 feet above its neighbors, and is located near the main divide. The precipitation on the western slopes of the Southern Alps is extreme when compared with that on the western slopes of North America.

On January 29, 1916, I made the fifth attempt with Mrs. J. Thompson, of Wellington.1 We left the Hermitage at noon for the Hooker hut (3,770 feet), situated on the south bank of the glacier and six miles distant. The Hooker glacier is about six miles long, its terminal face (2,880 feet) three miles from the Hermitage. Harper Saddle (8,580 feet) is at its head. This is the steepest of the four large glaciers east of the divide. For nearly four miles the ice is covered with débris, but a mile and a half from the hut the moraine, over which the trail leads, breaks up and clear ice and snow begin.

Above the icefalls the glacier widens out into snowfields which sweep down from the lower and middle summits of Mt. Cook. From the high summit a buttress leads down to an isolated rock at its foot, known as the “bivouac.” The real climb of Mt. Cook begins here, the camp site (7,500 feet) being the highest in the Southern Alps. The view and the surroundings are alpine in the full sense.

Next day, at noon, we arrived at the bivouac, being welcomed by Mr. Samuel Turner and his porter. The late Mr. Turner was internationally known, both as a climber and a writer on mountaineering. His literary productions were much criticized by other writers ; but he and I spent many days together and, although we could not always agree on matters pertaining to climbing, I found him to be a good companion, with many fine qualities. He was, in my opinion, a fair climber and no shirker of hardships, being always willing to assist a guide by taking turn as leader. I enjoyed his company more than reading his books. Of other authors I have met and whose works I read with great delight, some have been poor comrades when on a mountain.

There are three routes2 from the bivouac : Green’s couloir, which I believe was followed only once, in descent. This is not a practical route because of stonefalls and avalanches. Earle’s route is the second, while the third leads over the lower and middle peaks, and is referred to as the “Grand Traverse.”

Mr. Turner came to the bivouac with the intention of conquering Mt. Cook alone and had chosen the Earle route, while we decided on the “Grand Traverse.” To lighten the work for the long climb, I tramped over the plateau of the Empress Glacier. A rock spur running down from the lower peak attracted me as the best way up, and I made good progress for about two hours before being forced to the slope between the lower and middle peaks. I had cut a number of steps and could see some distance ahead. Satisfied that I had done enough I returned to the bivouac where I found supper waiting. Mr. Turner entertained us with balancing tricks, beginning with a sheet of note- paper on his nose and finishing by supporting a rock weighing about fifty pounds on his chin. It was a very pleasant evening.

Frost and wind were absent, a very rare occurrence at such an elevation, and it proved to be the only one of the many nights I spent here through which I slept comfortably. Next morning, at 3.45, we started our day’s work. The porter stayed in the bivouac, his duty being merely to keep an eye on Mr. Turner. In three hours we came to the end of the broken trail, but during the night a great change had taken place on the slopes above, an avalanche having swept away the bridge over the bergschrund, on the route I had planned, and we lost time in looking for a place to cross. Finally I managed to overcome the obstacle and cut steps on the slope above.

Then we struck better ground where the going was good, but there was danger in sight. I had just finished explaining to Mrs. Thompson that this was not a place to linger, when we heard the reports of falling stones. “There she comes, follow quick,” I shouted. We made a dash for an enormous ice block a few feet from us ; it was a race with death. Fortunately our shelter withstood the impact of the avalanche and only fine snow rolled in on our feet and buried the rope. A third climber on the rope would have been disastrous on that occasion.

As the close call did not upset Mrs. Thompson’s nerves, we continued the ascent by rounding a few large crevasses and snow walls, and gained safer going on a small plateau. We reached the main ridge a short distance from the lower peak, from which it appeared a long way to the middle peak, the length of snow ridges being nearly always overestimated. We left the lower summit at eleven o’clock and encountered no difficulty worth mentioning; one hour later we reached the middle peak, wet with perspiration. I have no recollection of such an intense heat wave on a mountain as we had that day.

The view was magnificent, the most striking sight being the ridge up to the highest point. Mrs. Thompson made some remarks about the steepness, but I assured her that it would not be so terrible when she got nearer. On some occasions, motherly words from the guide on a climb are a good stimulant. At 12.20 we started for the forbidding ridge. Shortly afterward I spotted Mr. Turner far down on Earle’s route; he heard my yodel and waved his hat. An hour later we saw him descending on a snow slope. He told me later that conditions were not favorable for a solo climb.

We made good progress along the ridge, which we found less steep than it appeared from the middle peak, and stepped on the summit a few minutes before three o’clock. It was as warm and calm as on a tropical sea beach. Mrs. Thompson was delighted to gain the highest point of her native land. Ladies, as a rule, do not tell their age, especially to males ; therefore, I was surprised when she told me that she would be sixty on her next birthday and would like to celebrate the occasion on Mt. Cook.

We climbed more than a dozen peaks together, some of them long tiresome snow tramps, and some more difficult. Our most exciting adventure was cutting the cornice on Mt. Burns, but she never played out or showed fear. It was in the early days of my career as a guide that I discovered my outstanding weakness of loafing on the summits. With this in mind I decided that three- quarters of an hour was all we could spare for the “Gipfel-rast.” The snow was in fine condition, no steps were required, and in a short time we reached the rocks which are referred to as the summit rocks, on the Tasman side.

While scrambling down, my thoughts ran on Zurbriggen. From the rocks two routes branch down—Zurbriggen’s to the right, and Green’s (Linda Glacier) to the left. Owing to the lateness of the hour we had no choice and took the latter route. In my opinion “The Death Trap” would be a more appropriate name for this glacier, as it is the most dangerous corner of Mt. Cook. I confess that I did not feel very happy descending this glacier as it had been unusually warm and one could expect an avalanche at any moment. Added to this was the recollection that, only two years since, I had descended with a party on this route and walked over an avalanche which had killed three climbers. On the lower part of the glacier there were crevasses in uncountable numbers, and the bridges were thin and frail. After the excitement of passing through this network we enjoyed the walk over Glacier Dome, where the last reflection of the sun vanished. At 9.40 p.m. we arrived at the Haast bivouac, and half an hour later we were sipping tea, which tasted like the best ever.

On our arrival at the Hermitage, Mrs. Thompson was congratulated by the guides and climbers. Usually on the return from a climb the guides made inquiry as to what kind of a time I had had, but on this occasion no questions were asked. But, as ever, I received a hearty welcome from “Baby,” the four-year- old daughter of Mr. Cook, the manager of the Hermitage. She invited me to tea and told me that she would make the “Grand Traverse” with me the next year. The climb did not come off, as shortly after I was officially informed by the Tourist Department that I should not be allowed in these mountains again. They did not supply any explanation of their strange action ; all they said was that they would not allow private guiding after that season—and, like the Wise Judge, refused to give their reason.

What was wrong? My explanation is as follows: In the season 1913-14 I was in New Zealand as private guide to Mr. H. O. Frind, a Canadian climber. In that season an English climber, Mr. S. L. King, with two guides, Darby Thomson and Richard Richmond, were killed on Mt. Cook. I took part in the search for their bodies and later received a letter from the Tourist Department thanking me for the assistance I had given, and offering me a place on the guiding staff. I accepted and returned to the Hermitage in November, 1914.

At the end of the season I was again offered work, but I informed the department that I preferred to work as a private guide, and as no objection was made I returned to New Zealand in November, 1915. I had several engagements in advance and being well known had no difficulty in securing parties. Naturally, I took away some people from the government guides, which created jealousy, and, to make matters worse, this was in war time, when race hatred was fostered by all conflicting nations. Although I was naturalized before the war broke out, in the sight of the people, who did not have a mind of their own during that period, I was still an alien. The guides and their sympathizers complained to the department and no doubt the complaints were patriotic in design, but there is another angle as to why I was not wanted there. A good friend of mine, who claimed he had inside information, told me that all would have been well if I had not broken the mountaineering record of the Southern Alps, and that with an old lady, and that I should have kept my opinion regarding Zurbriggen’s climb on Mt. Cook to myself.

Before continuing, I wish to inform my readers that I was never interested in making or breaking records of any kind in connection with mountaineering. Having been reared in the mountains and having made a few minor climbs before I lost my milk teeth, the experience I gained later has convinced me that the time required to climb a mountain depends entirely on the conditions under which it is done. This is the reason that I never could see any sense or merit in so-called record climbs.

What was the record climb at that time in New Zealand? I was informed that the “Grand Traverse” of Mt. Cook was considered by many climbers to be a great achievement. Having climbed fifty-nine peaks there, of which twenty-nine were first ascents, I agree with the sentiment, and go a bit further by saying that it will be looked upon as a great climb for many years to come. The first ascent was made on January 4, 1912, by Miss Du Faur, with guides, Peter Graham and Darby Thomson. The time required was twenty-one hours from the bivouac on the Haast Ridge. Miss Du Faur in her book relates a great deal of step-cutting; it took them seven hours from the low to the high summit. I had the pleasure of meeting Miss Du Faur and the guide, Thomson, but did not climb with them, although I climbed several times with Graham. At that time I had sufficient knowledge to judge a man on the mountain. Graham was a good climber and guide ; not every good climber makes a good guide.

Our time from bivouac to bivouac was about eighteen hours ; the distance between the low and the high summit we covered in four hours including rest and time for photographs. On the day we made the ascent the snow was in good condition ; there was no ice on the magnificent ridge which connects the three summits of Mt. Cook. I believe that if they had had such conditions they would have taken less time than we did ; on the other hand, if we had met with the conditions they had we would probably have been defeated as I had no second guide.

I spent three seasons in New Zealand and came to the conclusion that where bad weather is concerned Mt. Cook keeps its pride of place. So it will not happen very often that the “Grand Traverse” is made in eighteen hours or less. I sincerely hope that someone has made or will make it in less time, so that no one will point me out as the holder of a climbing record. I am well aware that no alpine club offers encouragement to climb for the sake of making or breaking records, but there are individuals who climb, so to speak, with watch in hand. What joy they get out of it is often a mystery to others. According to observation their careers are nearly always of short duration, but in spite of this, some climb the ladder to fame without a breathing spell.

In a few isolated cases they are referred to as authorities on mountains, but nobody knows who is responsible for the authorization. Personally, I have noticed that climbers of this type have little if any sense of beauty; therefore, they find no excuse for stopping before they get to the top. Apparently they climb for climbing’s sake, and in some instances to attract attention and publicity. No doubt, they get a kick out of it while it lasts.

If one can remember enough on a hurry-up climb for a pipe- dream I have yet to find out ; but I have learned that quick climbing without stops is bad for the heart and other vital organs which have to perform the extra work. I am not ignorant of the fact that there have been, and are yet, some guides who are inclined to encourage fast climbing. About thirty years ago at the Drei Zinnen Hut I listened to half-a-dozen guides discussing a record climb made by two young Viennese on the Langkofel. Amongst the guides was Sepp Innerkofler, and his remarks, roughly translated were: “Boys, don’t you be foolish and encourage your tourist to get to the top in less time than your last. I tell you if this foolish idea of running up and down the peaks gets hold of the touristen, our mountains will be plastered with crosses and Gedenkstafeln !”

Innerkofler’s prophecy did not exactly come true, although the crosses and tablets increased every year. There is one or more on nearly every mountain in the Alps, especially in Austria. Whether those signs have any moral effect on the climbers I do not know, but I know they have no effect on the local people. Neither is it exciting news to them when they hear of an accident. The following bears this out: An American climber at Hinter- bärenbad, in the Kaisergebirge, asked the waitress how many accidents there had been in the last season ; to which she replied calmly, “Oh, only thirteen got killed, and one man broke his legs.” Glancing back to Innerkofler’s remarks we can read between the lines that running up and down mountains is not only foolish, it is dangerous. Sepp Innerkofler was one of Tyrol’s outstanding guides, much liked by mountaineers of many nations. Like most, he was his own philosopher. His motto on climbing was “Eile mit Weile.” If every climber from the beginning would adopt this motto and stick to it religiously, many accidents might be avoided.

1 “A marvellous feat unequalled for daring in the annals of the Southern Alps,” A. J., xxxix, 275.—Ed.

2 For these routes see A. J., xxxix, illustration p. 277.

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