American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Two Southern Peaks of New Zealand

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1938

Two Southern Peaks of New Zealand

Kate Gardiner

WHEN winter winds are sweeping through the leafless trees of New Jersey and the Canadian Rockies are again shrouded in snow, a new summer has begun on the other side of the world and the foothills of the Southern Alps of New Zealand are already white with alpine bowers.

Last December I was fortunate enough to find myself once more in that beautiful region, with the ascents of those two lovely peaks, Mt. Aspiring (9957 ft.) and Mt. Tutoko (9042 ft.), as the main objective of my visit. These rather remote mountains lie in the S. W. part of the South Island near the Cold Lakes. Aspiring is not far from Lake Wanaka, and a beautiful view of the glacier-covered side of Mt. Tutoko is obtained from the head of Milford Sound.

They are surrounded by a good many unclimbed peaks and this district is an especially happy hunting ground for young and energetic guidless climbers who do not mind back-packing and rough country. The peaks may seem low in comparison with some of those in other mountain regions, but both Aspiring and Tutoko are glacier- hung as the snow level in New Zealand is much lower than in Switzerland and one must remember that they have to be climbed almost from sea-level.

These mountains are in rather a rainy part of the country which adds to the difficulty of their ascent. One party some years ago waited three weeks in camp hoping to climb Mt. Aspiring and then had to abandon the project on account of the weather.

Making the Hermitage Mt. Cook my headquarters, I was able to get my two old friends, Frank Alack and Vic Williams, the well-known guides, to climb with me and after ascending the S. peak of Mt. Cook and making some other climbs in that neighborhood, we set off for Pembroke on Lake Wanaka on December 28th, which is nearly a day’s motor run through the mountains.

From there the following morning we motored on again for thirty miles to Niger Huts where we were met by Mr. Aspinall, the manager of the Mt. Aspiring sheep station, who had kindly arranged to come with two horses to help us transport our camping equipment and food up to Shovel Flat, near the head of the west branch of the Matukituki River, beyond which lay Mt. Aspiring itself. This broad grassy valley is very beautiful, with dense forests running up to wild crags on either side over which waterfalls tumble, and beyond one gets glimpses of glaciers and snow peaks.

It took us all day to get up this valley and establish our main camp and the next morning Vic, Frank and I set off for a high camping place at about 5700 ft. We had to make our way through the forest and up steep hillsides to a narrow ledge at the edge of the snowfields below Mt. French, where we pitched a small tent.

On the morning of December 31st we set out before daybreak and when it was still rather dark we reached some very broken ice called the Quarter Deck, where it was awkward to find a way through a maze of seracs and deep crevasses. Then going up over a rock ridge of Mt. French, just as the dawn was breaking, we came down onto the great Bonar Glacier which separated us from our mountain. Aspiring is truly a beautiful sight from this point ; as it rises like an ethereal snow-clad Matterhorn from the outspread névé below it.

Traversing the glacier and manipulating a difficult bergschrund at the foot of the mountain, we cut up steep snow slopes to gain the main ridge. We rested a while at a saddle from where the view was superb, Mt. Earnslaw and Mt. Tutoko standing up wonderfully to the S. and a clear view being also obtained of the Mt. Cook group.

The main ridge led on steeply to the summit, which was unfortunately capped by a thick fog. The descent was made by the same route and great care had to be taken because of the state of the snow. We found to our dismay on reaching the Quarter Deck that an ice-bridge, which we had used to cross a deep crevasse in the morning, had given way during the day; but we got over this difficulty by undercutting a rather tottery serac which fell down and made a somewhat fragile bridge. However, we got safely across and soon reached our high camp again.

It had rained slightly during our descent from the peak and we had some showers the following day, as we made our way back to the main camp, but it cleared January 2nd and we all walked out to the junction of the river to stay with Mr. and Mrs. A spinall, who had very hospitably invited us to their homestead and who gave us a very good time there. We had indeed been fortunate in getting one climb so quickly and in good weather ; but the poor guides came in for a real deluge the next day when they went up with the horses to get our belongings from Shovel Flat.

On January 27th, after another spell of climbing around the Hermitage, we set out once more for the S. in order to climb Mt. Tutoko, this time driving on past Pembroke to Queenstown on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. Here we spent the night and took a launch the following morning to Elfin Bay farther up on the other side of the lake, where we found awaiting us Mr. Shaw, another station holder, who had kindly promised to come with us as far as Glacier Creek in Hollyford Valley and to lend us some riding and pack-horses.

It was a three-day ride along rough bush tracks to Lake Haw- den and down Hollyford Valley, fording the swift river here and there, and we were delayed two days by bad weather. We took plenty of provisions with us and some guns to shoot game with in case the river rose and we got marooned at Glacier Creek where the packtrain left us for about ten days. However, Mr. Gunn (another station holder) had no difficulty in coming over to get us with the horses at the end of that time, so all was well.

Having found a good camping place on the moss-covered bank of the creek, with thick forest behind and on both sides of us, we soon set up our tents and on February 2nd the guides cut a track through the forest and up the very steep bush-covered mountainsides above camp and taking a small tent with them established another high camp 200 ft. above timber-line and the next day we all scrambled up there, carrying the rest of our equipment and stores with us.

On February 24th we made the ascent of Mt. Tutoko, first traversing a long snow slope above our high camp and then dropping down over a ridge onto the Donne Glacier. This was followed to the névé above it and the main ascent began by way of the N. ridge and face of the mountain which consisted mainly of rock.

The last 500 ft. of the mountain was interesting climbing, comprising a chimney which was badly iced. From the summit we could see the Sutherland Falls, Milford Sound and many other landmarks with the sea beyond.

After some intervening bad weather, when we were driven down to the main camp, we were able to return to our high camp and make the first ascent of an unnamed peak next to Tutoko, which proved a good snow and ice climb.

After making some small ascents in the Milford Sound and Queenstown region we returned to climb again around Mt. Cook, feeling very pleased to have ascended those two far-off southern peaks with so little difficulty and to have seen something of the lovely country surrounding them.

One never will forget the beauty of those wild woodland valleys, with the sparkling rushing rivers running through them, the crimson rata blooms making a wave of flame color on their somber forest-clad sides and here and there up side valleys many unclimbed, snow-clad peaks coming into sight.

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