American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Arthur Paul Harper, 1865-1955

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  • Publication Year: 1956



On May 30, 1955, there died at Wellington, New Zealand, in his ninetieth year, our honorary member Arthur P. Harper1 and the last surviving founder of the New Zealand Alpine Club. The inaugural meeting of the latter Club on March 11, 1891, was called by a notice signed by G. E. Mannering and A. P. Harper, and it elected Harper as the first secretary and treasurer. His father, Leonard Harper, was appointed the first president.

Young Arthur, on an early visit to England, was sent for six months to Dr. Parry’s school at Stoke Poges, where he records (in "Memories of Mountains and Men”—a most readable book, published in 1946) he was a fellow-pupil of Benjamin Disraeli, a nephew of Lord Beaconsfield, whom he encountered when on a visit to the school. He also had the remarkable experience of suffering punishment from his headmaster for untruthfulness in maintaining that he did not come from Australia, but from New Zealand, when to his "betters” New Zealand was definitely part of Australia!

On his return to New Zealand he was sent to Christ’s College, Christchurch, and later very appropriately went "Home” to enter Christ Church, Oxford, where he took his degree in 1887. He was called to the Bar in 1888, having entered the Inner Temple. It was at this time that Harper had his first introduction to the Swiss Alps, and, moreover, had the opportunity in England of meeting many members of the Alpine Club, to which he was elected in 1892. These were the important formative years of his life, and Harper was always eloquent of the influence the leaders of the "A.C.” had had upon him at that time.

His return to his own country in 1893 was marked by a grievous family tragedy, which drove him from the practice of the law to commence perhaps the most outstanding period of his career, in exploratory survey of the difficult mountain and forested country of Westland, as assistant to the great pioneer and surveyor Charles E. Douglas. Here for three years of the most arduous work in steep and virgin country of an exceptionally intransigent character, he made his great contribution to mountaineering in New Zealand. As is stated in the preface of his classical and inimitable book, published in 1896: "Pioneer Work in the Alps of New Zealand,” Harper could have justifiable pride in saying: "I do not pretend to have made many high ascents, but base my claim to be considered an authority on the Alps of New Zealand on the fact that I have shared in the first exploration of nearly every glacier in the central position of these mountains.” It is gratifying to know that to this classic work of Harper’s will shortly be added a volume of the diaries of the late Charles Douglas, to be edited by Mr. John Pascoe, and for which Harper himself, shortly before his death, wrote a Foreword of some 6,000 words: indeed, as Mr. Pascoe has cited in a letter to me, a veritable "memorial to Harper as well as to Douglas and their 'golden age’.”

Harper’s earlier survey-work along the western flank of the Southern Alps aroused a keen interest in the glaciers and their variations. Somewhere about 1895, he has cited in "Memories of Mountains and Men,” he was invited to become a member of the International Commission on Glaciers, which was later superseded by the International Commission on Snow and Ice. He remained a member of these important bodies until the end, and his interest in New Zealand glaciers was unabated: especially the spectacular Franz Josef Glacier, whose rate of movement he had measured, and shown in one section above Cape Defiance, to be as high as 14 or more feet a day, and whose periodic pulsations or "waves,” which induce abrupt alternate advances and retreats in its terminal front, have made it an ice- stream of particular interest. Incidentally, the above figure was not claimed to refer to the speed of the whole body of the glacier whose central portion (opposite Cape Defiance) has in recent years shown a rate of movement from five to five and one-half feet per day.

The long story of Harper’s relationships with the New Zealand Alpine Club, which he had helped to found, and which incidentally went into recess during the years 1896-1914, cannot be recounted here: details of this story can be gleaned from the earlier numbers of the New Zealand Alpine Journal, and especially the 1955 number containing his obituary. In England Harper had been imbued by the customs and the constitution of the "A.C.,” and for many years he would admit no other model could be more suitable for New Zealand. Moreover, for long he had little regard for the many mountain and "tramping” clubs that continued to spring up all over New Zealand. However, Harper was wise enough subsequently to take a more moderate view, and in 1930 he assumed the leading part in the formation of the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand. He was president of the N.Z.A.C. at this time (his whole period of office was from 1914 to 1932, and again in 1941 for the Jubilee year of the Club), and the chief advantage of the Federation he deemed to be the greater ability provided by weight of numbers in approaches to the Government on the unsatisfactory position of its policy in the licensing of alpine guides. That again is rather a lengthy story; but to the end Harper rightly disputed, as have the vast majority of mountaineers, the wisdom of the Government’s policy in the control of guides, especially the anomaly that even the Chief Guide in New Zealand is under the direction of the local Government Hotel manager, who himself is ignorant of mountain-craft. To the end Harper was fighting this issue, his first objective being to get the guides’ administration transferred from the Government Tourist Department to the National Park Authority or Board. That a Board to administer the Mt. Cook National Park has lately been appointed, with good representation of alpine interests, is most gratifying to those of us who have endeavoured to support him in this issue. It is in a sense sad that he did not live to witness and finally participate in this achievement for which as a first step he had striven.

Harper was a man of many interests, and his vitality and industry to the end were remarkable: indeed an example to many far his junior. He undertook his last big mountain excursion when he was 65 years old. On that occasion he led a party from the Hermitage over a pass at the head of the Mueller Glacier and down the Karangarua River, which he had explored 37 years earlier from the Westland side. In his middle seventies he climbed Hector’s Col (or Matukituki Saddle) in the Mt. Aspiring district, and when 86 attended the opening of the highest hut (N.Z.A.C.) on Mount Ruapehu. In 1948, at the age of 82, he became President of the Forest and Bird Protection Society of New Zealand, and he held that office until his death. Apart from membership of the National Park Authority (which preceded the Board), for 21 years he had served on the New Zealand Geographic Board, latterly as representative of the Federated Mountain Clubs. In 1952 he was awarded the "C.B.E.” for long services to exploration, mountaineering, the preservation of native fauna and flora and other public benefits. He appreciated enormously the Honorary Membership of the Alpine Club, which he was accorded in 1932, the year indeed that the N.Z.A.C. elected "A.P.H.” (as he was always known) to Life Membership. Harper was proud, too, to be Honorary Member of the American Alpine Club. He came of a distinguished English and New Zealand Church family: his grandfather, the Most Rev. H. J. C. Harper, D.D., being in his time Bishop of Christchurch and Primate of N. Z., whilst his uncle, the Very Rev. Walter Harper, was later Dean of Christchurch, and a Fellow of Christ’s College (N. Z.). In 1899 "A.P.H.” married Marion Florence Campbell of Christchurch: there were two sons and two daughters of the marriage, of whom one son, Leonard Hugh Acland, was killed in World War II, when serving with the R.A.F.

It was in 1923 that I first met Harper in London. He was then on a business visit, and he hoped that my Company (the Anglo-Persian Oil Co., on whose geological staff I was serving) might become interested in New Zealand petroleum possibilities, and even the exploitation of "fossil” kauri gum in North Auckland (now Northland) where the industry was waning: he hoped, as I fervently wished, that I might be sent out to investigate these possibilities; but that plan never eventuated, and I did not see Harper again for 27 years, when I came to New Zealand early in 1950. Often since then have we met and discussed mountains and mountaineers, when he would reveal in his vivid and kindly way his long memories of them, and all that they each in their way, whether in New Zealand or Europe, had meant to him. More than once he confided in me that it was his ardent hope again to visit England in 1957, when he craved to be present at the centennial celebrations of the Alpine Club. What characteristic enthusiasm, what a continuing and youthful spirit! Many there are who will share the regret that "A.P.H.” has not remained for that great occasion, but has passed on ahead to the Olympian Valhalla.

Noel E. Odell

1See photographs in A.A.J. 1952, opp. pg. 382 and A.A.J. 1953, opp. pg. 577.

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