A few years ago a young man offered me some photographic negatives and magic lantern slides for sale. When I looked at them, they were mostly of New Zealand subjects which at that stage were of limited interest to me. The young man, however, was very keen to sell, so we struck a bargain and he went his way.
When I took the photographs home I took the names of the places on the manila envelopes in which some of the negatives were filed and searched them online, along with my estimated dates and with the fact in mind that many of them depicted female mountain-climbers.
It didn’t take long to conclude that the photos were linked to a fascinating Australian woman named Marie Byles, who climbed mountains in New Zealand in 1929 and again in 1935. Most of the photos I had bought were evidently from her 1935 trip, in which she attempted to climb some previously “unconquered peaks” in the South Island’s alpine country.
Among the resources I discovered was this page, promoting a biography of Marie Byles titled The Summit of her Ambition, by Anne McLeod. I naturally bought a copy of the book, and discovered much about a dynamic and inspirational person.
Marie Byles became, in 1924, the first woman qualified to practise law in NSW. She was a pioneering environmental lawyer, a passionate advocate for national parks, a feminist and a practising Buddhist.
What follows is Marie’s own article, from the journal The Sydney Bushwalker, from 1935. I’ve placed some of the photos from the collection I bought in sometimes appropriate positions in her narrative.
Exploring Unclimbed Mountains on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand.
MARIE B. BYLES.
When my climbing companion, Marjorie Edgar Jones, and myself arrived at the Fox Glacier Hostel we found that our guide, Frank Alack, had recently cut his arm so badly as to require several stitches. It had brought his previous party’s exploits to an untimely end. But, as they had had perfect weather and had bagged fifteen peaks in ten days, probably they were not at all sorry for a good excuse to cease from their labours, for Frank’s enthusiasm is such that I can well believe he would never otherwise have given them an excuse for wasting fine weather doing nothing in particular. That was the thing about Frank I admired most. He was just as enthusiastic as an amateur, and with him as guide it required no effort – other than physical of course – to get up as many mountain peaks as possible.
The bad arm was fortunately nearly well by the time we arrived, and we had to wait only one day for the doctor to come and take the stitches out. This gave us an opportunity to visit the “Glow Worms’ Den”. There was not much of the “Den” about it, for the poor things are molested and raided by every tourist who wants to find out what makes them shine, so that it is a wonder they condescend to shine at all. However, there they were in spite of the tourists, the whole underside of the bank hung with cold diamond lights from which fell long iridescent streamers. Then, if you looked through the bush there you saw them again, fairy lanterns in the darkness of the fern-shade.
The doctor came and went, and in the meantime Frank had hit on the brilliant idea of cutting out the thirty miles horseback ride to Mahitahi, and going by aeroplane instead. I had never been in an aeroplane before, and this, coupled with the fact that riding is not one of my strong points, made me jump at the suggestion, and not till sometime afterwards remembered that Marjorie had not been consulted. But Marjorie could not be found, though I looked everywhere conveniently forgetting that she might be in her bedroom. So Frank and I decided that after all it did not matter much, for she was small and we could easily have carried her to the ‘plane by force if need be.
Marjorie did not exactly object, for she is an exceptionally good natured person, but I have a vision of the ‘plane arriving earlier than was expected, and of Marjorie being hustled to it with one boot on and one boot off or something similar. As we hopped up in the orange dragon-fly aeroplane and crawled over the far below landscape, I began to realise why the air-service has come as such a god-send to the West Coast. In a flash of the eye we had crossed over turbulent, grey, swirling torrents which looked bad enough from above, and what they are to horse and rider I was to find out later.
“For the first time I laughed at Cooks River”, said Frank as he alighted, thinking of all the times he had ridden over its unbridged waters and striven to find a crossing where there were neither quicksands nor unexpected holes.
In twenty minutes the orange dragon-fly landed us at the mouth of the Mahitahi River. It is only a two-way landing ground, east and west, but as the wind that brings the notorious West Coast rain, is a westerly, there is seldom a day when the ‘plane cannot call there!
We were met here by Mr Condon Senior, with his horse and dray, rather a come-down after having just patronized the most modern and up-to-date means of locomotion. However, as the dray carried our heavy packs as well as ourselves, we bore its bonebreaking bumps with a stoical grin. We spent that night at the Condons’ farm boarding-house, where we made the most of a first class dinner, the last civilized meal before setting off into the wilds to batten on kea and dog-biscuits.
Horses were practicable for the first five miles or so up the river above the Condons’ farm. And we rode partly over grassy meadowlands and partly through bush, crossing the grey-blue rushing river with its grey shingles at frequent intervals, each crossing getting worse as the mountains closed in and finally we tied the horses and proceeded on foot for the last half mile or so where there was a cache of our stores..
Thanks to Frank’s excellent organization, Harry Ayres had been packing stores from this point up to base camp for some days previously, and the arrangement was that he should come back here and take us up the deer-trail which Mr. Condon, Junior, had recently blazed for us as far as base camp. But no Harry appeared. Packing up through the lonely bush and crossing that turbulent stream is not an easy job by any means, and we began to grow anxious lest something had happened to him. Anyhow there was nothing for it but to start off through the bush without him.
It was an exquisitely beautiful bush, a dense subtropical jungle of all varieties of glossy green, above which the tall rimu or red pine dropped its weeping fronds, and the crimson rata flamed against the deep blue sky. Below them were glades arched over with tree ferns and delicate twining plants, while on the ground was a carpet of ferns innumerable, mosses of that deep rich green that rejoices your heart, and the crimson rata flowers that had fallen from above. The walk was like passing from one fairy glen to another more lovely than the last. But I could never quite get used to the idea that New Zealand has neither ticks nor leeches. I found myself unconsciously pulling my hat down to keep the ticks from falling down my neck, or glancing apprehensively at my fingers expecting to see the familiar trickle of blood from the slimy leech.
A short way along Harry appeared suddenly from out of the trees and set our fears at rest. From thence he led us unerringly along the faint trail, but a trail without which it would have taken us three or four times longer to go through that almost impenetrable jungle. It was a long enough tramp as it was, and our packs did not grow lighter as the ground got steeper and rougher. Only the prospect of mountain peaks to come made the hard packing seem worth while, beautiful as was the bush through which we passed.
you realize that my friends of the Sydney Bush Walkers do this sort of thing
for pleasure?” I said to Frank.
“Gosh!” He replied, “Send them over here and we’ll give them as much packing as they want”.
“But we call it bushwalking, not packing”, I demurred.
“Gosh”! was his incredulous, but meaning reply. And even to the end I could not persuade him that I was almost the only member of the Sydney Bush Walkers who did not rejoice in transporting a heavy pack through rough country.
It was necessary to cross the river once over and back, and the guides insisted on carrying Marjorie and me, a proceeding which I felt was a little infra dig, since I am accustomed to managing things like that for myself. But by the time I reached the middle of those glacier-cold waters, and found they were half way up my legs carried piggy-back, I was just as well pleased not to feel them swirling round my waist, as they would have done had I been on foot.
About half way through the day the unprecedented West Coast drought came to an end and made not the slightest attempt to return during the whole of the rest of my holiday in New Zealand – so much for those who say that if you will only provide enough water-proof things, you are bound to keep the rain away. I had water-proof garments from head to foot, and they had caused huge amusement when I tried them on at the Sydney Bush Walkers’ Club rooms. But the waterproof equipment did not have the slightest effect. The rain came down in torrents in the usual West Coast style, an inch an hour more or less and generally rather more than less. We were soon to reach the base camp about eight and a half hours after leaving the horses.
This was situated in an open piece of land near a stream with the bush on either side. It was about a mile above the junction of the Edison Tributary and possibly 2500 feet high. Cotton-wood trees with pretty white flowers grew nearby, and, as the leaves of these were said to taste like cucumber, I dutifully ate a daily ration of them in the hope that they would supply the vitamin content which I rather suspect is absent from camp food. Of the latter we had about three weeks’ supply, and it included such things as pemmican and hiking biscuits, both of which were voted a great success. Of meat we had practically none, for we had brought a rifle and intended to shoot keas, very tame parrot-like birds which would come within a yard of you either to be photographed or shot; they did not seem to mind which. When we succeeded in stewing them for twenty-four hours without burning them, they were said to taste like chicken. Being a vegetarian the keas were not of great interest to me from this point of view, except on an unlucky occasion when I chose to comment on the excellency of the soup, and it subsequently transpired that it was on this particular occasion that kea-broth had been added to it!
In addition to their culinary attractions there were two other reasons for shooting keas; one is their reprehensible habit of settling on the backs of sheep and attacking their vital organs with their powerful beaks; the other is their equally reprehensible desire to run away with mountaineering equipment, and I have seen them try to make away with a heavy pair of mountaineering boots left out in the sun to dry.
But that was at a later date; for the present there was no sign of the sun. The rain teemed down from a sky of unbroken grey, and we were devoutly thankful that Mr. Condon had selected a palatial rock for our base camp. It was so high that Marjorie and I could stand up in it in places, and its only disadvantage was an underhanging ledge with a shocking propensity for knocking people on the head at unexpected times.
Harry had stocked the cave with grass beautifully soft to sleep upon. The only trouble was that Marjorie evinced a disturbing habit of kicking, and before long I found myself ejected from the grass and lying among jam tins and primus stoves. Marjorie was very conscience-stricken in the morning – which of course dawned with the same teeming rain – and decided that next night she would sleep by herself under a rock near the stream, the bathroom I called it, but as the stream might easily have risen another six inches and turned it from a bathroom into a bath the proposal did not meet with much favour. Indeed in order to wean her from the horrid idea Harry pointed out a much better rock about twenty yards away.
I looked a little longingly at the soft grass, for after all I had enjoyed its benefits for a little part of the night if no longer, and then I followed Marjorie across to the new cave. I soon found out that it was good to be in my own camp again where I could mess about with the fire and endeavour to master the art of camp-fire making out of sodden and reluctant West Coast wood. It was a distinct blow to my pride to find Frank brushing aside my fire-making efforts as those of a mental defective – when all is said and done I have made camp fires in Australia for the last twenty years or so! But the West Coast wood is a law unto itself. The principle of making it burn is to build the fire on the top of a grate, as it were. Once the wood falls to the ground it gently but surely goes out.
For three days it rained without ceasing. Harry had brought up a few magazines and a mouth organ to while away the time, and Marjorie and Frank tapped a perennial source of interest when they started an argument as to the meaning of a traverse, a complete traverse and a grand traverse. These are mountaineering terms for various ways of climbing and crossing a mountains but as to which is which I leave to Frank and Marjorie. I had a feeling that Frank got the better of the argument, but Marjorie was a game little thing, and, in spite of her tiny size, never gave in over this or other matters. I once saw her engaged in a rather unequal struggle with Frank as to whether a certain kea should or should not be shot. Frank said it was grossly unfair and that she ought to tackle someone her own size and not a little fellow like him!
By one means and another we whiled away the three days, and on the fourth, New Year’s Day, the weather made a good resolution for the coming year and eased off sufficiently to allow us to make our way to the head of the Mahitahi Valley. No trail had been blazed beyond the base camp.
“After that”, said Mr. Condon lightly, “you can follow a deer trail”.
The deer are one of New Zealand’s imported pests, and they are accused of eating out the lovely bush. We failed to see the least sign of their eating out of the bush, and not an overwhelming number of their trails either. And anyone who has followed, or tried to follow, a deer trail knows that they have a habit of petering out or dividing in two or something. But whatever happens to the trail, the result is the same; you find yourself plunging through undergrowth and floundering ungracefully between boulders and scrub. However, one must be thankful for small mercies, and to the mountaineer the deer are decidedly one of them. They enabled us to cover the remaining couple of miles of bushland in about as many hours.
Above the bush was about a mile and a half of open grassy slopes cut by steep gullies, and we soon arrived on the top of the Mueller Pass (4509 feet high) and looked down onto the Zora Glacier a thousand feet below, a great white serpent with a black medial moraine running down the middle of its back, formed by the junction of two neve fields. It was like Cortez standing on the peak of Darien and gazing down onto the unknown Pacific Ocean. A few deer stalkers had probably penetrated as far as the Mueller Pass, but none had ever descended to that glacier below and none had ever trodden the mist-enshrouded peaks that lay around it. The country had held its secrets unviolated since the days when the earth groaned and travailed in Cretacious times and left those rocks tilted and twisted as they now are.
It was not a very helpful tramp as far as mapping out our mountains was concerned, for the mist lay heavy over everything down to five thousand feet, but it did enable us to locate a cave for the high camp. Frank was a great believer in caves. He knew from bitter experience the joys of a tent in West Coast rain, and though I guaranteed my little tent to be waterproof, it having been well tested under the garden hose, he was having none of it if he could help it, and before the trip was over we were thoroughly of his opinion. Fortunately the schist of the district often weathers underneath to form caves – on the weather side, a most inconsiderate, but rather natural idiosyncracy – and we found a tolerably good overhanging rock which, with a little levelling and walling-in, would be weatherproof and high enough to lie in, and in spots even to sit up in. It was situated at the foot of a glacier which came down from a snow col between the rocky peaks above. It was New Year’s Day, and it was afterwards up this glacier that we first made our way into the untrodden snows of a new land. We therefore called it the Matariki Glacier and Col, for Matariki is the beginning of the new year for the Maoris, the sowing time after the rising of the Pleides just before the sun.
Having located our cave we made our way down again in mist and drizzle and spent another three days at base camp watching the rain, for the weather had already forgotten its New Year Resolution, would it ever stop raining? Remembering that we were on the West Coast did not help at all. Frank recalled one time when it rained for forty days and forty nights at Waiho without lifting once. Then there was the story of the West Coast lover who was overheard vowing eternal devotion to the lady of his heart: “Darling”, he declared fervently, “Darling, I will love you as long as it rains on the West Coast!”
Then, on the seventh day after leaving Condon’s, a wonderful thing happened. I woke at 4 a.m. to see a perfectly cloudless sky above, and the first rose of dawn tinting the snow-clad heights which now for the first time stood forth unveiled in mist. I felt all quivery and excited. So the rain had not come to stay forever, and we really should feel our feet upon the snow and ice. Life seemed too good to be real. But we had to spend that lovely day in packing up to the high camp. It could not be helped, for to have arrived there in the rain with no means of drying – for it was high above the tree line – would have been unforgivable folly. It took the whole day to transport our food and gear, and make the cave secure from bad weather by building a substantial wall on the South West of its entrance. But the morrow dawned half clear, and after satisfying ourselves that things were getting no worse, we made a very late start at 7-30 a.m. going up by the Matariki Glacier.
After six years in an almost mountainless land I was – once again among the snowy heights and with a new realization of their meaning. Still, silent and serene they stood above the morning mists, but they revealed the stresses and strains of a living world that has lived through millions of years and is still living. In their glass, the seasons of the earth’s course round the sun seemed lost in the vaster seasons of geological time, where the winters are the glacial epochs that have coated the world in ice, and the summers are the warm, dry eras that have succeeded the great ice ages. “As for man, his days are as grass; the wind passeth over it and it is gone”. And that is the secret of the serenity of the mountains. For what are all the petty cares of mortal life or mortal life itself when reflected in their mirror? In the next geological age man and his troubles will be as it they had never been. Small wonder, then, the peace that broods over the ancient hills, and the easing of the heart that is found in high places.
It was a steep pull up the Matariki Glacier, and the ice was frequently sliced by huge shrunds. One in particular stretched from side to side of the glacier and we had to cut right down the lower lip and right up the one above it, which was certainly vertical if not overhanging. We reached the Matariki Col and found ourselves looking across the head of the Zora Glacier. The mists were rapidly covering the mountains and we had only glimpses of the surrounding peaks as we made our way towards the one at the head of the Zora. Fettes Peak we caught sight of to our right.
“That peak has not been climbed, has it?” I said to Frank.
“No, but he is going to be”, said Frank meaningly. It was a prediction that won my heart, but it was unwise, as the morrow was to show.
By the time we reached our chosen peak the mists had swallowed up everything. Still, there was a wonderful thrill in climbing up that last bit of rock and shaking hands on the top of our first virgin peak. Below us we caught tantalizing glimpses of the head of the Makawhio Valley, the next valley north of the Mahitahi, rocky ramparts hemming in a wild gorge, but what lay in the depths we could not see. So we gave up unravelling the geography of the mists, built a cairn and put the peak in our rucksacks, so to speak.
As we sat beside our brand new cairn on the top of our first peak there loomed through the mist on our left a rocky aiguille which looked suspiciously higher than the summit we were on. Frank declared it was not, and Frank would probably be the better judge, but Marjorie and I had our suspicions, and still have. Anyhow, higher or not, we thought we might as well climb it.
So off we set along the snow ridge and dumped our rucksacks and ice-axes at the foot of the rocks. We soon found that the arrête involved a knife-like edge of schist. Frank led up, and I followed, or rather I did not, and that was the trouble; I took a route of my own which looked easier, but led me right to the top, and I soon found myself clinging prayerfully, and apparently not too elegantly, to a thin slab with a sharp tilt on one side and nothingness on the other, with the disconcerting sound of suppressed laughter from Harry and Marjory, who for some reason seemed to find my posture amusing. After a frantic struggle to get up the steep tilt without handholds or foot-holds, I did eventually reach the upper end, but merely to hear Frank call out, “It’s not worth your while coming, Marjorie, we can’t get any further this way!” All my struggles in the middle of airy space, gone for nothing! But when I looked at the thin tilted edge of mica schist that led upwards, I had not the slightest desire to renew my desperate contortions. It looked no thicker than cardboard on the top, and there were no hand – or foot-holds below the top. I am confident that it would not have stood Marjorie’s weight, let alone Frank’s. We descended, I taking very good care to return by Frank’s route, and not my own. We had a look at another possible way up, but it was far from straight forward, and as we had made a late start – after seven in the morning the afternoon was far advanced, and we thought it wiser to return.
However, we at least intended to return by a different way, and make a traverse of the mountain, though which particular species of traverse, I leave to Frank and Marjorie. We started down a rocky gully, and with us also started down a continuous stream of rocks large and small. We moved one at a time, so as to give the lower person opportunity of getting under cover before the next one started the barrage. Then we reached a “gutter”, too long for each to descend in turn, that is, too long for the length of rope between each person, and too dangerous for all to be in together. So once again we had to return having left the route much safer by removing many of its superfluous rocks. But, as a matter of fact when we viewed our route from Mount Butzbach at a later date, we found it ended in a precipice capped by blind, or hanging, glaciers. So that even had we survived the gutter, we should still eventually have had to return.
Such was the ascent of our first virgin peak. We then thought it was unnamed, and for identification it passed under various cognomens from New Year Peak to Sunrise Mountain. But later, when we saw it from Mount Butzbach uncovered by mist, we considered that it was probably the Mounts Query and/or doubtful of the map, but of this more anon.
Frank set the alarm for 1-45 the following morning and we were off by lantern light before 3 a.m. It was a starlit, dewy night, and we were soon wet above the knees in the long grass lying between our camp, about 3500feet and the Mueller Pass, 4500 feet. From the Pass we descended down a slope, of mixed scree and grass, most unpleasant going. A steep slope of good scree is just fun, for you can put your faith in the Lord, and run, but when it is mixed up with grass and plants, you cannot run and are always sitting down unintentionally on the most pointed of the stones. For some reason the schist does not seem to make good scree; it appears to powder into soil without first turning into stones, with the result that what ought to be a scree slope supports a partial vegetation between fair-sized loose rocks.
We were glad to reach the Zora Glacier, about a thousand feet below. Our objective was Mount Fettes on the other side, the mountain Frank and I had discussed the day before. We crossed the glacier, hearing on the way a splendid glacier-stream, or moulin, as it is called, racing below the ice exactly like a mill-stream that gives it its name. Then we went up the little rock gully directly opposite the Mueller Pass with what we had called Te Keo, or the pointed peak, on our right, and the peak intermediate between it and Fettes on our left. It was extremely easy going, just a rock scramble with a little snow in between, and we neither roped nor cramponed until we reached the col at the top of the ridge.
The day had dawned with a lovely alpine glow on our first peaks, but it now belied its promise; a bitter wind sprung up and brought the mist low upon the mountains. As we went along the snow-slopes, we seemed to be looking down vertical steeps into a white abyss. “Fine view, that!” said Frank ironically, waving his arm over the white nothingness. “I ask you, have you ever seen anything finer?” It was true that we had not seen anything finer, but it was a view that was: getting a little too familiar!
But, apart from the cold and the mist, the climb continued to be easy. The snow-slopes led upward at a gentle grade. And Frank tried to persuade us to take off our crampons. But Marjorie and I, being lightweights, have a fondness for spikes on frozen snow and resolutely stuck to our crampons. But crampons with the kind of strap Marjorie and I had, were a bother to take on and off, and Frank did not consider it worthwhile our taking them off to climb over the rocks of the intermediate peak. Now crampons on rock, anyhow on my feet, always remind me of a cat on tiles, or keas’ claws sliding down the iron roof of an alpine hut, and lacking the bravery of a cat or a kea, I generally end by getting stuck. Frank waited patiently while I took an infinity of time trying to get round a corner where there simply wasn’t room for my feet and my crampons also. Of course Marjorie being a superb rock-climber does not mind what she wears, and would, I believe, cheerfully scale the most difficult rock-peak in high-heeled dancing shoes.
Once over the snow-ridge beyond the intermediate peak we saw a thing that made my heart sink into my crampons – foot-steps in the snow! That was the sequel to the proud boast of the day before. And who was it who had sullied the maiden purity of the snow? Who had for stalled us at our chosen peak two days before at most? We followed the foot-steps up to the little rock arrête to the summit, and on the top we found the expected cairn, and in it a card bearing the answer to our questions – Messrs A.J. Scott, R.S. Russell, and G.C.N. Johnson on the 4th. of January. It was now the sixth. It was rather like Scott arriving at the South Pole to find Amundsen had got there first, only this time it was Scott who got in first. However, as Mr Johnson was an old boy of Fettes College, Edinburgh, we could not very well grudge them the victory, more especially as he had reverently laid his college hatband on the summit as an offering from the patron god of his college to the patron god of his peak.
Clouds swirled round the mountain and occasionally between them we would get a fleeting glimpse of Cooks River or Mount Cook. We tried to get a photo of the latter, but though I lay on my tummy for twenty minutes with my finger on the camera while Marjorie posed uncomfortably on a suitable rock, it was all in vain, the clouds never once lifted to give us a chance.
It was bitterly cold, except, curiously enough, on the very summit, and as we had left our rucksacks as well as our ice-axes at the foot of the rocks, we were by now feeling hungry as well as chilly. To sit on the exposed snow-slopes below was impossible, so eventually we descended a suitable schrund and ate Aulsebrook’s hiking biscuits and dates in the shelter of the ice wall.
On our return we climbed the summit of the intermediate peak, but alas there were scratches on the rocks. I tried to believe they might be the work of ancient glacial action, but in honesty I have to admit they were really very modern nail marks.
Then we climbed Te Keo, not a very high peak, probably only a little over 7000 feet, but it at any rate was virgin, and from the Mahitahi side the most conspicuous peak of the lot, so we built our cairn and put it in the rucksack along with the other virgins. We sauntered down the easy glacier-rounded slopes of Te Keo, stopping often to admire the alpine flowers, daisies of almost countless varieties, the largest being the size of small plates, the most striking growing with eight or a dozen blooms on one stalk. Golden ranunculi with black eyes, white gentians in pin-cushion clusters, but loveliest of all were the little rock-gardens of dark-green, mossy plants, starred with golden gems and crystal flowers. What would not the city-dweller give to transport such a rockery to his garden!
We had tea on the Muller side of the Zora, watching avalanches thundering down from the hanging glaciers opposite, such a booming thunder for such a tiny puff of white smoke! The clouds hung heavily down to seven thousand feet, and of our mountains we saw nothing.
We reached the bivvy at 5 p.m., fourteen hours, having traversed the whole of Fettes Range and climbed about 6000 feet in all. Now we had to turn to on the far more Herculean task of removing the results of the blow-flies’ efforts to propagate their species inside our carefully tied-up rucksacks, sleeping-bags and tucker-bags! One admits that the propagation of the species is a necessary and natural function, but surely blow-flies might be a little more moderate in the number of their progeny. Theirs would certainly be a fruitful field for Dr Marie Stopes! Even after we turned-in to sleep we heard Frank indignantly turning blow-flies off the perches where they had gone peacefully to sleep for the night. And now you know why Marjorie named our camp, “Blow-fly Bivvy”.
We slept the sleep of the just that night, and heard nothing until the alarm woke us to the sound of a howling tempest. When it grew light we saw the rain sheeting up the Talley at the rate of an express train and the fury of a host of demons. We were well underneath the rock, but the rain was beginning to blow in on us and find its way through the crevices in the wall we had built. We fastened the tent and fly in front by means of ice-axes, and Harry’s shirt which he had trustingly hung up to dry was commandeered to fill up the remaining gap. As for the crevices in the wall, grass, paper, and everything available was stuffed in, Frank in his enthusiasm utilizing his own safety razor to say nothing of Marjorie’s puttees and Harry’s socks! Then we lay down in our sleeping bags, packed like sardines in a tin with not an inch to spare between us, not even for Marjorie to kick!
The storm increased in fury as the day wore on, and when I peeped out in the afternoon, there was nothing to see but a white world of driving water; even the rain curtains were swallowed up in the general sheet which swept up the valley with such fierceness one could hardly stand up against it. When I had tried out my little tent under the hose on the lawn, people looking on had said, “But you never get rain as heavy as that!” Don’t you, just? The hose was like a gentle shower compared with the tempest that raged round our bivvy. “What do you do if you find yourself in a tent in rain like this?” I asked Frank. “You just pack up and go home”, he replied laconically. It rained like that for two days, and on the third day I woke to hear the rain still streaming off our rock, and Frank calling out. “Someone’s left the tap running. Turn it off at once!”
We lay down to doze again. It was while trying to doze during the day that I got dreadful nightmares – or daymares – as to what was happening in my office during my absence. Time and again I found myself struck off the roll of solicitors or forced to foot bills for anything up to a hundred pounds for disbursements on behalf of clients who would not pay. It turned out afterwards that everything had been managed exceptionally well during my absence, but no wireless to that effect relieved the uneasy hours when I tried to doze away the daylight. On the third day there were occasionally breaks between the rain clouds; Marjorie and Frank woke up sufficiently to continue the argument about traverses while Harry joined in a discussion on politics. I learned that Australia is a well-governed country; the first time I ever heard such a thing suggested and I was very surprised. One lives to learn!
The fourth day was even better. On the strength of a few lucid intervals everyone indulged in a wash, and Frank considered that a shave would not be out of place. It was then that the fate of the safety razor was realized. After lunch it had actually cleared and we decided to stretch our legs by going up the Matariki Glacier and traversing the range from the Matariki Col to the Mueller Pass taking in the peak between. It was a pleasant climb for Marjorie and me, but not for the heavier guides who dared not put their weight on the frail handholds of the slate and phyllite which served to support Marjorie and MB. In the veins of the rock were perfectly formed quartz crystals growing like plants. We had found much quartz crystal in this district, but there was an exceptionally large amount on this peak. So we called it Crystal Peak.
Everybody felt more cheerful that evening; Marjorie “lost” the ammunition so that the guides could shoot no more keas, but she eventually “found” six cartridges which Frank said was a very stingy supply. The shooting of keas except for food, was a second perennial source of controversy between Marjorie and Frank. I felt Marjorie’s arguments were stronger, but when it came to frightening the birds away before they could be shot, Frank generally won, especially as the keas seemed to aid and abet him by refusing to be frightened away. The keas, which were put into the billycan, were stewed on an outside fire for which Harry gathered some small scrub.
The mists dropped low that evening, and were still low when we left at 4 a.m. for Mount Strachan, the chief Mecca of the expedition. As we topped the Mueller Pass we saw through the mist the pale orange glacier of Mount Strachan, faint and ethereal against the dim, hidden, sapphire sky.
“Bet it’s going to be a perfect day”, said Frank and no one contradicted him.
By the time we reached the glacier the mists had disappeared and the deeply crevassed slope of white stretched as far as we could see above us, clean and clear. It would have been a difficult glacier to negotiate earlier in the year, but the heat of the drought had broken down many of the seracs and schrunds. Even so, those that remained made it an interesting snow-and-ice-climb. We could not be sure from below which was the true summit, so we made for the snow-peak to the left, topped it at 8.30 a.m. only to find a much higher rocky summit an the right. The sky was flecked with cirrus clouds and a piercing wind was already blowing on the exposed rook arrête. We therefore redonned our crampons and went up by the steep but sheltered, frozen snow-slope.
All the way up I had been looking fearfully for signs of footsteps in the snow. But there were none. The snows were uncontaminated by man, and the summit rocks (6359 ft.) which we reached at 9.15 a.m., were innocent of any cairn. And to match a first-class climb, a peerless view stretched out around us. Sheltered from the wind we lay in the sun and looked across the Zora Glacier to range upon range of black rock alternating with white ice, rising up tier above tier till they culminated in the crowned head of Mount Cook. Never before did we realize how the Maori’s “Aorangi” towers above everything, the queen and goddess of the subject mountains round her.
Clouds floated in the valleys like unsubstantial ranges above which towered the sharp peaks of reality, or like billows of silent seas below which on the west we could dimly discern the white breakers of the real ocean breaking on the shoreline whence we had come, ages past, it seemed. The soft murmuring of the mountain winds communing with the sea alone broke the stillness and seemed to make manifest the spirit of beauty floating among the high places.
Mount Dechan lay further along the range, but separated from us by a yawning gulf. It was this gulf that made us decide to tackle it from the Otoko valley further south.
After lunch we started back down the glacier, a glacier that will remain in my memory as a foretaste of the white heat of hell. The mocking clouds lay below us instead of above, and nothing broke the fierce rays of the sun that streamed down onto a field of flawless white, to be reflected back with an added intensity onto our unhappy faces. Next time I go mountain-climbing I am determined to invent a kind of nose bag such as the ladies wear in Port Said. Marjorie often climbs in a woollen balaclava to protect her face, but that sounds a little hot to me; Zinc ointment is good, but one always seems to forget to put it on some vital spot, so altogether I fear it will have to be the nose bag.
The wind, too, mocked us like the clouds. At eight thousand feet it was blowing the white, powdered snow from the peaks. But no breath of its cooling air broke the still glare of the glacier. The only respite was a few minutes while Marjorie was feeling her way down into a schrund, and I stood in a cave of shadowed ice and leant my head against its refreshing cold. Below, Harry stood hatless in the dazzling heat. Why he did not get sunstruck is one of the marvels of nature we shall never understand.
Altogether it was a glacier such as Geoffrey Windthrop Young described in that poem about the plunge into the glacier pool afterwards. Here there was no glacier pool, but we did gradually descend into the shadow of those gentle clouds and reach the relief of soft, green, grassy slopes where a peaty rill sang sweet, mellow songs, luring us to drink its waters nearly dry.
Arrived back at camp we had a late lunch, packed up and proceeded down to base camp again. For we had catalogued and cairned all the peaks we could at the head of the Mahitahi river and the Zora glacier, but there still remained a first class peak above our base camp. Our packs may be imagined, but would scarcely be envied even by bush walkers, for we were endeavouring to transport all our gear together with about a week’s food in one relay. Primus stoves, billies, sleeping bags, and all attachable things were draped over the outside long after the inside capacity of the rucksacks had been thoroughly exhausted. Our guides must have shouldered ninety pounds each, and all of us thought longingly of Himalayan expeditions with their long streams of porters and the white man marching free. Sad to relate my own pack was too heavy for me; I completely overdid it, arrived at camp at my last gasp, and was ill for a week afterwards. It is so much easier “to stick it out” than admit failure and give in. One realizes too late that though it is easier “to stick it out”, it is wiser to give in. I record this as a warning to others, but I know no one will be warned. I never am myself, so I cannot expect others to be.
Next day I felt ghastly, and perhaps it was as well that rain drove us back from our climb when we had ascended only a couple of thousand feet or so up the dry gully behind our camp onto the grass slopes above the tree-line. The bell birds sang to us from the crimson rata trees as we ate breakfast the following morning, which shows we were decidedly late in getting up, I heard Frank calling out earlier, but I thought, or pretended to think, for I was still feeling most unwell, that he was calling keas, and Marjorie nothing loath agreed with me; we both snuggled down again until the rising smoke made the previous explanation impossible. It was 4.20 a.m. before we left, too late when you realize that though our peak would not be as much as 7500 feet, yet as our camp was only about 2500 feet, we had a 3000 foot climb before us, and unless we were at the summit by 9 am it would be too late, for the inevitable clouds that grow to life in the valleys as the day advances, would already have risen up and shut out the view.
This time we chose the baby glacier, the source of the stream beside our camp, instead of the dry gully. It proved an excellent route until the rising sun, loosening the rocks, changed it from a mountaineers’ highway to a shoot for stones, which we watched in safety from the grass-slopes, dancing merrily over our footsteps of fifteen minutes previously.
From the baby glacier we went up the shingle arrête and thence onto the glacier on the Makawhio side, the valley into which we had had such tantalizing but unsatisfying glimpses from our first peak. It was hemmed in by an impregnable bulwark of rocky ramparts varied only by the peaks we had climbed that day. And below the crags we could see a blue river winding down a deep gorge and passing out of sight.
The view from the summit not only solved the nature of the head of the Makawhio valley, but cleared up many other problems relating to the geography of the district. For after all it was only the second time we had obtained any view worth mentioning. We discovered that it must be Mount Butzbach we were on, and that the peaks of our first climb must be the Mount Query and Doubtful of the map, placed somewhat out of their true position in relation to the Zora Glacier. It also removed the last doubt that the source of the Mahitahi river is at the Mueller Pass and not as shown on the map.
Once again serried ridges of the Alps rose up one above the other to the crown of Cook, but this time on the west we could see the whole horizon of the ocean above two small peaks that lay between us and it.
We traversed the peak and, descending by the rock arrête, arrived back in camp with plenty of time to wash clothes and remove biddy-biddies from them. Biddy-biddies are seed-balls with fish-hook claws, and they took the place of blow-flies in demanding our attentions at the end of a long day. But, sad to relate, we shortly discovered that blow-flies down at base camp had also developed the totally uncalled-for habit of laying larvae!
The climb had been as good as a tonic to me, but bush-walking for eleven and a half hours with a pack, albeit a light one, undid all the good of the climb. We left camp at 6 am for Condon’s farm. Each time we rested I collapsed, and had eventually to submit to being dosed with brandy, vile stuff which made me wonder how ever any one could become addicted to it. It was doubtless an exquisitely beautiful bushland through which we passed, but I felt I hated it, and longed to get out of it into the pure, clear air of the mountain tops.
At weary last we emerged from the forest, the valley widened out and we reached the cache where we had parted from the horses coming out. Here we parked most of our stuff, and tramped on leisurely with wider views around and better able to enjoy the lovely scenery. They say a sick body makes the mind especially sensitive to beauty. Anyhow I shall never forget the loveliness of that rushing, blue-grey river where paradise ducks flopped over the boulders pretending to be lame so as to distract our attention from their babies nearby. Crystal-clear rills rippled out from the sylvan glades of the forest to join the blue-grey river, Rata flamed against the blue sky, and scarlet lichen painted the grey shingles at the river side. Then the mountains flattened out, grassy flats edged the river, a telephone line wandered out, and lastly a house, and we were back in civilization after a fortnight of pemmican, biscuit and kea – not forgetting the kea-soup!
Now Frank, he was a guide of fame and far renown,
And Harry was a younger guide who hailed from Christchurch town,
And Margie was a mountaineer, though this she did deny,
And Marie really wasn’t, but she thought she’d like to try,
And they all wept together, as the rain it streamed down!
By Marie B. Byles.
We arrived back from the Mahitahi mountains to Condon’s farm boarding house to find a huge gathering of people there. The new-comers were engaged installing a hydro-electric plant to work a new sawmill which had recently obtained the right to fell the timber over an area between Condon’s and the sea. The hydro-electric installation would mean that Mrs Condon would have an electric range to lighten her labours, and what it would mean to the forest the motor ride from Hokitika to Weheka had shown us only too well. When the New Zealand forest is cut down, it does not regrow itself like the Australian bush, nor does it turn itself automatically into pleasant pasture lands. On the contrary unless the blackberry and gorse are sedulously kept in check it becomes a wilderness dominated by these pests, a desolation not of loneliness but of man’s destruction, “a land of deserts and of pits, a land of darkness and the shadow of death, a land that no man passed through and where no man dwelt”. I asked the young surveyor if it did not give him a guilty conscience to think that he was indirectly the instrument of making that hopeless desolation.
The first night we sat down ten to dinner, to say nothing of the Condon family who fed in the kitchen. How Mrs Condon managed to look after us all, I do not know, but she never seemed flustered or bothered. Of course every one helped, but still I cannot understand how one woman managed all that work.
The day after our arrival Harry went up with horses to bring our stuff down from the cache. The rest of us washed clothes! Towards evening the clouds gathered once again, and the rain descended. As I was still feeling pretty ghastly from the effects of carrying too heavy a load, I was not altogether sorry for an extra day’s respite before setting forth up the Otoko Valley for fresh mountains to conquer. The only trouble was that the one day lengthened to six, none too long for my recovery, but sufficiently aggravating none the less. Day after day it teemed as only the West Coast can. One morning we had a flood. The creek at the back changed its course so that the house was practically surrounded by rushing water. To me it looked as if the farm would inevitably be swept away. But to my amazement the family were worrying only about the potato and gladioli beds. It seemed to me strange to worry about potatoes and gladioli when we and the house were about to go to destruction. But the Condons knew better. The West Coast river flats are so wide that they can carry off almost anything. They are used to floods; in fact floods are an almost daily occurrence for them.
The evening before, Frank had bet Marjorie that it was going to be fine; I am not sure which said which or whether Marjorie took on the bet in the first instance, but I do know that when the flood swept round the house Frank said he had won the bet, and Marjorie said he had lost it. Anyhow, the bet being two packets of chocolate Frank magnanimously proceeded to pay Marjorie in my chocolate which all worked out excellently, because Marjorie would carry the chocolate instead of me, and I would do the eating just as before!
On the sixth day, Saturday, the rain showed signs of departing, and it was decided that in the afternoon Frank and Harry would go ahead with Mr Condon Junior and the horses, the idea being that they should make a base camp up the Otoko Valley, the next valley south from Mahitahi, that the following day Marjorie and I would hike over to Paringa about ten miles, be met by Mr. Condon and taken up on the same horses to join the guides.
Mr Condon senior was going down with his dray to the “town” that day, and he offered to take us with him. Neither Marjorie or I are too blasé to reject the novelty of any new experience, even dray-riding, so of course we accepted the invitation with alacrity. Mrs Condon thoughtfully provided us with cushions which we used as praying mats when the bumping seemed a trifle likely to disintegrate the human anatomy, and off we jolted, firstly through pasture lands and then through the virgin bush which in a few months would be no more. We crossed the Mahitahi river near its mouth. It was running muddy and deep, but the same blue-grey river rushing over grey shingle flats towards a grey sea.
We jolted and bumped along the shore on the narrow cart track to the “town”, two rows of brand new shacks erected by the timber company for its employees, a brand new store which sold chocolate at city prices, and oranges at 4d each, a rather alarming price for a Sydney person who prefers them at forty for sixpence, but a price not unduly high for New Zealand. The mill folk had been laying down a tramline and had taken up the roadway for this purpose, but when we came along they obligingly laid it down again to let us pass!
Opposite the mill-to-be was a weird kind of wharf in the process of erection, and beyond it again a weirder wharf still which has served the West Coast for miles north and south ever since the white man came there. It is constructed at the least unsheltered part of a very unsheltered, surf-swept beach. The beach is there partly protected by a rocky headline and is euphemistically called “Bruce’s Bay”, though it takes imagination to find the “bay” part of it. The wharf runs out from the high land onto a high rock on which stands a derrick. This rock is connected by a rope with a rocky islet further out still. Obviously no steamer can come alongside, so the cargo is discharged into a surf-boat which is rowed in and held in place ‘by means of this rope, while the derrick up above relieve it of its burden. When you remember that this is the only way other than horseback of getting stores to this part of the West Coast, you marvel, not that oranges are so expensive, but that chocolate is so cheap. You also marvel that the steamship company calls its boats by such inauspicious names as the “Storm” and the “Gale”. And you do not marvel that the “Calm”, I think it was, was wrecked!
From the wharf we looked down the long monotonous reach of grey shingle shore stretching as far as the eye could see. Behind the shore was the stretch of coastal plain, flat as the ocean itself, and behind it again were the mountains shrouded in mist. Around us were wave-worn boulders of schist, looking smooth and greasy like polished logs of fine-grained wood, and I could never make up my mind whether they were really slippery or only looked so. We tramped back by the track along the shore to the mouth of the Mahitahi, and looked through gaunt grey flax bushes at the grey sea breaking on the grey sands. Grey sands are not as lovely as golden ones, but they have a fascination of their own.
Frank and Harry had departed with Mr. Condon junior by the time we arrived back, and we packed our rucksacks ready to follow on the morrow. It dawned a perfect morning, clear and cloudless with a crisp snap in the air, and a dew so cold it seemed like frost on the bare feet. Mr. Condon senior put us across the Mahitahi river in the dray and thence we hiked along the main West Coast road, a cart track which is practicable only for horses except in the winter when the snows are frozen and the rivers shrunken, so that even cars may sometimes cross them. For anyone who loves bushwalking there could be no more delightful tramp than down the West Coast bridle track. Between Mahitahi and Paringa it passes through virgin forest land; ever and again clear rills come sparkling out from the dark mysterious forest aisles, dance across the road and ripple in again among the tree-ferns and falling creepers. We dawdled along pleasantly, Marjorie removing her boots at every stream and I taking photos and endeavouring, quite unsuccessfully of course, to impress her with my recently acquired geological knowledge which enabled me to locate an igneous intrusion when the pebbles on the road changed abruptly from schist to granite.
We arrived at the Paringa River about 2 pm The flats here are fully a mile wide and stretch in alternating shingle-mud-grass and stream channel. We made a fire to keep the sandflies off and dry my stockings. And then, while the clouds heaped up in the sky again, we speculated whether Mr Condon or the rain would arrive first. At 4 pm both arrived together. We got on the horses and crossed the wide blue-grey waters, but the bottom of this river bed was smooth and easy compared with the upper reaches of the Mahitahi, and the horses gave none of those alarming plunges when you wonder whether they, you and the ruck-sacks are about to go bobbing down the grey-blue waters never to be heard of again.
The Paringa homestead had not been lavishly stocked against the possibility of a prolonged rainy siege, but there were sheep grazing in the fields and potatoes growing in the garden so, when the rain increased, we could regard the possibility of being marooned as simply another adventure.
We were not marooned, but it teemed so continuously during the night that Mr. Condon reckoned if he did not put us back across the Paringa river at once, it would be impossible to do so later, and as for the guides, well, even then he was doubtful if he could get them down safely. The Otoko is a more difficult 2) valley than the Mahitahi, for it offers no exit on foot. You start up on the south bank of the Paringa, that is, the bank opposite to Mahitahi, to the aeroplane landing-ground and to civilization. You cross the Paringa, and continue up the Otoko, its tributary, still on the south bank. Thus in summer it is impossible to get out without horses to assist you across the rivers, and by reason of the rivers rising you may not be able to get out at all. Had I realized these difficulties at the time, I do not think I should have consented to the Otoko trip when there was only a week left, and the certainty of missing the Sydney boat if the usual West Coast rain fell at the critical time. We had now only about four spare days, so we sadly agreed to return, debating who was the most to be pitied:- Frank and Harry who had packed up all that stuff in vain, Mr Condon who had wasted two days away from his work, Marjorie who prefers high-climbing and had given it up this year to go exploring with me, or myself who had waited six years for a holiday and had so far had only four days on the snow, ice and rock.
Mr Condon put us back across the river whose waters swirled far above the stirrups, and went back to get the guides while we hiked tack to Mahitahi between sun and shower, often wondering, when the sun momentarily lit the mountain, whether it was cowardice or wisdom which had turned us back from the quest of unclimbed peaks. When Frank and Harry arrived back that evening they said that, so far from expectingus, they had not even expected Mr Condon, and had quite resigned themselves to some days in a wet camp, for the sunlight that had occasiona1ly lit our pathway had never showed itself in the mountain fastnesses, where the storm had raged with unabated fury all night and all day. They had had a difficult time getting out, and once when the water was above his horses head Frank said he had all but made up his mind to jump into the river to save his life, but his foot caught in the stirrup and prevented him. They arrived lack wet and weary, but cheered by the thought of unlimited supplies of hot water in the Condon’s bathroom to make up for some of the uncalled for cold baths which nature had meted out during the last twenty-four hours. Frank turned on the hot tap in eager anticipation – and cold water ran out! It was the last straw!
In the meantime there was precisely a week left till the date of my departure from Weheka for Christchurch and Sydney, and I did want unspeakably to feel my feet on the snow and ice once again; besides I wanted Marjorie to have at least one decent high climb to take back with her. So I decided – with Marjorie’s full concurrence, for Marjorie, as I have said, is the most unselfishly obliging of people – to go back to Weheka at once, and from there to a civilized alpine hut whence we could retreat on the due date even if bad weather came up. Of course we wanted to return by aeroplane, but we found it was booked up for the Tuesday, and, as we did not want to waste that day, a horse and trap to Karangarua river, and horses thence, were ordered. Once again the moon rose clear and cloudless in a cold, bright, frosty sky with every promise of a perfect morrow. And once again we woke to the sound of rain! It was not serious, but clouds continued to hang over the mountains all day, a consoling thought, for mountaineers, although they frequent haunts nearer heaven than ordinary mortals are nevertheless no more angelic, and it would not have been pleasant to think that other folk were climbing when we were not. The horse and trap took us along the grey shingly shoreline where gaunt flax leaves flapped in the wind and the forest was bent low and compacted, and looked like hedges in old-fashioned English gardens. At intervals along the coast were shacks inhabited by gold-washers, mostly Maoris and half-castes. The streaks of black sand among the grey are prolific in gold and they wash it in races leading from the numerous streams. Some had cultivated small gardens in the thick rich soil, but for the most part, I was told, they are a happy-go-lucky people with the heretical view of household economy that money should be spent as soon as it is earned and without regard to the future.
We crossed many small rivers, the Mahawhio among them, the only West Coast river I saw which flows between proper banks instead of over wide shingle flats, but the one that remains in my memory is Steve’s Creek, whose sinister, black waters swirled out from a dark, forested swamp. Then we emerged on the grey shingle flats of the Karangarua River, flats far wider than those of the Paringa, but nothing compared with those of the Cook’s we had yet to meet. Here we parted from Mr. Condon, I with a double feeling of regret, the first part due to the loss of a cheerful person who had shared so many of our vicissitudes, the second to the fact that I would now have to travel on horseback. Each time I mount a horse I seriously wonder whether bumping in a dray across shingle flats is not to be preferred!
This was a pleasant enough road to ride, and I being the least experienced rider, was relieved of all luggage which the others placed on their horses fore and aft and also on their own backs. In due course we reached the Cook’s river, and now I learned just why Frank had taken such pleasure in laughing at it from the aeroplane. This river drains the largest glacial region on the western side of the Alps, and is consequently full of treacherous quicksands in addition to the usual hidden holes lurking below the opaque waters. I followed the tail of the guide’s horse and all went well, but a stranger not knowing the river’s vagaries would feel very chary of venturing into those rushing, blue-grey waters whose gods have received so many human sacrifices that the shingles are painted red with what looks like lichen, but which is probably the blood of those victims. The Fox Glacier Hostel at Weheka lies at the head of the Cook’s River flats. Thus, after crossing the main stream of the river as well as many side ones, there follows a seemingly interminable stretch of glaring grey shingles, followed by an even longer stretch of flat meadow lands. As we were riding up the latter in the late afternoon, the clouds swept off the mountains for a few minutes, and we caught a glimpse of the fairy peak of Aorangi, twelve thousand feet above, splendid, glorious and unearthly!
We left the Fox Glacier Hostel next day for Chancellor Ridge hut, which stands in lonely majesty on grassy alplands high above the broad sweep of the Fox Glacier, a pure white highway from the green of the plains to the regions of eternal snow. About two miles up the glacier we came to the famous ice-pinnacles.
“Not much this year”, said Frank disdainfully, “not more than sixty or seventy feet high. Most years they are ninety feet high!”
They may have been inferior to those in other years, but to me they formed temples of the ice-goddess, blue and silver spires gleaming against the dark sky; I could have worshipped among them for ever.
From there we passed under Passchendaele, a scree-slope named after the fatal region on the French Front. Before the Great Earthquake these slopes were scrub-covered. Since then the whole hillside has been falling away continuously. And in the night we could hear the thunder of the bombs falling onto the glacier moraine from the heights above. Passchendaele is a dangerous spot and one does not linger long beneath it, but like many dangerous things it is tempting, for it brings down fresh-faced geological specimens of innumerable varieties all ready broken for the collector. Coming back I collected a large number and trustingly gave them to Harry to transport for me. When we rested to take off our crampons Satan led Harry’s mind to other matters, and the lovely fresh specimens – fully 10 lbs of them – were left behind, a matter in which I suspect the reader’s sympathies will be with Harry rather than with me!
From Passchendaele we cut across the glacier again and up Purgatory Creek, so-called because Frank first made his way up it when the snow was deep and the sun was hot. This day it was merely a semi-dry gully and beside it grew lingering mountains lilies with their snow-white flowers and their cupped leaves already gathering the rain which had started to fall once more.
When the alarm woke us at some ghost-haunted hour the rain was heavier and we turned over to sleep again. However, half way through the morning it stopped, and though a damp mist blanketed everything, Frank was not the one to waste a “fine” day. So out we went into the piercing wind and a world of white, and climbed Chancellor Dome, a snowy summit 7000 foot high, while the mist gradually changed to drizzle. The only things we saw were gardens of golden mountain lilies, edelweiss and gentians, and a fleeting glimpse of a shadowy 3), flooded river flowing into a silver sea.
All that night, all next day and the next the storm increased in fury, and the dread thunder of Passchendaele’s bombs echoed up the valley. Each gust of wind shook the anchorage of the hut and it seemed impossible that it could not break loose and go hurtling over the precipice. The gale rose higher and higher, water flooded in under the close-fastened doors, and we had to shout to make ourselves heard. And yet there was a water-shortage! Any receptacle placed under the pouring eves would have been blown away as soon as it had been placed there, while to have gone down to the creek a few yards away would have meant getting wet to the skin. Whenever there was a lull Frank and Marjorie continued their arguments about traverses and keas, along with a new one about booking up guides. Harry read dilapidated magazines, and I tried to make up limericks with a suitably pathetic note, for example:-
tell Me that Chancellor Ridge has a view,
And that sometimes the heavens above it are blue
Perhaps this is true,
But all that I knew
Was a landscape of misty, white, watery hue!
Then in the evening of the third day the mists thinned above the western horizon, blue sky broke through the clouds and a rainbow arch rose from the darkening hills. I went up the ridge at the back of the hut to see the rocky peaks at the head of the Fox Glacier, peaks about which Marjorie and Frank had been arguing for so long, but which I had never seen. But there were no rocky peaks. The storms had coated the mountains in ice, and there they stood sharp and pointed yet white, ghostly peaks not of this world, and below them the white pinnacles of the glacier tossed like frozen waves. Away to the west the ocean of mist hung above the ocean of the sea, cumulous waves sweeping against dark hills below a serene forget-me-not sky.
It was clear and cloudless when we left at 3.45 am, and a crescent moon hung above the hills casting a dim light on the snow and the silent white mountains which looked more ghostly than ever in the pale half-moon light. When we reached the head of the glacier the first rays of the sun stepped across the ranges, and far away the blue sea’s faint horizon gleamed with an alpine dawn, when blue and primrose shaded into rose and violet above the mystic bank of clouds, a ghostly horizon hung far up in the heavens to match the ghostly mountains. Then we reached the vast snow-fields from which rise the highest of the Alps, and down which runs a clear blue rill between the white hills. The snow-fields were threaded with labyrinthine mazes of crevasses between which we laboriously made our way. There were several steep pinches, but we did not rope. It is much pleasanter to climb without the rope to look after, and even with it I sometimes wonder whether it would be of much use on a steep ice-slope if anyone slipped. I have come to the conclusion that the only thing to do on such slopes is not to slip!
Bic Mac was about the only mountain fairly free from dangerously hanging ice, so we decided on this. It is only a small peak, but the summit rocks proved about the most difficult climbing I have ever done on account of the icy conditions. The first eighty feet of the rocks took us three hours! After Bic Mac, we climbed Du Fresne, only a snow-hump, but it provides a wonderful view of the precipices of Mount Cook and the ice-ridge of Mount Tasman, this day mountains of stainless white against a heaven of stainless blue.
After a twelve and a half hour’s climb we arrived back in a peaceful afternoon to see small black specks moving up the hillside, and some while later a party of seven men and one woman dumped their rucksacks down in our quiet abode which was quiet no longer. They were probably all very nice people, but nature mislaid the gregarious instinct when I was born. Anyhow, as it rained next morning, it did not matter that we were prevented from going to sleep till about five hours before it was time to get up. As a matter of fact we did get up when the alarm rang, but, as it started to rain soon after, we made our way down the glacier to Weheka instead of up the mountains, for it was my last day.
And that is the end of the quest for unclimbed mountains in New Zealand. And such is the exhilaration of those high places that, in spite of the weather and the folly of carrying too heavy a pack, I arrived back superbly fit, with that delicious feeling when food is supremely interesting and irresistibly fascinating. After six years without a proper holiday it was a feeling I had forgotten existed!