Winter sports in Canterbury: Mountaineering

The train was already late when it arrived at Arthur’s Pass on the morning of 30 July 1933.

On board were members of three different tramping clubs, including those of the Canterbury Mountaineering Club and the Canterbury College University Tramping Club. Undeterred by the bad weather which had already set in, a disorganised mass of nearly forty individuals with no real leadership set out to climb Avalanche Peak. By the time they reached the snowline only twenty members remained, the others having already turned back. Although visibility was by now greatly reduced, they pushed on into the falling snow and driving wind. At the forefront were two experienced climbers, Andrew Anderson and William Brough. When they were nearly two hundred feet from the summit the mountain finally lived up to its name.

An avalanche crashed down the slope, knocking them over and scattering equipment. After checking to see if anyone was missing, the rest of the party decided to turn back, leaving Anderson and Brough to summit on their own. They were successful and managed to safely descend to the village at Arthur’s Pass. There they joined the rest of the club members in boarding the return train to Christchurch.

It wasn’t until the train had left the station that people finally realised that Samuel Edgar Russell, a university student, was missing. Some club members disembarked at Springfield station and caught a ride on a truck back to Arthur’s Pass where they began to organise a search. Teams of climbers scoured the mountain over the next few days, but it wasn’t until August 6 that Russell’s body was found buried by the avalanche. His tragic death served to highlight the dangers that awaited those who ventured into Canterbury’s mountains, regardless of how well equipped and experienced one might be.

Arthur’s Pass, as it was for six weeks before the opening of the tunnel, with frosts on top of the snow for four weeks. [1923] File Reference Selwyn photograph 3121369.

Kā Tiritiri-o-te-Moana, the Southern Alps.

The earliest account of mountaineering in Canterbury is attributed to a Ngāti Wairangi woman, Raureka, and her slave companion, Kapakeha. In 1700, after a disagreement with her community, they crossed the Southern Alps at a point which today is known as Noti Raureka-Browning Pass. Their chance encounter with a party of Ngāi Tahu led to the establishment of the pounamu trade between the east and west coast tribes. The increase in this trade prompted the discovery of further mountain passes. Sustained by a sparse diet of dried berries, eels and weka, the explorers journeyed into these remote heights did so with only flax ropes and sandals as a means of overcoming the inhospitable terrain.

Following the European settlement of Canterbury, surveyors such as Arthur Dobson, often accompanied by Māori guides, followed these pre-established routes into the Southern Alps to map the terrain for the local government. Despite these initial forays, it wasn’t until the end of the nineteenth century that mountaineering came to be considered a recreational activity. This was largely due to the efforts of Cantabrians such as George Edward Mannering and Arthur Paul Harper. Not wishing to see the peaks of the Southern Alps conquered by foreigners, they set about developing a New Zealand tradition of mountaineering which they disseminated through works such as Mannering’s With Axe and Rope in the New Zealand Alps (1891).

A little-known holiday ground: the Bealey glacier district. File Reference Selwyn photograph 3051333.

Their efforts led to the formation of the New Zealand Alpine Club in 1891, the first meeting of which was held in Warner’s Hotel in Cathedral Square. The aim of the club was to teach the mountaineering methods that were practiced in the European Alps, gather geographical knowledge of New Zealand’s mountains, and establish routes. In December that year, Mannering led the first expedition to summit low peak on Mount Rolleston near Arthur’s Pass (however the mountain wasn’t successfully climbed until 1912).

The Headquarters of Mountaineering in Canterbury

In 1923 the Midland Railway line, which followed the old coach road from Christchurch to Greymouth, was officially opened. The mountains surrounding the village of Arthur’s Pass were now easily accessible to those trampers who, having tested themselves on the Port Hills, now wished to advance to more strenuous challenges. As such, the region soon became known as the “headquarters of mountaineering in Canterbury” and in 1925 the Canterbury Mountaineering Club was formed. However, the glory of climbing the highest peak in the region, Mount Murchison, had already been attained in 1913 by Charles Ward and Arthur Talbot.

Affordable train fares to Arthur’s Pass only served to attract further visitors to the settlement, with 20,000 people visiting in 1927. However, the sudden influx of visitors began to take its toll on the local environment. A common complaint was the habit of visitors to pick mountain flowers, often taking more than was necessary. In 1928, Guy Butler, who had opened the Arthur’s Pass Hostel in 1926, petitioned for the region to receive official protection. In 1929 the area was designated as a national park, the first in the South Island.

Since then the village has continued to draw visitors, both local and foreign, who use it as a base from which to venture forth into the surrounding mountains. While many are fortunate enough to make frequent return journeys, for others, such as Samuel Edgar Russell, the mountains can prove fatal.

Mountaineering in the Southern Alps around the late 1940s by CCL Photo Hunt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 New Zealand License.

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