Otago Witness 7 May 1896, Page 48
AUTUMN FROLICS IN THE GREAT FROZEN ALPS.
BY J. G. MACKAY
As our little caravan wended its way over the flats dark streamers of nor'- west rain came trailing down over the front ranges. First fails, one lonely forerunner of a drop, two drops, then three, four, five, fifty millions of drops; a whispering drop in the ear, a playful drop down the back of the neck, a pugnacious one in the eye, and another affectionate one kissing bard on the cheek, bring oilskins out and hat brims down. Ears are laid back, mouths shut hard, and on through the smoky-looking driving rain we go, over Burkes Pass, passing the cemetery which holds so many pioneers' graves— men drowned crossing rivers, killed by falls from horses, gored by bulls, and lost in avalanches. Camp on oilskins at night, up in the morning early, away past calm, blue Tekapo— mirror of mountains guided by disinterested finger posts over streams and downs, where Staffer is harvesting his barleycorns on Braemar; through, the Mackenzie country, land of silence, taciturnity, and tussock, where lonely men smoke black tobacco from morn to night, and the quiet, careless days go by unruffled, so to the banks of flooded Tasman.
By the severity of last winter snow rabbits in some parts of the back country were almost exterminated. From Silverstream to the Pakaki rabbit fence we saw only one. My dog Sambo, a powerful, short-tailed Smithfield, self-reliant and keen-scented, Who runs down his own breakfast every morning, showed signs of disappointment. On the Braemar and Wolds roads they are to be seen, fur and bones, in dead dozens round the stumps of tussocks, as they starved during winter.
We tackled the Tasman with our cart and six hundredweight of baggage, wet tents,
&c. With the Burnetts' glasses fixed on us from Mount Cook Station, and the
Glentanner telescope watching our track, our fate was well looked after. Up and
down, along, above the bare, by quicksands, up and down shingle banks, over
stream after stream, where the river spreads out over its four miles of riverbed
into a network of waters rushing down, frothy, like that summer drink, Boston
cream. Halt, la! qui va! A deep stream, with a steep bank on the other side and
quicksands above and below of bars progress. We tackle it. Horse stops midway up
the bank, with the back of the dray in the water. We jump out to the bank, and a
tug of war ensues after we have spoken words of encouragement to the horse.
Curling his legs, he answers with tremendous heaves and scratchings. Piece by
piece the bank slides down into the river, making a track. Putting out his
tongue and laying back his ears, he gives a lift like Samson pulling down the
gates of Gaza, when he went away with them to the top of the hill that is before
Hebron, and the dray came forth. With no further difficulties we reached
Glentanner, where we are invited to stay till the rain ceases. This, the passage
of the flooded Tasman, I consider the crowning achievement of my life. "Only a
man crossed in love, seeking forgetfulness in danger, whose life is dark and for
whom Paradise can hold no joys, Gehenna no terrors, would thus tempt the jaws of
death," says Strongbow.
Though Zurbriggen and Fitzgerald were baffled by execrable weather, there have been some notable climbing feats in the Alps this year. Miss Ross climbed a rugged peak on the Glentanner Range. Her method of climbing is worth noting by mountaineers. She found the easiest method was to run up - firstly, because you get to the summit sooner; and secondly, you have more time to sit down on the way up to get second breath. The peak is not less than 4000 ft high but then all the Rosses are climbers.
On the Mount Cook road all the fords were washed away and the creeks coming down narrow and noisy between shingle banks. Have a rough but merry time, and camp at last at Governor's Bush. Sebastopol, a high and dry Cape Raoul, was getting its face washed by a dozen waterfalls as we passed.
More bad weather! But the third day breaks clear and grows warm. Mountains yesterday smothered in mist and drizzle stand out pink and purple tinted— fresh and clear as if last night they came from the World-builder's hand! We stand at last in the centre of the great and only alpine wonderland of the South Pacific. Land of swift and creamy rivers valleys filled with strippings of the mountains, piled on creeping glacier and mighty moraine; young and playful glaciers standing almost on their heads; shingle slip thousands of feet high: 1500 ft precipices, crevasses, icerfalls, and a hundred snow-tented, glistening, slippery peaks. In, going through these regions friend Strongbow saved me the trouble of hunting out all the little gems of scenery. When any such appear underfoot or on the skyline, he stands still with his legs braced far apart, his left hand to coat lapel, and the index finger of the right pointing far forward. His wide-open mouth is an infallible indicator of congealed sublimities or magnificence of landscape.
Swagged a camp outfit up the Hooker, along a path beset with
two parallel fringes of petty dangers and imminent casualties. The track in some
places is cut round a precipice, below which thunders the turbulent Hooker. Your
swag catches on a rock point, twirling you to the edge, vaguely suggesting
falls, broken bones, eyes and mouth filled with sand, inquest jury of shepherds,
verdict of reckless death, 6ft x 8ft estate in Burkes Pass Cemetery. R.I. P. A
neatly-balanced rook tilts and throws-one. One doesn't smile; the other fellow
does that! Crossing a shingle slip it comes down like a granite avalanche, with
a noise like the shooting of rubble over a wall, and sets one down in the stream
beneath. Or perhaps you glide down a "moulin," where you had thought to walk.
Half-way down you brace your foot nervously on an ice-knob, while the small
stones disappear with reverberant echoes between the interstices of the heap of
boulders that fills the bottom of this funnel-shaped wonder. But let the amateur
sight-seer not be disheartened. Be careful, prove all things, hold fast that
which is good! Crossing the Hooker suspension bridge with a swag, after rain,
when the single l0in plank is wet and slippery is not dangerous, but
Sambo baulked at the suspended plank, preferring the river, which here runs swift and thunderous in a boulder-strewn bed. He plunges in, turns a nasty somersault over a boulder into a churning slough, remains submerged for half a minute, then his nose shoots above water, he sneeze, blinks his eyes to see which bank he is steering for, and with swift strokes away he heads over boulders, down rapids, under rock shelves, never for a moment losing his head till the bank is reached. He joins us, barking and shaking himself. Though a poor man I wouldn't take £59 10s for that dog. To have always faithfully following one through life a shining, bob-tailed example of flinty courage and elastic endurance, in the face of hunger and sudden death uplifts the heart. The little bracket plateau, 200 ft above the level of the moraine, on which we pitched our tent, was covered with small snow-grass, which when young is as prickly as the points of the "Spaniard." These we drew by the roots, laid our oilskins down, spread a blanket over them, and spread a blanket over them, another over us, and slept. Rain fell during the night, and a shower of fine spray continued to come through the tent till it ceased. The top blankets looked like a field on a frosty morning. Gaining most of the day. Lay perdu with the blanket over our heads till 12 o'clock, and then rose and boiled billy over spirit lamp. Climbed the Ball Pass in the afternoon, from which the three great glaciers may be seen at length. The evening was damp and clammy, but a new moon hanging on to the corner of Mount Cook promised a fine day.
Up at daylight, with the billy boiling while dressing. This celerity is the beauty of a spirit lamp in the Alps, where firewood never dries. Away up over the shadowed moraine we go as the first; rays of the sun come slanting over the Ball Pass, striking the Sefton Range opposite. Smashed stacks of quartz on the glacier, but while breaking up the only piece in which any gold showed, it flew from the stroke of the tomahawk and rolled down a bergachrund. Prospecting a glacier is not satisfactory. It is such a long time to wait till the stone for the second crushing comes down. Methuselah himself would not have made his fortune in this manner. Had a narrow escape on this glacier. I was walking along, filling my pipe, when friend Strongbow called to me "Look out!" I halted, foot in air. There below was a 2ft 6in crevasse, through which the sound of the new-born river could be distinctly heard. Began to climb the icefall shortly after this adventure. First its form is mounded, with streamlets running along the hollows to the crevasses, then level crescent-shaped stairs rise above one by one to a height of 200 ft or 300ft. Crevasses separate every stair; these we jumped or circled round. One huge fellow with a curly, corniced mouth would have swallowed the whole uniformed volunteer corps of Dunedin without turning the ice red. Sambo jumped these crevasses like a flying fox, barking, wagging his tail stump, and rolling in the fresh snow with immense delight. After this dangerously frivolity, with ears alert and head high held, he sat down proudly on the summit of the icefall, looking every inch the lion of St. Mark. By moonlight the Hooker icefall lying in its shadowy valley, might be mistaken for
The great world's altar stairs, that slope
Through darkness up to God!
Snow commenced to fall, and down that terraced ice-slope and over the moraine
we travelled, like goats, to camp; packed up in 10 minutes, and were at main
camp at 8 o'clock.
Next morning climbed the Sealey Range as an off day's sight-seeing. A track, now overgrown with lilies and shrubs, has been cut to the summit, whence a far-stretching view is to be obtained of the glaciers round the Mueller, the slopes of Sefton opposite, the Hooker, Mount Cook, and the ranges over the Tasman River. A tin of jam and half a loaf of bread is our lunch ration, eaten under protest from the querulous keas.
Ten o'clock next morning found us toiling along beside the Tasman moraine, bound for the Ball hut, which was reached at dusk. Here we remained for three days, storm-stayed and rampant, cooking with a spirit lamp on the table. (The one defect of the hut is the want of a chimney, otherwise it is a credit to the Government.) It is gable roofed, lined with thin cardboard under the iron, well fitted up with eight banks, and has been "paned" by Dixon, Fyfe, and Graham while weather-bound. Adamson explained to me how all the materials were taken up. Only the iron and sundries were packed up. The timber was carried up in stages while the track was being made. As a section was finished the timber was carried thus far, and when the bridle track was completed all things were ready for the construction of the hut.
The kea is a conservative bird, jealous of trespassers and vandals in his mountain solitudes. Circling overhead he utters indignant cries of protest. When he settles and you hurl a rock at him for his impudence, and the rock ricochets or misses fire, he moves off a space laughing, "Yah! yah! yah! Craftily will he lead one, by the thirst for his blood, into pitfalls and dangers.
When you stand on the middle of the Great Tasman Glacier you are on the most impressive spot in the Southern Hemisphere. Crowded thickly round are the cornicecrested, ice-buttressed, broad-based monuments of the dead ages, down whose bare-piled strata hang the young serpent glaciers, their tails curled, round some far up bluff, and their hooded heads resting on the great Father Tasman. Against the skyline immeasurably lifted above all things human, stands Aorangi, looking charming, like an iced cake, with seemingly 40ft of fresh snow on. Three days' rain and solitary confinement at the Ball Pass hut was ample of the Tasman we returned to main camp for a grand finale round the Mueller, whose great charm is the stupendous ice facade of Sefton.
The countless waterfalls that come from, the icefields and
snow basins of high altitudes form the finest of natural shower baths, but too
cold for anyone save the naiads and fairies and other denizens of the damp
woods. There are two or three insects that are troublesome in the Alpine
regions. One is the Mount Cook grasshopper, a great, grey, —I was going to say
animal— insect, the hoary ancestor of the shiny, bran-new, down-country
grasshopper. Among the rocks he attains almost the proportions of a kangaroo.
When walking over the rocks or sliding down over the Alpine shrubs it seems as
if the whole species were on the march in front of you, like locusts. When they
are going away in a hurry, on business, don't get in the way, or the bump that
you will receive will be staggering. Another insect to be avoided is the little
Alpine fly— half sandfiy, half housefly, with the bloodthirsty instincts of a
mosquito, and dowered with the same effective machinery for gratifying those,
tastes. Unlike the mosquito, it sings not, but settles straight to business on
one's hands or face. It hangs on in the face of danger with a dogged resolution
that only death can dispel. The bluebottle season was almost past, so that this
pest was lying low. The wonderful variety of berries is surprising. They vary in
colour from blue, purple, yellow, white, red, to green. The blue berry, that
took my fancy greatly, is found on the Hooker, below the moraine terminal face.
Though the tops of the mountains were clouded over, and only visible for four
days -out of 14, the fascination of the Alps is continuous to the five senses.
In the ears resounds the crack of the avalanche, awakening one at night in the
nostrils are the hundred blended scents of Alpine shrubs and wild flowers to the
touch the water is icy cold, the eye is surfeited with the eternal fog banks and
bars clinging to the mountain bases, and, lastly, the tea generally tastes of
birch or matagouri. So little did we see for ten days that but for these signs
we might have been upon the saltbush plains of Australia. Tried walking up and
down the tent to calm the feelings, but after making the ridgepole shiny where
my head was continually brushing, I gave it up, rolled the blankets round me,
and read "Emerson's Essays." Strongbow became querulous towards the end of our
holiday Mountains make enemies of men who'd else been friends."
It is difficult to say wherein lies the wonderful fascination of the Alps. Certain it is that the heart finds relief from the worry and littleness of life the scenes are large enough to fill the imagination, and the mind finds something as great as itself to break upon. Here the last obstinate fortresses of barrenness hold out against verdure, umbrage, fruitage, and frisky life. But nothing withstands the attacks of Nature, with gentle and enduring patience working out ends through vast sweeps of time.
Going out next morning in the early grey we find the horse with the rope most artistically twisted round each of his four legs, waiting patiently to be unravelled. Cross the Tasman, now running with less than one-third of the water it contained when we crossed it previously, at the Birch Hill ford; and go sailing merrily home.