First ascent of Mt Cook

25 December 1894

First to climb Aoraki/Mt Cook (Private Collection, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand)

At 1.30 on the afternoon of Christmas Day 1894, while many New Zealanders were relaxing and enjoying festive fare, three young men based at the Hermitage became the first to stand atop 3764m Aoraki/Mt Cook, the highest mountain in the colony.

Jack Clarke, Tom Fyfe and George Graham, along with other local climbers, had been spurred into action by news that the American climber Edward Fitzgerald and the famous Swiss/Italian guide Matthias Zurbriggen were on their way to New Zealand. The pair arrived in the country in late December.

Modern mountaineering began in the Alps in the 1850s and soon peaks around the world were being scaled by adventurous young men. In 1882, Irishman Reverend William Green and two Swiss guides got to within 60m of the summit of Mt Cook via the Linda Glacier, a point that was reached again in 1890 by New Zealanders Guy Mannering and Marmaduke Dixon. Mt Cook was not a huge technical challenge for experienced climbers. Given favourable weather, Fitzgerald and Zurbriggen would undoubtedly succeed. But could colonials beat them to it?

After several unsuccessful attempts via the Linda Glacier route, Fyfe and Graham decided to try to reach the summit from the Hooker Glacier, west of the peak. On 20 December they scaled Mt Cook’s previously unclimbed Middle Peak (3717m). Joined by Clarke, they renewed the assault on their main target two days later.

Before dawn on Christmas Day, Fyfe, Graham and Clarke donned nailed boots and swags, roped themselves together, grasped ice-axes and began climbing from their high camp. By late morning they were well up the north ridge, muffling their faces against a ‘piercingly cold’ wind. Early in the afternoon they glimpsed the summit ice cap just 120m above them. After cutting more than 100 steps in the hard blue ice, the trio ‘gleefully’ shook hands on the ‘very highest point of New Zealand’.

The trio returned to the Hermitage at lunchtime on Boxing Day after an arduous descent in near-darkness. News of their success reached Timaru on the 30th and was published in newspapers on New Year’s Eve. Fitzgerald was not pleased. 

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