Sutherland Falls climbed

9 March 1890

Sutherland Falls (Natural Sciences Image Library of New Zealand, Go13324Rbt)

Young surveyor William Quill needed only basic climbing equipment, including a billhook and an alpenstock, to scale the side of the ‘great Sutherland waterfall’ which cascades for 580 m near Milford Sound.

The toughest stretch of his 3½-hour climb was the highest of the three sections of the falls, where, he wrote to the chief surveyor, ‘the least slip would send me down the perpendicular rock to be dashed to pieces hundreds of feet below’.

Quill’s reward was to stand ‘at the summit of the highest waterfall in the world’ taking in an ‘indescribably magnificent’ view. The cirque lake which fed the falls would be named Lake Quill in his honour. Before climbing back down the cliff-face (in 2½ hours) he planted a flag bearing his name and the date ‘as near to the top of the falls as there was holding ground’. It is unclear whether anyone has repeated this ascent – Lake Quill can be reached with much less risk from McKinnon Pass on the Milford Track.

William Quill’s luck ran out less than a year later. After planting a flag on top of the Homer Saddle, the 25-year-old set off from a survey camp alone on 15 January in an attempt to reach Milford via the nearby Gertrude Saddle. He never arrived. After an arduous five-week search on both sides of the main divide, William’s two younger brothers found fragments of his skull at the bottom of a 600-m-high cliff. He had moved too close to the edge while admiring another alpine vista.

Professor Mainwaring Brown of the University of Otago had died in similar circumstances in 1888. Quill’s death was a catalyst for the formation on 11 March 1891 of a New Zealand Alpine Club ‘to assist inexperienced climbers, and spread a little knowledge of the dangers that are to be met with in mountain climbing’. This gentlemen’s club went into recess five years later but was revived around 1914 and still exists in a much more egalitarian and less gendered form.

A memorial to William Quill was erected on the Gertrude Saddle in 1932.

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