When New Zealand’s famous mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary and Nepalese Sherpa Tenzing Norgay made the first successful ascent of Mt Everest on 29 May 1953, and thus unlocked the gateway for hundreds of others since, Hillary could attribute a large part of his success to many days climbing the peaks of the Southern Alps that form the backbone of the South Island. A bronze statue of Hillary gazing towards a distant Mt Cook, to commemorate his many achievements, is found at the Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre attached to the Hermitage Hotel at Mt Cook Village.
Alpinists of the 1950s were in some ways a different breed from their modern counterparts. Their clothing and equipment were very basic when compared with that in use today. Under garments were made of either wool or silk, outer garments, socks, hats and gloves also of wool, rain and windproof jackets, over-trousers and outer mittens of oiled Japara cotton. Climbing packs were not of the highly technical designs seen today, but were made of canvas with steel or wooden frames, leather straps with metal buckles and corded cotton adjustment cords. Keeping the contents dry was a major problem. Climbing boots often had leather soles with hob-nails and metal cleats, and canvas gaiters or cotton-knit “puttees” kept the stones or snow from getting inside. Finally, climbing ropes were made of hemp and tents of light cotton canvas with wooden poles. The statue of Sir Edmund Hillary shows him holding a wooden-shafted ice axe. It was with clothing such as this that I first ventured into the mountains in the 1960s as a high school student. What a change there has been in the intervening fifty years.
On the way to the summit of Mt Cook Hillary would have over-nighted in huts similar to the old Empress Hut that is displayed in the precinct of the Department of Conservation Information Centre in the Mt Cook Village. These corrugated iron shelters were often placed in the mountains by volunteers from mountain clubs and provided basic bedspace, cooking space and, maybe, an emergency radio for picking up weather information or reporting emergencies.
Thus it was that successive generations of New Zealand mountaineers ventured into the mountains of the Southern Alps to learn their craft and prepare for other cold remote areas such as the Himalayas or the South Pole.