Chapter 1: - Beginnings
There was a loud CRACK above. Eyes swiftly swiveled up to witness a huge block of crumbling rock slowly tumble and disintegrate, then plummet, sweeping all before it. The sun had been warming the slopes for most of the day. The tenuous grip of spider-webs of ice was loosened enough, and with nowhere to hide, a volley of humming rocks cascaded down. With a clatter of ricochet and the smell of Hades they flew past. Silence returned. No-one had been hit. This time.
The ridge was like a knife. Any thoughts of jumping over the opposite side to hold a partner’s fall would be suicide. The parting of hemp fibres would not even be noticed in the swift descent.
Cover of the first international edition
Above soared a rock face, dropping like a forehead from the summit brow. Creases of ice knitted together large expanses of bare rock. Here the climbing was technical and demanding. Flashing axes occasionally sent out showers of tinkling frozen crystals as delicate steps were cut for boot edges. Numb fingers caressed the rock for any projections that might offer relief from the drag of gravity. Skillfully weaving a vertical path, the two climbers stalled at the base of a smooth, featureless slab. The summit appeared to be only a rope length away, and time was racing by. Tom removed his alpine boots and slipped on rubber-soled friction shoes for the rock. Even so, he could gain no height. Some combined tactics were necessary: a push from Malcolm Ross. Tom Fyfe slowly disappeared from view.
Malcolm was uneasy. The rope had been moving with a nervous manner. Now it stopped.
‘Have you found a good belay, Tom?’ queried Malcolm.
‘Not really,’ he replied.
This meant that the protection offered by the rope above would be solely psychological. Any slip by Malcolm would be fatal to both climbers.
Totally focused on the climbing, Malcolm carefully eased his way higher. Some tentative assistance with a tight rope was needed to start, but he concentrated on the delicate shifts of balance, and the play of rhythm and opposing forces. Quickly Tom resumed the lead, abandoning his axe for freedom of movement.
Soon they both stood where no-one had been before. This was the North Peak of Mount Haidinger, 3061 metres high in the Southern Alps of New Zealand, and the date was 1897.
Cover of the New Zealand Edition - Available at Take Note Hokitika New Zealand or at the New Zealand Alpine Club.
The long ascent had taken many hours, and they still had to descend before darkness fell. Tom went first, confidently down climbing the difficult sections, but always aware that Malcolm was just above. Should he slip, both would plummet down the steep cliffs to the ice far below. As quickly as they dared, they made their way to the rope-eater ridge, Tom retrieving his ice axe at the base of the slab. But luck was running out.
Malcolm led now, down a particularly rotten section of rock. Despite his best efforts, Tom could not avoid dislodging some rock onto his partner below. Unable to evade the bombardment, several struck Malcolm: a solid thump to the leg almost knocking him off the mountain, and then another blow to the shoulder. But this was no place to linger. Only minutes later disaster was narrowly avoided when another large flat one glanced him on his helmetless head. Had it been the sharp end, he may not have survived with just a struggle for consciousness.
Mt.Haidinger. One of the many thousands of beautiful glass plate photographs taken by Ebenezer Teichelamnn. View previous postings for more of his superb photos.
There were still some serious sections to negotiate, but eventually they reached snow slopes that could be safely slid. Unroped on the final rocks, they hurried downward. This was a section of schist, lying in sheets and slabs, poised to strike. Some had viciously sharp edges. Malcolm’s axe turned crimson when one sliced his hand. Tom lost a piece of his leg after one nasty blow to the shin. They could only treat themselves as best as possible with their meagre resources, and plod homeward.
They crawled into the safety of their bivouac at de la Bêche, on the edge of the Tasman Glacier, on nightfall. Forrest Ross, Malcolm’s wife, was there with William Hodgkins. The extent of the injuries was soon thrust aside with the pleasure of eating. The planning of further adventures in animated conversation after the evening meal kept their minds on more pleasant pursuits.
Malcolm recovered from his head injury to continue climbing with Tom, ascending Mount de la Bêche in four hours forty, then on to the Minarets. No complaints from Tom about his leg were recorded, but the injury worsened during their epic exploration over Lendenfeld Saddle and down the Whymper Glacier. Despite finding a hot spring for a relieving bathe, Tom had difficulties getting to sleep due to the pain of his injuries.
Matters did not improve the next day. Travel is awkward in the rugged and almost impenetrable Whataroa Valley, and he further damaged the leg negotiating the first gorge. The bad leg was knocked on sharp angular rocks twice in succession. Infection was raging: he had a feverish temperature, and the leg had swollen to a ridiculous size. The pain did not diminish. Sleep was fitful and fleeting.
Nearing the end of their pioneering trip, Tom was swept off his feet and tumbled towards the final gorge. Driven to survive, he scrambled out just in time, but the pain of his leg was now so great that he admitted later that it would have been a relief to drown.
After several days of rest and farm remedies in Rohutu, it was no better. The only option now was to continue up the coast to Hokitika for medical treatment.
About the time Malcolm Ross and Tom Fyfe were organizing supplies and equipment for their climbs of Mounts Haidinger, de la Bêche and the twin summits of the Minarets, a train was hissing to a stop further north in Hokitika. Amid the bustle and steam of a busy station emerged a curious figure. So slight was his stature that it could be mistaken for that of a thirteen-year-old boy.
Thin wiry legs stood askance, rooted firmly to the ground in wide-welted leather boots. His attire had a European styling unusual to the district: tight stockings to knee-height with woolen knickerbocker pants. A sports coat of similar weave clad the lightly-framed torso. He wore a hat on a head of coarse dark hair, and beneath its brim sparkled lovely grey eyes that spoke of intensity and compassion. Delicate, finely-boned fingers clasped a pipe that he replaced between a fine set of teeth. A whiskery goatee beard jutted forward, reminding one of a Captain Cuttle figure.
Beside him stood his pretty wife, Mary, beneath a broad-brimmed hat with flowing feathers. Her dress was more typical of the period, with a long dark skirt, tight bodice, and a small jacket. The quality revealed cosmopolitan origins; a step above what was sold around the corner in Tancred Street draperies and milliners. A subtle smell of expensive perfume was discernable.
Hurrying to meet them was the head of the Hospital Board, for this new arrival was the recently appointed Medical Superintendent of Westland Hospital, Doctor Ebenezer Teichelmann, and his wife Mary. (Ebenezer Teichelmann above)
On 27 February 1897, just a few days after the Doctor set up his practice; the injured mountaineer Tom Fyfe limped into the surgery of Dr Teichelmann for an examination of his leg. Several pieces of bone were removed, and a course of treatment for necrosis of the tibia was prescribed. This meeting was to change the course of the Doctor’s life. His curiosity was aroused as to what lay south of him in the misty mountains.