The climb of the ancient mariners

In April 1998, a group of 13 climbers re-enacted the first mountaineering trip under­taken by Europeans in New Zealand: the ascent of Mt Sparrman, a little-known peak in Fiordland, 225 years ago.

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National Maritime Museum Greenwich

The first European ascent of a New Zealand mountain started in the early hours of April 23, 1773 St George’s Day—from Pickersgill Harbour in Dusky Sound, at the start of Captain Cook’s second visit to the country. Cook had set sail from the Cape of Good Hope four months earlier, and Dusky Sound was his first port of call after a voyage which had taken him within the Antarctic Circle further south than any explorer had ever ventured.

The climbing party comprised the Swedish botanist Anders Sparrman, Resolution’s third lieutenant Richard Pickersgill, the ship’s master Joseph Gilbert, and one other, who could have been an able seaman acting as porter.

The naturalists George and Johann Forster were to have accompanied the group, “but a violent flux attended with gripes” confined them on board—a misfortune attributed to the carelessness of their cook, who, accord­ing to Johann Forster, had “dressed our victuals in a pan which was full of verdigrees.”

Sparrman himself was a ring-in. He happened to be in the Cape of Good Hope undertaking a botanical survey for the Swedish government when Resolution provisions. Sparrman met the Forsters, who invited him to join the expedition.

The father-and-son team seem to have felt under pressure to live up to the precedent established by Banks and Solander on Cook’s first voyage. They evidently hoped the addition of Sparrman as an assistant naturalist would help their cause.

Sparrman, at that time an “adventurous and exuberant” 25-year-old, appears to have relished the opportunity. His enthusiasm is evidenced by an incident during the voyage. According to his biographer: “When the Resolution reached 71 degrees 10 min south and was forced north by the ice, Sparrman placed himself as far to the south on the boats as he could, and was later able to boast that he had sailed farther south than anyone else.” We cannot be sure, but perhaps the climb in Fiordland was his idea, too.”

The party’s clothing and footwear, though designed for a sea voyage, would have proved adequate for mountaineering. The officers had “an everyday uniform of frock jacket with breeches and stockings . . . while the seamen wore blue frock jackets, checked shirts, red waistcoats and canvas trousers.” They may also have worn their “Fearnaught jacket and trowsers,” issued by the Admiralty for voyaging in Antarctic waters.

A prelude to the climb was a four-kilometre row to the foot of the mountain in one of the ship’s small boats. The weather was described as “Pretty fine . . . consider­ing the Place but mostly Cloudy with now and then a shower.”

The route led up “beside a large magnificent water­fall.” This had been visited several times previously by various crew members, and from the climbers’ vivid descriptions and the cel­ebrated painting by official artist William Hodges, Cascade Cove, Dusky Bay, we can assume the scene held some significance for them.

Beyond the waterfall, Sparrman records, “I managed to clamber to a high mountain ridge, though with much difficulty after a few hours’ effort we found ourselves at two o’clock on the peak of the mountain; here owing to its greater height, it was free of forest . . . To mark our successful climb we set fire to the extremely dry grass there before descending.”

It would be natural to describe the ascent as a simple act of exploration within a long voyage of discovery. But the time the Resolution spent in Dusky Sound seems to have been regarded by Cook as a time for rest and recuperation, with exploration a second­ary consideration.

A day spent in the mountains might easily have been considered recreation. On St George’s Day, in particular, the routines of shipboard life might have been eased to allow for relaxation. After all, a decision to leave the area to rendezvous with Resolution’s sister ship, Adventure, at Queen Charl­otte Sound had been made, and the ship’s company was simply waiting for favour­able winds to negotiate what is now known as Acheron Passage and make the open sea.

Cook’s own records describe the party’s aim as no more than “to clime one of the Mountains,” while Sparrman’s enthusiastic account of having made a “successful climb” indicates that reaching the summit was at least one purpose of the expedition. April in Fiordland affords only 10 hours of daylight, which would certainly have left little time for botanising on such an ambitious trip.

As it happened, Sparrman did return with some plant specimens, including the common South Island Forstera (Forstera sedifalia), while others—the leaves of a “Cabbage-Palm-tree”­were lost during the descent, but their collection appears to have been incidental to the main aim of reaching the top of the mountain.

From all accounts, an informal atmosphere pervaded during the time in Dusky Sound. Historians tell us the crew was “able to enjoy five weeks of rest, fresh food and recreation,” and that they “entertained themselves with hunting expeditions.” Captain Cook even “relaxed a little . . . [and went on] an aesthetic excursion.” It was in this climate that Mt Sparrman was climbed or “mounted,” to use Johann Forster’s quaint expres­sion and the endeavour consummated with a fire on the summit, so all might witness the birth of New Zealand climbing.

Our ascent, to celebrate the 225th anniversary of this long-forgotten historic climb, started from the relative comfort of the M. V. Tutoko, moored in Cascade Cove. Here we could listen to the latest weather forecast while breakfast was prepared, and study the most recently published contour maps of the area. Our flight into Cascade Cove the day before had given us a fleeting view of what lay ahead, while our clothing, packs and footwear came with all the advantages of the last two-and-a-quarter centuries of technological advancement. We were ready but it was raining.

Determined to make the ascent on the same date as the original climb, we motored to the foot of the mountain under low cloud, hoping the weather would improve during the day. Moving up past the waterfall, we recognised Hodges’ painting and Sparrman’s description: there could be no mistake that this was the route taken in 1773. Beyond the waterfall we continued in steady rain and poor visibility, entering a hanging valley after avoiding some bluffs. From here we found our way to an exposed ridge, presumably the one described by Sparrman, by way of an ill-defined spur. From this vantage point, brief glimpses through swirling mist hinted at a spectacular view to the west beyond the coastline and north across Resolution Island. We continued along the ridge, passing through subalpine vegetation and, eventually, over open rocky ground, arriving at the summit at 1 P.M. after a five-hour climb.

Unfortunately, visibility was limited, and the weather was deteriorating rapidly. We made a quick search of the summit area with a metal detector, in case anything of interest remained, but obtained no positive read­ings. After the obligatory group photograph, a bite to eat and a cursory inspection to ensure we were indeed on the summit and not merely a bump on the ridge, we beat a hasty retreat down to the protection of the trees. From there we were reminded of Sparrman’s account: “The descent of the mountain was much quicker but much more dangerous; sometimes we were stopped by numer­ous climbing plants, some­times perilous ravines barred our way.”

Towards the bottom of the descent we lingered at the waterfall, described by several on the Resolution who kept journals. Hodges had been employed “to give a more perfect Idea than can be formed by written description,” and his painting certainly did more than document the scene before us. According to art historian Bernard Smith, Hodges “could put his hand to anything. Navigational views, plants and animals, portraits, landscapes and something rather new, a sequence of drawings depicting historical events on the voyage…. He sought to combine the documentary art of the scientific voyages with the classical art of the academies.”

In an exhibition catalogue Hodges stated his aim was to give “dignity to the land­scape,” and the mood he imparts to this particular scene is strongly romantic. He first sketched the waterfall on April 11, and finished the painting in London two years later.

We can now confirm that the summit of Mt Sparrman is indeed the peak depicted on the skyline of the painting, even though it cannot be seen from the base of the waterfall as Hodges has shown it. In addition, the Maori family posing beside the waterfall was not seen there, but elsewhere in Cascade Cove. Hodges used the sublime setting of the waterfall to display recent noteworthy incidents, such as the ascent of the moun­tain and the meeting of a Maori family. Sir Joshua Reynolds, in dictating the artistic taste of the day, allowed that “paintings could be contrived from diverse elements, provided they were harmonized by the controlling imagination.”

Sketches for other paintings featuring Mt Sparrman were made from the Resolution as she entered and exited Dusky Sound. These coastal views were recorded for the benefit of future mariners so they would be able to recognise the area from the sea. Richard Pickersgill and Joseph Gilbert drew or copied them, and when they are compared with Hodges’ faithful representation, a vertical height exaggeration is evident, as is the omission of some background detail to accentuate the ridge we climbed. This technique is not unlike the cropping and tilting of photographs practised by some mountain­eers in more recent years .

Artistic licence of another kind is thought to have stemmed from this first visit by Europeans to Mt Sparrman. Some literary scholars perceive in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner an allusion to the waterfall painted by Hodges and described in poetic detail by William Wales, Cook’s astronomer and meteor­ologist.

In his journal, Wales described the waterfall as “One of Nature’s most romantic Scenes,” and was moved to quote the poet James Thomson:”In one impetuous torrent, down the Steep It thundering shot, and shook the country round”(The selfsame Thomson also gave us the stirring words to “Rule Britannia.”) After the voyage, Wales taught mathematics, Coleridge being among his students. The two were in contact for at least 13 years, making it quite likely that Coleridge would have absorbed both Wales’ verbal and written accounts and seen Hodges’ painting. Perhaps it was thus that the great poet, who had a passion for climbing and invested mountaintops with a mystical significance, was inspired to pen the lines: “Like waters shot from some high crag The lightning fell with never a jag A river steep and wide”

It was still raining as we left the waterfall and made our way down through the forest to be picked up on the shore. Our party of 13 had taken over nine hours to complete the round trip.

The sense of history was palpable. No receding glaciers had changed the landscape since the day Span-man and his party had trodden the same route. Apart from the browsing of introduced animals, isolation and seclusion had preserved the integrity of that first ascent. It was as if we had climbed through Hodges’ canvas with a 1773 guidebook, and re-emerged tired, hungry and wet through despite our modern moun­taineering equipment.

Our day’s amusement on some high crag was over, and we were in admiration of those who had led the way all those years earlier.

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