History of NZ Guiding

There is a place, and a demand, and a need, for professionalism in New Zealand.
Bruce Jenkinson - 1973

Entry of professional guiding in New Zealand is well defined with the attempts and subsequent first ascent of Aoraki led by Tom Fyfe with George Graham and Jack Clarke. It is unusual but perhaps fitting that in that era the peak gave way to an all New Zealand party of guides climbing on the day as amateurs. In the golden years to follow, professional guides were with their clients, at the forefront of New Zealand mountaineering.

The New Zealand guides were largely self taught, but had the luxury of leading tourists on the lower hard ice of the glaciers to hone their skills, as well as derive benefit from visiting mountain guides. The first Hermitage guide Jack Adamson, was influenced by the Rev. Green and his Swiss guides Ulrich Kaufmann and Emil Boss when in 1882 they arrived to, and very nearly succeeded in, ascending Aoraki.

Following that first Aoraki ascent in 1894 Tom Fyfe, who was introduced to climbing by Adamson, went on to become the first appointed Chief Guide at The Hermitage and Jack Clarke was employed by Fitzgerald to provide assistance to his Italian guide Matthias Zurbriggen. The trio went on to do some remarkable first ascents, and Jack Clarke became a first class guide eventually succeeding Tom Fyfe as Chief Guide.

This tradition continued through, Clarke in his turn took on a young Peter Graham who with his brother Alex had been guiding and climbing from their Franz Josef base, for the most part mentored by the Canon H. E. Newton and Dr E. Teichelmann of Hokitika. Graham eventually succeeded Clarke and he too left a remarkable legacy before relinquishing his role to return to the West Coast where he continued to guide with brother Alex. Frank Milne took over as Chief Guide, then Vic Williams followed by Mick Bowie.

By then the West Coast had a well established tradition of its own. Mick Sullivan built a hotel at Fox in 1929 to rival the operation developed by the Grahams at Franz and Frank Alack became the chief Guide there. 1n 1931 a young Harry Ayres had found his way to the coast where he took on a guiding apprenticeship under Alack, taking tourists on the lower hard ice, packing supplies to the high huts and providing assistance on guided climbs. Eventually he found his way to the Hermitage where he worked alongside Mick Bowie and went on to become the finest climber and guide of his generation.

However they were the last of a line. In 1953 Parliament passed an act that created the Aoraki/Mount Cook region a National Park. High guiding was also in a decline and this combination saw the end of high guiding from the Hermitage. Bowie stayed on with one or two others to continue glacier guiding for the Hermitage and Ayres went on to become the first head ranger of the new Mt Cook National Park, inheriting from the Hermitage high guiding and the alpine huts (up until then all the high huts had been built either by the guides or the Alpine Club). This proved to be a difficult mix and there were additional problems with recruiting guides as rangers or rangers as guides. In 1961 Ayres resigned leaving a fine legacy as a guide and what he had achieved in helping establish the region as a National Park. His successor was Merv Burke, a guide trained by Harry and Mick, but he too eventually moved on with his replacement not a climber.

This brings us into the mid sixties where by now high guiding had all but died, and glacier guiding was also becoming increasingly problematic (at least East of the Divide). Climbing however, was generally gaining in popularity and many fine climbs being done, the steep faces becoming the new challenge. The New Zealand Alpine Club was being inundated with new members, particularly Australians wishing to learn the craft and the club were struggling to keep up with demand.

Peter Farrell, Lynn Crawford and Don Mackay were some of the strongest climbers of the day and saw an opportunity to resurrect the guide tradition, They recruited Harry and Mick as mentors and in 1966 Alpine Instruction Ltd was born operating out of the Ball Hut. They ran climbing instruction and guiding in summer and having rebuilt the ski tows on the Ball Glacier offered ski instruction and ski touring trips in winter. Bruce Jenkinson became their ‘chief’ guide and worked tirelessly alongside them. Bruce was also quick to realise:

‘If we are to achieve a high standard we must recognise the qualification and training necessary to this.’

Alpine Instruction Ltd was not having an easy time of it, they were battling with the park administration at every turn who themselves, through the rangers, were still offering a high guiding service. The company struggled along for 6-7 years before eventually succumbing to be resurrected once more as Alpine Guides Ltd, with the Tourist Hotel Corporation taking a significant share and Gavin Wills at the reins. It was now 1973 and one of New Zealand's strongest climbers, Graham Dingle, who was also guiding, had a slightly different vision and established the Outdoor Pursuits Centre at Tawhitikuri in the central North Island. Bruce with Geoff Wyatt had just formed a new company ‘Mountain Recreation’ and they were considering the best places to run courses and how to convince the authorities to let them operate at Mt Cook. However in that first season Bruce was killed in a fall from the Sebastopol bluffs and such was his stature that it plunged the newly kindled guiding community into periodic darkness.

From the shelter of the Ball Hut a new wave of guide/instructors who in some cases had first been tutored by Bruce were having regular discussions on the idea of a guides association, in part to ensure that the traditions of guiding were kept alive. Thus in 1974 a meeting of all interested parties was called at Ball Hut and in the following year, 1975, the New Zealand Mountain Guides Association was born.
Gavin Wills was elected President and Graham Dingle Vice President.

a mountain guide was defined as any person engaged in guiding or instruction…for pecuniary gain.

The formation of the association was supported and financially assisted by the Council for Recreation and Sport (CRS, now SPARC) and also supported by the Mountain Safety Council (NZMSC) and Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC). However the main impetus came from its founding members, in particular Gavin Wills. This caused some friction and when asked at the 2nd AGM in 1976, Hugh Logan on behalf of the Rangers Association summed it as ‘employers of guides and instructors were too close to the centre of the Association and could influence its course easily’. Logan also felt that ‘ simply being a non member of NZMGA could do an independent guide or instructor harm’ and opposed the implementation of the training scheme.

Despite these misunderstandings the first standardisation course was held at Mt Cook in October 1976 with observers from CRS, MSC and FMC. Also observing were Lynn Crawford alongside Harry Ayres. The first guides to participate in this course were Graham Dingle, Mike Browne, Nick Banks, Dave McNulty and Gavin Wills. Regretfully Geoff Wyatt had refused to join the association and went his own path.

In his report to MSC on the course, Alan Trist wrote ‘there is no doubt that those present brought a very considerable breadth of experience to the discussions, and it is difficult to see how any other process could improve significantly on this stage of crystallisation of New Zealand experience into the format of a course…. I see a clear need to get things started by qualifying a number of people to act as course directors, tutors etc’.

Despite a background of internal and external wrangles about standards of competence for guides and instructors and issues of access to Crown land the Association flourished. In early 1980 an application was made to join the International Federation of Mountain Guide Associations (IFMGA), and following an assessment period this was achieved in late 1981. With this came a merging of the NZMGA certification scheme with the international standards.

The first immediate hurdle was the standard of skiing, and the decade that followed saw this addressed along with standards in avalanche hazard management. Over this period a close relationship was built with the Canadians who had a similar approach and structure to their qualification scheme but also had better developed standards and training in ski guiding. A regular flow of Canadian guides came to New Zealand for the winter months and this was reciprocated with kiwis heading north for the Canadian winter.

Guides still continued to remain at the forefront of instruction and a regular seasonal pilgrimage of guides to the now well established “OPC” continued through the 80’s. Some key figures such as Ray Button, Pete Brailsford and John Entwisle helping found the New Zealand Outdoor Instructors Association in 1987.

Dave McNulty was a major influence through this period, developing and running the first professional avalanche courses which became the basis for the MSC stage I and II courses introduced in 1987. Ironically McNulty was killed in an avalanche in 1989 whilst heliski guiding and like Jenkinson before him his stature was such that it sent shock waves through the guiding community. His legacy was set though, a high standard of competence and technical standard for climbing and skiing had been achieved and New Zealand guides could hold their own in any place any season. A McNulty project at the time of his death in 1989 had been the development of Himalayan heliskiing from a base in Manali, India. This continued and marked a new era of international guiding with guides from NZ, Canada and Europe coming together to escort clients on high altitude ski runs in very remote areas.

The Himalaya had always been terrain where New Zealand mountaineers excelled and it was Rob Hall with Gary Ball who pioneered the guiding of the 8000m peaks in the early 1990’s. Russell Brice had been quietly doing a similar thing and from his new base in France was soon also offering a regular guide service to the Himalaya. Back in New Zealand standards were again under review and with the increasing pressure for specialisation the NZMGA split its qualification allowing independent pathways as a ski or climbing guide, with IFMGA status only achieved on the completion of both. Much more comprehensive guidelines were also put in place defining the professional and terrain limitations of the different categories of guide and the supervision requirements of guides in training.

The 1990’s was very much a watershed of specialisation and also saw the rapid development in polytechnic avalanche courses. Whilst the IFMGA qualification has always been involved in the full spectrum of mountain disciplines, it was the creation of the independent pathways to guide training that saw the healthy cross fertilisation of individuals within focused mountain pursuits. Thus this decade lead to increased opportunities in a range of specialist areas including education, avalanche hazard management and ski patrol, to name a few.

This takes us into the new millennium where New Zealand guides occupy every niche in mountaineering within New Zealand and many often spend their year between a number of continents with a season in New Zealand, the Himalaya, Canada, Europe and Antarctica. Sojourns also being made to Greenland and South America for both climbing and skiing.