Does New Zealand have 24 or 32 mountains that are over 3000 metres? The short answer is both. The reality is potentially a whole lot more or a whole lot less, depending on which rules apply.
The 1953 New Zealand Alpine Journal published the first mountaineer-compiled list of New Zealand mountains 10,000 feet or higher, also noting which were ‘already achieved’, and including plenty of footnotes hinting that this compilation of summits was far from complete. Andy Anderson had been the first to climb the 17 mountains on the list, completing his ascents in the summer of 1950/51, followed by the boots and axes of Bert Barley, Tom Newth and Geoff Harrow in 1953.
Canterbury mountaineer Gordon Hasell took the discussion further, publishing a longer list in 1957’s New Zealand Alpine Journal that consisted of 27 peaks. Although not all of them were surveyed or given official spot heights, they were there due to their likelihood of reaching the 10,000-feet threshold. This became the ‘official’ working list for at least the next 25 years; Gordon Hasell and Alex Parton were the first climbers to complete this more extensive list in 1960.
New Zealand began its metric conversion in 1969, becoming law by December 1976, but measuring in metres still took some time to be adopted fully, and some mountains didn’t even feature until they were resurveyed. The new standard of 3000 metres (9842 feet) set the bar slightly lower; summits such as Mt Dixon, Glacier Peak and Mt Aspiring gained entry into the new club. The same fate awaited Mt Hamilton in the early 1990s, when it was resurveyed at 3025 metres, poking its way out of obscurity as Malte Brun’s significant neighbour. Others, including Malaspina and the Minarets, were on the original list but were actually found to be short of 10,000 feet. They still made the list, though, as 10,000 feet is 48 metres higher than 3000 metres. One criteria included whether a certain peak was an independent summit or had its own name, as well as its proximity to neighbouring peaks. Discussion over which mountains to include continue to this day; there are 24 peaks on the 3000-metre list, three peaks fewer than the latest 10,000-feet list.
During the 1970s, a couple of strong duos completed the original and updated list of 10,000 footers. Wellington mountaineers Margaret Fyfe and Graham McCallum completed all 27 mountains in January 1973, with Fyfe being the first woman to do so. Two men, Paddy Freaney and Russell Brice, were the first to complete the original list of 17 mountains in one summer season, finishing after having to wait for storms to clear, in May 1977. Following a technical mountaineering course in 1976, Pat Deavoll focused on climbing all 3000-metre peaks, completing the 24 of them by 1981. She climbed many with visiting British climber John McLean, who she’d met on the mountaineering course.
Roger Bates began an intense climbing fascination with the Mt Cook region in 1961, climbing over 25 of the high summits before metrication. 1969 launched the beginning of what became a formidable climbing partnership with Eric McMahon, and he repeated 15 of the high peaks in order that they would finish their climbs of all 32 (with Sefton Middle Peak) 3,000m peaks together in 1978.
John Nankervis began venturing up the high peaks in the late 1960s, often with Fyfe and McCallum, and then later pushing new routes with Dave Bamford and others. His focus wasn’t so much the list, which he was aware of, but exploration, particularly west of the Main Divide. He completed a list of 32 high peaks in 1985 when he climbed the devious Frind Route on Mt Sefton, a rarely repeated pioneering route that had fascinated him.
Gottlieb Braun-Elwert and Erica Beuzenberg spent the winter of 1989 ploughing through a list of 29 summits, using meteorological winter (1 June) as their starting date, and astronomical winter (21 September) as their end goal. They ended up starting on 4 June and finishing on 14 September. Their list is best understood by starting with the list of 32 mountains, excluding Mt Hamilton (not yet resurveyed), Mt Haidinger North Peak (marked spot height) and the South Peak of Mt Sefton (marked spot height), and adding the Middle Peak of Mt Sefton, though this doesn’t have a spot height and was photographed by them and referred to as Mt Sefton South Summit. Accounts of their summits are steeped heavily in stories of bad weather, biting winds and whiteouts. Just 18 days into the challenge, they’d amassed 18 summits before poor weather, work commitments and illness slowed them down. The pair added Mt Hamilton some years later.
Don French supposedly wanted to begin a dialogue in 1994 by submitting a revised list of 34 peaks to The Climber, the New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC) magazine. It included two seemingly random summits: Mt Sefton Middle and La Perouse North, which don’t bear those names or have official spot heights, but it didn’t seem to stoke the fires of debate. Mt Sefton South Peak has long been mistaken for what is best described as Middle Peak (neither are official titles), the official spot height being 3048 metres, and approximately 500 metres to the south of High Peak. I’ve made this error myself. Official spot heights are known entities and easy to keep track of, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other summits higher than 3000 metres. Aoraki, for example, has several points above 3000 metres, including three prominent points in the vicinity of High Peak, an unmarked prominence on the East Ridge, various rock towers on the Hillary Ridge, and a further unmarked prominence halfway between Pt 3688 and High Peak. And that’s just Aoraki, so a list that contains just a couple of unmarked, unnamed tops seems incomplete at best, and inconsistent at worst. The debate with Don French has reignited right here, nearly 30 years later.
French recently became the first person to complete the ‘100 Peaks Challenge’, an ambitious project he’d started in 1980, which was conceived as part of the NZAC centennial celebrations in 1991 by Ross Cullen, who was president of the club at the time. After consulting with prominent climbers of the day, the list addressed the aspirations of climbers at all levels and genres, and included a selection of relatively easy, very hard, and very remote peaks. In meeting this challenge, Don French also ticked all 24 of the 3000-ers list with his 2016 ascent of Magellan.
In 2018, Paul Clarke compiled Mountains of New Zealand, the most extensive and worthy publication to date that tackles the question of exactly how many mountains there are in New Zealand. He uses two simple criteria: they are at least 1400 metres high, and there is at least 300 metres above the lowest saddle between them and the adjacent ‘mountain’. He explains: ‘The second test was chosen to ensure that the mountains included are commandingly higher than their environs and are clearly separate mountains and not subsidiary peaks. Three hundred metres of re-ascent is a demanding test in this regard.’ Using Clarke’s criteria for the 3000-ers would shrink the list from either 24 or 32 to 9 peaks. On the upside, it would see a list of 78 beauties above 2500 metres, which would surely set those with excess time and energy a task. This list has not been completed by anyone yet.
In January 2005, Guy McKinnon wound up in hospital after a near-fatal fall on the North Ridge of Aoraki. During his recovery, he worked out that he had done 18 of Don French’s 34 3000-metre peaks while his subsequent ankle operation and rehabilitation allowed him time to work out his priorities. By October 2010, he’d completed all the mountains solo, including the ones he’d previously done with partners. He remains the only person to have completed French’s list, solo or otherwise.
Dave Bamford was a stalwart of the New Zealand alpine climbing scene throughout the 1970s and 1980s, climbing new routes and completing long alpine adventures, before he realised he was within spitting distance of climbing the list of 32 mountains. With an enthusiastic resolve, he completed it by climbing Mt Hamilton in 2015, ending the longest timeframe for doing so: 46 years (1969–2015). Penny Webster’s story is similar; she climbed her first 3000-metre peak in 1981, and by the end of the decade she had completed 17 ascents. After a hiatus raising a family, Webster returned to the Southern Alps in 2010 to complete all 24 high summits by November 2017.
The infectious allure of a list-related goal was too much for Jim Davidson who, after climbing with Penny Webster on many of her 3000-metre ascents, realised that he was within a whisker of completing the list. At 2 p.m. on 14 December 2020, he stepped onto the summit of Mt Vancouver to complete his twenty-fourth mountain. The summits spanned eight years. The day he completed the last on his list, I had left camp in the La Perouse Glacier just after 5 a.m. I could see Jim Davidson’s head torch twinkling on the summit of Malaspina, his second-to-last summit, before he descended the Linda Glacier and continued to Mt Vancouver. By 6.30 p.m. that evening, I reached my final summit: Magellan via the Balfour Glacier. It was incredibly exciting to learn that two of us had reached our goals on separate mountains within just hours of each other.
Alastair McDowell and Hamish Fleming joined forces to create an athletic and nimble duo who completed all 24 summits in just 31 days, finishing on 12 December 2021. The pair did this in one continuous push, from the ground up. They even cycled from Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park to Mt Aspiring.
Peter Cammell climbed his first 3,000 metre peak in January 1979, and climbed a quiver of peaks by the mid ’80’s. He chipped away at the remainder of the list until he completed all 24 in January 2023 at the age of 62 with an ascent of La Perouse from the West Coast. His 8 day, off-track climbing odyssey was documented on TVNZ NZ Hunter Adventures.
I doubt we’ll see any additions to the list of 24 highest-named peaks, but the chances of one dropping off the list because of glacial recession, collapse or resurveying is realistic, since some are not much higher than 3000 metres.
With or without official resurveying and classification, the current highest points of New Zealand won’t get any easier to reach, either mentally or physically. They remain a formidable, challenging and rewarding achievement.
Early ascents of the original 17 10,000-foot peaks listed in the 1953 New Zealand Alpine Journal.
1. Andy Anderson, completed in 1950
2. Geoff Harrow, completed in 1953
3. Bert Barley, completed in 1953
4. Tom Newth, completed in 1953
5. Roger Bates, completed in 1974
6. Eric McMahon, completed in 1976
7 & 8. Paddy Freaney and Russell Brice, completed in 1976–77
Early ascents of the 27 10,000-foot peaks listed in the 1957 New Zealand Alpine Journal
1 & 2. Gordon Hasell and Alex Parton, completed in 1960
3 & 4. Margaret Fyfe and Graham McCallum, completed in 1973
Ascents of the 3,000-metre peaks from the lists of 24 & 32 peaks.(Established after metrication in 1976).
1 & 2. Roger Bates and Eric McMahon, completed 32* between 1962 and 1978
3. Pat Deavoll, completed 24 in 1981
4. Gordon Hasell, exact date he completed 24 is unclear
5. John Nankervis, completed 32* between 1967 and 1985
6 & 7. Gottlieb Braun-Elwert and Erica Beuzenberg, completed a list of 29 in 1989, without Mt Hamilton
8. Guy McKinnon, completed solo 24, 32 and 34 in 2010
9. Dave Bamford, completed 32* between 1969 and 2015
10. Don French, completed 24 between 1980 and 2016
11. Penny Webster, completed 24 between 1981 and 2017
12. Jim Davidson, completed 24 between 2012 and 2020
13. Gavin Lang, completed 24 between 2019 and 2020
14 & 15. Alastair McDowell and Hamish Fleming, completed 24 in 31 days in 2021
16 Peter Cammell completed 24 between 1979 and 2023
*refers to climbing to Middle Peak of Mt Sefton, previously known as South Summit. See text for more details
The 32 peaks over 3000 metres were first completed by Roger Bates and Eric McMahon in 1978.
|*Aoraki/Mt Cook High Peak||3724m|
|Mt Elie de Beaumont||3109m|
|Mt Haast Middle Peak||3099m|
|Mt Haast North Peak||3065m|
|Mt Haidinger North Peak||3061m|
|Elie de Beaumont West||3054m|
|Mt Sefton South Peak||3048m|
|Minarets West Peak||3031m|
*Mountains in bold are the commonly accepted list of 24 peaks over 3000 metres.