When John Glasgow was young he was a walker. He hiked Nelson Lakes, Tableand and Cobb Range trails. Every time he did, he was always a day late getting back to civilization. His mother was waiting for him at the other end and when he didn’t arrive, she would just come back the next day.
“She was a little worried but she trusted us.”
It was a different time then. In the 1960s, there were no personal locator beacons. It was just you and the desert. He loved the immensity of the outdoors. There were no rules. Just you and the desert. If you made a mistake, you have owned it. Even back then as a teenager Glasgow thought that was how it should be.
Nelson was Glasgow’s playground. He was a skier. Then he became a climber. He climbed the Hopeless and Travers mountains. And when you get to the top of them, you see Arthur’s Pass. When you go up Arthur’s Pass you see Mount Rolleston and the Arrowsmith Range. Glasgow kept going further south – each time the mountains got bigger. Then he came to Twizel in the south of Canterbury.
He was a geology student there. This was going to be his career. He loved the outdoors and understood how it happened. But one day a friend George Harris said he needed a climbing partner. This would be Glasgow’s very first foray into Mt Cook National Park. So he put on crampons and boots. The trip sparked several things.
Glasgow has always loved being in the mountains. He loved being by their side and watching the space drift into the nothingness below him as he towered above him. Some people climb to the top. Glasgow climbed to climb. Whether it’s a 3,000-meter peak in New Zealand or a 6,000-meter peak in Peru, seeing the summit from below has always been a rewarding experience.
In 1970, Glasgow and his friend Peter Gough were joined by Harris and Graeme Dingle.
They agreed to try something that hadn’t been done before. By this time, they had led Aoraki several times. On this occasion, however, they would climb the Caroline Face of Mount Cook.
He had never been hit before. He has remained a colossus in the climbing world. It has the longest vertical ascent of all climbs in New Zealand. It is the highest in the country at 2000m. It’s dangerous.
“When a powder avalanche hits, it wipes the whole face,” Glasgow says now from the comfort of her home in Ngatimoti.
That day Glasgow went to her large garden tidying up her vegetable gardens. He goes inside and sits on his sofa. Then he says he and Gough came to set the climbing world on fire. How their photos, complete with sunglasses, beards and bandanas, made newspapers across the country graceful.
During this attempt in the early 1970s, the band only reached halfway before time forced them to back down. It closed quickly and there was no way they would reach the top. They had to climb ravines and jump waterfalls in the dark. By the time they returned, Glasgow says they would have slept in their soaked clothes if Gough’s wife hadn’t helped them to bed. The Face had beaten them. In their amazement, they vowed to give up climbing. This, however, did not last long. Instead, another wish surfaced – the following season, if the weather was nice, they would try one more time.
Glasgow and Gough arrived at the Hermitage Hotel in Mt Cook on November 7, 1970. The couple were in their 20s. They looked up at the beach. The weather was good. They knew more about the climb this time. They knew how to rise. So they went. The parts of the climb that previously took them three hours only took 10 minutes. They climbed with straight ice picks – climbing in balance the entire way as they scrambled up the ice cracks in the face.
Below them was a vertical drop of 1000 meters.
“It just goes on and on,” Glasgow remembers
The safest route was a sharp, rocky ridge. That night they stayed – setting up a bivouac on this ridge. It was then that a small avalanche river flowed. The snow was wet and it was flowing gently.
“We could reach out and touch her.”
They just hoped another bigger one wasn’t behind. That night was a meal of boxes of stew, chocolate, cookies and hot drinks. The next day would be the hardest part of the climb – a sheer ice climb. The whole face had little cracks that you could nick the top tips of your crampons on. Carefully, they made their way through the hard ice. Back at the Hermitage, a crowd had gathered with binoculars, checking their movements as they emerged onto the ice fields along the mountain ridge.
Crossing the terrain was “like a roof,” Glasgow said – ice caps falling on either side with nothing of the mountain visible below. Eventually they got to the ridge but went around the nearby summit as this had already been accomplished a long time ago. Then they hurtled down the west face, an easier descent.
Glasgow looked up and saw that the sky had turned gray and purple. There were huge curtains.
“I think I must be really tired,” said Glasgow. “
But Gough saw it too. It was the Aurora Australis.
“I had never seen it there before. It sparkled.”
When they returned to the Hermitage Hotel, an excited crowd was there to greet them. The story made headlines in New Zealand. Glasgow declared the summit “a victory for the hippies”. The climb has been hailed as the greatest of the millennium by the New Zealand Alpine Council. It has also changed Glasgow’s life. Before the summit, he was probably headed for a post as a geologist in Western Australia. Instead, he was offered a job as an alpine guide in the national park.
He ended up climbing Mount Cook 11 times. But he never did the Caroline Face again. However, as he continued to climb, a feeling invaded him more and more.
It was there when he was doing a practice run with a client who wanted to summit Aoraki. The couple slowly climbed a rocky ridge. Glasgow was strapped to his client and was pulling himself up onto a shelf when his client slipped. Glasgow was fortunately tied up on a short rope. If it hadn’t been, it could have been fatal.
“I was more aware that when you are alone you can make a mistake, but when you guide professionally you cannot and your climber can make a mistake anytime.”
Glasgow says he wasn’t mentally tough enough to continue putting himself in dangerous situations. Some people had it. Others got scared more quickly. Glasgow says he was one of the latter. When he was on the mountain he was fine. It was after and before that his mind played tricks on him. He almost completely stopped climbing.
Soon after, he left the area and returned to the Nelson area. A group bought land and helped create a commune.
“I’m an anarchist and I was fed up with all these rules. I’ve always gone with the flow. When it works, it’s the best form of government.”
However, after many years he realized that, like all other forms of government, self-interest will always prevail.
“All ‘isms’ work when people limit their self-interest. “
Glasgow landed a post as guide Abel Tasman, although he considers more the role of security guard and interpreter – fauna, flora and natural history. Then he bought his own land in Ngatimoti and started to maintain it himself. His garden is in bloom and his hands are dirty when we meet him. His memories – his ice ax and his boots went to his children to enjoy. In a back room, there are albums filled with photographs from his early days. He is there looking at black and white pictures with long flowing hair. He’s looking at these pictures now.
“I still think of climbing sometimes,” he says.
Then the anarchist mountaineer returns to his garden.