Mountain man – An Irishman’s Diary on William Spotswood Green
Rev William Spotswood Green: eminent marine biologist and renowned climber
The Rev William Spotswood Green (1847-1919), educated at Midleton College, Cork, and Trinity College Dublin, was an eminent marine biologist, and renowned climber. Travelling to New Zealand, I wondered would I find traces of his 1881-82 expedition to climb Mount Cook, the highest mountain in the Southern Alps. I need not have worried.
Mount Cook is a mere 12,218 ft, but it is a formidable climb – the weather, fed by storms from the Tasman Sea, less than 30 miles to the west, changes rapidly; annual precipitation on the Southern Alps reaches 50 ft. There are crevasses, ice falls and rock falls – Mount Cook lost 130 ft from its summit in 1991.
WSG recruited two Swiss climbers to join him in Christchurch. They hired horses, a cart and a driver to take them up Burke’s Pass, and north on bullock tracks along the east coast of Lake Pukaki before crossing the delta of the Tasman river with huge gravel beds concealing quicksands, and fording many freezing water courses lined by high bluffs. They carried their stores on horseback across the Hooker river and established a base on the southern spur of Mount Cook and made five camps up the valley, the highest at 3,750 ft. Their first attempt on the summit came to an end at an unstable rocky ridge at about 7,500 ft. Anticipating Beckett, WSG wrote, “We had failed! We might fail again!” And they did three more times.
On the fifth attempt, after bivouacing at 7,000 ft, they found a route that led to the ridge that connects Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. On the final assault, as they cut steps up the icy slope, the weather turned against them, avalanches tumbled past them, ice shards blew at them – it was 4pm when they reached 11,000 ft. At 6 pm with Mount Cook a few tens of metres above them, their way was blocked by a deep gully. They could have gone on but what was the point? The weather was worsening and darkness was falling.
WSG recorded that they had shown they could get up Mount Cook, but now more to the point, “Could they get down?”
They turned back. Forced to stand all night on a narrow ridge at 10,000 ft while the storm howled, they had to stay awake – if they fell asleep they would fall to their deaths. They talked all night, discussing politics, telling stories and singing songs. After daybreak they made their way to the safety of their camp, 62 hours after they had left.
They were greeted as heroes in Christchurch where the papers reported they had climbed Mount Cook. WSG never claimed that, rather that they had shown how to do so. A great dinner was held in their honour and WSG proposed the “founding of a New Zealand alpine club”. This eventually happened in 1891, fostering the great tradition of climbing among New Zealanders, including my cousin Scott Russell. Three New Zealanders were the first to reach the summit of Mount Cook in 1894.
WSG and his companions have a place of honour in the thrilling Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre in Mount Cook Village. There are photographs, copies of watercolours made by WSG on his climb, and a facsimile of his notebook. His book The High Alps of New Zealand was published in 1883 and reissued in 1976, and is a fine story by an astute, inquisitive, well-informed field biologist, and a Darwinian.
Celebrated in New Zealand, he has been almost forgotten in Ireland, even though he had a distinguished scientific and administrative career in our public service. A pioneer of marine science as the leader of survey cruises by the Royal Irish Academy, he became the chief inspector of fisheries in the Fisheries Branch of the Department of Agriculture and Technical Instruction, which carried out research of “primary importance”, and he was a member of the Congested Districts Board.
He died in 1919 at his beautiful home, Westcove House, Caherdaniel, Co Kerry.