Skip to content

The Canterbury Westland Alps

18 December 2010

A climbing and transalpine guide

A combined publication by the New Zealand Alpine Club and the Canterbury Mountaineering Club

Finally it has arrived – the long-awaited guidebook to the Canterbury and Westland Alps, the last ‘missing link’ in the coverage of the Southern Alps, fresh from the press in November 2010. With a whopping 295 pages, this is the biggest of the NZAC publications – a fact explained not only by the size of the area covered, but also by the inclusion of transalpine routes. The guidebook I had always been dreaming of, which combines tramping and mountaineering routes in a single volume, whereas further south the planning of transalpine trips requires at least two guidebooks (Moir’s guides South and North for access up valleys and over passes, and the NZAC climbing guidebooks for routes to the tops).

The area covered extends from the Macaulay River to the Avoca River east of the Main Divide, and from the Whataroa River to the Kokatahi River on the west side. Some of the most significant regions included in the guidebook are the Arrowsmith Range, the Garden of Eden and of Allah, the Bracken Snowfield and the summits of Mt Evans and Mt Whitcombe. For many of these regions, no guidebook had been previously compiled, while for other areas, existing guidebooks were well and truly out of date. When planning trips into the Arrowsmith Range for instance, I had so far been referring to John Pascoe’s guidebook ‘The Southern Alps’, published in 1951, and to the 1967 New Zealand Alpine Journal.

It is difficult to review a guidebook when I have only done a few trips in the region, and I haven’t had a chance to properly put it to a test. A few facts however are immediately obvious: the volume is thoroughly researched and carefully edited; a quick read of those routes I am familiar with reveals no mistakes, and the coverage of each valley shows no gaps. All grid references are reported in both the old system (NZMG) and the new one (NZTM) – this must have taken a HUGE amount of work. The grading system is the open-ended ‘Mount Cook’ system, accompanied by a rock climbing grade according to the Ewbank system if required. Committment grades are not included – just as well, since I think they are both pointless and misleading. The relevant paragraph in the introduction on page 16 is spot on and well worth a read.

A guidebook wouldn’t be complete without a few omissions, and this one is no exception, the standard route up Arrowsmith from the South Ashburton (one of the easiest up the mountain when on form, see NZAJ 1967) and the west face of The Marquee being some of the most notable ones. Such omissions are fine, since it is not humanly possible to include every known route in a guidebook, and it is good to have a few blanks left open for exploration and the use of map-reading and imagination. As long as some dumbwit doesn’t come along and claim a first ascent of a sixty year old route up Arrowsmith just because there’s no route description for it…

The guidebook contains a comprehensive introduction including information on grading, trip planning, geography, geology and a history of the exploration and climbing in the region. Those climbers who lack common sense will benefit from reading the sections ‘Using this book’ and ‘Trip planning’; the romantic paragraph on transalpine travel (p21-22) is a pleasure to read, and sums up well the joy of transalpine trips. Last but not least, the book is illustrated with a wealth of superb pictures. Not only are both editors skills photographers, but even old, historical images are rendered to top quality standard. Just one of those little things that make the guidebook stand out above most others in the series.


Cook, Y. and Spearpoint, G. (2010) The Canterbury Westland Alps – a climbing and transalpine guide. Joint publication by the New Zealand Alpine Club and the Canterbury Mountaineering Club. 295 pages

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Richard Thomson permalink
    6 May 2011 11:32 am

    “Committment grades are not included – just as well, since I think they are both pointless and misleading. ”
    Interested to know why you think this? To my mind an indication of commitment – which covers such things as time investment, remoteness from shelter, length/difficulty of descent, and objective danger – is as useful to know (and as hard to quantify and likely to change according to conditions, weather etc) as a technical grade, which is largely what the Mt Cook grades are.

    • 6 May 2011 11:46 am

      I feel that it does not make any sense to sum up factors as different as time investment, remoteness and objective danger in one number. I rather have a guidebook give me specific information here, with words, not numbers. Such as “loose rock”, “danger of […] falling from above”, “retreat impossible”, “climb takes two long days and there are no bivvy sites”. A number to indicate a committment grade is just not informative enough

  2. Richard Thomson permalink
    7 May 2011 5:36 pm

    It may not make any sense, but that’s what the grading system in this guide does. Otherwise, why add a Mt Cook grade to an alpine rock route? If you only need a technical grade, the Ewbank grade would be enough. As another example, is the east ridge of D’Archiac (3-) technically harder than the south ridge of the low Thumb (2-)? I don’t think so, but it is a lot longer and has a more involved glacier approach, and that’s why it gets a higher grade.
    On the other hand, I think you could make a good argument that adding a grade for the hardest technical move on a route is un-necessary on non-technical routes – a bit like the way that UK rock climbing grades only add technical grades once the overall grade gets to about 18 (E1).
    (BTW: disclosure: I had lengthy discussions with Geoff & Yvonne on this topic while I was copyediting & typesetting this guide…)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: