In 1867 Hokitika was described as the wonder city of the Southern Hemisphere. In the space of two years Westland’s population had increased from 1000 to 50,000, as men from remote comers of the Empire flocked to the West Coast in search of gold. At nights the streets were crowded and ablaze with lights as miners made their way to hotels, skittle alleys,gambling dens and the casino where the ‘ladies de ballets’ entertained. It was common to see ships leaving the proud port of Hokitika, then the sixth largest port in New Zealand,with 10,000 ounces of gold. The shipping records of that year show forty-one vessels in port on one day, of all nations, types and sizes.

On the slopes above the port, on Gibson Quay, was the Red Lion Hotel, one of Hokitika’s 110 hotels. James Evans built the Red Lion in 1865. He was a colourful character and had equally colourful friends such as the pirate and ‘blackbirder’,Bully Hayes. The West Coast Times of 29 December 1866 announced Captain Bully Hayes’ arrival in his brig Rona from the Fiji Islands with the following cargo — 50,000 oranges, 50,000 limes, 1000 cockatoos, 80 pigs, 200 pineapples, 200 citrons and a quantity of South Sea Island curiosities. A note in the Hokitika Historical Museum throws further light on what the curiosities were, “a number of young native Belles,” which was in keeping with Hayes ‘blackbirding’ or slave trading reputation.

Over 100 years ago, a young West Coast surveyor, who knew the hotel well, named the two prominent peaks at the head of the County Glacier Red Lion Peak and Mt. Evans, after the hotel and its publican.

Pirates no longer meet at Hokitika’s Red Lion tavern, but it’s still a keen watering hole for surveyors, trampers, bushmen, whitebaiters, mountaineers, shooters, possumers and goldminers. And it still attracts some colourful characters, such as the publican, Peter Hill, formerly of Ashburton, a thirty-nine year old ex-Army warrant officer who served in Singapore.

In April this year I was having a beer in the Red Lion with a few mountaineering friends and told Peter Hill that one of the most beautiful and remotest mountains in New Zealand was named after his pub. After he wiped the spilt beer off the bar he said, “Go on, I’m listening.” We had his attention. Like pirates of old that had frequented this very bar, I rolled out a map of the Central Southern Alps and jabbed my finger next to Red Lion Peak. “We’re planning a winter ascent in August and you’re welcome to join us,” I said half joking. There seemed something weird about the publican of the Red Lion climbing Red Lion Peak, but compared to the wild schemes that Bully Hayes and those early sailors and miners must have schemed up, our plan had a chance of success.
We explained to Peter that the object of the expedition was to climb Red Lion Peak from the Waitaha Valley via the County Stream and County Glacier. “I reckon we should fly in by helicopter to the top, take a photo and then fly back, that’s the easy way,” said Peter, loudly, so the whole bar could hear. We discussed flying one way by helicopter to reduce the time away from work.

In early May Peter was doing a couple of 10 kilometre walks a week and enjoying his newfound exercise. By the end of July, his portly publican’s paunch had all but disappeared and he had trimmed down to a fighting 100 kilograms. The time had come to do some snow training.

Sunday trading is a bit lean on the Coast these days so it was the one day Peter could put in a full day’s training. It was snowing heavily on August 3 when Peter Hill drove Rod Buchanan and I into Arthur’s Pass village for an attempt on Mt. Bealey. Peter put foot on mountain snow for the first time in his life that morning. Above the bush-line we were exposed to the full force of a howling norwest wind as the horizontally blowing snow and hail stabbed our windproof clothing like a driven nail. I was expecting Peter to wimp out. But no! He took to using crampons and an ice axe like a seasoned sherpa. I was beginning to admire this guy’s determination. By the end of the day Peter had passed his snow test with flying colours. Roll on Red Lion Peak!

About this time we finalised the group for Red Lion: Kevin Williams, 44, a carpet layer from Greymouth; Rod Buchanan, 52, bee keeper from Paroa; and David Norton, 34, a university lecturer from Christchurch. Peter and I made up the complement of five. The sixth member was to have been well-known mountaineer and publican of the Bealey Hotel at Arthurs Pass, Paddy Freaney, but he was snowbound and unable to get over the pass to join the others. When I phoned Paddy shortly before we left, he said: “The only way I can come over is to flog a jigger and come through the tunnel to the West Coast.” Unable to commandeer a jigger, Freaney missed the trip. All the expedition members had planned to juggle work and leave to fit in the climb somewhere between August 24 to September 6 so we were frustrated when the first week of this period saw three days of torrential rain. This was followed by two days of heavy snow which dumped two feet of snow in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square and on the Southern Alps. Acutely aware of avalanche danger, we went in well equipped to face any eventualities.

On Sunday morning August 30, the Met Office was forecasting a slender two day window of good weather. Our five-man party flew by helicopter into the terminal face of the County Glacier at 4,000 feet and in the afternoon plugged footsteps up to 6,500 feet under Red Lion Peak (8,100 feet), so we’d get a flying start in the morning. As night closed in on our three tents, water froze solid in the billies. The next morning we got away in the dark at 5.30am. It must have been at least 15 degrees below freezing as Peter Hills ex-Army combat boots froze solid during the night.
Somehow his boots and camouflage trousers issued for Singapore conditions looked a bit out of place in the middle of severe South Island winter. It was a weak, wintry dawn that greeted us as we climbed up the County Glacier towards the base of Red Lion Peak. We commenced the ascent of the low peak of Red Lion Peak by the north facing slope. At 11.30am after two hours of steep climbing we reached the low summit, at 8050 feet.

Peter Hill and Kevin Williams commencing the final ridge of the high peak of Red Lion Peak. The stunning ridge of Mount Evans from Red Lion Col to summit is to the left. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Wanganui valley dropping away with startling abruptness beneath our bootsoles. On the opposite side of the County Glacier, Mt. Evans reigned supreme. An hour later we reached the high summit of Red Lion Peak.

The view from the top was unbelievable. We were like little boys at a lolly scramble as we jostled and excitedly pointed out landmarks. “There’s Mt. Hutt and the ArrowsmithRange,”’ shouted David. Mt. Cook, Mt. Tasman, in fact the whole of the Southern Alps both north and south were a stark reminder as to where we were. On the West Coast side there was our own Lake Kaniere, the Wanganui and Poerua Rivers. “Isn’t that the tail end of the Okarito Lagoon,” said Peter. It was a good feeling as we sat down to eat our lunch on the summit, knowing we had done the first winter traverse of the two peaks of Red Lion.

Peter was chuffed. As we ate I told the guys the history of Red Lion peak. The first ascent of the high peak was done by a Christchurch party, Wyndham Barnett and his cousin Stan Barnett, and B.R. Turner on 30 December 1934. They climbed the peak from a camp above Vane Junction. Wyndham was born in 1911 and was a member of the Canterbury Mountaineering Club. He served in World War II as a gunner and died in Tunisia when he was struck by a splinter from a stray bomb.

The descent back to our camp was straight forward in the warm afternoon. The next morning the weather closed in, and our chance of a winter ascent of Mt. Evans was lost. As we left our camp in falling snow, the hardest part of the trip started. It took us four and-a-half days to descend down the County Glacier, County Stream and the Waitaha Valley back to our car at the roadend. The first stage of our trek back, with 70 pound packs,including tents, primuses, avalanche, climbing equipment and food, was down the snowladen County Glacier and then the stream. At times the snow was crutch deep which made the trip to County Hut slow and laborious. The next morning we made a significant discovery. Rod Buchanan and I, independently of each other, discovered footprints and droppings of the Great Spotted Kiwi near the County Hut. This was brilliant news as recent kiwi surveys had indicated that no Great Spotted Kiwi had been identified between Franz Josef and Greymouth for some years. As we descended the Waitaha we came across a number of blue ducks, bell-birds, wood pigeons and grey warblers which cheered us up, except Peter. “You greenies get excited over nothing,” said Peter. “Shut up,”’ came my reply, “or I’ll photograph you hugging the next tree and pin it on your pub wall.”’

From County Hut it took a further three days along a precipitous track which at times teetered over three frightening gorges, more than 1000 feet below us. The track down the Waitaha Valley was totally devastated by storm-felled trees. Tree hugging was essential and was often the only security we had between us and the river, 500 feet below. The difficulty of the track down the Waitaha is described by John Pascoe in his ‘Southern Alps Guidebook’ : “The main river falls to a narrow rock gorge at 2,300feet, and in half a mile of cataracts dashes a thousand feet to the forks where the County River swells its volume, both to flow for some eight miles due west and then north in a series of gorges and cliffs where the scenery is spectacular. So difficult is the travelling below the County that most parties take the high level route at all costs, but deer killers’ tracks hold the south bank.”

Moonbeam Hut, Lower Waitaha Valley. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Rod Buchanan, expedition member and a member of the West Coast Conservation Board, estimated there were at least five trees blocking our way every 100 yards. He reckoned it would take about two person-years to restore the Waitaha Valley to the condition it was before this winter’s snow and wind damage.

On Friday 4 September, five tired climbers arrived back at the Red Lion Tavern in Hokitika. Peter Hill was pleased to be home and was greeted by his sister Margaret, who had been running the pub during his six day absence. Peter sat down, like a happy Buddha, in front of huge roaring fire. It was beers all round, huge tankards of Christchurch Dark Ale. Before long our wet clothes were steaming.

A week later Peter Hill’s patrons treat him with greater respect. He’s much slimmer now and seems to have more purpose in his stride as he moves from table to table. The summit photo of Peter and his team proudly hangs on the wall, near the bar. Last Friday a tourist asked him why he doesn’t have more photographs of mountains on his wall. “Have a look out the tavern window, you can see bloody mountains as far south as Mount Cook and Mount Tasman,”’ he replied. “Are you a climber?” the tourist asked. There was a silence while he thought. “I’ve climbed a mountain or two,” said Peter, as he glanced towards the silhouette of Mt. Evans, which hides Red Lion Peak behind. The view out his pub window now has new meaning.