An Interview With Bill Beaven
By Paul Maxim
At 96 years of age, Bill Beaven doesn’t miss a lot. By the time I had parked my rental car on his short driveway and collected my interview gear off the passenger seat, Bill was standing outside his front door in the crisp Christchurch air to greet me.
We knew each other from a previous visit, so introductions weren’t necessary. 'Should I put my mask on?' I asked. 'Not if you don’t have Covid' was the quick reply. I already knew how independent and matter of fact this fine old climber was. His driver’s licence was current and a wooden cane was his only mobility aid; fitting when you consider a walking cane’s resemblance to the long wooden ice axes that he wielded so easily as a young climber more than six decades previously.
For Bill Beaven is one of the last links to that wonderful period after World War Two, when there was a rapid expansion of amateur climbing on the country’s toughest peaks, led by the likes of Neil Hamilton and Earle Riddiford. By 1949, most of the major mountains in Aotearoa had been climbed and focus had turned to more remote ridges and less steep mountain faces. During the 1930s, Rod Syme, Dan Bryant, Lud Mahan and Harry Stevenson had demonstrated a propensity for climbing challenging ridges without the assistance of mountain guides. Once the war finished, independent mountaineering resumed with renewed vigour. The new climbers emerged from diverse backgrounds: returned servicemen who had missed the harmony of the Southern Alps, tramping and mountaineering club members now unburdened by home duties, and fresh-faced university students, too young for the war, who viewed climbing as an expression of freedom and adventure beyond the confines of their study. From Canterbury University emerged a group of young male climbers intent on expanding amateur climbing into regions rarely visited since the days of the pioneers. Earle Riddiford led the way. Riddiford’s horizon reached far beyond the Southern Alps, for he envisaged New Zealand mountaineering as a pathway to an increasingly accessible Himalaya. Within a few years, New Zealand alpinists would literally be ‘on top of the world’. Bill Beaven was central to Riddiford’s plans, but things did not quite work out as originally conceived. On a request from NZAC, I decided to ask him about those exciting years and his own remarkable life in general.
Q. Let’s start with your early years, Bill. Where were you born and what got you into climbing?
A. I was bought up in Christchurch and I used to visit my grandparent’s house on the hills at Redcliffs. And at the back of the house was a big area of open hills with caves and gullies and when we grew up, we used to love roaming and exploring. One year we were invited to go up to Arthur's Pass, when I was 14 years old, and when we arrived, I remember there were these great mountains that went straight up. They didn’t just roll up—they went straight up. Very impressive! We climbed Avalanche Peak, just the four of us, my older brother and two friends. We didn’t take any water, so we got slower and slower, then we were almost crawling, but we finally we got to the top. And wow, at the top we could see the Crow icefall with ice falling off. Then I looked away and beyond were all these other mountains and I thought, what a wonderful idea to go and explore all that.
Q. Was there any mountaineering in the family?
A. Well, not really. My father left the family when I was quite young, so I never got to talk about some climbing that he had done as a young man. My father had gone to the First World War. To Gallipoli and northern France. But before he went to war, he was sent down to Mount Cook by his father to climb with Peter Graham. Later on, he went out hunting with friends. But he never talked to me about his climbing days.
Q. What did you father do?
A. He was the Managing Director of Andrews and Beaven, which had been established by his father. The company was very successful in making chaff cutters. In fact, they had the whole of the Australian and New Zealand market tied up, until the Australians put a tariff on it and it disappeared.
Q. Tell me about your earliest trips?
A My older brother, Donald, took me tramping. He was two years older than me and had gone to university to study medicine and had joined the University Tramping Club. He led the way, and we did lots of things together. I went on a trip with him to the Landsborough and he came with me on some early climbs. But he was becoming devoted to medicine. He later became Professor of Medicine here and was knighted for his work with diabetes [Editor: he also awarded the Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit]. So I started climbing with Jim McFarlane, Norm Hardie and Earle Riddiford and we sort of set a different sort of pace. I had met some CMC guys while on a hunting trip with a friend, because we used to go shooting rabbits and deer to earn some money. We made some good money. CMC was good, so I joined the CMC and went to their climbing school and got a good basic training, which a lot of people didn’t get. They ran a good course.
Q. Can you remember who your instructors were?
A. Yes, Andy Anderson, Tom Newth, and Jack Hayes. [Stan] Conway was there too.
Q. Where was it run?
A. It was at Carrington Hut. I remember the food was wonderful. They had a special stove and we didn’t have to cook a single meal. Jim McElroy was a butcher and he cooked the most wonderful meals.
Q. How did you meet Jim, Norm and Earle?
A. We met at university. I was studying mechanical engineering. But I first met Earle at Mount Cook. My brother and I had got a two-week paid job as chain men surveying the first proposed gondola site behind the Hermitage. Earle, who was secretary of the alpine club, got us a job there. After the work, my brother and I went to the top of the Mueller and climbed all the mountains at the head of the Mueller. Then Earle invited us along to climb Mt Brunner [December 1946]. That was a terrible year for snow and avalanches. Then we raced Jim and Norm to the head of the Landsborough and got the first ascent of Townsend [January 1947] ahead of them. We were all very competitive. But on the first ascent of the South Ridge of Sefton [January 1948] we all got on so well together.
Q. The four of you each had different strengths.
A. Yes, Norm Hardie was the tough nut with great endurance. He climbed Kangchenjunga on the first ascent expedition [his ascent was the day after the actual first ascent], had an interesting career as a civil engineer and wrote two books. He liked hunting and would go out at weekends to earn money to pay his way through university. He always took a rifle on our trips, so we always had meat, but it wasn’t good because it was so tough! Jim was the best climber. He had the best balance. And Earle Riddiford was very good at cutting steps in precarious positions with one hand. He also had very good balance.
Q. You were called the ‘dream team’ due to your compatibility and combined strengths?
A. Yes. The only difference between them and me was that I tended to be a bit more technical than them. They had never been to a climbing school. Well, Earle had been to one run by the Otago section, but Jim and Norman hadn’t. They were just good climbers and away they went. I used to complain to them that when they walked out on glaciers, they didn’t use enough rope. If a glacier was heavily crevassed, I insisted that we climbed on a much longer rope. I just thought that it was important.
Q. Let’s talk about each of the team, starting with Norm Hardie?
A. A great chap. So capable. Tough as old boots. We shared some great times. A lifelong friend.
Q. Jim MacFarlane?
A. Same. He had wonderful spirit. A highly respected engineer.
Q. Earle Riddiford?
A. Earle was a very complicated person. A good climber and a good lawyer. A really driven person—no question about it. A tireless organiser: all our trips were organised by him. He died too young.
Q. Tell me about the 1948 Ruth Adams Rescue?
A. That was a toughest trip I ever did. Harry Ayres picked the team, and I was the youngest. Norm and Earle were on it as well. I got the call in Christchurch in the middle of the night, and we just shot off to Mount Cook. We didn’t think to take any food. We stopped at Twizel and hauled Norm out of bed [he was working on the Pukaki hydro project] .
Q. Was the Ernest Adams fruit cake story true?
A. Yes, it’s true. Adams flew over and dropped the cake. We were ravenously hungry because all we had was bread and tinned fruit. That’s all we had! I was exhausted. But we couldn’t eat all the cake because we found our stomachs had already contracted.
Q. Was it on that rescue that you met Edmund Hillary
A. Yes. Ed was one of the carriers, with Norm, plus guides from the Hermitage and Fox. Mick Bowie and Snow Mace were among them.
Q. And how did you find the Cook River track that was cut to help you get out?
A. Well the track was good, and it was kept open for three or four years, but West Coast bush grows so fast that it soon disappeared. The scrubby stuff was the most difficult, and we found we couldn’t carry the stretcher through it, so we ended up going down the river, which was full of big boulders. Which we roped the stretcher over.
Q. But you made good use of the track at the end of your Fox-Balfour-La Perouse expedition in 1949.
A. Yes, we did. That was another good trip. We climbed Tasman out of the Balfour, then descended into the upper Cook and climbed La Perouse. We almost climbed Dampier too.
Q. You must have been disappointed that you missed out on the Maximilian Ridge in 1951?
A. Yes. But I got sick, and you can’t do much about that. One of the things about that climb was when Norm, Jim, Earle and I climbed together, we took take turns out the front. But on the Maximilian Ridge, George Lowe got out the front and wouldn’t hear of anyone else taking over.
Q. Do you think that might have been because he and Ed wanted to play an active role within the expedition, rather than be submissive to the leadership of Earle Riddiford?
A. That’s possible.
Q. Why didn’t you go on Earle’s Mukut Parbat expedition?
A. I couldn’t go. I didn’t have any money and my father had helped with my student climbing and I felt I couldn’t ask him for any money. I was also a bit doubtful about it. Whether such a small party could climb such a big peak. But Earle desperately wanted me to go because he wanted to have me on his side. He was scared of George and Ed taking over the expedition.
Q. So with Earle and Ed now focusing on the Himalaya, and the team that had been so strong for five years now effectively ended, what did you do over the next couple of years?
A. The first year after they went, I was at a bit of a loss. Then Neil Hamilton, who was building Pioneer Hut at the head of the Fox, asked me to help. I did two seasons up there. We worked and climbed, and ski toured. Ian Gibbs, who was a university friend, and I did the first ascent of the East Ridge of Glacier Peak [February 1950] and then I did a traverse of Haidinger with Bert Barley.
Q. What was your impression of Neil?
A. He was a very strong and good climber, and a hard worker. Tremendous balance. A good carpenter but not a very good organiser.
Q. In 1952 you climbed Malte Brun from the Murchison and then you went overseas?
A. Yes, and I climbed Mount Cook again. I had first climbed it the year I finished University [on 9 Dec 1950] with Murray Spencer. I remember it was totally iced up. We climbed iced up rock and found the ice cap had very difficult sastrugi. Just one trip and you would have been away. We were far too early really! I went back with an old university friend [Ian Hugh Briscoe] and we did the reverse traverse [Linda – North-West Ridge, 6 Jan 1953]. The snow was nice, so it was a much easier climb. Then the following year I went overseas. Andrews & Beaven were not giving me enough work, I don’t know why. So I went to England. Then I got invited to go to Nepal.
Q. On the 1954 Ed Hillary Barun Valley Expedition.
A. Yes, Ed wrote and asked me if I interested, and I said yes. I think it was the Alpine Club who picked the team, but Ed probably had the final say and he knew me from the La Perouse rescue and the Elie de Beaumont trip. Jim and Norm were on it too. Earle wasn’t. He was out of it by then. He had hurt his back and had fallen out with the others. But we won’t go into that.
Q. It was a rather uneven expedition with different parties going in different directions.
A. Ed thought he had permission to attempt Makalu only to find out that he hadn’t. We got there and found the Americans were at Base Camp, trying to do a rock route which was very difficult. You can’t take porters up a rock ridge. After that, I don’t think Ed’s heart was really into it and we split up to do various things.
Q And then Jim McFarlane and Brian Wilkins fell into a crevasse.
A. That happened right at the beginning of the trip. Nobody was fully acclimatised, but Wilkins did very well to climb out of the crevasse and raise the alarm. Very well. Then Ed got injured [broken ribs trying to rescue Jim] and he should have withdrawn from the trip. But he carried on and so then we had two casualties instead of one. When I went back to England, a well-known climber—I won’t mention his name—asked how it was that we didn’t know how to get someone out of a crevasse. We had a climber who had got to the top of Everest but couldn’t get a man out of a crevasse.
Q. Yes and especially coming from New Zealand mountains which are covered in crevasses.
A. Exactly. But I wasn’t there. I was up another valley.
Q. But you eventually climbed Baruntse (7162m).
A. Yes, there was a bit of mucking around after the accident, looking after Jim and Ed. The disappointing thing was that I wasn’t on the first ascent [made by Geoff Harrow and Colin Todd ] because George didn’t want to go on after a section of cornice broke off. So we went down. Back at Basecamp, I said to him: 'I’m going back up and if you don’t want to come, I’ll go up with a Sherpa.' George said: 'oh no, don’t do that' and changed his mind and we went back up the next day and did the second ascent. But I had to do all the leading [laughs].
Q. And that was your only trip to the Himalaya?
A. Yes. There was some talk of me applying for a place on the [1955 British] Kangchenjunga expedition, because Norm had been invited. But I knew that I would be only making up numbers and the English climbers would get never let us be out the front. In the end I wasn’t invited anyway.
Q It worked out pretty well for Norm though.
A. It did. He did extremely well. But my heart wasn’t in it and by then I was involved with my girlfriend, Gay [Hall] who was a New Zealander and a very good skier.
Q. Looking back, what are your thoughts about Ed Hillary?
A. A very complex man. Sometimes very quiet. He became more and more ambitious and very determined, especially after not climbing Mukat Parbat. Then he changed and he became a very good expedition leader for a while. I think he learnt a lot from Earle—not that he would admit it.
Q. George Lowe?
A. Oh, not too sure about George. Very loyal to Ed. I spent quite a bit of time with him after our trip to Nepal and on the boat trip back to England and I helped him with writing his book, East of Everest, and we got on quite well. I was disappointed about some of the things he later said about Earle.
Q. And Ed Cotter?
A. A very good climber. Wonderful balance. A very gentle man. He didn’t argue with anyone. He did everything he wanted to do and as well as he possibly could. But he was not a leader, or an organiser either!
Q. Where did your climbing go after you married Gay in 1955 and children came along?
A. We started the footloose climbing group. A group of fathers [the regulars were Norman Hardie, Earle Riddiford, Jock Montgomery, Derek Cook, Ian Gibbs and Donald Hall]. We tied to do something different each year. We climbed Hooker [January 1960] after jet boating up the Landsborough, which was nice because I had tried to climb it twice in the early days out of the Otoko.
Q. Then in 1962 you climbed Aspiring from the west—out of the Waipara.
A. Yes, and Mainroyal and Moonraker. Then two more trips—up the Wilkin [climbed Mt Pollux] and we climbed Brewster by going up the Hunter in a jet boat. That was the last trip because those trips were taking up all our annual leave. I shared a house at the bottom of the Bealey Spur at Arthur’s Pass and we spent our holidays there. But I did something quite exciting by climbing Rolleston with Heinrich Harrier, Norman Hardie and John Harrison. We went up the Otira Face.
Q. You also went on regular sailing trips with Jim McFarlane.
A. Yes, for about five years, Norm, Jim and I would go sailing each summer around D’Urville Island. That was a lot of fun.
Q. You never got to climb in the Darrans?
A. No, in those days it was so far to drive from Christchurch, and the weather always seemed to be bad down there. You see, the longest spell we had to climb was two weeks, so by the time you drive there and back that’s half of it gone. Also, we were not really rock climbers like the Southland boys. I would like to have done Tutoko, but not as a group.
Q. And for many years you were the chairman for the Canterbury section of the NZAC.
A. Well, it’s good to give something back. I was also Vice President under Ed Hillary for a year.
Q. So what was the best thing about your mountaineering days or what you most enjoyed?
A. The adventure. The mountains are always different. And the sense of achievement. I like getting to the top and looking around and saying—look there’s that valley, and there’s that valley and I can put it all together.
Q. Were you objective driven?
A. At the beginning I was. To climb new routes and to climb Mt Cook—if it was iced up or not! That first climb tested all my skills. I think that was my best climb because it tested me so much. There was only the two of us.
The first ascent of the remote Maximilian Ridge of Elie de Beaumont, on 3 January 1951, and the exploits of the ‘dream team’ prior to the climb, is fully detailed in chapter ten of Paul Maxim’s current writing project—a history of New Zealand mountaineering in 25 selected climbs. He is currently researching and writing chapter 16.