Climber on summit of rock spire

Don French Becomes The First Person To Complete The 100 Peaks Challenge

With his ascent of Unicorn (2557m) on February 21st, Don French has ticked off the last peak of the 100 Peaks Challenge, becoming the first person to complete the list and succeed in a challenge 30 years in the making.

The original list of 100 peaks was conceived by Ross Cullen, then president of the club, as part of the NZAC centennial celebrations in 1991. After consulting with prominent climbers of the day, the list was put forward as a challenge and way of encouraging climbers to get out and attempt some summits off the beaten track. The list was designed to address the aspirations of climbers at all levels and genres. Hence there were relatively easy peaks, very hard and steep peaks, and a number of very remote peaks included.

The original scheme was to see who could do the most in that year, with spot prizes made available. Don climbed seven, winning an annual hut pass and earning a moral victory over a participant who claimed nine summits, though some of these were repeats of the same peak (by guiding clients on Aoraki / Mt Cook). 

The decision to climb the full list was made as Don and two fellow climbers entertained themselves reviewing the list in St Winifred’s hut up the Havelock river (beyond Mesopotamia) while they sat out some bad weather in January 1992.  They had just climbed Malcolm, one of the more remote peaks and Don saw the opportunity to use the list as continued motivation to get out climbing and explore new places.

Climber on alpine rock
Don leading up the first pitch on Unicorn. Photo: NZ Hunter Adventures

As a resident of the Wairarapa, Don has been at a distinct disadvantage, with only five peaks on the list located in the North Island and the remainder in the South. But many trips have followed in the recent decades and although Unicorn put up quite the fight, Don was eventually successful on his sixth attempt of the peak. Don has identified a few other memorable parts of his 100 Peaks journey:

Most difficult in terms of commitment: Jagged in the Arrowsmith Range. Don made the second ever ascent of Deep Throat (5+) on Jagged’s east face. A long, steep and committing winter climb which took 23 hours.

Most difficult in terms of planning: Mt Irene in the Murchison mountains. Don had to get permits to climb it, as it is in a restricted area designated for the protection of the takahe.

Most difficult technically: Anyone Can Play Guitar (6-/19), west face of Magellan, Balfour nèvè.  Also, Right Icefields (IV, 4+) on Mt Hicks had the most difficult mixed pitch.

First Climbed on the List: Mt Egmont, in October 1976 while Don was still at secondary school. Don remembers he played hooky from school with two policemen.

Last Climbed: Unicorn, on 21st February 2021.

Most attempted: Unicorn, which was summited on the sixth attempt.

Favourite: It is always the last summit. But also memorable are: Stargazer, Malcolm, Jagged, Hooker, Tutoko, Pembroke, and D’Archiac.

Climbs 99 (Mt Green) and 100 (Unicorn/Dilemma) were filmed as a TV episode, which will screen on TVNZ's Duke channel 13 Freeview, 23 Sky, at 8.30pm Wednesday the 17th of March.

Look for a longer reflection on the 100 Peaks Challenge and Don's achievement in the autumn New Zealand Alpine Journal.

The complete list of the 100 Peaks Challenge is available here.