Rudolf (Part I): Runt of the Ice Pack

Rudolf is a relatively small ice mass situated to the north east of Mt Cook (aka Aoraki), on the South Island of New Zealand. It feeds from its residence in corries on the slopes between Mt De la Beche and Mt Jervois into the main Tasman Glacier Valley, where it is runs parallel to its larger brethren for some distance.

The glacier’s full title is the Kron Prinz Rudolf Glacier, named in honour of the Archduke Rudolf, the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s heir apparent, and son of Emperor Franz Josef. Its Christening and discovery may have occurred as many as 149 years ago. In 1865, renowned Antipodean geologist Sir Johann Franz von Haast explored much of the region feeding the Godley and Tasman Rivers. It was von Haast that named the Franz Josef Glacier. However, an Austrian is credited with the first full exploration of the Tasman Glacier, a Dr von Lendenfelt. If not von Haast, it is probable that von Lendenfelt designated Rudolf’s name. In their wake a number of further expeditions were undertaken, namely those of Messrs. Mannering, Dixon, Johnson, and (a potential relative) Inglis.

C. Douglas & A. Harper, retrieved from Te Ara

Arthur Paul Harper, co-founder and a longstanding president of the New Zealand Alpine Club, was, with a Mr Hamilton, the first to ascend above the Rudolf and observe its upper limits. The glacier appears fleetingly in the corner of a topographic map of the Franz Josef, compiled in 1893. This map was a product of a collaboration with renowned pioneer Charlie Douglas, of NZs Department of Lands and Survey, to document West Coast glaciology.

In 1895, explorer Edward A. Fitz Gerald and esteemed Swiss mountaineer Mattias Zubriggen stumbled into one of Harper and Douglas’ encampments, as they were making ‘first crossing of the Southern Alps of New Zealand’. Despite being in the midst of their own exploration, of the Twain River, upon learning of the duos mission, the Government adventurers abandoned their quest to join the pioneering journey.

From a camp at the confluence of the Copland and Karangarua Rivers, the troupe made their way east. Douglas, in his fifties, retired to one of the region’s settlements, as the remaining trio clambered up Fox Glacier, over Chancellor’s Ridge, and across the Victoria Glacier. As they neared the final stages of the ascent, they realised that their water supplies had run low – “Our thirst was such that we did not care what happened so long as we obtained a few drops of water”. After sating their thirst with melted snow, and upon crossing into the valley of the Tasman Glacier, catastrophe struck, as climbing expert Zubriggen fell, spraining his ankle. After strapping the wounded leg, they continued their descent until, as they crossed a small stream, via a thin snow-bridge, the flimsy structure collapsed underfoot, injuring Zubbriggen’s other ankle. At this moment, morale plummeting fast, supplies running low, and finding themselves caught out and exposed atop a glacier, a potential shelter was spotted in the distance. For hours they strove for the perceived shelter of Rudolf Glacier, a glimmering beacon of hope. Thwarted by a large bergschrund, a large crack in the ice, they retraced their steps and crammed themselves onto a ledge “4 feet long and 18 inches broad”. As they perched on the outcrop, hanging over an abyss, they were subjected to a nightlong barrage of debris, preventing their resting - we never dared so much as to close an eye all night”.

A Sketch Map to illustrate the first crossing of the Southern Alps of New Zealand by Fitz Gerald, retrieved from The Geographical Journal

Despite the trauma of their journey, the triumvirate successfully made the first crossing of the Southern Alps, traversing ten of the range’s largest glaciers within three days. The expedition was highly successful as it led to the production of the first comprehensive glaciological map of the region, representing a major advancement in regional and Antipodean glaciological knowledge.

The Rudolf Glacier, akin to it’s Christmassy namesake, facilitated the continuance of a critical journey. Despite its status as the comparative runt of the ice pack, the glacier should be awarded a significant place in history, for its services to those brave few to first forge a path across the South Island’s vast, pristine alpine wilderness.

 

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