Sunday 28 December 2008
Ralph Warburton- Mountain guide, photographer and skier
Ralph took his 6 month daughter Janice onto the Franz Josef Glacier, in a back pack, in early 1948. Photo: Ralph Warburton
Having been in New Zealand almost 6 weeks, with time to read and research more on the New Zealand mountains and mountaineers, I have enjoyed rediscovering that amazing West Coast personality, Ralph Warburton, mountain guide, photopgrapher and family man. To unearth more about this man I reread his book, Glacier Country - My Years at Franz Josef and interviewed Peter and Elizabeth McCormack who lived and worked at Franz Josef for many years with Ralph and Joyce, his wife.
Ralph Warburton on skiis in the Kelly Range (near Otira) in early 1945.
I met Ralph a number of times but the most memorable meeting was in 1990 when I organised the Guides Reunion at Franz Josef and Fox Glacier to celebrate 100 year of modern mountaineering in New Zealand, and 100 years since the inception of the New Zealand Alpine Club. Ralph loaned Elizabeth McCormack and I many of his superb photos for the exhibition we put together at Franz Josef. Ralph is such an engaging man with a deep knowledge of the mountains, forests, glaciers, lakes, rivers and history.
The cover photo on Ralph's book - Glacier Country MY YEARS AT FRANZ JOSEF. Scott, his faithful dog and fellow climber, did amazing mountaineering feats with his Master.
Born in 1915 in Invercargill, one of Ralph's earliest memories is leaning on the back gate of his Invercargill home, looking across with awe across the winter plains of Southland to the distant Takitimu mountains. In the early 1940's while living in Greymouth1 Ralph Warburton fell in love with the mountains.
Ralph's playground, the Franz Josef Glacier. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Ralph climbed extensively in Arthur's Pass and climbed the highest, Murchison and others such as Rolleston, Philistine, Avalanche,Temple, Phipps, Blimit,Oates,Davie, Wakeman Mottram Peaks, Barron, Alexander and many lesser peaks in the lower ranges such as the Kelly Range where he did a lot of ski touring. Ralph helped clubs to build huts in his weekends and holidays and participated.
The Almer Hut under snow, New Year's Day 1947 Peter McCormack left and Ralph Warburton right. Behind them is Thelma peak at the head of the Almer Glacier.Photo: Ralph Warburton
Ralph's humour shines through in his book as he tells the story of packing in supplies to build the NZ Alpine Club bivouac on Waimakariri Col and Barker Hut under Mt. Murchison. On the latter building, he says that his job was to carry in several long four by two planks. He had them across his back, lashed to his pack. While crossing White River, he stepped on a wobbly boulder and swayed. One end of the planks caught in the swift flow and tipped him over. " I came up from the water dripping, and was greeted by the hearty laughter of other members of the party," said Ralph. A little annoyed, he later remarked to one of the other members of the load carrying party that he would prefer to have a small load like Bert Barley. Ralph was quickly told that Bert was carrying a 150 pound load and it comprised lead-head nails and small panes of glass each 12 x 18 inches. Ralph said. " I wisely made no further comment."
Mount Cook as viewed from near Graham Saddle crossed countless times by Ralph Warburton. Photo: Bob McKerrow
In the summer of 1945-46 with Bill Meechan, Ralph hired a South Westland bushman Bill Buchanan from Okuru and a pack horse and and spent some weeks in the Arawhata. This was exploration with lots of bush bashing, being contsatntly bluffed, and atacked by blood sucking sandflies. Here they climbed Mt Grant, Mt Buncombe, Turk's Head and discovered Charlie Douglas camp on the slopes of Mt. Iona)
The morning they climbed Mt. Grant, Ralph writes " I will always remember my awakening the next morning. Almost meeting above my head were clusters of beautiful Ranunculus Lyalli, the mountain lily which is really a giant buttercup."
Whether he is skiing on the Kelly Range in Arthur's Pass in winter, Ralph doesn't miss any of nature's creations. His photos of toadstools on the forest floor at Lake Wombat are truly magnificent, as are his landscapes of the mountains or portrasits of the many characters he met.
The mighty Tasman Glacier which was always a drag walking down after the wonderful crossing of Grahams Saddle. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Peter McCormack. who did an ascent of Mt. Cook with Ralph and Harry Ayres, and climbed with him for more than 25 years. describes Ralph " as a very exact climber in which every part of him moved safely." Peter went on to say " I was Ralph's closest friend. As a mountaineer I tried to ask people how Ralph would fit in alongside the great mountain guide of his era, Harry Ayres or Mick Bowie. " I learned more from Ralph Warburton than Harry Ayres," said Peter McCormack. "Ralph was a born teacher and could inspire people," said Peter. "The only limitation that Ralph had, was a certain proneness to mountain sickness," recalled Peter McCormack. " He sometimes was affected crossing Graham Saddle. "When I suggested he join me and Harry Ayres on a Grand Traverse of Mount Cook, Ralph was worried about getting altitude sickness. Fortunately, he climbed brilliantly that day and was not affected at all."
The Waiho Valley where young Ralph Warburton travelled almost every day for 25 years. Photo: Bob McKerrow.
Shortly after his trip to South Westland he gave up his job of watchmaker and trained as a glacier guide. "I remember the year he came, it was the year of the Big Snow, 1946," said Peter McCormack. " The Copland track had been neglected during the war and the Big Snow did further damage and I was working with Steve Graham in clearing the track when Ralph joined after the winter of 1946, " recalled Peter McCormack.
The first home at Franz for Ralph and Joyce.It was in a cow paddock with no water or electricity.Photo: Ralph Warburton
After glacier guiding for some time, Ralph became the official photographer for glacier parties at Franz Josef. He married Joyce in 1949 and started a family who grew up in the tiny South Westland village, a remote spot before the Haast highway was put through years later.
Looking up the Tasman Glacier with a beavy of 3000 metre peaks dominating the skyline. Photo: Bob McKerrow
In his book Ralph describes in lucid, laconic prose, of adventurous crossings of the main divide, of mountain ascents, tragedies, miraculous rescues. He offers vignettes of village and family life, stories of the big weather affecting their lives and livelihoods and of colourful local personalities. It's also a story of love, between a man and his dog. Scott, the 'four-footed mountaineer' learned to climb so he need never be parted from his master. He crossed mountain passes and weathered accidents that would have killed a lesser dog. Scott won the hearts of visitors to the glacier with his skills and his determination to be in party photos, always in one position: centre front.
Lake Mapourika a short drive from Franz Josef. Ralph fished here, and rowed and sailed boats with his children. Photo: Bob McKerrow
Ralph participated in many significant alpine rescues, the crash of Tiger Moth on the Franz Josef Glacier, the rock that crushed Pioneer Hut and killed one occupant, the Ruth Adams rescue with Ed Hillary, and many other dramatic rescues from high peaks and passes.
Ralph Warburton loved everything about the mountains and his biography shows his amazing array of photographic talents. In some way he reminded me of Ebenezer Teichelmann in the manner he used light so effectively in accentuating contours and ridges. His close-ups of alpine plants and toadstools are fascinating as are his relaxed family snaps of his clildren playing, boating and of course, photos of his beloved Scott. I asked the two living people who knew Ralph Warburton better than any others, Peter and Elizabeth McCormack.about his ability as a photographer.
Peter and Elizabeth McCormack. Taken Chrsitchurch December 2008. Peter was born at Franz Josef and lived there until his late 60s. Photo: Bob McKerrow
"Ralph carried on a tradition started by Ebenezer Teichelmann, and continued by Mark Lyssons who was an exceptional photographer in the 1930s at Franz Josef, but sadly died in World War II," said Peter McCormack. Ralph had quietly carried on Mark's work, using his darkroom, and studying his style.
Ralph and Joyce had bigs hearts. They adopted a child, took in children that his sister was struggling to cope with and they all became part of a large, active and loving whanau. Animals were always part of the family, You read with sadness the untimely death of his brother Lloyd who was an outstanding climber and a member of the very successful 1960 New Zealand Alpine Club expedition to Peru in 1960. Ralph gave a lot of support to his brother;s family.
"Ralph loved his rugby and we often used to travel to Christchurch together to watch tset matches," said Peter McCormack. " Often we would listen to the match at Franz Josef and I have fond memories of having a whiskey or two at 3 a.m after a test match."
Ralph was enthuisiastic about things he did. " Whether it was fishing, photography or building a boat, Ralph was terribly enthusiastic at all he did," recounted Peter McCormack.
Looking from Graham Saddle down the shrinking Tasman Glacier. 1993. Ralph crossed this saddle with Scott his dog, many times. Photo: Bob McKerrow
In his book Ralph describes the painful wrench he had to make to move to Dunedin so he could provide good high school education for his children. He left Dunedin after three and a half years and spent the next decade building a house and settling in. Ralph joined the Wanaka walkers and did many enjoyable trips and encouraged blind people to join.He also assisted blind skiers to safely do cross couintry skiing.
Looking up the Fritz range where Ralph Warburton did a lot of climbing. Photo: Bob McKerrow
At 79 hardly able to walk due to arthritis, Ralph discovers nordic skiing in and around Wanaka and he began a new relationship with the mountains of Wanaka, Cadrona and the Pisa range. Ralph regained his fitness and climbed a few small peaks. His final years were active and happy recalls Peter McCormack
Ralph died in 2007 at the age of 92.