Though the first ascent of Mt. Earnslaw took place in March 1885 by Ross, Marshall and local guide, Harry Birley, thanks to a good find by Christine Kelly in the book To the Mountains (edited by Laurence Fearnley and Paul Hersey, 2018), we have a firsthand account of an ascent of Mt Earnslaw written by miner Joseph O’Leary who tells the tale of having taken a party up from the Alpine Club Hotel in March of 1894, which at the time was owned by Mr. F.H. Daniel, the former mayor of Queenstown. Their party consists of Mrs Price “a Lady from England,” Miss May Daniel, Mr FH Daniel, and Master Gordon Daniel plus their intrepid guide.

They’re beset with challenges from the start as Mr Daniel’s horse falls and breaks its leg. After that delay, Mr O’Leary feels compelled to point out “I must mention here that the ladies were not quite prepared for such an undertaking, Mrs Price having a beautiful black dress and Miss Daniel dressed in white.” In the wardrobe department the ladies weren’t the only ones with troubles as Mr Daniel had to walk behind the group because “the seat of his trousers having got torn winding our way through some burnt logs.”

The burnt logs and clambering over them left them with ‘changed appearance.’ O’Leary writes:

“As we endeavoured to wipe away the sweat from off our forhead we left a black mark instead and could not look in each others face with out laughing. Who was the blackest now would be hard to say, but Miss May’s white dress I can’t well describe. Mrs Price’s black dress by this time well covered with Bidybids began to look in poor condition having lost several pieces of braid and an occasional rip in it.”

Still, they made it to a rock shelter for the night and had a hearty meal of roasted mutton before making an early start of it the next day where O’Leary made sure there was not only extra clothing but also “a small flask of whisky” for medicinal purposes only, surely.

As they passed Birley’s glacier (and Mr Daniel attempted to name another small sheet of ice ‘the Daniel Glacier’ while O’Leary pointed out O’Leary’s peak, ahem…) Mr. O’Leary showed the ladies the difficult route ahead and what it would take to make the peak.

“I assure, I spoke in serious tones” he tells us. “I never expected the ladys would venture to proceed any further.”

But surprise, surprise the ladies said they would “make a hard try for it and in the process Miss May wore the soles clean out of her boots which she soon replaced by another pair of shoes. So we called it "Mays Saddle" her old shoes will still remain to be seen by the next ladies that will attempt the undertaking.”

Half way up the ascent they stopped for a whiskey and to face a wind that was as cold as “stepmother’s breath” and Mr O’Leary was happy to report that “I having had the pleasure of shaking hands with the first lady’s that has ever been on top of Earnslaw.”

Though they had a hard slog of it coming down (Mrs Price offering 10/-shilling at one point for a cup of tea), they made it back to their shelter by midnight. Mrs Price clearly earned Mr O’Leary’s respect as he wrote of her:

“I must mention here that I never came across a lady with the same courage and coolness of head as Mrs Price considering she done no climbing and lately out of England. Of course Miss May Daniel deserves the same credit but I expected more from her than the other lady being brought up in the locality and being young and active I would like to have had a photo taken of the Company when they reached their home. Their faces were dreadfully sunburnt. Miss May was minus her skirt, it having got torn on the rocks. Mrs Price wore out the sides of her boots. Mr. Daniel the seat of his pants. Great praise is due to Mr Daniel for the way he encouraged and kept up a pleasant conversation during the roughest of the journey. Young Gordon was as fresh as I was and a little wonder for his age being a mere boy of 11 or 12. I should think I was not in a pleasant mode thinking we would have to spend the night amongst the Glaciers which might mean freezing to death.

It is a great honour for ladies to have reached the summit of Mount Earnslaw.”

While we don’t have any photos of the intrepid Mrs Price or the Daniel family, we do have some photos of ladies out and about to remind us that women have been taking to the hills here for a very long time!

Sharon has also shared this story from Barbara Heffernan’s memoir that recounts a trip Fergie took with a woman visitor to Paradise who wanted to climb Mt Earnslaw and met with some very cheeky keas!

“An experienced climber and botanist, with ascents in the European Alps to her credit, though at that time in her 70s, she was keen to climb Turret Head. Fergie had been her guide many times and he knew her to be slow but reliable in bad places. He agreed to take her. They camped overnight at bush line, setting off early in the morning up the steep tussock face towards what is known to mountaineers as a snow chimney, and thence to the top. Soon after they left the camp they heard the familiar calls of the keas, the mountain parrots that haunt the high tops. Three or four came to peer at them, to be joined by others anxious to be in on the act, until there were seven accompanying them up the slopes. When the climbers paused for breath the birds pottered about and as soon as climbing was resumed they decided to try it on foot too, copying the humorous actions of pulling themselves up by grasping handfuls of tussock, by digging their beaks into the ground, making great play of puffing as the lady was doing. The pantomime went on until the silly birds tired of it and took off, circling around until they disappeared over the ridge. Keas are typical parrots; inquisitive and imitative, their plumage is rather dull until they are in the air, when the lovely red colouring under the wings can be seen.”

On behalf of all of the Glenorchy Heritage and Museum Group, wishing everyone happy holidays this year and thanks for all of your support! Be on the lookout for a film night in January and the big reveal of our first outpost at Kinloch early in the new year.