The story of Joe Fluerty by Michael Rooke

Our guides are experts at what they do but they are not the first to take on this glacier-guiding role. This is the tale of one of the early pioneering mountain guides on the Franz Josef Glacier and surrounding areas.

“I learned the art of step cutting on the daily glacier trips, with much help from Joe Fluerty who was a master of all climbing skills"

- Jack Cox (Leading New Zealand Mountaineer)

Joe Fluerty (far left) 1903–1977
Poutini Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Māmoe; mountaineer and guide

Joseph (Hōhepa) Fluerty was born at Arahura, near Greymouth, on 1 May 1903 to Toihi Te Koeti of Poutini Ngāi Tahu and Robert Fluerty, a goldminer of European and Ngāi Tahu ancestry. His great-grandfather, Tutoko, was one of five Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Mamoe chiefs who in the early nineteenth century laid siege to the West Coast and established the foundations of Poutini Ngāi Tahu. Fluerty attended schools at Arahura and Jacobs River.

Joe Fluerty was to become a well-known climbing guide in the Southern Alps, where he achieved a number of first ascents for Māori. In this, he was continuing a family tradition of adventure. His uncle, Pahikore Te Koeti Tūranga, had been a noted mountain guide in Westland.

Fluerty started his guiding career at the Franz Josef Glacier Hotel in the 1920s. Apprentice guides in those days had to carry heavy loads of kerosene and food up the glacier to stock the mountain huts, and he made many such trips before he started guiding clients onto peaks at the head of the glacier. He was popular with clients, who frequently asked him to be their guide on expeditions.

"At my request, the Māori guide Joe was assigned to us, and to say that we all liked him is a mild way of putting it," wrote one. "Joe was full of mischief and as ready as an Irishman with his tongue," said another. 

Arguably, Fluerty became Westland's best-known Māori mountain climber. One of New Zealand's leading mountaineers, Jack Cox, was grateful for his teaching, describing him as an absolute master of step-cutting in ice. Surviving film footage further testifies to his skill.

Joe Fluerty considered Aoraki (Mt Cook) tapu and once turned back close to its summit but he was eager to climb Horo Koau (Mt Tasman). On 10 March 1932 he and fellow guides Jack Cox and Jack Pope completed the first ascent of the mountain from the West Coast side. Fluerty played a leading role in the rescue of fellow guide Mark Lysons, who broke his leg on Mt Goldsmith in 1933. He was on the first traverse of Mt Haidinger in 1934, and in 1935 guided a client onto Mt Lendenfeld, one of the highest mountains in the Southern Alps.

Fluerty's unerring sense of direction in the mountains was spoken of with awe by his contemporaries. Gar Graham recalled a trip over West Hoe Pass above the Franz Josef Glacier, with Fluerty guiding the party in white-out conditions. On another occasion he set off from Franz Josef in the dark to find some missing tourists; he located them without using a torch and guided them home by placing a couple of glow-worms on his shoulder for them to follow. His sense of smell was also acute: he could always tell if a hut was occupied long before he got to it.

In Greymouth on 7 July 1930, Fluerty married Florence Smith, a domestic worker, with whom he had one son, Neville. They divorced in 1938. Fluerty's subsequent failure to pay his wife child maintenance got him into trouble with the law. The couple remarried at Nelson on 17 February 1945. Neville died three years later.

Fluerty's mountain guiding career was ended by the Second World War. He enlisted and served on guard duty at Rongotai Airbase in Wellington. He later moved back to the South Island to work at Woodbourne Airbase near Blenheim, before retiring to Nelson. Joseph Fluerty died there on 25 December 1977.