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December 2014 Issue
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A man without fear

Zygmunt Kępka with Mt Kepka behind. Photo: Supplied

Last month marked the 70th anniversary of the arrival in New Zealand of 733 Polish orphans from war-gripped Europe. Among them, Zygmunt Kępka who went on to spend 30 years guiding and building huts in Fiordland. By Alina Suchanski

A close look at the map of the Milford Track reveals an intriguing Mt Kepka amongst the few named peaks in this area of Fiordland National Park. It stands at the head of the Clinton River North Branch and towers above the Arthur River and Milford Track.

The man who gave the mountain its name is Zygmunt Kępka, an accomplished photographer, guide and climber.

Better known amongst his friends and colleagues as Zyg or Zyggy, he first came to Fiordland in 1957 as a carpenter working at Milford Sound renovating and expanding Quintin Lodge on the Milford Track. When his building contract was completed, Zygmunt became a guide on the Milford, a role he played for 10 summer seasons.

I first heard of Zyggy from my neighbour, Ken Bradley, who told me that Zyggy used to live in a house he had built just across the street. I became fascinated by Zyggy’s story, because it combines my two passions – Polish history and New Zealand mountains.

Born on July 7, 1930, Zyggy was nine when the Second World War started. His idyllic life on a farm in eastern Poland ended abruptly with his family’s deportation to the Ural Mountains.

Here he climbed his first peak, Lysaya Gora (the Bold Mountain), at the age of 10. It left a lasting impression.

When their parents died, Zyggy, then 14, and his brother Ian came to New Zealand with a large group of Polish orphans invited by the New Zealand Government and housed in an ex-POW camp in Pahiatua.

At 16, Zyggy left the camp to become a carpenter and met Arthur Robinson who showed him tramping the Kiwi way. He took Zyggy up Ben Lomond near Queenstown and they tramped together in Blue Mountains, western Otago and the Hollyford Track.

In 1953, Zyggy bought his first camera, a German-made Zeiss Ikon and quickly discovered a passion for photography.

In 1957, the friends were both employed as carpenters in Milford Sound and when their contracts finished Zyggy got a job as a Milford Track guide. Walking up and down McKinnon Pass every day, he became captivated by this savagely beautiful land. He climbed many of the surrounding mountains, often solo, and became a local mountaineering legend. He was the first person to climb the 1781m Mt Kepka, though he did so unintentionally.

“One day I was walking up Mt Elliot and came across a chamois,” Zyggy recalls. “It was the first sighting of chamois in Fiordland, so I took photos of it and followed it. Then it disappeared and I ended up climbing this unnamed peak. I did it in one day, up and down.

“Later, the other guides were calling it Zyg’s mountain and someone had it registered under my name. I don’t know who.”

Zyggy introduced Te Anau resident Ray Willett to climbing. Willet describes the Pole as a tough outdoorsman. “He was one of those individuals with no fear, who didn’t know anything about techniques, ropes, abseiling or slings, but he’d get up any mountain and get down again.”

Zyggy says he climbed to take photos and over the years spent a small fortune on film and photographic equipment, amassing a collection of thousands of slides of New Zealand alpine scenery, flora and fauna.

Between his guiding seasons, he worked as a carpenter and in 1962 built Glaisnock Hut for the Fiordland National Park Board.

He later built huts in the Eyre and Takitimu Mountains. “Anything Zyg built was built to last,” says John Von Tunzelman, a long-time work associate and friend.

When the Forest Service became part of the newly created DOC, Zyggy continued to work for the department until 1990.

Zygmunt, now 84, never married. He moved to Napier in 1990 and lives not far from his brother.

If you are tramping in the Takitimu or Eyre Mountains, chances are you might stay in one of the huts built by Zyggy.