Article on me and my North Canterbury family in Essence Magazine.

Bill Byrch on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan

Fifty-three-year-old mountaineer Pat Deavoll, who grew up on a farm in North Canterbury, has been climbing for more than three decades in the Southern Alps, the Canadian Rockies and Alaska, and the Greater Ranges of Asia. In spite of severe osteoarthritis and two bung knees, her will to take on challenging first ascents remains undiminished. In October, Pat was delighted to receive NEXT Magazine’s Sportswoman of the Year Award, recognising her lifetime achievements. Kim Newth recently caught up with Pat at her home in Christchurch.
A tiny figure hangs suspended, half-way up a vertical fall of ice cascading in a frozen torrent down a sheer wall of rock. The ice face appears beautiful, delicate and terrible. The tiny figure has one arm raised in the act of banging in an axe to secure the next handhold.
Welcome to the world of ice climber and mountaineer Pat Deavoll, who lives to accomplish feats of daring at high altitude that would sorely test young climbers half her age.
The photo I have just described was taken of Pat climbing Oh La Tabernac, Ice Fields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies, which is rated ‘highly technical’ under the waterfall ice rating system. ‘Highly risky’ might be how others would see it! Taken a decade ago, Pat is back in Canada this month to do another stint of ice climbing and also to speak at the prestigious Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival. Her invitation to this festival follows publication of her acclaimed autobiography Wind from a Distant Summit (Craig Potton Publishing). In May, she received a Highly Commended certificate for her book at the Cathay Pacific Travel Media Awards.
That she is still climbing – much less happily continuing to hack her way up frozen falls of ice – is nothing short of incredible. Back in 2002, Pat’s knees and ankles started to hurt while walking down the Hooker glacier. She continued climbing in Alaska, India and China/Tibet through to 2006, all the while realising the pain was getting worse. Painkillers and anti-inflammatory medications got her through a few more seasons before she underwent knee-replacement surgery on her right knee in 2009. She will also need surgery on her left knee.
“It’s true – I’m due for another knee and I have bad arthritis in my ankles. What it means is that I’m prioritising what I’m doing. I’m all right going up but coming down, particularly on glaciers where the surfaces are hard, really kills me. There’s just no cartilage in my joints. So my focus now is on the overseas expeditions and giving myself time to recover when I get home,” she says.
In 2010 she compressed two vertebrae in her back in a rock climbing accident in Christchurch’s Port Hills. “But I’ve built up the muscles on either side and it seems to have worked.”
She has also battled lifelong with clinical depression, though finds improved medication has been of immense help in recent years. With age, too, has come greater acceptance that her alpine adventures are not just about getting to the top but also for experiencing distant places and cultures.
In spite of the physical challenges, Pat remains focussed on accomplishing first ascents or new routes on out of the way peaks in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. Last year, she and her sister Christine Byrch, who is a competent and experienced climber, successfully summitted Koh-e-Baba-Tangi (6515m) via a new route, making them only the second people to have ever climbed this mountain in the Wakhan Corridor of north eastern Afghanistan.
“That climb was a real highlight for me. It was great to be doing that ascent with my sister. There we were, two older women in their fifties, tottering along in the mountains!
“It took us a week: five days up and two down. We worked as a team – I did all the leading and Christine followed. We wore it down into sections … We couldn’t really carry enough food but we had an Indian friend waiting for us when we got back down and he cooked for us. We were lucky to have beautiful weather the whole time.”
It was Pat’s first trip to Afghanistan and she returned this year with her brother Bill Byrch – a North Canterbury farmer and topdressing pilot – and Tekapo climber Maryrose Fowlie. Pat and Mary’s original goal was the unclimbed west face of Rahazon Zom but circumstances saw them settle on a more achievable alternative, Koh-e-Rant, also unclimbed.
In this remote place, Pat says the local people remain “very welcoming” to westerners. “We had nothing but hospitality and kindness although security was a lot tighter this time.”
Again, a highlight for Pat was sharing the expedition with family, this time her brother, along as support crew. It was his first trip away with Pat. “I hadn’t spent that much time with him since we were children and he was really, really good company.”
Bill still farms at Motunau, where he, Pat and their two sisters grew up. After retiring from the farm, Pat’s parents Brem and Sue Byrch moved to Amberley so the North Canterbury connection remains strong for her. The Motunau farm has been in the family for more than 100 years. Pat remembers an adventurous childhood of roaming and riding horses and believes these experiences helped to shape her future choices. The family used to go tramping up behind Lake Sumner, once making the five-day trek up and over Harpers Pass to Otira.
For this determined woman who has survived avalanches, howling blizzards and days without food, who has lost good friends in the mountains, and who lives with the pain of osteoarthritis, there is no thought of stopping.
Next up is a planned expedition to a mountain called Kampire Dior (7,100m) in north west Pakistan, near the Afghan border. It has only been climbed once before from the west and her team intend to climb it from the south, where the biggest barrier is an icefall at the mountain’s base. We wish her all the very best as she prepares for this latest adventure!