Review of WFADS by Penelope Todd of Rosa Mira Books

A review from author Penelope Todd, of Rosa Mira Books

One woman, many mountains

It strikes me, writing this, what a flimsy vessel a book is for recording the plethora of exploits Pat Deavoll has put herself through over the last thirty-five years. Nonetheless, in this handsome volume published by Craig Potton, Pat’s fine, unobtrusive writing makes vivid her favourite places on earth: wild, remote, very high places reached only by great financial, physical, and mental effort.

I met Pat when we were eleven or twelve, on her first day at secondary school. Her quiet and quirky determination to do her own thing and be her own person met with affection and respect. She got on and did things, sometimes extraordinarily; she was a voracious reader and brilliant at subjects that interested her, more or less ignoring (if I recall rightly) those that didn’t. My only claim to fame (besides my anxious resolve from day one that we’d be friends) is that I was there with Norman Hardie and Sal, trailing a little behind, when Pat made her first high-school ascent of Mt Binser in 1975.

Over the years I’ve been a watcher from the far wings as Pat has become arguably NZ’s most skilled woman climber — whether on rock, on Canada’s vertical ice, or on high and technically demanding peaks here and abroad. When she took a break from climbing in the nineties, she quickly became expert in extreme kayaking. Instead of going up, she made first descents of grade 6 falls and Himalayan cataracts.

The book opens with a whisk through Pat’s rural Canterbury childhood and youth, then lingers over the year or so when she learned to climb. She avoided the popular school-leaver’s route through holiday jobs then university, going instead to Mt Cook to take a series of climbing courses. That summer she became irrevocably embroiled in a life-long string of affairs with challenging mountains.

Most of the book’s themed chapters are shaped around a climb or series of climbs, and variously discuss: the critical need for the right climbing partner; learning to front-point up vertical ice on Canadian waterfalls in temperatures far below zero; the euphoria of climbing huge, remote Alaskan peaks; the tragedy of losing friends to the sport, and how, personally, to square with those risks; the history of women in the NZ mountains and why there are so few top female alpinists (biology or conditioning?). As Pat makes evident, women can manage extreme conditions as well as men, and often with greater courage and endurance.

There’s a chapter, too, about the black dog that’s followed her since her twenties, which she’s determined at last to speak about, rather than hide. Always the climbing feats (and occasional defeats) are woven through with Pat’s questioning of motive and worth — signaling the self-doubt that led to the eventual diagnosis of and treatment for depression. Pat’s willing to admit at last that as a climber she’s good … better … even best, but that knowledge — entwined as it is with her sense of self-worth — is very hard won and in the past could be entirely destroyed by a climb that didn’t turn out optimally i.e. with the summit included.

Around the middle of the book Pat ducks back to the mid eighties when she and husband Brian discovered India and Himalayan Asia. They spent months on end exploring, carrying huge packs to far-off mountains — living on reduced rations, will-power, and their love of wilderness. (Reviewer goes off to shuffle through huge plastic bin of old diaries and correspondence and comes up with the following from Kathmandu, dated 30 March 1985, the day before our Alex was born, the baby referred to in the letter as ‘?’)

In the new century, Pat rediscovered the mountains of Central Asia; she has made numerous forays and done some monumental climbing, including first summits, one in Pakistan — of Karim Sar — alone. Pat makes it clear that the hours spent creeping like a fly up exposed Himalayan faces are what the effort’s all about. The months of planning, training, earning, applying for funding, coordinating expeditions from afar, and getting there by fair means and fraught, are all simply preparation for the cold, exposure, terror, extreme toil and — hope against hope — utter elation of the climb itself.

The most intense passages in the book are classic fare of the sort I used to pore over in NZ Alpine Journals — blow-by-blow accounts that gave you clammy feet and heart palpitations. But those exuberant, meticulously narrated events often took place a few hours from home. Magnify the distances, heights and stakes to international proportions, add a dose of Pat’s stoical understatement and you get an idea of reading Wind from a Distant Summit.

I looked at an early draft in which Pat elaborated on her love of Pakistan and her grasp of its history and politics; in the interests of her own compelling story that seems to have been edited back to a few concise paragraphs, but she’s evidently chewing on the question of what she might contribute in years ahead to a region that’s has given her so much joy and satisfaction. Pat’s rightfully proud of all she’s done and is still doing in a body now into its sixth decade of hard yakka, but there seems no question that, even if it does wear out (did I mention the knee replacement, or the broken back?) to the point that carrying huge packs and making multi-day ascents are out of the question, in some sense Pat will always be ascending; for one, she has this great love for Pakistan and Afghanistan to work out, and it’s obvious from her story that she’s developed extraordinary mental and emotional capacities that can be steered along any avenue she chooses. Then there’s her writing — as stylish and riveting as all she undertakes. I look forward to the next book, whatever it tackles.

But I feel compelled to add, Pat, if you decide to curl up in a corner for the rest of your days with a cat, and a pile of books, cakes and knitting, you’ve totally earned it. Besides, you’ll be no less admired or loved if you ever choose to grow plump on a cushion.

Wind from a Distant Summit is available from Craig Potton Publishing.