By John McCone
Pat Deavoll looks at me as if she is talking to a simpleton. “A lot of the time mountaineering is just sheer misery,” she says. “It’s really hard work.”
What, you expected it to be some kind of fun? Hanging upside down on a thread from an ice face when a crampon has fallen off? Being trapped in a tent in a seven-day blizzard with three days of food?
Trying to time your dash for safety between passing avalanches or boulders set free by melting ice? Starting off by torchlight at midnight for an assault on a peak, then only summiting a grinding 24 hours of climbing later, again in the pitch dark?
“Your ability to suffer has to be deep. You often get people who might think that they can, but when it comes down to it, they just can’t. When the reality hits, they just crumble.”
Deavoll, 53 this month, still creaking from a back broken during a training rock climb in Christchurch’s Port Hills in 2010, nursing two bung knees, one metal, the other bone-on-bone, is packing her gear for another of her hairy expeditions.
Leaning across in her office at the New Zealand Alpine Club where she is the events co-ordinator, Deavoll taps a grainy black-and-white snapshot of a 6535-metre peak somewhere in the back blocks of Afghanistan. Rahozon Zom. This blow-up is all she knows about it, really. A single picture taken by a Polish team that failed to make the top in 1976. Defeated by “very serious difficulties on ice and mixed terrain”.
Rahozon Zom was climbed from the other side, the south ridge from neighbouring Pakistan, by Austrians in 1969. But this will be another first ascent for Deavoll if she and her mountaineering partner, Canterbury University management lecturer Dr Paul Knott, can reach the top from the untrodden northeast face. Say it slowly: be the first humans ever.
Deavoll traces a lazy finger up the long zig of a spur and then the zag back along a ridge to the summit. How is that for a sketchy plan? Maybe five days to get up and another two to abseil back down, she’s guessing. It’s going to be about 2000m of fast and light alpine-style climbing, carrying the least food and fewest clothes consistent with a reasonable chance of survival. “As a woman, especially an older woman, I’ve got to be very careful about the weight. So over the years I’ve worked out how much food I can get away with not eating, how few clothes I can take, how lightweight my sleeping bag can be.”
Suffering on the mountain is not just inevitable, you need to crank it up to your breaking point to be a serious climber. Then there you will be, your life suspended on a line, dependent on a few screws banged into soft ice, a toenail grip on the smallest ledge, a partner braced in case you tumble.
“On the map, all we can tell is that Rahozon Zom looks kind of pointy. That’s good. It’ll be a challenge. Very technical. We’re not interested in just a walk-up.”
For the small Kiwi team, even getting to basecamp is going to be an adventure. As well as Knott, Deavoll is travelling with her brother, North Canterbury farmer and top-dressing pilot Bill Byrch, and Tekapo climber Mary Rose Fowlie, as support.
The idea is to fly into Tajikistan via China, hire a battered Hilux to get to the Afghanistan border, cross a river where 90 per cent of the world’s heroin traffic passes, then swap to an even more battered hire vehicle to travel the still more dreadful roads into the Wakhan Corridor. There, find a village, Qala Panga, that is another unknown dot on the map, wave a few dollars to assemble a team of porters and trek into the high glacial region to be left alone with probably not another human, certainly no Westerners, or help of any kind, inside 100 kilometres.
Oh, the romance of it. To be able to build a life around achieving these kinds of extraordinary feats. Deavoll does something or other like this every year, with jogs up and down Aoraki/Mt Cook or the Godley Glacier to keep fit in- between. It is the contrast that is so striking. Never in history has everyday life been so easy, spent so cosily within the limits of what body and mind can endure. Hardship for the modern couch potato is discovering the supermarket has run out of a favourite brand of chips.
Yet you can also chase the test of the extreme. You might need to scrape together some sponsorship money, spend time filling out a stack of visa forms. But if you have the spirit and guts, you can do a Hillary and go find some bastard of a challenge to knock off.
And while there are channel swims, marathons and charity bike rides, the mountains still hold that ultimate mystique. It is something about their blunt simplicity, agrees Deavoll. There is nothing difficult to understand. A mountain gives no other choice, no other goal to aim for, but to get to the top, then turn around and get back down again.
Because it’s there, as they say.
Deavoll is one of a handful of top Kiwi woman climbers, part of a generation that bred the likes of Christchurch’s Lydia Bradey, the first woman to climb Mt Everest without oxygen in 1988, and Taihape’s Karen McNeill, a climbing partner of Deavoll’s who died on Mt Foraker in Canada in 2006.
Slightly built, thoughtful, quick to laugh, the most common description of Deavoll is “hard as nails”. Her own description of herself is a shy, overweight teenager who grew up on a farm and has battled life-long against depression and low self-esteem.
Deavoll discovered the hills with her school tramping club as a boarder at Christchurch’s St Margaret’s College. She was immediately at home in huts smelling of kerosene and suncream, on trails that always got steeper and higher.
In her first season of serious climbing, the summer holidays fresh out of school, Deavoll had claimed enough lesser peaks to want to end the season with a celebratory run up Mt Cook.
But the weather turned bad. Her partner said no chance. And to her, it felt like utter failure. Quite irrationally, all the earlier triumphs were cancelled out.
Back home Deavoll fell into a depression so black she ended up dropping out of a college recreation course. And so started a pattern of adventures with relapses into depression whenever the adventure stopped. Deavoll was finding she had her own psychological reasons for building a life around extreme physical hardships.
For 10 years Deavoll ticked off the classic New Zealand peaks and long- haul traverses before spending a few years in the mid-1980s climbing in Pakistan and Nepal with her medical student husband. On their return, her husband wanted to settle into his career and that relationship foundered. Deavoll went off in a different direction, throwing herself into kayaking and rock-climbing. Then she stumbled across her ideal combination of danger, technique and exhaustion in frozen waterfall ascents. In her autobiography, Wind From a Distant Summit, Deavoll brilliantly captures the drama of her exploits. These waterfalls are thin sheets of ice left on the giant mountains of Canada and Alaska.
Deavoll kept at it until, in 2003, she was ready to conquer one of the most revered – the North Buttress of Mt Hunter in the Alaska ranges. Years can go past with no-one managing to complete this climb. With her partner, Kiwi-based Marty Beare (another relationship that dissolved on return), the pair inched upwards, one to bang in the anchors, the other to pull them out. After 24 hours of continuous climbing in sub-zero temperatures, there was still a distance to the top. They chipped an ice shelf for their bottoms, boiled tea on their lap, roped their seated bodies to the ledge for some brief shut-eye, before completing another 22 hours of treacherous ascent.
At the top, there was no time to admire the view. Coming down, Deavoll was so dazed and dehydrated she fell asleep when she halted for a moment, simply dangling free in her sling on a line over the sheer drop.
Finally back, collapsed in her tent, having done it, she says it was the happiest day of her life.
Something keeps her going. Deavoll says there is no doubting the sense of achievement that comes once a climb is over. The relief maybe of the pain having stopped? Deavoll laughs and protests her motivation is the excitement. You have got to want the feeling of being at your limits, yet pushing through. Of being mortally scared, yet finding ways to manage that fear.
“There’s not a lot of women who actually like that side of it,” she says. “So women climbers are still quite rare.”
The top is always some kind of reward. “But usually it’s blowing, it’s freezing cold. You’ve gotta get back down. You’re just too tired to enjoy it.”
So it’s the arrival back which is the blissful time. The congratulations of friends, the hot meal. Knowing you did it. Then it’s back to ordinary life where she has to make some kind of living. And stave off the bouts of depression which have, on occasion, left her hospitalised.
Deavoll says she does not doubt that the physicality of climbing, the way it forces you out of yourself, is a reason it appeals to her.
Modern life is so temptingly comfortable. Built around the avoidance of suffering. But for a climber, there is the purity of knowing the mental is truly being pitted against the physical. Instead of a retreat, there is the conscious advance into the teeth of adversity.
And mountaineers are still pushing the bar. Surprisingly, Deavoll sees this as the age of the super-climber.
Mountaineering feats have rather dropped out of the headlines, every highest peak having been climbed many times, without oxygen, by women, by the very old, or the very young, or those without legs. What makes the news is instead the ridiculous queue of 300 amateurs – mockingly called “tourons” (tourist morons) – and their hapless guides, backed up on the Lhotse face “death zone” of Mt Everest in this year’s end-of-season scramble.
Deavoll says the top people moved on from bagging the highest peaks years ago. “I don’t know of an actual climber who’s been up Everest in a long time.”
But with lightweight gear, modern training and commercial sponsorship, there are plenty doing it much tougher. They are tackling the impossible routes at the wrong times of year. They are logging lightning-fast marathon sessions in pairs rather than relying on camp- building mass expeditions.
“People have never climbed harder. There’s an elite group who have made a challenge of climbing all 14 of the world’s 8000m peaks, preferably without oxygen. To do all that in one lifetime and retain all your brain cells, well . . .”
Another surprise is to hear that New Zealand – the land of legends like Sir Edmund Hillary and Graeme Dingle – no longer boasts any real top names. When Deavoll mentions the current god of the mountaineer’s fraternity, Oregon’s Steve House, I have never even heard of him. “We’re 20 years behind the rest of the world, I would say, in technical climbing skills. For every one good climber we’ve got, there’ll be a hundred in Canada.”
It’s largely down to a lack of sufficiently difficult landscape.
“In the 1970s, our tough stuff was on a par with the tough stuff people were climbing overseas. That’s when people were training on the Caroline face or East face of Mt Cook.”
But now, says Deavoll, you need the European Alps or something similar as a nursery slope.
Deavoll does not place herself anywhere among the world’s super- climbers. Yet she is unusual in how she has managed to keep shifting the focus of her climbing career.
After honing her ice skills on frozen waterfalls, from 2004 Deavoll has concentrated on making a series of first ascents of smaller 6000m peaks.
There are still many out-of-the-way mountains in Tibet, India and Pakistan that have never been scaled, she says.
So there is the glory of leaving footprints on a virgin summit. And the practical consideration that even minor first climbs are going to attract sponsorship money. Her highlight was the 2009 summiting of Karim Sar, a 6180m ice face in Pakistan’s Karakoram ranges.
Now another year, another mountain. Back into countries even more torn by war. And just a grainy photo as a guide.
Deavoll shrugs off the dangers. After 35 years she has gotten very good at this.
In fact, it is an advantage that most other climbers are too nervous to head there. She can be sure of having Rahozon Zom to herself. Indeed, it is a return trip because last year she did 6515m Koh-e-Baba-Tangi in the Afghan Hindu Kush with her sister, Christine.
The question is, with a beat-up body, how many more years can she keep going? But Deavoll is already planning her next transition.
She has taken up painting, she could do more travel writing. These would still give an excuse to head for the ends of the earth in some fashion.
Deavoll says she was struck by the attitude of the friendly but dirt-poor Afghan villagers who came forward as their porters to base camp last year. “They were a very genial group of guys. Mellow. But there was no curiosity. There was no curiosity about where we were from, about what we were doing.
“Afterwards, when we had climbed the mountain, there was no curiosity about the fact we had actually done it. They just weren’t interested.”
It puts a magnificent obsession – the desire for a life less ordinary – into perspective, perhaps.