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April 2021 Issue
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Man of the mountains

Pat Barcham has spent a lifetime climbing mountains. Photo: Roy Sinclair

A regular walk on the Port Hills is a chance for an old mountaineer to revisit some of his most memorable climbs. By Roy Sinclair

At 86, Pat Barcham is technically ‘old’ but in many respects he appears ‘young’.

A frequent walking companion of mine, one regular jaunt follows the Harry Ell Trail on Christchurch’s Port Hills from Victoria Park to the Sign of the Kiwi cafe where we spend an hour yarning over coffee.

The there and back walk takes about two hours and my doctor says the hour spent yarning over coffee is as good for our health as the walking.

A regular stop is the Hillary table, so named because I met the famous Everest summiter there when he was signing certificates of walkers participating in a ‘Get Christchurch Active Day’.

It’s here that Pat gets his binoculars focused if the mountains are clear. He knows exactly where to aim them, to the right of Mt Somers in an effort to see the east face of Aoraki/Mt Cook. He has climbed the mountain six times.

His first ascent was in 1955, following the route taken by the first successful summit of Aoraki on Christmas Day, 1894. His ascent was the first time that route had been repeated. It involved a tricky traverse from Mt Dampier to the north ridge leading to the high peak of Aoraki. It was avalanche prone and compromised by crumbling rock.

His climbing interest kicked in at an early age. Living in Greytown, initial treks were in the Tararua Ranges. Then, when aged 13, he climbed Mt Taranaki. It was icy and he had no crampons. He likes to say Taranaki has the reputation for being New Zealand’s most dangerous mountain. “It is accessible and people sometimes don’t go properly prepared,” he says.

Later, he took off to Europe, climbing Switzerland’s famous Matterhorn (4478m) and Meiji (3984m) in the Hautes-Alpes of France. He went to the Himalayas yeti hunting with Sir Edmund Hillary.

I first met Barcham on the Cashmere Bus when he casually told me he had recently turned 60. Then added: “During the weekend, I climbed Mt Rolleston at Arthur’s Pass.”

We are not short on conversation during our hill walks. For many years we went mountain goating, frequently driving to Arthur’s Pass to climb a peak and then driving home. I always admired his perfect balance on a narrow ridge.

His brother, Tom, also a mountaineer, introduced him to Fred Hollows, the renowned eye surgeon.

Hollows was also a story-teller; a man with the outrageous character that inspires story-telling.

Our mountain goating at Arthur’s Pass was the ideal opportunity for telling such stories. Our days in the mountains were therefore punctuated with cackles and laughs.

On a recent walk, we reminisced about a long day completing the Avalanche Peak to Mt Bealey traverse.

“Do you think we would be capable of doing that again, Roy?”

“I very much doubt it,” I replied.

That morning, as we paused at the Hillary table, he spotted Aoraki through his binoculars. Then Mt Rolleston with the Crow Glacier clearly visible.

Otherwise, it is bereft of snow. He passes the binoculars to me.

“Roy, I do not think I could climb Rolleston anymore,” he says, perhaps with a hint of regret.