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Thanks for the mountain memories, dad

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November 2020 Issue

Each November Andrew Given climbs a mountain in remembrance of the person who instilled in him a love of the mountains.

There are many reasons we climb. Sometimes it’s the challenge of being the first to a summit, in other cases it is simply the pleasure gained from the incredible views from the top. However, we can also climb to remember.

In my case, an annual tradition has been a way of remembering the person who instilled in me a love for the mountains.

My father David Given grew up in Nelson and gained a love for the hills in his teenage years. Memories of trips into the wilderness areas surrounding Nelson were ones he shared with me when we began to venture out together. He talked fondly of the Arthur Range, the Cobb Valley and the Richmond Range. Dad majored in botany at Canterbury University and, in the late 1960s, he spent months in the mountains completing fieldwork for his PhD, focussed on New Zealand’s mountain daisies.

It was here he joined the Canterbury Mountaineering Club and in 1966 was involved in attempts to rescue four climbers stuck on Mt Rolleston in atrocious conditions. All four climbers lost their lives along with John Harrison, one of the rescue team. The trauma of this experience haunted my dad his whole life and was something he rarely talked about.

My introduction to overnight tramping with dad was as an 11-year-old. We completed a three-day portion of Rakiura’s North-West Circuit, including a climb of the island’s highpoint, Mt Anglem (980m). I have strong memories of mud, driving rain and the raucous blue penguins at Christmas Village Hut and most of all the special feeling of being on an adventure with my dad. Over the next few years, we explored the valleys of Arthur’s Pass, completing some great trips including Trudge Col in the Hawdon Valley, the Anti Crow Valley, Waimakariri Falls and climbs of Mt Aicken and Mt Bealey.

As a botanist, dad saw these trips not just as tramping adventures but as scientific expeditions. There was always a chance we might find a particular plant species and I felt privileged to be considered a research assistant.

Like father, like son – the author with his dad in the Anti Crow Valley in 1989. Photo: Andrew Given

I was appreciative of the skills and  confidence dad instilled in me during our times in the outdoors. This investment meant that as 15-year-olds, my friends and I started tramping without our parents. The first of these trips was into the relatively tame Wharfedale Track. Over the final few years of high school, the trips became more adventurous with numerous days during the holidays spent exploring the valleys  and peaks of the Canterbury high country. Dad was always on-hand to share his knowledge of the areas we planned to explore and offer a few words of caution to over-confident teenagers.

At university, the tramping and climbing continued with the highlights being climbs of Mt Rolleston and trips to Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park and an annual multi-day expedition, the final one a 13-day journey in Mt Aspiring National Park with several days on the Olivine Ice Plateau.

Often, I’d arrive home late in the evening from these trips and remember vividly sharing the details with dad as I sat at the foot of his bed. He had instilled in me not just a love for the hills, but a desire to adventure and see what was around the next corner.

After several years studying in Canada, I returned to New Zealand with my Canadian-born wife and young son. My dad had been diagnosed with cancer and it seemed right to be home. He continued to work, now in his dream role of Botanical Services Curator at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. We spent much time together, often reminiscing about our past trips.

Dad lost his battle with cancer when he was just 62. It was a tough goodbye, but a celebration of a life well-lived. We shared stories including his love of nature, his focus and effort in conservation, his great sense of humour and the importance of family to him throughout his life. We placed his ice axe on his coffin, a reminder of the significance of the mountains in his life.

In trips to the hills after dad’s death, I would often find myself thinking of him. I would wonder if he had walked the same trails, enjoyed the same vista but most of all I would miss the after-tramp chats we had enjoyed so much.

Andrew has now passed on his love of he outdoors to his son Sam. Photo: Andrew Given

In 2009, five years after he died, my good friend Nick Moyle suggested we do a memorial climb to remember him. Nick and I have known each other as long as we can remember and have been tramping and climbing together since we were teenagers. He saw this as an appropriate way of remembering my dad and celebrating his life.

That November, we set off on the first DRG (David Roger Given) Memorial Climb. The goal: Mt Aicken in Arthur’s Pass National Park. As we set foot on the summit, I felt a strong connection with dad and a feeling of overwhelming emotion. It seemed like the right thing  to be doing.

The DRG Memorial Climb became an annual event. Each November, on the anniversary of his death, we set off with a summit to reach. Since the first climb in 2009, we have completed 10 trips, only missing 2010 due to the Christchurch earthquakes in September of that year. There are usually three of us on the climb, myself, Nick and Tim Woodfield, another close friend who I’ve been tramping and climbing with for years.

A particularly memorable trip was in 2015 when we climbed Mt Adams (2208m), a long-held ambition, on the edge of the Adams Wilderness Area.

After a relatively relaxed wander up Dry Creek, the steep climb began, up through scrub and forest for several gruelling hours. We set up our tent at about 1600m, had a quick brew and then continued on surrounded by cloud and with a further 600m climbing required to reach the summit. The cloud remained until, not far from the final snowy slopes leading to the summit, it lifted. We were rewarded with incredible views of the surrounding mountains, the Tasman Sea and the stunning sweep of the West Coast. For the first time, I carried with me dad’s ice axe, one that had been his companion on so many trips in the hills. As had become customary on these climbs, I was given the honour of stepping onto the summit first. Standing on the mountain-top in the late afternoon light, I felt the tears well up. We hugged and then spoke a few words about dad. I had brought with me a photo of him and placed this on the summit beside his ice axe. This was a trip I would have loved to tell him about.

Andrew took his dad’s photo and ice axe to the summit of Mt Adams. Photo: Andrew Given

My eldest son Sam was too young to remember his grandad, being just two years old when he died. Time in the hills with my father had strengthened and deepened our relationship and this was something I wanted to experience with my son. Sam completed his first overnight tramp with me to Bealey Spur Hut when he was four years old. Since then, we’ve done more than 30 trips in the mountains together. We’ve explored some of the same areas I experienced with my dad and we’ve spent time in some new ones, including my son’s favourite spot, Mt Owen in Kahurangi National Park. We’ve started to tick off a few peaks, such as Mt Fyffe, Mt Arthur, The Needle, The Apprentice and a number of inland Canterbury peaks  including Red Hill, Peak Hill, Mt Richardson, Mt Grey and Mt Oxford.

Over the years, I have seen him grow in strength and confidence and it won’t be long until he begins venturing into the mountains without me, something I began to do almost 30 years ago. I know that the love Sam has for being in the mountains is something that began with my dad and I am so pleased to see this legacy continue.

All of us can attribute our love of the mountains to something. For many of us, we owe it to that person who first took us out there and allowed us to experience things that now bring us great joy. The joy we feel when we see the first rays of sunlight hit the top of a mountain or when we turn a corner in a valley and see for the first time the summit we are heading for, and the joy we feel when we finally stand on a mountaintop.

I owe my great love of the mountains to my dad. Each November, I stand on a summit and remember him and thank him for this great love he passed on to me.