A truly adventurous coot, Brian Turner

John Pascoe 
Chris Maclean
Craig Potton Publishing in association with The Whitcombe Press, $59.95,
ISBN 0473094436


When I was a runty little joker, I often heard my father’s mother, Liz, describe people as “silly buggers”. John Pascoe would have been one of them to her. Why? Because he was a mountaineer. Only silly buggers “ran around the hills” like mountaineers did, Liz said. In the 1960s, when I started climbing mountains, I was added to her silly bugger club.

Back then, Pascoe’s was a name that popped up often when friends spoke of New Zealand mountaineering. The more I read about Pascoe, and of work by him, the more I grew to admire the man. Here was a hard-working, truly adventurous coot. As for being tenacious, obdurate? Was he ever! Obduracy and mountaineering go together.

Pascoe was the sort of New Zealander I was thrilled to find; someone driven by a yearning to know more about our place, and to marvel at it. He believed it was possible to live a full life here, unlike many who couldn’t wait to hotfoot it elsewhere to become more sophisticated and worldly, and he resolved to share his experiences with others. In a way he thought it was his duty. Pascoe clearly didn’t want to end up a nowhere person, the sort that fails to find the solace that comes from a sense of belonging. He valued the special camaraderie found in toughing it out together in remote places, and he had courage and considerable organisational abilities. And through mountaineering, Pascoe learned that caring for others and pampering aren’t the same thing.

Chris Maclean is right to label Pascoe “John the Evangelist”, but he doesn’t sanctify him. He concedes that Pascoe could be irritating in the way that he occasionally indulged in self-praise. Put that down to self-consciousness related to his stammer and his slight physique, which he overcame with amazing determination and a scary resolve. As Maclean points out, Pascoe “helped New Zealanders gain a sense of themselves and the magnificent country they inhabited.” He set out to “influence young jokers” and he did, jokers like me. And I rather liked him for having the nerve to say that he never wanted to visit England, although some might see that as wrily ironic, given his background as an old boy of Christ’s College, and his moustache and tweedy, pipe-smoking look.

John Pascoe (1908-1972) – author, historian, very good archivist and superb documentary photographer – was able and highly productive in everything he did. He packed a great deal into his shortish life: 16 books between 1937 and 1972, including Unclimbed New Zealand and the splendid Mr Explorer Douglas, selections from and commentary on the writings of the extraordinary Charlie Douglas.

Pascoe and his identical twin, Paul, both stutterers, were brought up on Clifton Hill above Sumner. The “frail” little boys gazed across the plains to the shining Alps from the hillside above their home. Their mother Effie’s father was mayor of Sumner; their father Guy was the son of a clergyman. Guy became a lawyer, explorer and mountaineer. And he played rugby for Canterbury. Effie’s hero was T E Lawrence, of “Arabia”. Guy was the New Zealand solicitor to Scott’s polar expedition, which sailed from Lyttelton in 1910. Both parents were pillars of rectitude. Who says nurture is less important than nature?

After Christ’s College, which he disliked and where he was bullied, Pascoe half-heartedly studied law at Canterbury University and worked as a clerk in the office of the remarkable George Harper. He also got to know his father’s friend, Judge O T J Alpers. Pascoe saw Alpers as “the doyen of raconteurs”.

Achievements in the mountains depend often on the qualities of one’s companions. Pascoe was lucky to team up with formidably fit and highly accomplished climbers like Roger “Boney” Chester and Allan Willis with whom, in late December 1930, he stood on 11 previously unclimbed summits in one day at the head of the Mathias Valley. Within a year or two, Pascoe had 25 first ascents to his name. He never claimed to be either a particularly strong or technically adroit climber. But he did have stamina and cussedness aplenty.

John Pascoe was fortunate to have married Dorothy Harding. She was bright, courageous, doughty, and they shared a love of tramping and mountaineering. They seem to have been very good parents to their own children, four daughters. The family had their personal tragedies and troubles, which make for moving reading.

As a person, Pascoe was sometimes prickly and righteous, partly because he had little time for those who, as he saw it, wasted their time. He was an awful poet and reluctant to admit it. As a prose writer he was adequate, not often more than that. And he was a bit snooty at times. To him, professional guiding was an affront to the purity of a true mountaineer’s intentions.

Cheekily, he asserted that mountaineering was a “greater sport” than rugby, and he approved of “the public” making sure that rugby was “kept untainted by professionalism”. Ha, but wasn’t his research and planning in so many areas truly professional, in the best sense of the word?

Yes, Pascoe was a bit of a purist, a bit conceited. He was a classic example of how helpful certitude is in ensuring that people get things done. His convictions meant he was never hamstrung by ambivalence or given to notice too many shades of grey.

Maclean’s very fine and fair, immensely detailed life of a remarkable individual convinces me that Pascoe made a monumental contribution to what is unique and admirable about New Zealand and New Zealanders of his extraction.

A word about the book’s appearance and production: it is grand with an excellent, copious selection of illustrations accompanied by lengthy, highly-informative captions. Chris Maclean and his publishers have done the Pascoes proud.


Brian Turner is the current Te Mata Estate New Zealand Poet Laureate.


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