British climber Andy Kirkpatrick’s self-deprecating sense of humor and rapid-fire jokes have made him one of climbing’s biggest personalities-he makes a living partly as a speaker/stand-up comedian, entertaining audiences with stories about his climbs. Through all the laughter, however, those who recognize his name know he’s done some of the boldest, scariest climbs on earth: El Cap’s fearsome Reticent Wall, solo; several attempts on Norway’s enormous and sinister Troll Wall (including a successful winter ascent); and now, multiple new routes on Antarctica’s Ulvetanna (known to some as “the hardest mountain in the world”).
Kirkpatrick’s success came from humble beginnings. A child of divorce, he was raised in a council estate (social housing) in Hull, one of the UK’s flattest cities. He battled severe dyslexia as a student and left school with no job prospects. He began climbing and discovered a penchant for suffering on long, hard routes, developing somewhat of a reputation as a “psycho.” He learned to tell stories, and write, first getting published in Climbing Magazine, and then others. In 2008, his book Psychovertical won the Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature, and in 2012, his book Cold Wars won the Boardman Tasker again. Both books have been translated into several languages.
Kirkpatrick’s most recent adventure, an Antarctic expedition with five Norwegians (including adventurer Aleksander Gamme) in early 2014, resulted in a new route on Ulvetanna, a peak in Queen Maud Land that has only seen a handful of ascents. Only one other person on the six-person team was a climber.
1. You’ve put up first ascents in some of the toughest places on earth: The Dru (in winter), Norway’s Troll Wall (in winter), Patagonia’s Mermoz (in winter), and most recently, Ulvetanna in Antarctica. What are you looking for when you dream up these missions?
I want to be pushed to the limit in every way possible, mentally and environmentally! Unlike most people, I want the experience to go on and on, so you feel it will never end-both the Troll Wall and Ulvetanna took 14 days. I think the longer you spent on a face or wall the more you come to understand your place in the universe (the answer being ‘you have no place’).
I have two kids (I climbed El Cap with Ella when she was 13) and want to be a good father more than a good climber, so have always compromised my climbing, and so I’m a binge climber, and just turn up and climb with no climbing in between. In 12 months I climbed the Troll in winter, three routes on El Cap (two push ascents of 30 hours, and twice with a blind friend), spent seven days on the Eiger trying to repeat its hardest route, two first ascents in Antarctica, and five 5.9 rock routes on my local crag, and that was it. Oscar Wilde once said, “Everything in moderation, apart from moderation itself,” which kind of sums me up.
2. When you sit next to someone on a plane, what do you tell them you do for a living?
I used to say I was an assassin! But then one day I told someone and he said “Oh, me too.” It turned out he was in the UK military, carrying out targeted assassinations in Afghanistan.
3. When people think “climbing” nowadays, they usually think of a shirtless person climbing a hard sport route or a boulder problem. You don’t do that. How would you describe your climbing career?
Now I usually just say “I climb mountains for living.” Then I go on to say that it’s not a proper job.
4. Your career has been steeped in adventure, not just climbing. Do you think outdoor enthusiasts are losing the sense of adventure?
I worry a little that we are losing some of the grit, honesty, and reality in the sport. People are seen through the prism of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, and most have sponsors who only want a positive image. This gives perhaps too narrow a view on the reality of climbing-for example EpicTV is only interested in three-minute films about climbing, meaning we are losing much of the texture of adventure and are left with only the light and the sound. Also, there is no real money to be made writing a book about climbing anymore, so I think climbing literature will die on the vine. Cold Wars was my attempt to really nail the reality of a sponsored hero’s life, and took me six months to write. Although it has been very successful (translated in multiple languages and won a lot of awards), if I’d just worked in Starbucks, instead of writing it there, I’d have made more money. Perhaps the big problem is one of age, in that you need the space of time to really consider what you have done, and I’m just lucky that at 42 I’m still doing it.
5. What’s the worst idea you’ve ever had?
Going to Antarctica to climb a new route on the ‘hardest mountain’ in the world with five strangers, all Norwegian, and only one a climber.
6. On one of your solo attempts on the Troll Wall, you turned around near the summit after accidentally pressing “play” on a recording of your son’s voice. How has having children affected your decision-making process in the mountains?
I’ve never wanted to die, and having kids didn’t reinforce this. In fact I only really started climbing hard stuff when Ella was born, and perhaps having no other skills I felt that climbing was my only way to make a living. The biggest effect has been my unwillingness to be away for too long (the problem with being a good parent is that your kids miss you), meaning no trips have ever been longer than a month (apart from Antarctica, which was two months, and when I skied across Greenland it was six weeks). I think that kids are the great handicap to an alpinist, with a partner second, and most of the hardest most-gnarly ascents tend to be done by single men with neither. Getting either of these things may lower your hero status, but could well keep you alive (I’m guessing Achilles had neither).
7. How did you come to realize you could make a living as a climber?
I don’t really make a living as a climber, and get no financial support from any companies, but instead make a living as a speaker, writer, illustrator, web designer, author, guide, instructor, rigger, etc.-which are all based on my climbing. I live a kind of boom and bust life-all champagne and ashes. In March, I helped raise £2 million pounds for charity by climbing Moonlight Buttress with a celebrity for UK TV, but when I left I only had £10 in my bank account! I have no house or savings, and live like a busker, which is great when you’re in your 20s, but not so good in your 40s. I would love to be fully supported by a brand like other climbers, but in the UK we have very poor levels of support compared to the U.S. (most top climbers just get free gear)-which is strange as the UK is one of the biggest outdoor markets in the world.
8. What’s the one piece of gear you never leave the ground without?
I never like to be without music, as I feel it helps calm nerves, and those of my partners (a little bit of normality), and with modern devices you can even watch films on a wall-on the Eiger last year we watched an episode of The IT Crowd every night! So I’d say my iPod.
9. Who are some of your heroes in mountaineering writing?
Although it can be a bit rich for some, and can slip into teenage angst, I have always liked Mark Twight’s writing-mainly because it’s very raw. I have a lot of respect for Mark, in fact when I’m having a hard time I often think, “What would Mark do?” (this is funny, as I’ve heard from people who think “What would Andy do?”). I like a simple, pared-down style (alpine style writing), and some of the most memorable writing has been in short pieces in magazines. I don’t read that much climbing literature, and I often say that climbing is like masturbation: It’s fun when you do it, but people don’t want to read about it.
10. You wrote about being severely dyslexic in your book Psychovertical, which won the Boardman-Tasker Award for Mountain Literature. What’s the writing and editing process like for you?
This is going to sound like one of those terrible interviews where the interviewee is just plugging something-but-I’m actually working on a book called Superlexia at the moment that deals with this subject (the plan is to fund it through Kickstarter). First off, my whole premise is that dyslexia, ADHD (my son Ewen has been “diagnosed” with ADHD, and I’m told I have it too), autism, etc., are not disabilities, but abilities, and in many cases, super powered.
The problem is that we must all conform to the “real world” of the 21st century, and for people with an “alien brain” (that’s how I describe it to children), this causes a huge amount of trauma, as a star-shaped brain will not fit into a one-size-fits-all square brain box.
When I left school I had the reading and writing age of a six-year-old, and yet I had wonderful ideas. I actually got a pass in English, probably down to the fact that I had to write story based on a dream and I wrote about what the bombardier on the Enola Gay dreamed about on his way to drop the A-bomb on Japan. I’ve also always been in love with words, even though I had no way of knowing what they actually said, being a hoarder of comics, books, and magazines as a child. Maybe my inability to encode these shapes and learn what they meant gave them more weight and significance, than say for someone who can’t remember learning to read.
For me, reading and writing came around the age of 11, and it was like learning to see for the first time. Leaving school and just getting dead-end jobs, or being unemployed, I felt an increasing urge to write something, and perhaps made the mistake of thinking I had nothing to write about (a good writer can write an epic about a sandwich). When I was 19, I was told for the first time I was severely dyslexic (in my two test papers I got 16 percent right on the numeracy and 99 percent in spatial ability-meaning one side of my brain would be classified as having severe learning difficulties, while the other put me in the top 1 percent for brain function).
It was only when I started climbing in the Alps, and having significant experiences (on the first big route I climbed in the alps, the Frendo Spur in winter, my climbing partner never climbed again) that I found I had something to write about. I spent two years writing the story of the Frendo, writing, re-writing, losing and re-writing again, until I had 2,000 words, which I sent of to Climbing Magazine in the U.S. Getting the fax from the editor, saying they loved it, and would publish it, was one of the most amazing moments of my life (I can still remember seeing the fax sticking out of the machine at work). That piece (“Broken Promises”) made it into the book of The Best of Climbing magazine and it was the start of my writing career (so thanks, Climbing).
I was lucky as I was both having amazing experiences, but I also learned the art of storytelling from my dad, plus my alien brain allowed me often to look at things a little differently (I tend to write in a very simple visual way). I’m also very honest about how I feel about things, but not in a mock American style (where people “open up”), but in a much more brutal way, showing the dark side of my nature, as well as the lighter side.
The actual process of writing for me is a tough one, as I’m the most distracted person you will ever meet (I’m meant to be moving house today, but instead I’m sat writing this), so focusing on just getting the words out is very tough (probably down to this subsided ADHD-which I tend to ignore, feeling it’s just a term applied to a person’s innate character).
I met someone a few years ago who was severely dyslexic and had been sexually abused as a child. He told me that he had somehow found a way to deal with the sexual abuse, as it was in the past, a long time ago, and he wouldn’t let it define him-but not with his dyslexia, as this was a constant and never-ending battle. I guess although I put a positive spin on it, it is a never-ending battle, and I am always undermined by it. It has resulted in very low self-esteem, and poor self-image (the results of my learning difficulties as a child), which have in turn affected my adult life in a negative way. And yet I have to focus on the fact that this is who I am, I am not a “condition” and I am not “disabled” by “me”-only the world around me, that the troubles are nothing compared to the advantages they bring.
For more, visit http://www.andy-kirkpatrick.com/