One of the UK’s top mountaineers, Andy Kirkpatrick, recently spoke at the Climbers’ Club AGM, so I grabbed the chance to talk to him about his new book, next expedition and tweeting…
“If you’re fit, you’re full of ideas. If you’re not fit, it keeps you safe” says Andy Kirkpatrick, explaining the concept behind his ‘lack of training’ regime. “I went for a run once, and that’s when I thought of climbing El Capitan and that perhaps I could solo it.” Andy is perhaps as well known now for being the “only stand-up mountaineer” with his one-man show tours mixing up his epics with comedy…almost a climbing Alan Carr.
So what tips about public speaking has he picked up over the years? “Only talk for as long as you can make love” (around 20 minutes?) and start with a joke; “how can the Climbers’ Club afford him? Maybe they got funding from Libya?”
Andy is now considered one of the UK’s top mountaineers with a speciality of big walls and winter expeditions. He’s climbed El Cap over 15 times, undertaken one of the hardest climbs in Europe: a 15-day winter ascent of the west face of the Dru, taken part in four winter expeditions to Patagonia, skied across Greenland and climbed El Cap with the paraplegic Major Phil Packer.
But he’s also found himself standing for hours in a foul-smelling, thick brown substance (meant to be a stream of melted Dairy Milk) as a chocolate safety diver to Johnny Depp – a challenge he perhaps hadn’t aspired to. Using his climbing know-how he was there to protect the cast and crew from potentially slippery situations on the set of Tim Burton’s 2005 film, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Andy’s also an award winning author, scooping the prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature in 2008 for his first book Psychovertical. He’s now got a follow up book on the way. Cold Wars should be out this summer, ‘with my deadline being the end of March.’ He’s already written about 70 thousand words but, says Andy ‘you always look at the word count and it could be a million words, but I reckon there are about 40 thousand good words and the rest are a load of rubbish, so I still need to go through and redo it.’ Psycovertical is about his thirteen-day ascent of Reticent Wall on El Capitan, then, the hardest big-wall climb ever soloed by a Brit. Framing it is descriptions of his childhood on an inner-city housing estate in Hull ( one of Britain’s flattest cities), through to some horrific encounters and unique achievements of mountaineering. ‘It’s about what makes me climb, what makes me risk so much for it. It goes from the very beginning of someone learning to climb right through to the ice climbing and the summit of someone’s ability.
Cold Wars is the other side of this, it’s about becoming older, having kids and responsibilities.’ Many people give up or scale down their climbing ambitions when this happens. Is that what happened to Andy? “It’s a kind of reality bites, so in the beginning you have some very good climbs, then slowly things get in the way, it’s that dilemma between kids and reality, and climbing. I was trying to make it more explicit in this book.’
In 2009 Andy made an unsuccessful solo attempt on the John Harlin route on the north face of the Eiger. But failure isn’t something you read much about in many climbing autobiographies. Yet, Cold Wars is ‘a kind of warts and all rock climbing. It’s the day to day, earning a living and all the sacrifices you have to make, ‘says Andy. ‘It’s about the things I haven’t manage to climb, things that don’t happen and how you feel about failure after all the work that goes into it.’ Andy says climbing is like having an affair. ‘Because whatever you do and whoever you’re with you’re always thinking about that other person.’ It’s the same kind of guilt coming out. ‘You’re never happy in one place. When you’re at home you wish you were climbing and when you’re climbing you wish you were at home. It’s also about the risk and about people dying and how I perceive that and just compartmentalise it.’
Andy’s planning on going back to the Eiger at the end of March to try the route again. ‘It’s kind of weird,’ he says, ‘it’s like a massive thing if I do it, but I’ve not really done any training. I’ve been trying too, but I think when you do a tour and go round theatres you get really fat and unfit and then you’ve got to get fit again.’ Johnny Dawes said a similar thing about the process of writing his book that’s due out in the summer. ‘Well, I suppose Johnny is similar to me, in that maybe you don’t let climbing define who you are. He is defined by climbing, but he doesn’t let that be the sole thing that he finds interesting. He can go off and do other stuff, something completely different. I think people who are in their 40’s and are still climbing as obsessively as when they were 16 are probably not really healthy.’
But Andy does have plenty of training and instructional knowledge to share. He is self-publishing a technique book called Driven and ‘trying to write some instructional books, but from a different angle.’ Down covers everything you need to know about not dying on descent (£1 from each book will go to the Conville Trust) and a book called Climb Logic, an incredibly detailed guide, containing ‘the most inane things you can imagine, like a Haynes manual of climbing. It’s right down to the nuts and bolts. Often people say “put a nut in a crack” and we want to know more detail, like; “how do you clip it in?” or “what size nut?” So part of the book could just be about pegs, but it’s about 70 pages long. Down is about how to get off a mountain, how to bivvy, the other is all the information in my brain trying to get out into a book.’
There’s been a lot of talk about the future of guidebooks and the possibility of making them available online, or even as i phone apps. Andy has always been ahead of the times in technological terms and thinks it’s a brilliant idea. ‘The thing with technology is that you have to keep seeing where the horizon is. I was one of the early ones tweeting and when I was twittering from the north face of the Eiger, people where wondering “why the hell are you doing that?” But a friend of mine is way ahead of me in that kind of thinking. A year before me he was blogging every day by satellite phone and what he was saying was really raw. People think you’re promoting yourself, but what you’re actually doing is capturing something, in the same was that Doug Scott would write his journal. But when you’re on the Eiger in a bivvy, you are not constructing a polished sentence, it’s exactly what you’re thinking and feeling at the time, so it’s incredibly creative. I think books are never going to die away, so it’s worth going down as many avenues as you can and that’ll help attract young people to the sport.’
Andy has a way of telling every story of his escapades by describing how someone else achieved something far better at the same time. ‘That’s probably right,’ he acknowledges, ‘the only thing I’m good at is putting myself down… and I’m not even good at that.’