AN INTERVIEW WITH 2012 BOARDMAN TASKER WINNER, ANDY KIRKPATRICK


 

ANDY KIRKPATRICK has a reputation for seeking out routes where the danger is real and the return is questionable, pushing himself on some of the hardest walls and faces in the Alps and beyond. In 2001 he undertook a 12-day solo ascent of the Reticent Wall on El Capitan, one of the hardest solo climbs in the world. This climb was the central theme of his first book Psychovertical, which won the 2008 Boardman Tasker Prize for Mountain Literature. Cold Wars, his second book won again, this time the 2012 Boardman Tasker Prize. We checked in recently with Andy to chat about writing, climbing and life.

 

Firstly, was throwing in the towel on writing as a career just a way to pressure the judges to give you the Boardman Tasker prize?

Andy Kirkpatrick BooksKnowing the 3 judges, I suspect 'throwing my teddy out of the pram' wouldn't gain me too much sympathy, and my blog post about giving up writing books (not writing), as pretty considered.  I guess I was under some illusion I could just write books, and that turned out not to be the case financially.  I also suspected that spending too much time alone with my thoughts was also not great for me.  I was actually stunned by the response and have had several hundred facebook, twitter and emails from people asking me not to give up.  I'm pretty stubborn, and so it's a surprise that I would actually give up on something just because I found it hard.  Since writing that blog I both felt a sense of relief, but also a sense of loss, as up until then I'd never realized how much the written word was ingrained in my every thought.  I can see it's how I interpret everything I see, do or think.

Does winning the Boardman Tasker Award for Cold Wars numb the sting you felt after not winning the title of Best Mountain Book at Banff? Does winning the award change how you feel about giving up writing as a career? 

I'll be really honest. I think Cold Wars should have been in the [Banff] short list, and many people who've since read it in Canada seem to agree!  I believe that as an author you should fight tooth and nail for your work, and so I believe Cold Wars was the best book and should have won!  My editor once said that 'the problem with Andy is that people don't realize how clever he is' - and this is probably a problem with a book with so many layers as Cold Wars, that people just read it on the most basic level – I guess that's my fault as the author.  People often say it's the funniest climbing book they've read, but when writing it humor had no part in the book I was intending to write.  

Download the first chapter from Pyschovertical now

Do you still consider Yosemite's Reticent Wall your hardest climb?

No, although it was tough I've had much harder climbs on many levels.  I guess attempting to solo the Troll wall in Norway last year was the hardest, mentally anyway.

Both of your books feature your own drawings of climbing routes and gear. Do you look at mountains with a climber’s eye first, or as an artist?

I have absolutely no structure in my thoughts or life in general, and so I'm fascinated by structure, being it words, HTML or creating an image that captures how a mountain feels to me by scribbling with a pen.  I guess there is a computer scientist in me trying to get out!

Do you have a favorite ‘climbing writer’ and how do you feel about the term “climbing writer”?

I was a big fan of Desmaison's Total Alpinism, as it was very simple, with no romance.  I can't abide the academic mountaineering books, writers who don't understand climbing, and sort of exploit it for their own ends, introducing flowery thoughts and ideas that just don't exist on a big north face. I guess the whole industry based around Mallory and Irvine smacks of this a little bit, with historians and academics second guessing a subject they don't really understand.

You talk more than once about the cool climbers' table, saying there's one in Yosemite and another in Chamonix. You seem to imply that you hadn't attained cool status. Now after all your climbing accomplishments, and having won the Boardman Tasker award twice, do you still feel that way?

Always—I'm my harshest critic in everything I do, and will always be pushing for some unattainable goal (writing or climbing) until the day I die. I don't let this knowledge of dissatisfaction get me down, but instead exploit it for the motivation to live up to my unattainable ideal! It's why Cold Wars is better than Psychovertical.   

Andy Kirkpatrick

Image credit, Oli Warlow - taken on the top of El Cap

In "Lafaille" you write, "They say it's not worth losing your toes for a climb, but when they're not your toes it seems worth the risk," but later on in that climb you have Ian Parnell put his (very stinky and possibly frostbitten) feet on your belly in order to warm them. Was that enlightened self-interest—wanting to get up the route and knowing you needed Parnell's feet to do it—or concern for a friend's well-being?

I wanted to be quite brutal in my appraisal of alpine climbing, and I know that one is only really concerned by someone else's condition when they know it will impact themselves.  When you're on a wall, ice cap, or big face you must look after yourself first, and only then will you have the ability to look after others.  If Ian lost his toes to frostbite it would be his fault, but if we had to descend because of it when I could have helped keep (his toes) warm, then that would have been my fault. 

Most recently you completed a climb of El Cap with your daughter. We heard that you were impressed with your daughter's lack of a fear of heights. Do you think she'll follow in your footsteps and become a climber? Do you wish that for your children? A love of climbing? 

I want my children to experience as much about life as possible, and allow them to experience the things I feel made me a better person.  I would probably prefer it if they didn't want to climb dangerous mountains, but I can't stop them.  When Ella found out she was the youngest girl to climb El Cap, I just said "That record doesn't matter a thing, it how it feels to you that's important."

What is in store for you next? If you no longer pursue a career as an author, do you think you'll still write as a hobby? Will you give up books cold turkey? What do you hope the next few years will look like for your career, and your climbing? 

I have an idea for some films, so being creative is still very important, but I suspect that I have things I want to say that can only be said on the printed page!  I guess it's revealing in that I can ignore hundreds of people telling me not to stop writing, but when my ex wife was the only person to say "good" I immediately think "Right then! I'll show you!!!"

 


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