cover

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Title Page

Dedication

List of Illustrations

Acknowledgements

Prologue

Epigraph

Map

Hard work kills horses

Bird rock

The valley

Pebbledashed

A very brave man

Windows

Max load

Alpinists

Solo

Snow gets in your eyes

Robbins’s peg

The knot

It’s all easy until you fall

The last time

Black bites

On fire

Expando

Fly or Die

For Emily

Hell freezes over

Wino

Truths and lies

Fearometer

Mad youth

Music lessons

Safe

Masters of stone

Cold war

Psycho

Down

Picture Section

Glossary

Copyright

About the Book

Words like boldness, adventure and risk were surely coined especially for Andy Kirkpatrick. As one of the world’s most accomplished mountaineers and big-wall climbers, he goes vertically where other climbers (to say nothing of the general public) fear to tread.

For the first time, this cult hero of vertical rock has written a book, in which his thirteen-day ascent of Reticent Wall on El Capitan in California – the hardest big-wall climb ever soloed by a Briton – frames a challenging autobiography. From childhood on a grim inner-city housing estate in Hull, the story moves through horrific encounters and unique athletic achievements at the extremes of the earth. As he writes, ‘Climbs like this make no sense … the chances of dying on the route are high.’ Yet Andy, in his thirties with young children, has everything to live for. This book – by turns gut-wrenching, entertaining and challenging – appeals to the adventurer in all of us.

About the Author

Andy Kirkpatrick has climbed the hardest routes in the Alps and has mountaineered around the world, including Patagonia in winter. His film Cold Haul, about his and Ian Parnell’s ascent of the Lafaille Route on the Dru, won first prize at the Graz Festival. He is a popular climbing journalist and his website www.psychovertical.com receives thousands of hits every month.

Psychovertical was awarded the Boardman Tasker Prize 2008.

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To the patient people who helped gather up the words that almost escaped me

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List of Illustrations

1. Who would have thought I’d become a climber?

2. AK on El Cap (Andy Perkins)

3. Aaron learning it’s best not to play with strangers

4. Dick Turnbull

5. Day two of our Frendo epic

6. The North Face of Les Droites and the North East Spur (David Rudd)

7. Helicopter rescue on the Dru Couloir

8. El Cap (Ian Parnell)

9. Paul Tat skyhooking on A4 terrain

10. A storm hits the Shield headwall

11. AK reaching the top of El Cap (Paul Tattersall)

12. Andy Perkins

13. AK’s shadow on Lost in America

14. Jim Hall, Paul Ramsden and Nick Lewis

15. Two a.m. on Fitzroy

16. Super Couloir

17. Our homemade tent struggles against hurricane winds

18. Jim Hall prepares to descend 56 pitches

19. Fourteen hours later and the strain is showing (Paul Ramsden)

20. Es Tresidder on the North Face of Les Droites

21. Abseiling Lesson

22. Contemplating a close run thing

23. Matt gets the cosy hammock

24. My kingdom for some socks … and gloves

25. Matt reaches the ledge

26. Rich breaking trail

27. Most Alpinists just do it for the food and the sex

28. By day five we’d run out of food (Rich Cross)

29. Going home empty handed

30. Twenty days’ water

31. The biggest fall of my life

32. Hauling on El Cap

33. The last pitch of the Reticent Wall

34. Dizzy on the Summit

35. El Cap (Ian Parnell)

All photographs, maps and line illustrations are by the author, unless otherwise attributed.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Mandy, who unlocked many doors, and helped me discover who I could be – and for being my toughest critic. And for giving me Ella and Ewen, gifts that will take me a lifetime to unwrap.

To my Mum, the strongest person I’ve ever met. It’s a shame people don’t write books about people who climb real mountains every day. I finally get what you mean about the world being my oyster.

To my Dad Pete, who gave me my thirst for adventure to begin with – one of the greatest people I’ve ever known. The older I get the more I understand.

To my brother Robin (you’re a real hero, not the wimp I’ve made you out to be). I just want to say sorry for pushing you in the docks that time (and all the other stuff … like the fish tank). To my sister Joanne who has climbed her own mountain to become the type of teacher every child deserves, and to another teacher, Mr Peterson of Villa Junior School, who took the time to see between my spelling mistakes.

To Karen Darke for stopping me from writing, and reminding me that having adventures is more important than writing books about them.

To Tony Whittome, Marni Jackson, Jim Perrin, and Andrew and Sharisse Kyle at Mount Engadine Lodge and everyone at the Banff Centre for giving me the chance, and the push I needed, to write this book. And to Bill Gates for Word, without which I’d never have written a word in the first place. Thanks to Duane Raleigh and Alison Osius at Climbing magazine who made me believe I was a writer, plus they would actually pay me for my words, and not forgetting all those poor editors that came afterwards who pulled their hair out with my never-ending ‘eny’s’ and ‘becouse’s’ that slipped past the spell checker.

To Dick Turnbull for giving me a job, but never giving me an easy ride, and for inspiring me to suffer in the first place. I am also indebted to the support from Berghaus, Black Diamond, British Mountaineering Council, Buffalo, Lyon Equipment, Petzl, PHD, Mount Everest Foundation, Sportiva, and Patagonia, without which I’d never have been able to afford to go away, or replace the thousands of pounds of kit I lost or dropped over the years. I also want to single out Chris Watts and Siobhan Sheridan at First Ascent for always going out of their way to help and making me feel like a sponsored hero.

Lastly to all my climbing partners, who I expect, if you bump into them and ask about their role in this book, will tell you that every fall was half as far, and every near-death experience was nothing to write home about. Don’t believe them, they’re all in denial, it was always worse. But it was always more fun than it sounds … wasn’t it?

Prologue

I sat alone in the small white room, my attention drifting from the snow that built up on the windowsill outside to the two test papers on the desk in front of me. I fidgeted with my pencil, chewing the end until my lips were speckled with red chips of paint. My mouth tasted of damp wood. The wind rattled across the corrugated roof of the building. The sound of air being sucked under draughty doors and past ill-fitted windowpanes grew loud, taking my concentration away with it.

Time was running out.

Although this was an exam I had sought out, it felt no better than all the others. I felt small, awkward and stupid. The first paper had been easy, but the second had turned my brain into a thick slow glue as the numbers fell from their places, lost upon the page. Even though the room was cold, I was feverish with that familiar panic which I had thought I’d never feel again. It was as if I were back at the school I had hated. An old self-loathing returned, but I pushed my brain to form some answers out of the murk.

None came.

Drifting out of the storm, we trench through deep snow until we come to the edge of the loch, its surface frozen beneath a winter blanket. My partner takes a bearing and shouts into my ear that it isn’t far. The buttress above comes into view for a moment as the cloud spins away from its summit.

We have left the car in the dark, woken early by the wind buffeting it on that empty high mountain road. Groggy with the long journey north from England, we had dressed while still in our seats, fighting like Houdini to pull on boots and salopettes in our confined quarters – neither of us really wanting to venture outside until the last possible moment. The early start has proved useful in the long approach through the deep snowdrifts. With luck it will allow enough time to climb the route.

We recheck our bearings, wanting to avoid the avalanche-prone slab to the left of the loch, and gain another quick glimpse of the wall when the cloud thins. It is steep and covered in rime ice, which clings to the rock just like ice clings to the inside walls of a freezer. It offers an equivalent security.

The conditions are far from perfect, but this is Scottish-winter climbing. Here you just climb routes as you find them, not as you’d like to find them. It has been pointed out by a visiting Slovene climber that here in Scotland we ‘ski on the grass and ice-climb on rock’, but at least today the rock looks wintry enough. Stuffing the map away and pulling on goggles, we take the easy option and set off across the loch’s creaking edge.

I turned the paper over and looked up at the snow, lying thick as a bed on the sill. I had a few minutes left until the examiner was due to return, but I knew from experience that it would take more than time to get these answers right.

Teachers always said I was lazy, that I lacked concentration or was a slow learner, then went on to label me as having some kind of learning disability. The schools I went to were filled with ‘problem children’ and I was just one more. I remember learning in biology that the brain has two sides. It came as a bit of a revelation at the time. It seemed to explain why sometimes I felt slow and stupid, one of the school’s stigmatised, remedial kids, while at other times I felt bright and intelligent, capable of producing drawings or solving puzzles that were beyond the others. Most of the time I kept the dark side in the background, concentrating on what I was good at, but at school that wasn’t easy when the narrowly focused world of school subjects gave you almost no way of shining.

The route looks hard. A tenuous mixed line up a steep wall and arête, it is a classic rock climb in the summer, but now, with a coating of ice, it is one of the hardest climbs on the crag. I visualise the moves, how I’ll link up those rounded horizontal cracks and vertical seams, digging through the wall’s thick winter coat of rime for secret places in which to twist and hook the picks of my axes.

I’ve wanted this route for a long time, storing in my head every scrap of information I can find. Although I can’t spell the name of the routes, or the corrie we are in, I can list everyone who’s tried them, what else they’ve done and why they failed.

As I step up to the base, I remember the discouraging words of a climber who has failed on this route twice: ‘You’ll never climb it, there’s a really long reachy move on it – you’re too short.’

Flicking my picks into the hard cold turf that sprouts in patches on the climb I close my eyes and visualise the route as a puzzle, the pieces jumbled in the snow. I see the first piece and start to climb.

The examiner opened the door and asked me to stop.

I looked out of the window feeling sick and empty.

At school my worst nightmare had been the times table. The teacher would start in one corner of the classroom and go around, making each child stand up at their desk and say the next figure. As the moment snaked nearer, the blood would drain from my face as my heart beat faster and faster. I would feel hollowed-out and sick. The dark half would scramble any thought as I struggled to calculate an answer. Finally, on shaky legs, I would stand and speak. I always got it wrong. The other kids would laugh as I sat back down, thankful the ordeal was over.

Totally immersed in the climbing, my brain is powered up and energised, working to its full potential, its limited memory freed from all those confusing hoops it has had to jump through in the real world. Up here everything is real. No numbers. No words. The only calculations are physical, the only questions how to progress and how not to fall off.

Winter climbing is 10 per cent physical, 90 per cent mental. If you’re good at jigsaws you’ll probably be good at this sort of climbing. It’s simply a frozen puzzle, your tools and crampons torquing and camming the pieces to fit – and like a jigsaw, the moves are easy. It’s just finding them that’s hard.

The examiner picked up the sheets and asked me to come to his office while he marked the papers. Seeing I was pensive he chatted about the storm as we walked through the old Victorian building.

It wasn’t leaving school with few qualifications that mattered to me or to anyone else; it was leaving with the belief, created by society, that these things really mattered. At sixteen I thought I had been graded for life. The only skill that I knew I possessed was my ability to be creative. This initially manifested itself in painting and drawing, but, like anything that comes easy, I had no way of knowing that this was any kind of skill at all. I found it hard to get people to take me seriously when they found I couldn’t remember my date of birth or the months of the year. I was always fearful that I would be found out, that people would dismiss me as thick or stupid. Yet slowly, as I grew older, I found ways around this by trying to avoid any contact with words or numbers.

I left home and moved into a squat near the city’s university, and slowly I began to mix with people who could get things right, people I had never met in my remedial world. It was like meeting people from another culture, and yet I found we weren’t that different – and that in some ways I had skills they lacked, or maybe even envied. I slowly learnt that I had to tag abstract words or numbers with images for reference words, and that way could bypass the sludgy part of my brain. My party piece back then was trying to remember all twelve months of the year, and get them in order, something for the life of me I just couldn’t do. It was only at that point that my new acquaintances made me see that this and all the other things that once did matter meant nothing at all. One night at a party someone said my linear brain function was perhaps a sign of dyslexia and maybe I should be tested, just to find out what exactly was wrong with my brain – and that’s how I found myself doing this one final test, wondering if, at nineteen, it no longer mattered.

* * *

I get to the place where the other climbers have failed. Two spaced, flared, horizontal cracks, the gap too wide to span with my axe. I hunker down on my tools and try to solve the problem.

Hammering my axe into the crack at chest level, I mantle up on it, palming down on its head, straightening my arm, one crampon point scratching near its spike, the other crampon latched around a corner. It feels as if I’m about to do a handstand. I blindly scrape away the thick stubborn hoar with my other axe, searching for a secure home for its pick. There is nothing.

I think about backing off, about failing, but I’m not sure I can. I imagine the good nuts set in poor icy cracks below and feel committed to the move, as I blindly scrape for something to hang. With my arms cramping, I’m forced to commit to laying away off the rounded arête, the teeth of my pick skittering and skating around until I pull down hard and trust it, wiggling my other axe out as I slowly stand up straight, my body hanging on tenterhooks.

I try not to shake too much.

I take a deep breath and look for the next piece.

The first test paper had comprised a hundred complicated cubes, with four options of how they would look opened out. The other paper had been covered in words and numbers. The boxes were easy and I had wondered if I’d been given this by mistake. Then I had come to the other sheet and the lights had gone out. Feeling like an idiot, well aware I hadn’t done well on the second sheet, I sat and watched him mark the answers, ticking them off as he went.

Reaching easy ground, easy in comparison to what it took to reach it, I race up a hanging corner, sacrificing protection for speed. I pop up onto a narrow foot ledge, a grassy escape route into an easier climb on the left. I hesitate. Above, the wall looks compact and steep. It would be so easy to avoid what waits there. Plenty of possible excuses. The dark. The storm. I look down at my partner Dick and think of the hollowness of giving up now. I know he doesn’t care as long as I get a move on.

With a nut placed at my feet I boulder out the moves above the ledge until I’m committed. I can see where I’m headed: across the wall to a ledge on the arête. Sweeping away hoar as I go, I try not to think about getting pumped as I scratch until I find one good tool placement on round edges, crampon points poised on sloppy holds that look like flattened chicken-heads. Matching tools together I look down at my partner far below as he tries to stay balanced in the wind, his flapping red jacket barely visible through the blown snow. The two ropes arch, plucking out questionable protection, but the big one stays put. There should be great fear, there should be great doubt, but all I see is possibility.

The teacher looked up from his marking and removed his glasses. ‘Remarkable. You’ve scored 99 per cent in the spatial test. I’ve only ever had one other person score so high. He was a headmaster. As for the other test … I’m afraid you only scored 16 per cent.’

My overwhelming joy was quickly crushed: the second test was much more important to real life. Being able to recognise what boxes look like opened out would get me a job in a cardboard box factory.

‘You’re a classic dyslexic,’ he said. ‘One side of your brain doesn’t work as it should, so the other half compensates.’ He told me the symptoms of dyslexia and my pieces finally fitted.

Lateral thinking gets me below a small ledge. Holding my breath on nothing foot-holds I tickle at a frozen tuft of grass with my pick. The pick bites with a dull, shallow thwack. With time running out, I blindly swap feet, then hang off one tool as I bring the other across to join it. I feel the dice roll. Will they rip out when I pull?

My brain does some quick calculations and says no. I do. They don’t. I’m there.

I mantle up onto the arête. I’m so aware of everything around me: the snowflakes blowing across my face, the line of sweat rolling down between my shoulder blades, a twist of frozen heather emerging from the snow, the wind, the darkness, the cold. My body is hot, my brain burning as I suck in the speeding snow. The next thirty feet is unprotected. If I fall I’ll die, but there is no time for melodrama; this is where I have always wanted to be. I think how strange it is that brain power can get me here, yet it still fails to do so many other things. I know now that all things are balanced, but on the mountain such details no longer matter. There is no need for words here. With the pieces together I can see the picture. Who needs to know its name?

Hooking both axes onto a flake I pull off the ledge and head into the darkness.

The doctor showed me to the door and handed me a brown envelope containing my results. ‘Andrew, with a score of 99 per cent you should find something you enjoy that involves three-dimensional problem-solving, something creative, where you can turn these things into an advantage.’ I shook his hand and I said thank you, then walked home through the snow, wondering where such a strange gift would lead me.

All rising to great place is by a winding stair.

Francis Bacon

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Hard work kills horses

THE TAXI CAME at 6 a.m., beeping twice. It was a Sunday morning early in June 2001, the beginning of my journey to solo one of the hardest climbs in the world, certainly the hardest climb of my life.

And my life was falling apart. I was running away.

I’d lain awake on the settee most of the night waiting, my mind a mess; in part this was the usual jumble of worry and doubt about the climb, and in part it was the presence of darker clouds, the worry of what it meant to be sleeping down in the living room alone while my wife slept upstairs.

Did she sleep?

All night I’d tried to order my thoughts, put things in perspective, get my life straight in my head before I left. It was impossible. I thought about writing her a letter, to try to explain why I was going, why I was so compelled to climb. But I just knew those words would be transparent and wouldn’t come close to how I really felt. No words could explain why. Nothing I could say would make her understand. There was no sense to it, only the absurdity of travelling halfway round the world to climb a lump of rock.

You don’t have to go.

A pendulum swung within my thoughts, its point rising and falling, one moment making me feel invulnerable, the next draining away all my self-belief, making me just want to stay here forever with my wife Mandy and my daughter Ella.

How can you leave them?

It would be easy to tell the taxi to go away, to creep up the stairs and slip into our bed. I could hug Mandy and whisper that I wanted to stay. For once she would know that I put her first. I could still be here when Ella woke up. See her smile.

But what about tomorrow?

You have to go.

I lay and imagined myself lying in a pool of my own blood, shattered bone sticking out of me at crazy angles, slowly dying on the climb, imagined the feeling of loss, knowing I would never see them again, their world shattered like my body.

What will you find there that will justify risking everything you have here?

The taxi beeped again.

I wished it was still dark. In the night I would often feel the most level-headed about climbing hard routes. Getting out of a warm bed to go to the toilet, I would stand naked in the dark, shivering with cold, knowing all I wanted to do was get back under the covers with the woman I loved. The thought of being anywhere else, sleeping in a snow hole, perched on the side of an icy north face, or forced to abseil through the night would seem ludicrous. Pointless.

You sound like her.

There is a point.

I could think of no rational reason for climbing anything. I just knew I had to do it.

The climb is the question.

I would be the answer.

I was about to leave, and travel halfway across the world to solo one of the longest routes on the planet, a climb only a handful of people had ever dared to attempt, one which had taken one of the greatest climbers in the world a staggering fourteen days to solo. I knew the route was out of my league. I knew I could die, or worse, yet I slept alone on the settee.

You might never come back.

The taxi beeped once more.

I stood up and, already dressed, began lifting the huge vinyl haul bags that held my climbing gear out of the house and to the taxi. Each one was the size of a dustbin, made from indestructible material designed to line landfill sites and adapted to withstand being scraped against rock for miles of climbing. For the next few weeks they would be my only company. Half carrying, half dragging them out of the back door, I went round the side of the house to where the car waited. The taxi driver got out slowly and helped me lift the first bag into the boot, then pushed the second one sideways onto the passenger seats in the back.

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Each bag was the size of a small person. It weighed around fifty kilos and contained the equipment I’d need for my coming climb: ropes, karabiners, slings, pegs, nuts, storm gear, sleeping bag, my portaledge (a folding bed used to sleep on vertical walls), and a hundred other vital items, a decade’s worth of accumulated climbing equipment.

The bags were hard to lift and painful to carry. They had to be moved in relays unless I could find wheels, whether taxi, bus or trolley, but even when I felt my knees were about to buckle or my vertebrae compress down like an empty Coke can, I enjoyed carrying them. Pain like that is simple, honest, and feels invigorating as muscles and mind are pushed beyond their norms. Carrying stops you thinking.

The longer you go without thinking the better it feels when you experience it again.

Each bag made the car sag further, and the taxi driver’s eyebrows rose as his wheel arches dipped towards the gutter.

‘You might need another taxi, mate,’ said the driver, kicking his tyres with concern.

‘Only got one small one left,’ I said, as I nipped back down the alley to my house.

I walked through the back gate, past Ella’s frog-shaped sandpit and small red scooter, and in through the back door of our tiny Sheffield terraced house.

My last bag lay on its side surrounded by Ella’s toys.

There was one more thing I had to do. I crept up the steep narrow stairs and slipped into her bedroom. She lay on her side, her thumb in her mouth. Perfect. Nothing in my life seemed to fit together properly any more, my marriage, work, climbing. Nothing but her. She was the only thing in my life that I didn’t doubt.

But even she wasn’t enough.

You have to go.

I wanted to kiss her, but knew if she woke up I wouldn’t be able to leave.

I spent a lot of time wondering what she would think when she grew up, if I were to die climbing, and I thought about it again now: the selfishness of what I was about to do, risking my life once more, and in turn, risking her life and future. Many climbers, or people who do dangerous things, give it up once they have kids, but for me her birth had come at the start of it all.

At that time, people made judgements about me as a climber and a father, often asking me how I could do it. I didn’t know, all I had was excuses. I’d said that you shouldn’t sacrifice who you are for your kids, but I wasn’t so sure. Wouldn’t it be me sacrificing them for what I wanted? But I knew that if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a person worth having as a father, and in a way that was why I was here now, about to set off on another climb. The more I tried to quit, the more the pressure built inside me.

What if you never see her again?

I told people I didn’t want to die before she was born, just as much as after she was born. But the truth is dying is never in any climber’s plan.

She made sense, but she also made what I loved even more senseless. Mountains don’t care about love.

I wanted to stand there forever. I could. But I wouldn’t.

I crept out of her bedroom, closed the door, and turned to see the stairs leading up to our bedroom, where Mandy probably lay awake. She would be angry with me, leaving her again to go climbing. She wanted so little: a normal life, a normal husband. I couldn’t give her that, but we were both stubborn and we’d been together for ever. We didn’t quit, so here we were. Still fighting. We also loved each other.

I knew she would be lying in bed hating me now, yet wanting me to climb the stairs and say goodbye, or even to say I’d stay – not because she was weak, but because she loved me.

I was about to solo a climb so hard only the best had attempted it, a route I doubted I could do. Yet in that moment the thing I most feared was climbing those stairs, climbing up to face her and say goodbye.

What if you never see the baby growing inside her?

I went out to the garden and tried to compose myself, not wanting the taxi driver to see I was upset. I was everything I despised.

They will be better off without you.

As I’d done so many times before, I opened a box in my head and placed the feelings inside, closed the lid, and moved on.

‘Where to?’ the taxi driver asked as I sat next to him and clipped in my seat belt.

‘The station, please.’

We drove down the hill, and through the empty streets.

‘Where you off to?’

‘America, to a place called Yosemite.’

‘Oh aye, I’ve heard of that. Are you a climber, like?’

‘Yeah … sort of.’

‘Are you going by yourself?’

‘Yes.’

‘Isn’t that dangerous?’

‘No,’ I lied, ‘just more work.’

‘You want to be careful with those bags of yours, they’re bloody heavy.’

‘Oh, they’re OK, they keep me fit.’

‘No mate,’ the driver said, looking at me with concern, ‘remember, hard work kills horses.’

Bird rock

I WAS HANGING in space, my fingers clamped tight, holding on, above a new and startling world of light and sound. People often ask me how long I’ve been climbing and I suppose it all began here. It was 1971 and I had just squeezed my way out of my mother.

The doctor held me above my mum, my tiny untested fingers wrapped around his and hanging on in terror, something that is often mistaken as strength.

‘My, Mrs Kirkpatrick,’ said the doctor, dangling me before her like a zoo keeper dangles a baby chimpanzee in front of a TV crew. ‘You have got a very strong baby here. He’s as strong as an ox.’

My childhood was full of high places, of holding on, hanging, swinging, and falling, and so it’s no surprise that as an adult I would be drawn towards the heights and a life off the horizontal.

My first high place was a hill named Bird Rock, a mountain carved in half by some geological fluke, exposing a limestone face set in a valley not far from our house, and visible from our tiny garden. It always seemed strange and exotic, always there on the horizon, mysterious, its summit seemingly inaccessible amongst the more pedestrian rolling green hills that surrounded the Welsh village where I grew up. I’d seen films like King Kong, Tarzan and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, where strange rock faces yielded prehistoric lands and lost species. I wondered if Bird Rock was the same, its craggy face perhaps hiding dodos, pterodactyls and giant eagles that would have to be fought off.

I was five and it was my first mountain, and my dad always promised that when I was a little older we would climb it together.

My father was a mountaineering instructor in the RAF, based at a Joint Services camp in the Welsh seaside town of Tywyn, running courses for the army, navy and air force. That is the perfect job for a sadist: running poor recruits around the hills in the rain, making them shimmy across greasy ropes above ponds of vile green liquid, pushing them to near hypothermic death in foaming rivers, all in the name of training. My dad threw himself into the job with gusto, thinking up increasingly devious ways of scaring and stretching recruits in the outdoors, always setting an example by going first. I can still remember creeping into my parents’ warm bed on dark winter mornings, as my dad got up to take a load of recruits down to the sea for an early morning swim, his face grinning with the craziness of it all. You could say he was very pre-health-and-safety.

He was pretty unconventional for someone in the RAF in the 1970s. Rather scruffy and prone to bend the rules, he never went too far in his long career, generally being placed out of harm’s way in the outer reaches of the RAF: mountain rescue teams, officer development, and outdoor education. His only advice to me growing up, apart from how to tie knots, roll kayaks or light a stove, was ‘Only work hard when people are looking.’ No doubt this tongue-in-cheek approach didn’t serve him well when it came to making air chief marshal, but fundamentally all he wanted to do was just go climbing.

He was charismatic, a fantastic story teller and a great ‘people person’, which is probably why they didn’t just boot him out. These skills trumped a pair of well-ironed trousers or polished shoes any time. His enthusiasm for the mountains was also infectious, whether you liked it or not. He pursued climbing and adventure with a passion, and at that time the only way to do this was to work as an instructor in the forces, where you could use the system to go away on trips you would never have been able to afford otherwise. Throughout those early years there were big gaps when my dad was away on courses or expeditions, but I never stopped idolising him, and still remember my heart leaping when, sitting on our back fence, I saw him for the first time in weeks, coming out of the base and across the playing field to our house. Coming home.

He applied many of his military training techniques to my upbringing, such as exposing people to danger in a controlled environment, so as to better prepare them for real danger in the future: war in Europe, global Armageddon, primary school. My mother still tells the story of her coming home to our flat when we were posted to Sardinia, and finding him watching the TV, while I sat in my nappy in the kitchen playing with the largest carving knife in the cutlery drawer. I was two at the time. On being challenged by my mum, my dad’s only response was, ‘You have to cut the apron strings some time.’

Very often in my childhood, while I was standing on a tiny ledge, walking across a plank above a big drop, or about to jump into an icy lake, my dad would shout, ‘A real man would do it,’ to which I would always reply, ‘But I’m not a man, Dad.’

The closest this exposure came to unravelling was one Christmas afternoon, when he took me down to the sea for a walk as a huge winter storm raged, and surf crashed over the sea defences. The most hazardous spot was the boat ramp that led into the sea, the waves rushing up it and fanning out behind the sea wall. Dressed in my black donkey jacket and red wellies, I ran backwards and forwards, trying to race the waves down and back again without getting too wet, when all of a sudden a huge wave overtook me, knocking me over and sucking me back into the sea.

Luckily my dad was close by, and was used to swimming in the cold Irish Sea. He dived in and managed to pull me back to shore. I was frozen, my eyes were full of sand, but I was alive. My strongest memory is of being run home in his arms and then plonked in a warm bath, the remaining contents of a bottle of Matey bubble bath being added to the water as a treat. I suppose it was an early lesson that when you survive a life-threatening trauma, people tend to treat you nicely.

My dad had joined the air force at seventeen. It’s strange he found himself having a role in the mountains, since he was born in Hull, one of the flattest places in Britain. I often wonder if having an adventurous spirit is genetic, as my dad’s father and grandfather had also been in the military, his dad fighting in Egypt and in Ireland during its civil war. It’s hard to imagine now how limited people’s lives and careers were back then, born and dying in the same town, taking up the trade of their fathers. For most, joining the navy or army was the only way to break free.

My dad’s two brothers were also rather unconventional. Eddy Kirkpatrick had been a salvage diver whose hair-raising adventures deserved their own book: diving on sunken German U-boats in primitive gear for their brass torpedoes, and searching for Nazi gold lost in the North Sea. His life must have been lived by the seat of his pants. Doug Kirkpatrick had worked on Baffin Island in the Arctic as a radio operator, and later as a hunter in New Zealand, before he settled down to normal life as an insurance salesman.

Maybe this wanderlust comes from the place where you are born. The fictional adventure of Robinson Crusoe had begun in the port of Hull and I wonder if maybe this spirit for adventure was part of the genetic heritage of the city. It is a place from where boats sailed all over the world, where seamen once signed on for white-knuckle rides to hunt whales in Greenland, and to fish on the violent northern oceans, a city whose heart was laid waste by the cod wars. Whatever the reasons, the Kirkpatricks are a strange breed, a mixture of many roaming people, Russian, Scottish, Romany. Whoever they were, they all seemed to be afflicted with wanderlust, and were single minded and incredibly stubborn.

Since I had been born we had moved around the country several times, and a lot of my early memories involve playing in wooden RAF-issue packing cases. However, my dad’s posting in Tywyn was long enough for it to become the place I see as my first home, and I can think of no better place to grow up. It was nestled between mountains and ocean, and we lived next to the camp. The military and mountaineering seem to produce larger than life characters, men who jumped straight from the war films on the telly, and many of them made an impression on me. Our next-door neighbour was a man called John Bull, who seemed to be able to communicate only by shouting. He was in the army and was a lifer like my dad. He was a fellow instructor and would always be thinking of new ways to torture the recruits. In his house he had a full-size Greenlandic kayak he’d brought back from an expedition.

On Sundays we would go to the sergeants’ mess for lunch, where there were pictures of mountains, and walls full of plaques, polished ice axes and mountaineering mementos. On one wall was a giant picture of Mount Everest, with its camps marked, part of an upcoming military expedition. Standing there in my best clothes, I felt I was in a special place, a place of men. Even to a five-year-old, there was such a feeling of being wrapped up in the military, of being one institutional family. I can understand how soldiers can carry on fighting in wars that they feel are unjust, or illegal. It was a home.

I was a very physical child who was always running, climbing and generally getting into the type of trouble that such kids usually do. My clothes were always a collection of patches, ripped, scuffed, torn and then mended, with shoes lasting me no more than a few weeks, meaning cheap rubber wellies and shorts became the only answer for my despairing mum. My legs were always brown with bruises, and scabby. The arrival of my brother Robin had given me another person to play with, but, because I was a rough child, Robin would often come off worse: falling off, falling down, being hit, knocked out or generally injured in any playtime we had. One of my strongest memories is of my mum often slapping me, my brother standing crying behind her, while she shouted, ‘Your brother must have rubber bones.’ It was a phrase repeated so often I actually believed such a thing was possible, no doubt further adding to Robin’s misery. I used to think that our family were borderline freaks, as not only did my brother have rubber bones but my mum also had ‘eyes in the back of her head’.

Other children were not fortunate enough to have rubber bones, and for a while I was in big trouble after pushing a twelve-year-old girl off the top of the slide and breaking her arm. I wasn’t a bad child or a bully in any way, only a child who ‘always took things too far’.

I was a very happy-go-lucky boy, but Robin was less easy to please. My mum would often tell him to stop whining, sometimes slapping him on the legs and telling him ‘Now you have something to whine about.’ She often put the disparity in our characters down to the fact that the doctor had run him under the cold tap as soon as he’d been born, a shock he’d never quite recovered from.

My mum had met my dad at a dance, and they were married not long afterwards. She was also from Hull. She had wanted to go to art school, but instead had been forced to give up such fancy notions and work in a bakery. I suspect this had had a major effect on the rest of her life, as she would often tell us this story, wanting us never to compromise what we wanted to do. My mum was far from pushy, but she always told us that the world was our oyster – not that I ever really understood what that meant.

What she wanted most of all, though, was children, and I had been her firstborn, in 1971, Robin coming along a year later. Times were hard for her, with my dad’s pay low, and she would often repeat the phrase, ‘I don’t know how we’ll make ends meet’, which I mistook as ‘hen’s meat’, often wondering if hen’s meat tasted just like chicken. Although we were poor, my mum hid it well, and did things that were free: going for walks, playing on the beach, drawing and painting, and giving the priceless gift of a parent’s attention. My mother’s side of the family had been craftsmen, her father a carpenter, his father a head gardener, her great-grandfather a stone mason. From her I learnt to draw, something that would prove invaluable later in life. I scribbled on anything at hand as soon as I could hold a crayon.

Like my dad, my mum wanted fun and adventure, and a life less ordinary than the one she had left behind in Hull, but not at the cost of security for her and her kids.

We lived on the military estate on the edge of the camp, not far from the beach. Even at the age of five I was a bit of a loner and a daydreamer, happy to be by myself, playing for hours in the garden, making up imaginary worlds. I was lucky enough to have the freedom to do my own thing and wander around the estate by myself, in the days before people even knew anything about paedophiles, where there were only ‘funny men’. I was only reined in after I went missing one day and didn’t come home for lunch, and the whole camp was mobilised to look for me. Several hundred soldiers and airmen combed the sea shore, fields and rivers looking for my body. In the end I turned up asleep in a collection of hay bales a few hundred metres from our house. My mum belted me with relief, shouting, ‘I was worried sick,’ a phrase that was now added to her everyday lexicon.

After that I had to stay with Robin, although this almost cost him his life on more than a few occasions.

My worst youthful scrape, and one of my earliest fully formed memories, was going to our next-door neighbour’s house with Robin to look at their aquarium. It stood on a wooden stand near the front door, looking like an enormous TV filled with fish. We would stand with our noses pressed up against the glass, and watch the fish race around. On this day, my mum stood talking on the doorstep to the couple who owned the fish, my dad being away on an expedition. She had probably taken us around to see the fish as a distraction because I was missing him.

We were playing our usual fish-spotting game, eyes tracking the red, blue and purple flashes darting around the tank. The couple who owned the house would always tell us that we had to be careful as the tank held piranhas, and that they would bite us if we got too close. I always wondered if they really would. If I were to stick in my hand, would the flesh be ripped off it in seconds like I’d seen in an old film once on our black and white TV?

I wanted to find out if it was true.

The fish darted away from the glass as I moved round to the side of the tank, trying to grab the top so I could pull myself up and dip my hand in. I would probably have lifted Robin up so he could dip his hand in, but already he had learned not to get involved in any of my games and would probably have started crying.

Being small for my age I found the tank was too high, so, looking for another option, I saw that I could maybe climb up between the wall and the tank, using the skirting board as a foothold. I started by squeezing my leg in, my welly sticking well to the edge of the skirting as I tried to squirm up the gap, which widened as I pushed in.

I looked through the glass as I moved up, seeing through the drifting green murk my brother’s tiny face, his eyes fixed on the dancing fish. I pushed up. I slipped back. I pushed harder.

The tank moved … then moved some more … then crashed over onto Robin. An explosion of glass and water shot through the porch, a tsunami raging out of the front door and knocking everyone off their feet.

There I stood, my back to the wall, looking down at the floor littered with glass, pebbles, soggy green plants, twitching fish and, right in the middle, the tips of two small red wellies – my little brother.

Incredibly Robin made a swift recovery, and after a night in hospital he left with only a few cuts, being declared by the doctor as having a very strong heart.

Personally, I put it down to his rubber bones.

Not long afterwards my sister was born. My mum had always wanted a daughter, and had become so desperate she’d taken to clothing Robin in dresses when he was a baby. Joanne was born in 1976 and from the beginning everything changed.

She never stopped crying, screaming non-stop for six months. The calm, fun house I’d known existed no longer. Mum and Dad became steadily worn down, tired and strung out. My dad could escape but not my mum.

Then one day my mum took us all to the hospital, and I can remember me and Robin waiting in the hallway while she talked to the doctor. Then I could hear her crying and screaming, appearing in the hallway distraught. They had asked her if either I or Robin had dropped Joanne. It appeared her hip was broken. Soon, though, it was discovered she had been born with an undiagnosed congenital hip defect, meaning she had no hip bone, and had been in terrible pain since her birth.

Soon after that, Dad was posted to another camp in Llanwrst on the edge of Snowdonia and a few weeks later we followed him, Joanne’s tiny body encased in plaster. We were leaving the happiest period of my childhood behind.

Everything was different. New school, new house, new friends and, worse still, new parents. I hated school. I felt like an outsider. Starting from scratch. I was no longer at the centre of my parents’ universe: Joanne took up much of my mum’s time, while my dad seemed to be away more and more. When he was around he seemed bad tempered, or not really there at all. He was about to go on a trip to Yosemite, a name I only understood from Yosemite Sam on the TV, and this further added to the stress, leaving my mum with me and Robin, both unsettled, and Joanne. I suspect that the pressure was too much for my dad: his happy and conventional life, a life where he could have the freedom to climb and still have a family, began to collapse. Demands began to be made of him. He was forced to choose.

One night, Robin and I woke up and could hear noises downstairs. We crept down to the dining room where our mother was at the table with our dad. She was crying.

There had never been crying before we moved from Tywyn, but now it seemed to be happening all the time. We had always been happy; we had never had much but at least we had that; there had never been room for sadness. This was all to change. He was telling her something. Something she was shocked to hear. Her world and future falling apart. Her heart broken. Another woman.

The following morning we were bundled out of bed by Mum, quickly dressed, and walked down to the train station. It was early; a fog obscured the line. I wondered if this meant I didn’t have to go to school. My mum wasn’t talking. It took all her strength just to keep it together.

The train appeared out of the mist and slowed to a stop.

We stood, no longer the family we had once been, our bags all packed for a new life in Hull, a place far removed from my world of sand dunes and hills, from beaches and green fields full of sheep, and from my dad. I had no idea where we were going, or that we would never come back – that Dad and I would never climb Bird Rock together.

The valley

TIRED AFTER MY long rambling journey, passed backwards and forwards from taxis to trains, trains to planes and back again, my mind began to come slowly back to life as the final leg drew to a close and the tiny shuttle bus wound its way up into the Yosemite Valley.

The valley had been carved in the Ice Age, a mighty glacier cutting deep into the perfect Sierra Nevada bedrock, its slow retreat leaving behind a 3,000-foot-deep, five-mile-wide valley of incredible walls and towers. The valley was a magical place of mighty faces, thundering waterfalls and giant sky-scraping sequoias. It had captivated the minds of all who had visited, made famous first by the words of John Muir in the 1800s and later in the definitive black-and-white big-wall shots of Ansel Adams. It was one of the wonders of the world and a Disneyland for climbers, with rides both big and small, fun and terrifying.

The little vehicle was full of the usual flotsam and jetsam found on American buses: the poor, the desperate, the foreigners. It was packed with a mixture of seasonal employees heading back to their concession jobs, hotel clerks, swimming-pool attendants and bus boys, all returning to the safety of the valley. Then there were the climbers, drawn from around the world, all buzzing with excitement at finally reaching the crucible of climbing, the danger of the rock faces.

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The landscape outside the window of the bus changed slowly as we went from sea level into the high Sierras, from the flat California grass lands, parched brown after a long hot summer, into thick forest as the floor of the valley rose, creating a space of rock, water, wood and shadow. It seemed timeless after the alarm-bell ringing of the modern world behind us.

It grew colder and darker in the bus, light and warmth flickering less and less across the windows as we moved higher, among growing trees whose trunks expanded in size until they looked mighty and prehistoric. You could tell who was who on the bus by the way they reacted to the change. The valley workers slumped over in their seats with headphones on their ears, eyes closed or heads buried in books. The climbers pressed against the windows, jabbing and pointing at the increasing majesty of the views beyond, jumping from one side of the bus to the other as it wound up the valley, like kids on a school trip.