There's room at the top they are telling you still,
But first you must learn how to smile as you kill.
First of all a confession. In recent years I have become increasingly bored with what has become an almost cliched genre; the mountaineering epic.Inevitably set in the Alps and Greater Ranges. I realise that judging by book sales and prizes handed out at mountaineering literature/arts festivals that this appears to be a minority view but there you go. In my eyes, there are only so many creative ways you can describe derring-do and purgatory on a big wall.
I have a theory. Take a selection of mountaineering writers. Take a chapter from each of their works. Toss them in the air and then slot them together into a 250 page work. Change a few names and you would be left with a coherent work with readers none the wiser!
So it would be fair to say that I approached Andy Kirkpatrick's Cold Wars with a certain amount of trepidation. Anyone who titles their first two books Psycho vertical and Cold Wars can be judged to have not exactly had the essays therein,dragged out of them under threat of violence! Andy Kirkpatrick, like his alter ego from the Fast Show, Gareth 'I'm Mad Me! Hunt, likes you to know that he's a bit crazy and that he's good...very good at doing dangerous things in wild places. Then again, you have to say after reading his books and articles...And why not! If you can fanny around above a 1000m vertical drop, trusting your life to a blob of copper hammered into a suggestion of a crack,then why not share the experience. I can imagine Andy marketing a range of T shirts with the slogan 'You don't have to be mad to climb here, but it helps' emblazoned across their-in Andy's case-ample chest.
And so to Cold Wars. The opening two chapters appeared to confirm my misgivings. Here was Andy with trusty sidekick, Ian Parnell having an epic on the desperate Lafaille route on the Dru. A route without a second ascent at the time and put up by legendary diminutive French climbing demi God, Jean Christophe Lafaille who perished on Makalu in 2006.
Apart from the usual disasters which bulk out just about every big wall mountaineering tale; snagged haul bags,collapsing bivis,lost gear,freezing temperatures,white-outs, taking a leader fall on a piece of metal no bigger than a pin head etc etc. I exaggerated that last one but only slightly!....the most stomach churning moment comes when Andy warms Ian P's stinking, putrefying feet on his belly. Talk about going beyond the call of duty! Mind you...dipping your wick in the same piss bottle ran it close.
By Chapter Three, I began to sit up and shuffle in my chair a bit. On the face of it 'Black Dog' is a short essay about going for a job interview on a push bike and ending up 'down where the drunkards roll.' The A&E department at midnight and more desperate and sadder places you would be hard pressed to find. However, it was not Andy's gaping head wound that exercised my attention but the wonderment of what exactly had happened to the black Labrador he had cannoned into on a Sheffield back street. At risk of being ostracized by the climbing dog lovers fraternity,we need to know. What happened to the black dog Andy???
From here on in,the book weaves an impressive line between man and mountaineer. Far from being a catalogue of mountaineering achievements,most of the climbing essays deal with failure and coming to terms with that essential part of the mountaineering game. As for Andy the man. As a parent and council estate kid from a Northern seaport myself; I totally identified with Andy's take on the complex mixed emotions felt by those who do dangerous things and take risks while a family waits anxiously at home. Here was someone who by his own admission, was eaten up with guilt,every time he left partner Mandy and his bairns,Ewen and Ella behind but who admits that he cannot resist the call of the wild or control his insatiable addiction to cutting edge mountaineering.
His working class discomfort and insecurity when in the company of middle class public school mountaineers like the late Jules Cartwright and Kenton Cool can be understood by anyone from Andy's background. While modern middle class young Alpinists were being taken to the Alps on skiing trips by their Doctor/Barrister parents. A grounding which Andy notes ignited their passion for the Alps. Young working class kids were being dragged to places like Skegness or Rhyl! In a way it's a credit to Andy and other working class climbers that despite their disadvantaged state in early life,that they have broken through and succeeded brilliantly in what still remains a middle class activity.
Unlike larger than life Kirkpatrick junior, Peter Kirkpatrick senior, who flits in and out of the book like Marley's ghost,is every inch the yang to Andy's yin. A modest,self effacing man who nevertheless like his son,is as hard as nails. Keeping his achievements locked in memory and never broadcast for effect or to stimulate admiration. A man who turned up to row a double sea kayak across the Irish Sea in a running vest and shorts,and without a life jacket or food. Peter Kirkpatrick comes across as every inch the reserved and unassuming Services man like his youngest son Rob-two years Andy's junior- who in the book is seeing action in Afghanistan and Iraq. Risking life in limb in quiet anonymity unlike his famous wacky brother.This is not a criticism of Andy by the way just an observation.
The mountaineering chapters,which take in many of the classic big walls of the world. From Patagonia to the Troll Wall in Norway. Colorado to Chamonix...are as previously described... more remarkable for their matter of fact description of failure. Failure through the elements,through human frailty,through equipment loss and breakdown. Failure through sheer bad luck. It's actually refreshing to read the heart felt emotions of someone accepting defeat and retreating back down the face than have to endure yet another Boys Own book of Adventures description of snatching success from the jaws of failure.
If I had to pick one chapter from the nineteen herein,it would be an essay which describes an attempt on the rarely climbed Leseur Route on the Dru. Andy meets up with a taciturn Scot who had been recommended by a friend of a friend. The fact that his Celtic partner comes apparently lightly equipped for a multi day big wall route suggests he's hard and fast. His sleeping bag for example, looking like it's been thrown out by the Dumbarton boy scouts. Deemed insufficiently togged for sleeping in a field next to Loch Lomond!
Despite shivering the night away,each morning sees the steady Scot take up his axes and methodically cut his way up the difficult line. I read this chapter in bed and woke my sleeping partner up by literally shaking with laughter at one point in the story. As scatological anecdotes go...this is a good-un! The humour is however,more than balanced by the unfolding action on the face. As they ascend it is clear to Andy that the quiet Scot is in fact the stronger climber as as he wilts and with blunted tools,Andy backs off to let his partner power his way up the route. What makes the essay remarkable is the fact that due to a misunderstanding, his partner is in fact a walking guide-hence lack of gear- and this is his first big multi day big wall climb! The final few lines are gut wrenching in their pathos. A remarkable essay which packs a lot into 14 pages
The closing chapter 'Magic' suggests that both philosophically and creatively Andy has passed his peak and has accepted a winding down in his climbing career. Like someone in high office who stands down from the cabinet to spend more time with their family, However, this theory appears to have been blown out of the water by news this week than AK has just completed a solo ascent of Troll Wall. So much for winding down!
Cold Wars works and manages to break out of an over-worked genre by dint of the authors honesty and vulnerability. A man who can feel awkward in the company of climbing Hooray Henrys but who is not afraid to tell an audience of sun tanned, perfectly honed climbing machines gathered at an Alpinist symposium in Boulder Colorado to SHUT THE FUCK UP!!! after their self absorbed babble threatens to drown out his lecture. Needless to say,you could hear a pin drop as Andy proceeded to first bemuse then gradually entertain them as they finally 'got' the self deprecation and robust piss taking which is part and parcel of the northern working class condition.
If you want to be like the folks on the hill. A working class hero is something to be.
Cold Wars is published by Vertebrate Publishing
First published on To Hatch a Crow: 10/5/2011