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One of Yorkshire's most accomplished climbers can't get enough of the battle to reach the top of the world as Terry Fletcher reports
Andy Kirkpatrick is a man with a taste for suffering. While the rest of us might head for a break on the beach or a posh hotel his idea of a trip away is to spend a week or two lashed to a frozen mountain, dragging himself plus virtually his own weight in equipment up thousands of feet of rock and ice, probably through a snow storm.
Just to keep things interesting he chooses to do it in some of the loneliest and most hostile corners of the planet. Places like Patagonia, where the gale-lashed tip of South America brushes against the Antarctic, or on Europes highest cliff in Norway or the sub-zero nightmare of the Rocky Mountains in the middle of winter.
Oh, and hes often alone.
Fortunately for him he seems to have been blessed with a short memory since he admits: If you could remember how scared, miserable and frustrated you were during a climb you would never go back. Even the most cursory read of his latest book Cold Wars* is enough to show why.
The climber, who was brought up in Hull and now lives in Sheffield, trots out a series of epic struggles climbing icy Big Walls where even success is often traumatic and failure much worse. And lest anyone should wonder if he is secretly enjoying himself up there he writes: There is no beauty or pleasure or fun, just struggle and fear and anxiety. That battle, both physical and psychological, had got me hooked.
If that all sounds unspeakably dour and grim dont be fooled. A friend told him the story was the funniest depressing book they had ever read and Kirkpatricks live appearances are legendary. An evening on stage at the Hyde Park Cinema in Leeds produces a stream of consciousness outpouring of adventures larded with politically incorrect and bawdy asides
It straddles the boundaries of lecture and stand up comedy, all delivered at machine gun speed. At one point as he breaks off from describing shepherding an injured partner down the kilometre-high Troll Wall in Norway, chauffeuring him back to England and then driving straight back to climb the wall to ask the audience: Does this story sound mad to you?
Because it does to me. It didnt seem mad at the time but it does now. They greedily lap it up along with the slides showing desperate climbs and frozen bivouacs.
Yet he admits hes an unlikely hero; 40 years old, bespectacled and comfortably rounded, certainly not the bronzed mountain god of popular imagination. Training hovers between spasmodic and non-existent and he says he has done little or no climbing since another unsuccessful solo attempt to climb the Troll Wall in September.
Although a professional mountaineer, he says: Im a bit of a part-time, a binge climber. Ill come back from a trip, do nothing for months and then have to go off and solo the Eiger or something. Luckily I can get away with it because the climbs I do are more mental than physical. It probably also helps to be carrying a bit of extra weight at the start as on his expeditions he pares down the weight of his haul bag by limiting himself to a thousand calories a day.
As a result his body consumes itself as it struggles to cope with the huge expense of energy and tries to keep warm.
He says the big walls are more about logistics than gymnastics, a war of attrition with the mountain, doggedly grinding out a successful ascent, sometimes inches at a time.
Determination is clearly crucial but that is to underestimate his widely-admired skills as a big wall mountaineer, his ability to make progress when the tips of his ice axes and crampons are biting only a few millimetres into thin smears of ice. Or when progress is made by gingerly teetering up on tiny toughened steel skyhooks sometimes balanced on edges of rock little more than the width of a couple of matchsticks.
The only relief comes at night when he can crawl into his sleeping bag on a Portaledge, a thin sheet of fabric stretched across a lightweight alloy frame suspended from a piton hammered into the rock and just big enough to lie down on with nothing but space below him.
Once the lecture tour is over, he says, he may return to the Troll Wall for another winter attempt. In September he turned back just 50 metres from the top when he realised he was so tired he was making potentially lethal mistakes.
I had made one big mistake and three other little ones that day and I knew that to keep going would be pushing it too far. Ive got two kids and I have to think about them as well. I suppose all risk taking is selfish so my climbing is not without guilt but I try to keep the risk in proportion these days.
People ask me why I keep going solo but not many people want to do the sort of thing I do. You could see it as unhealthy or obsessive. A friends wife, who is a psychiatrist, said maybe I ought to go and see her professionally but I just respond to the raw challenge.
Or maybe its like a mental trophy cabinet so that when I retire I can look back at all those Big Walls Ive climbed and feel Ive done something significant with my life.
*Cold Wars by Andy Kirkpatrick, published by Vertebrate 20