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Andy Kirkpatrick, Hull's third best mountaineer, second best chocolate river guard, and best reviewer of lightweight nuts for use in an alpine setting, has released his first book, Psychovertical. This autobiographical piece traces his early childhood, with its itinerant, hard-up struggles, an initially rewarding but later damaging school life as he suffers from the effects of dyslexia. It traces his lost adolescence, then redemptive move into climbing. It follows his ever greater adventures on cold mountains, and at the same time follows his relationship with his wife and child. These stories are told between the descriptions of pitches on Andy's solo ascent of Reticent Wall, a difficult aid climb on El Capitan.
The book gives an interesting and honest insight into the two most important relationships into Andy's life – his relationship with his wife and family, and his relationship with the rest of the world. Andy's need to fulfil the role of husband and father, and his need to satisfy his own desires, seem, critically, not to overlap, leaving his frequently alone on a mountainside, under that two-ton shard of granite, racked by guilt. This is the central theme of the book, as it throws Andy's need to do what he does into context, and acknowledges its destructive nature.
It also serves to suggest that it is actually the self-destruction that he craves, be that in his need to seek out near death, or in his decisions to choose the near-death situation over an easy family life.
The other relationship, with the world in general, is also illustrated in a very honest and brutal manner. Andy talks about his lifelong desire to be liked by everyone, a desire that seems rooted in an absent dad and a stigmatising dyslexia. Hence we have the deservedly-famous Andy The Entertainer, one of climbing's best-loved stage performers. It also comes across in his ascents of difficult climbs, done, it seems, to show the world what he can do to make him liked. However, a certain detachment from his audience is also obvious here. Metaphorically this comes across in his climbing partnerships. Some you feel are there just to hold the rope, or selected because of their ineptitude to heighten Andy's experience. It is no surprise that on Andy's most significant route, The Reticent Wall, he ditches them altogether for the ultimate climbing partner – a haul bag.
Death is Kirkpatrick's currency, and he spends it like there's no tomorrow. On every page, just about, you will find the words 'death', 'dying', 'dead', or 'killed'. It feels like each chapter ends with him being spat out of a terminal epic, somehow alive, only for the next one to begin with him under a two-ton shard of pointed granite on a thirty-second fuse. The effect is by turns gripping, overwhelming, but a little bit melodramatic. The drama-queenery almost making Paris Hilton look like Ray Mears sometimes. 'Oh, just go on and die if you're going to bloody die,' I thought at one point.
© Andy Kirkpatrick, Dec 2006
That said, the stories interspersing the pitches of Reticent are superb and well-written pieces and are very gripping. When Hell Freezes Over is a classic, but this is just one of many. Experiences in the company of Dick Turnbull and Andy Perkins (or was it Parkin) were good reads. My personal favourite was Andy's account of his first writings, struggling to overcome the world's definition of him, trying to prove to it and himself that his thoughts were of some worth, where, for a whole chapter, we were spared the spectre of the author's impending death.
Psychovertical is a great book, a big long sweet stick of rock with 'death' the whole way through it. It is well written, and seldom flags, thanks to what must have been a lot of crafting by the author. If there were to be any criticisms, it is perhaps that it lacks the sense of fun that AK is famous for, although this was obviously a production decision by the author, who obviously wanted to make the book he has made. Another would be that as the climber moves up the face of El Cap towards the summit, the stories between the pitches felt a bit emotionally static to me, and I didn't quite get a sense of development from the character. Each tale tells the story of someone torn between two worlds, and on the summit I didn't feel any resolution took place. Do we have to buy the sequel for that?
It's hard to know how to judge a book, but I really liked it. There are flaws, but if you can conceive reading an autobiography as having a conversation with the author, then at the end, I enjoyed the conversation. Perhaps because of the flaws, a vital human characteristic, I felt as if I knew Andy.
Oh hang on. I do.
Andy Kirkpatrick is a well known mountaineer and writer. His book Psychovertical has received rave reviews, and is available on his website.
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