Andy Kirkpatrick's second book, Cold Wars, takes off where his prize-winning first, Psychovertical, ends: with his completion, solo, of Reticent Wall - a big wall aid route on Yosemite's El Capitan. A route that the first paragraph of the book extols as 'one of the world's hardest climbs'.
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The book goes on to describe several other climbs from the Alps to Patagonia and America, detailing his adventures and mishaps on the routes, the gear, the partners, the tears and the success. But climbing isn't the real focus of this engagingly written, yet at times infuriating, book.
The running theme in both Cold Wars and in Psychovertical is that of the tormented husband, to-ing and fro-ing between the strains of normal life; commitment, relationships, work, family and all the other things that make up a modern existence, juxtaposed with the complexities and simplicities of big wall life and seemingly constant 'near death' climbing.
Alongside this tormented theme sits Kirkpatrick's style, which both in writing and in climbing, is that of the underdog, the wannabe, the have-a-go hero. This almost self-imposed and sometimes limiting style is present throughout both Psychovertical and Cold Wars, with his tales of derring-do on very cold mountainsides underpinned with his fears, inadequacies and inabilities in normal life. Quick to point out that he is not gifted with a climber's physique, Kirkpatrick also quickly points out on the dust-cover of his book that he suffers from severe dyslexia. Yet here he is, a professional climber and writer. At what point will he shake off these self put-downs and let his work and climbing stand up on their own, very able, two feet?
And stand proud they should, as his climbing descriptions, when not overly peppered with meaningless superlatives such as 'world's hardest' and with constant reference to 'near death', flowed mesmerisingly well, being both grippingly realistic and captivatingly compulsive. His account of an ascent of Mermoz in Patagonia being Kirkpatrick at his finest.
Yet to the experienced alpinist the book reads like a catalogue of bizarre mountaineering decisions, like setting off on the Dru in winter to face multiple days of terrible weather. It begs the question; Why? The Dru being an easily accessible alpine peak in a valley furnished with some of the most accurate and readily available mountain weather forecasting in the world.
There are other parts of this book that don't quite hang together, but central to them all is Kirkpatrick's main character, a projection of himself, a complex man with a great deal of baggage, who seems to have been woven together in to a struggling everyday Joe with ideas above his station. The book gives this likeable fool a bit of good old British pluck and catapults him off in to the hills where he manages to pull off feats that are impressive and in Kirkpatrick's own words 'cutting edge'. This is of course very endearing to the audience, but there are aspects of this characterisation that just don't feel natural and as much as the gripping climbing narrative sucks you in to the pages, this false-feeling underdog-ism spits you out again.
Part of you wants to grab Kirkpatrick by the scruff of the neck and tell him that these 'gods' he is stood at the bar with, mouse-like and in awe, are just men who have done 'climbs'. That they're no more or less important than him or anyone else. And part of you wonders whether he really was naive enough to consider these men as gods at all, or whether that just fits with his formulaic structure for this 'plucky Brit does good' mountain tale.
Despite these distracting introspective sections, the book is otherwise engaging and hidden in the tales of mountains and men are lines of real humour, sometimes light, sometimes as dark as it gets, and several deeply personal yet subtle moments, especially where his relationship with his father is concerned.
Of striking poignancy was his father's simple advice in Andy's early career after he arrived late to a lecture in Scotland upon hearing Andy suggest that he'd like to charge a grand to do a climbing lecture:
"Well if you're ever going to get that much money, then you have to make sure you're worth a thousand pounds".
This simple advice was enough to make Kirkpatrick buck up his ideas and make a real go of his shows and lectures, something in which he has excelled.
When recounting actual events, both in climbing and in his climbing related life, Kirkpatrick manages to convey his message and share his wisdom and experiences. When revealing his inner battles and fears, Kirkpatrick's voice is not so loud and clear.
Despite excellent climbing tales and occasional gems of wisdom, Cold Wars falls flat at the end as Kirkpatrick shuns any nail-biting, heart-racing climbing finale and ties up his book with a gentle look at equally gentle family skiing on the Les Houches pistes, where he comes to the also gentle revelation that maybe 'Just being a dad was an adventure in itself'.
Published by Vertebrate Publishing
I'm not lucky enough to have children of my own, but even I, as a self-obsessed climbing fanatic, could have guessed that one.
A good read with some white-knuckle climbing sections on cold and scary big walls. The introspective sections lacked realism at times. A good second book from one of the the UK's best climbing showmen which will hopefully open the door for a third, as this man surely has more mountain stories to tell.
About Jack Geldard
His mountaineering book collection spans several decades, and genres, from guidebooks to mountain fiction.
UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Jack Geldard - UKC Chief Editor: