The Mountain Path by Paul Pritchard Interview

© Paul Pritchard collection

Ahead of his Kendal Mountain Festival event, John Middendorf interviews author Paul Pritchard about his latest book, The Mountain Path.

JM:  Hi Paul. I am really excited about your new book, with rad climbing stories and deep dives into the spiritual aspects of climbing.  Perhaps you can start by telling us about your writer's journey since your first book, Deep Play, which won the Boardman Tasker prize for Mountain Literature in 1997?

PP: Well Deucey, I began writing, like so many other 'professional' climbers from the '80s and '90s, by penning articles for magazines. That was one of the ways you could get a bit of income in those days, as was touring with slide shows (of the 35mm kind). I think the first piece I got published was an article on Gogarth for the (now long gone) climbing magazine, High. I remember running into my hero, Ron Fawcett, in Pete's Eats in Llanberis and he congratulated me on my article. That gave me a real boost. I also wrote scores of profiles and trip reports, all with a very human bent, for On The Edge magazine.

Red Wall at Gogarth.  © Paul Pritchard collection
Red Wall at Gogarth.
© Paul Pritchard collection

Eventually someone suggested compiling them into a book, so I sent a manuscript to Ken Wilson at Baton Wicks, the leading publisher of climbing books in the UK, and those became Deep Play (a term coined by philosopher Jeremy Bentham as, "A game with stakes so high that no rational person would engage in it"). After that, I was on a high for months; having left school at sixteen with one O Level, I didn't class myself as a writer. But that book seemed to hit the zeitgeist. Of course it was your foreword that cinched it, John!

JM: Indeed, Deep Play is the best - perhaps one of the only - book that truly captures the dirt bag climbing scene of the 1980s, when bold climbing was the highest art form, many of the top climbers were unemployed and living in tents all year, and peer recognition was the only "share" when climbing the wild vertical. What happened next?

PP: With the prize money from the Boardman Tasker, I went on a round-the-world climbing tour with Celia Bull that led to our attempt on the Totem Pole in Tasmania.

I guess for those that don't know me, I had better quickly explain what happened on that Friday 13 February 1998. I was climbing up to Celia, when the rope dislodged a laptop-sized flake of dolerite which fell 25 metres and buried itself into my skull, leaving me with a traumatic brain injury. There was only Celia and I down there and she performed an amazing rescue that has now gone down in climbing lore. On my return to the UK I was in Clatterbridge hospital near Liverpool for a year and even now, a couple of decades later, I am paralysed down one side with hemiplegia and have epilepsy.

Being in hospital for so long gave me time to think. At that point I thought I would never climb again and I knew I was a good writer, having just won the BT. So, what better story to tell than the most amazing rescue by Celia on the most sensational piece of rock in the world (well, one of them). I wrote my second book, The Totem Pole, whilst in hospital and that won an unprecedented second Boardman Tasker and the Banff Grand Prize. Now I was on a writer's cloud nine. 

JM:  Your new book, The Mountain Path, begins with the Totem Pole experience. It's fascinating that you have recounted the story many times, but each time reveals new insights of your close brush with death. Do you feel this relates more to your practised ability to put thoughts to paper, or to years of personal growth since your accident?

PP: So in a way, this is my third Totem Pole book, would you believe? It's like, The Totem Pole trilogy! The first book, The Totem Pole, was a seat of your pants ride where I was writing it in hospital as it actually happened. So, it was immediate and had a sense of urgency. The sequel, The Longest Climb, was a more measured affair about my return to the mountains and climbing and my nascent thoughts about the politics of disability. That book ends on the summit of Kilimanjaro seven long years after my accident.

And The Mountain Path? Well, it has been 23 years since that defining moment. The further in time I venture from the accident the more insight I gain into life and death, the more my philosophy deepens and strengthens. After all, it was the defining moment of my life. You know, I often felt sorry for Joe Simpson (I did my first Himalayan trip to Bhagaratti III with him), because I thought he would forever be known for that accident on Suila Grande. And now, I am in the same boat of being well known because I had a rock fall my head. I don't feel sorry for Joe any more. I just see that one precious incident can be the vehicle for tremendous personal growth.

In Tibet.  © Sharyn Jones
In Tibet.
© Sharyn Jones

So I think this particular book is less about my improving my writing practice and more about personal growth and, dare I say it, spirituality. You can't come within a hair's breadth of death and not gain some insight into the nature of all things. I mean, the lights were going out… I truly sensed there was nothing there… And yet, I was going home. Since then, I have gained more meaning from the trials and tribulations than might have been first apparent, or indeed, that I could ever imagine.

JM: Yes, not many people have had so many close encounters with death: your ten-minute underwater experience on Gogarth, wedged head-first between two rocks after a 30m fall into the ocean, and your 60m fall where your broke your back ice climbing, to name a few. 

PP: [Giggles].

JM: Even though I have known you for what, over 30 years, there are many fresh and deep stories and experiences in your new book; for example, your descriptions on the process of pain - something we often avoid, but which can and often does lead to compassion and peace. In this sense, it is really interesting how you have structured the chapters of the book as experiences: Freedom, Pilgrimage, Pain, Fear, Death and Stillness, all leading to a crescendo towards the focus of a goal: The Climb. In a way, the book tracks the journey of all climbers, even though it's rare to explore the depths of motivation, gratitude, and emotion in the process of becoming a climber. The stories really highlight the spiritual aspects of climbing - often fleeting yet powerful - and so hard to remember and describe. Can you review a bit of how you structured the sequence of chapters based on the biographical stories reinforcing each topic?

PP: Yes, the layout of the chapters is in no way chronological, but each event, taken in sequence, does serve as life's journey. Or, at least, a life's journey lived in the mountains or immersed in wild nature. But you've hit the nail on the head. Most of us don't stop to analyse what the hell is going on in the mountains, or on The Mountain, because The Mountain is the central character of this book. I think one doesn't stop to analyse probably because it is exhausting, and is indeed a life's work. I don't want to give too much of The Path away, but eventually if you continue with a sense of curiousness and mindfulness you will arrive at a point where it is possible to see what a Buddhist might call 'Ultimate Reality'.

Ever since that rock fell on my head, I've been epileptic, right? You've seen me having a fit. To the onlooker it's pretty scary, but inside my head I go to another place. I guess I'm simply reporting back from that place. And in that place I don't intellectualise, I instinctively feel certain truths. But it's really difficult to share in a way that makes sense. So that is the work I have done, and the balance I've tried to strike.

On The Diamond, 1989.  © Paul Pritchard collection
On The Diamond, 1989.
© Paul Pritchard collection

JM: You really dive deep in the management of fear; can you share a bit on the 'Fear Therapy' described in your book?

PP: By brushing up against death as frequently as mountaineers and climbers inevitably do, climbing has far-reaching consequences. The act of doing such a potentially dangerous activity, and doing it well, must bring about a profound change in an individual's psyche.

It seems obvious to any climber that top-roping and leading are two completely different things. Top-roping is similar to 'Exposure Therapy', which is used today for treating all sorts of anxiety disorders. So if you are scared of big spiders, for example, you face big spiders, though safely under glass, and eventually you will become desensitised.

With lead climbing, on the other hand, we have to face our very real fear of death. And by and by, we become free of the tremendous burden death loads upon us. Mark Twain said: 'Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.' Taking such risks can free us of fear and make us more courageous in life. This being said climbing, still has to be learned properly - I'm not advocating walking up to the base of The Rainbow Slab in Llanberis and tying in, having not climbed before!

Seems a bit evident, but if you read my full argument I try to make clear why most top climbers are shining examples of fear management.

Rainbow Slab.  © Paul Pritchard collection
Rainbow Slab.
© Paul Pritchard collection

JM: The Approach, Preparation and The Climb chapters in your book at first seem incongruous. Why have you added these, what could be described as "stream of consciousness experience" chapters?

PP: So often in my life of climbing, as soon as I get out there in wild nature, I breathe a sigh of relief… The silence, the colour, the texture and connection… You are home. I know that to some extent it is like this for every climber. That's why we do it, right? But I also know that it is possible sometimes to be oblivious to the reality of this amazing world around us. It is as if it would simply be too much for us to bear if we saw it all the time.

So, we let our ego invade the stillness of our consciousness — we worry, we  panic, we absolutely love things when they go our way. We absolutely dislike things when they don't. In this way climbing a rock can be just like going shopping at the supermarket, or stacking the dishwasher, a mindless activity swayed this way and that by our circumstances. But if we are mindful, I mean really mindful, on a day's climbing we can take another step towards ultimate reality, going back to the one, God, truth or whatever you want to call it.

What I attempted to do with these three chapters is to put a whole life of journeying on 'The Path' into a single day on The Mountain. It is an 'every-man' mountain that could be in any location.

So, a day of climbing in the mountains becomes a metaphor for the journey of life.

JM: Paul, amazing as always. Once again, I think you have nailed it, just as you did with your first book, Deep Play, but this time with an even clearer visceral examination of the deeper roots of climbing. Congratulations!

Paul Pritchard.  © KMF
Kendal Mountain Festival 2021

You can catch Paul via a live-link discussion with a presenter at the Paul Pritchard - The Mountain Path: A Climber's Journey Through Life and Death session at this year's Kendal Mountain Festival. The social event of the year for outdoor enthusiasts takes place across the town from 18th-21st November.

- Book tickets and passes on the KENDAL MOUNTAIN FESTIVAL SITE

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