An interview with Andy Kirkpatrick by Brian D. Johnson (Macleans Canada)
More notes from the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, and specifically Andy Kirkpatrick. This Brit mountaineer has done some of the most challenging climbs in the world, often in winter. His feats include Yosemite’s El Capitan (10 times), a harrowing winter climb of Patagonia’s Fitz Roy, and a 15-day winter ascent of the Lafaille route on Europe’s Petit Dru. That’s all meaningless unless you’re a climbing freak. And I’m not. But Kirkpatrick, 35, is one of the more remarkable storytellers I’ve met. He’s a dyslexic who speaks in a blitz of non-linear tangents, like narrative zig-zags up a rock face. He takes the anti-heroic route, turning tales of near death into philosophical and comic scenarios worth of Samuel Beckett, or Monty Python. I interviewed him in Banff. Here are some excerpts, beginning with his stint as a safety official on the set of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Kirkpatrick got the job with some climbing pals who had worked with icebergs on two Shackleton movies and a James Bond picture. They were hired to prevent actors and crew from falling into the Willy Wonka’s chocolate river.
Don’t Fall Into the Chocolate
“Tim Burton wanted to make the chocolate river real, like in the book. They had a million litres of chocolate, which was basically brown washing-up liquid. It’s a really dangerous space because you’ve got 50-foot drops and all this chocolate. You could fall and drown in it. So to do safety they get these guys who worked with icebergs. This friend of mine phoned me up and said, ‘Do you mind working with dwarves, do you mind working with chocolate, do you mind working with Johnny Depp?’
“The river was a very viscous brown liquid. It had chocolate essence in it so it smelled fairly chocolaty until it went bad. In two months it just went stagnant and horrible and stunk of raw eggs. You’d look at the first millimeter and it would be alive. You could see millions of millions of white dots. Microbiotic life was growing on the chocolate. They’d pour chemicals on it so then it would smell chemically.
“Tim Burton was the most dangerous person there because he was quite shambolic. His mind was elsewhere probably. He slipped on the grass a few times. Johnny Depp seemed very able. He wasn’t going to fall. With Tim Burton it was like being a presidential bodyguard, you had to position yourself. But the only thing that fell in the chocolate river was the mobile phones.
A lot of people found the work mind-numbingly boring, being in a rubber boat 12 hours a day, just sitting in the chocolate waiting for someone to fall in. But I actually really enjoyed it. They had this false grass everywhere. If you walked on it the grass would rip out, and someone would have to replace it. So they had these grass fluffers, people who would come and put the grass back in again. They just got more and more irate because they’d spend an hour putting all the grass in and people would walk on it and it would come out.
The biggest job we had was making the boats go up and down to ripple the water and reflect the lighting into people’s faces. There was a South African guy working there. I said, ‘Is this the most boring job you’ve ever had?’ He said no. He was building a pipeline from Australia to somewhere else, and they sent down a robot submarine to the bottom of the ocean and filmed it for three months to see if there were any bombs left from the war. And he had to sit in a room in Belgium and just watch these videotapes of the bottom of the ocean for three months. He said every few weeks a fish would go past.
“One of the guys working with us was a commercial diver and had worked in Australia diving in the sewage works. You had to go down in these huge tanks and do welding and they were full of shit. He said you couldn’t see anything. One time he went down and felt something in the shit and he wasn’t sure what it was-a dog or something. It was the most hideous job. This wasn’t as bad as that.
“There was another guy we were working with who had just climbed Everest. And there was a guy who had done the hardest rock climb in the world. In The Bourne Identity he was a stunt double for Matt Damon. He’d had a really bad accident and he had this huge scar on his face. I kept telling people different stories, which weren’t true, about how his face had been ripped off and sewn back on again.
“It’s interesting hat you’ve got these people with all these amazing skills: a bomb disposal expert, the South African guy, the Everest climber, and they’re all there on a chocolate river. The funniest thing was we all had knives because we had to cut ropes and things. One night, we were in the pub and I was saying, ‘I was standing next to Johnny Depp and it suddenly occurred to me that I could just stab him.’ And three other people said, ‘Yeah, I’ve thought that as well.’ And then someone said, ‘I thought how we could kidnap his kids.’ That was quite funny.”
Purgatory in Patagonia
“We went to Patagonia in winter, and had this horrendous experience on Fitz Roy. There were four of us and we were right near the top, 50 metres from the summit. Then this huge storm came up and we were all in this tent. The tent was flying in the air with all of us inside it for 11 hours. The wind would pick us up, fully off the ground, and drop us down again. We were all holding onto the fabric. And after while the tent disintegrated so we had to go down. It took us 14 hours of abseiling [rappelling]. You’re going down this couloir. You think, ‘Some of us will die,’ but you just think about the next abseil.
“We went back to where to tent had been and it wasn’t there any more. It had gone off to Chili somewhere. We had nothing to eat or drink for three days. After this experience two of the people never climbed again.”
“I skied 600 km. across Greenland this year with a paraplegic woman who’s paralyzed from her rib cage down. She was a rock climber and fell off. She’s a real adventurer. She’s cycled across the Himalayas on a half bike. She’s the second paraplegic to ski across Greenland.
“When we were skiing across we ran into these four Greenlandic women who were going the other way. When I got back I had a bit of frostbite and lost a lot of weight. And the next day I had to go down a cave in Wales for three weeks and film for the BBC. That sums up my strange life in a way.
People just don’t know who they are. That’s way they go to therapy and think about their past. When you’re in Greenland and you’ve been doing the same thing every day you have no need to know who you are. You’re just happy with yourself.”
Fathoming fear on a solo climb of El Capitan
“You do have some fear, but the fear is rationed. Your brain has this much adrenaline and this much fear, and if you’re scared all the time, you won’t be able to act. So I’ll turn on the fear as a little kind of whoooo, watch out!. I won’t have it on all the time.
“I had a skyhook on this flake of rock, a huge surfboard of rock, and it was exfoliating. The physics of it seemed like. . . if it snapped where my ropes were, it was so thin it would chop my ropes and I would die. It was terrifying. It’s like you’re standing near a big cliff and you’re scared and your father is pushing you toward the edge. But yourself, your emotions become a lot less of an issue. Like when you’re married to someone and you don’t have to speak any more because you’re feeling exactly the same thing. That happens internally with yourself because you have no need to think. You only do.
“When you get to the crux there’s this huge ledge. You get to this flake. And there are these pancakes of exfoliating rock stuck on the wall and you have to hook one of them to reach a crack and once you get to that crack you know that’s the end of this climb. Between you and the crack is this Russian roulette kind of thing. You sit there for two hours. Looking, worrying. Then I hook it, stand on it, reach the crack, put some gear in. It took three and a half hours. There was no hesitation.
“The second hardest pitch, I was on it for eight hours. Every single piece of gear was worse than the piece of gear before. I was utterly terrified. I thought, ‘I can’t do this any more.’ Like in a war film. I sat there for an hour on this piece of gear and eventually I calmed down enough and kept on going. The belay was 12 feet away. I’d got on a copperhead, a piece of copper that sticks to the cracks. And the copperhead just ripped out. I was falling. If you fall you probably die. In that instant of falling, it was all about expectations. There was no room for fear. Fear was totally pointless. It was just: what’s going to happen? I’m going to die. I fell about 150 ft. and all the gear started ripping out. And one terrible piece of gear, a rusty old piece of something, stopped me. I just hung on the rope. I remember there was a brief pause, and then I screamed out. And this voice said, ‘Why are you screaming, no one can hear you?’ “
Why risk your life?
“It’s my job. It makes me who I am. It makes me a better father. I’m really dyslexic. I didn’t find out until I was 19. I had really low self-esteem. When my daughter was diagnosed, my mother said, ‘Oh, you were diagnosed when you were little,’ and she never fucking told me. I spend my whole childhood in remedial lessons. . I had really low self-esteem. Climbing was a thing that really saved me. I couldn’t write or read. But through climbing I became a photographer, a filmmaker, a writer, a speaker. I was so shy. But now I can stand up front of a thousand people and show my photographs.
“I have a lot of problems with my wife about the whole climbing thing. I’ve been married 15 years. But I wasn’t into climbing when we met.”