Was asked to write a long list of ideas of thoughts and ideas for Rock & Ice’s ‘What I Learned’ column a few months back, the result of which is in the latest issue. When asked to write this kind of thing I just bang out a long train of thought, which can be a positive and negative, and reading back what I wrote I’m sure the guys at R&I must have thought ‘what the fuck!’. Anyway there was a lot - for obvious reasons - that ended up on the floor, so I thought I’d gather them back up and paste them back together her.
Not your man
If you want a filtered, branded climber I’m not your man, unable to supply that instragram snap shot that prevails these days, all pressed and clean and made over: sending cool projects, yoga in the meadow, mock Buddhist karmic bullshit and snappy quotes set over pictures of waterfalls or small puppies. If you want that I’m not your man.
Climbing is like masturbation; it’s fun doing it, but no one wants to hear about it, and that’s how I approach the subject. It’s a personal experience, and I find there’s little of any interest writing or talking about it, so if you read on don’t expect too much of the C word. For me Climbing is about something richer than crimps and pull ups.
Everything in life is about sex apart from sex, and the same applies to climbing, which for me is complicated, and far gone for me are those halcyon days of first love.
In the clouds
I was high for much of my childhood, ‘my head in the clouds’ as my mum would say, living in block of flats in a run down Northern city after my parents divorced. The city of Hull had made its fortune from great shoals of cold cod and the slaying of wales, all in deep decline in 70’s Britain. For me the mountains and wilderness were the bombed out buildings from the war and the wreckage of recession, rusty cranes and bridges, and the docks in which we swam. It was here, in this urban wilderness, that I learnt the art of the dare devil, skills I later took to Antartica, Alaska, Patagonia and Greenland, poverty and necessity giving me an edge others often lacked.
They say that it’s darkness that sets apart the super elite from the elite, that you need something bad in the mix to have that little extra. I don’t think much of anything was ever done by a happy balanced person, after all why bother when you have bliss - well apart from yoga poses on Malibu beach. The previous tenant of our flat had hung himself on the stairs, a death that haunted my childhood, too much for a sensitive young soul I guess. So right from the start I guess there was that foundation of rope, death, gravity and suicide.
‘You’re too poor to have principles’ was something someone once told my mum, to which she replied ‘no one’s that poor’, something that sticks, and perhaps has held me back in life, that I never ever wanted to sell out to my principles, happy to be me, not Bear Gylss. For most of my climbing life I’ve run away from any form of proper sponsorship or shabby money making, preferring to work for my supper, not beholding to many, plus the more you earn that less you climb.
Climbing harder is easy. There is an industry build around telling you how hard it is, but it’s not. All you need to do is climb three times a week, stretch, remove the fear of falling, eat and sleep well and achieve a healthy weight, and find a good partner to support you on and off the rock. If Youtube or Rock and Ice leaves you unsatisfied with what you have buy ones of those ‘how to climb dead hard’ books, or buy a yoga mat.
Climbing is a wild animal, it can be fun and playful, but forget that fact, turn your back on it, and it can chew your head off.
Never turn your back on yourself. Be honest, be who you are, not what you think people want you to be.
People generally have low expectations when it comes to speaking, so don’t disappoint.
Love is a fire it can start with just a spark, it can rage, it can warm, it can heat you so hot and whole you feel you’ll never ever be cold again. Yet never forget that one day it can be a bonfire of teeth and limbs and laughter, a forest of hope on which to feed the fire, and then - only ashes. Love can burn your whole world to the ground.
Never take it for granted that those that you love the most still know that you do. Take the time to tell them so because one day you may find them gone. We’re brave people aren’t we, hang from cliffs and walls, crap into a paper bag without even a blush, so why do we sometimes lack the strength to simply say how we feel, too text the words “If I had to chose between breathing and you I could hold my breath forever”.
Never mistake anger for fear. When you chased out of the house when you chose to go away, it’s not anger at your leaving, it’s the fear that you may never come home.
A does not follow B, there’s a space there, in between the letters, between the words as you say them. In that space there is time to consider the past, the present and the future, why you begun there: at A and not X or G, and why B needs to come next? I was never good at remembering the alphabet and maybe this is why, and I’m not good at following the same old familiar path down which most ideas are led, the places school, our parents, the media would take us. My thoughts and my ideas, my politics, what I believe, are ambiguous, to me and others, and that’s how we should all be if you’re a writer as nothing is static, not the now, nor the past or the future.
When instinct leads you to an answer you need to ask yourself why. If you follow your instinct - what you’ve been breed to believe - you often take short cuts to answers that, although comforting, are wrong, and so all that you think and believe is build up from these simple false truths. We surround ourselves with like minded people, so as not to question what we believe, and marginalise or demonise those that don’t. The un-simple truth is that reality is too complex and ungraspable for most people, after all who’s got time to consider all the data? If you consider yourself as a liberal, and have a liberal world view, then you’re going to be half wrong about most things, and the same goes for anyone right wing. Our human brains, fed so much information, so angry and enraged, ready to ‘like’ and comment, and believe our opinion’s matter, really are nothing more than a series of shortcuts designed to reinforce unreality of what we think we know. It takes practice to break away from these short cuts, it means you need to get into the heads of people you hate, to think their thoughts, see their reality in all its complexity, the scared cop with gun, the addict breaking onto your house, the racist burning down a church, the pirate, your mum, your dad. The problem with this kind of ‘break out’ is that very soon you find you’re nomad in your own head, no safe harbour or real belief beyond you really believe nothing, instead, like Superman, you hear all the world talking at once. To go to such a place is a scary as any Patagonia spire, but just as necessary if you wish to really grasp what you are - even if the answer is nothing all. We are ultimately irrelevant. Not something easy to take and that’s why we have God, phone-ins, like buttons and comment fields.
You never hear the one that gets you, but when you are about to die - or think you are - do know what it feels like? No anger or disappear, only the deepest sense of disappointment, like waking from the greatest dream you ever had, only to realise it was just that - only in death, well near death, it’s that in reverse.
Live life on your terms, and seek out what makes you happy, be selfish, because if you’re selfless and miserable you’re no good to anyone, just another unneeded martyr. The single proviso is that your pursuit of selfish happiness must not rob happiness from anyone else - which I guess is what could be seen as the fundamental balance of life.
You’re much more the result of your fuck ups rather than your triumphs, as most triumphs lead nowhere, just dusty trophies. Mistakes on the other hand always lead somewhere good in the end. Yes you may feel crushed in the cogs of life sometimes, but at least the cogs are moving.
I found myself out of rope thinking I’d reached the end, talking to a crowd of people about climbing again, my life in ashes - because of love and climbing I told myself, but really because of me. Almost too distracted to notice, afterwards I sit beside a young woman in a pub, sat beside me because I was the ‘guest climbing speaker’. Making small talk she tells me about how much she loves climbing, boring talk of crimps and jams and talk of routes I have no way of knowing, but with her the words seemed to mean something, honest, light, full of hope and goodness. As she spoke I felt as if the vice that slowly crushed me edged off a little, and found myself there, completely, uncomplicated, listing instead of thinking. “Do you have a broken heart?” I asked her, and she said “yes”.
And so it goes. I sit at a picnic table in camp 4 with her, who like climbing has taught me a better way to live, that there is no need to see everything so dark and twisted, that for us there could be that unfiltered Instagram reality together - only without the yoga. I know I’m not an easy man to love, that I’m high risk, unable to resist the beat of the darkest drums, self regarding and always in want of more, but hey I’m an artist dude! But I’m brave, and tell her there, at the table, chalk dust on our hands, that for all the good and the bad that climbing has brought, what you the reader can see between the A and the B of my words, all the pain and sacrifice and joy, “if there had been some great unseen purpose to it all, it had been to lead me here to you”.
A Mars Bar bar costs 60p. Were these words worth as much?
This is a reader supported site, so every micro payment (the cost of chocolate bar) helps pay for cups of tea, cake and general web pimpery. Support via Paypal, buy a book or just a coffee.
Andrew Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer, author, motivational speaker and monologist. He is best known as a big wall climber, having scaled Yosemite's El Capitan 30+ times, including five solo ascents, and two one day ascents, as well as climbing in Patagonia, Africa, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps.Follow @ Instagram