The Banff book festival. Tony introduces me and with some small applause, as I stand and walk over to the wooden podium, a beautiful piece of solid Canadian wood, my shoelaces undone. The audience, tidy, sat in neat rows, look like a good bunch, a clever bunch, not too much trouble - I hope. “I’d like to begin with a poem’ I say, which sounds like a little joke - to me - funny, out of place, as if it was spoken by a plumber about to stick his hand down your blocked toilet. No one laughed, so I went on.
I take the trail up from the road, the trail up Tunnel Mountain, the air clearer up here, up and away from down there, away from the afternoon upset. The more it winds up, the more I wind down, my feet on its well-trod spine, head in denial of the thoughts contained within, the very idea of this spiny path only an attempt at distraction. My eyes are still a little wet, tears not quite rung, and so the light crinkles and refracts, colliderscoping everything when I squint. I keep my head bowed as people I pass, not wanting anyone to spot my upset, me a man after all.
“On my website there’s a page called bad poetry,” I say, maybe foreshadowing the possible crap clunkiness to come, me being no poet after all. I hate to disappoint and so often try and lower expectations as far as I can, a key to a happy life I think - maybe - expectations kept on tight ration, saved only for myself most of all. To apologise before you are offered a chance to make your own mind up is seen as poor form, but I find it a good technique, a form of talent insurance, paying out each time in a currency of modesty, or self-depreciation, or just simple clunky fact.
My legs feel out of date, seventeen days on El Cap no excuse at all really, nearly a month ago now, as we three beat-up Tunnel. They say Tunnel mountain’s the most popular mountain in Canada, and I can believe it today, people passing by in ones and twos and fours - but never three.
I flick up the poem on a borrowed phone, my old words still as black as they were when they were posted, but dusty in my mind, just a poem to read and no more. “I wrote some poems because I wanted to try and get the white space, that stuff between the bare and stripped down words” I explain, saying I needed to do this because it would be important in my next book. “I don’t have the time or the skill to create really powerful images in your imagination, but if I use white space, then you can do that work yourself, you illustrate my story”.
A woman stops me to say how funny I was on stage the other night, how my impression of one of the children from the Sound of Music had been so funny, how she’d never seen an acceptance speech like that before, me doing the parts of the Boy and his father the Captain. I don’t get a word in, then she checks herself and asks if I’m me, if I’m actually Andy Kirkpatrick. I reply that Lynn Hill had asked me which Andy Kirkpatrick I was at a party the night before, and I’d replied that I was the one with a blue tick next to my name on Facebook, so yes, it was me. It’s funny when people know you so well, strangers, have read your books and seen you talk. They own something of you while you know nothing of them. I often wonder if the people we’re in search for in our lives are the ones who see what we miss, the stuff we hide but want to be found, the stuff that’s so well hidden even we don’t know it’s there.
This poem is called “Poem to a son” I say, explain I wrote five poems as letters to people who meant something to me, well not letters so much, more as apologies. “The last was to an ex-girlfriend, called ‘A poem to nobody’, a poem about forgiveness, about meeting again and how it would be, but I never published it. We never met” maybe foreshadowing myself a little, odd, maybe some salt and pepper to the words to come.
I pass an old man and his granddaughter, in his left hand a walking stick, in the right her small hand. My head is clearer now, room for something else, and thoughts form like candy floss, the question: if this girl is too young ever to remember this walk, once that hand is no longer there to hold. As I pass I think about the night before, as drunk as I’d been for a long time, but not as drunk as Paul Pritchard, me and him double Boardman-Tasker winners, something we always make a play of when we meet. To be plastered is one thing, but to be semi paralysed as well is an another, but less so when you’ve got a BT winner holding you up, staggering down the road at 2 am. Paul’s partner Melinda stands on one side, me on the other, all concerned no one sees us, Paul being one of the Banff judges who’d awarded me my prize. The only man we meet, perched like a midnight crow is Greg Child, one of my heroes. I wonder if I’ve had my drink spiked if he’s really there, but then he shouts down: “Do you need a hand?” but we wave him off. When we reach our final hurdle, some steps, Paul tries to step down, but both legs just swing each time he tries to descend as if they’re on puppet strings set a few inches to short. “Fuck it’s like taking a thunderbird for a walk” I giggle, and Paul almost falls over laughing. Never meet your heroes they say, the idea that to see the reality of them, flawed, base, beastly, is to make then mortal I guess. But such an idea is only of value to people whose hero’s and legends are simply myths. For me, what better way to touch greatness, to know its reality, but to have Achilles take your arm, broken, stumbling and pissed.
I pull the mic closer. “This is a poem from me to my son”, and you know what, even writing those words brings tears to my eyes as I sit on this plane, but I don’t know why. Perhaps if life was lived backwards the tears in my eyes right now would have foreshadowed that reading, been a warning and that poem would have remained unread. “We have a complex relationship” I add, the words coming easy, like they’re not important, “like fathers and sons often do”.
I take the final turn and go up the last stretch, along the back of the mountain, views popping up on either side, filtered through selfie hunters. I pass another fan of my Edelweiss routine, telling me she knew the Von Trapps, me asking in return if she was a climber, how Alex Huber’s farm contains the famous hill - that hill - from the film. “Do you really like it, or where you just joking?” she asks. “No, I love that film” I reply honestly, “but mainly that scene, where the kids are singing, and they see the Captain, their dad, looking through the door and look terrified, but instead of getting angry he begins to sing instead. That’s one of the best scenes in any film, ever.”
And I began.
“Who are you
Who goes there.
Knock-on-wood I do
As into that head hard I try to see,
The words read easy, no poet really, both in the writing or the reading, but easy enough, what it lacks foreshadowed after all.
Through soft greasy hair that over once
Eyes battened down against the suds
Water elbow hot I poured.
I get through these without only a few small stumbles, my more mature writers eyes spotting what was out of focus, knowing my younger Andy brain hadn’t really cared enough, but the words are read off, a count down to finishing, pacing myself as best I could, each line break a quick breather.
Robbed from a long emptied bath, in a long emptied house in a life I could not sustain.
Now I stumble. I can’t get the next words out.
“Sorry,” I say, as surprised as my audience, kind of lost for words. “Blooding hell, this is hard”. I gather myself and read on, but these new old words sting, the words not mine at all, but his. ‘Maybe I’m tired’ I tell myself. The idea flashes into my clown mind to make a joke about too much red wine, to blame, but I can’t. That it would be a betrayal.
Who are you
Poor Boy, your affliction
Cut cloth, chalk marks astray
— Distracted —
Am I a riddle to you to.
I feel myself losing my words, felt myself fighting to stop, to pull out the plug, while being right back there, in that house, that lovely Boy.
‘Love me do ya’ I often wonder
Do I love you
I wonder if you wonder too,
The poem, its words, being there, at that podium, the room, all turned into a memory, and I have sat back again, in the shade, angry with him, angry with me; that to accept he did not want to climb, not now, not ever again; that he really wasal ways so scared. What a defeat. I know this Boy struggled with so much, not like his sister, but like me, that his young mind couldn’t take more defeat like this, any more labels or pills to make him normal, complaint, doped, ready for his this world.
He was knocked down too much as it was, why have his father inflict further blows, the only reason to try, to make him more loved by this strange man. “You don’t have to climb ever again,” said Vanessa, always more balanced than me, “you just have to accept it, Andy, your son’s afraid of heights”.
I felt sad, felt twisted, was it me? So talented a climber too, not knocked down at all in my eyes, free of the hard ground below when up high. I didn’t want to scare him, I wanted him to know his value, that there was an alternative, beyond spelling tests and shoelaces tied. But for Ewen this was just another test, another opportunity to flounder then fail. And so we sat in the shade, apart, while they climbed, me wanting to hug him, him wanting to be hugged, but neither moving. No, me not moving to him.
That time you told me you were scared,
Hard father who’s only way is up
Instead laid in the shade, me sat grumpy close but with no hug of understanding.
“It’s OK” I should have said.
No disappointment could you ever be to me
Only me to you, a dad I sometimes feel undeserving
Who just wants you to know
that I do.
I pull the plug, tears only one world away, the whole room knowing it too, wanting me to press on while wanting me to stop, this funny, charming man almost undone by his own stupid poem, a story more than words. Much more than words, the true power of a poet something I had not understood. Words like this are not for entertaining others.
I make it to the top, the sun just about to drop, the crowds thin now, Banff below, the mountains all around us. I scrambled to summit, through some trees to a rocky spot, names and dates chiselled under my muddy shoes, my laces still untied. A man appears, his son on his shoulders, maybe five or six, his dad pace easy, like an African woman with a bucket of water on her head. “Is he heavy?” I asked.
“Not too much,” he said with a little laugh, no secret handshake needed, no wink or sign to know I’d felt that loveliest of burdens like him, held my own kid’s chubby little legs and ankles in my hands. “Sometimes I think the only thing I ever got right, the only thing I was ever good at, was carrying my kids on my shoulders.” I say.
And he looks away at the view.
And so do I.
On Tunnel Mountain.
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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