Andy Kirkpatrick: I Am Not a Hammer

Andy Kirkpatrick: I Am Not a Hammer

Over the past three decades, British climber Andy Kirkpatrick has pushed himself to the limit on big walls and mountain routes. He has climbed El Capitan in excess of 30 times, with solo ascents including the the notoriously dangerous Sea of Dreams. Away from Yosemite, Andy has challenged himself in other intimidating arenas. These include the first winter ascent of the Troll Wall in Norway; culminating in a fourteen-night epic, a winter attempt on the hardest route on the North Face of the Eiger and multiple first ascents in Queen Maud Land Antarctica. Outside of climbing, Andy has had just as much literacy success, winning the Boardman Tasker award twice for his books, Psycho Vertical and Cold Wars.

It is perhaps no wonder, then, that with a resume such as this he is often perceived as the hard man of big wall soloing with little time for small talk and only time for his talk—and in some ways this is true. But perceptions can be misleading, especially within today’s world of social media. We are often led astray from the real persona of an individual and instead, we judge people by the comments of others and not by their own. I caught up with Andy ahead of his new book launch, Unknown Pleasures, and his latest tour, Psycho Vertical, to discuss life outside of climbing and to explore some of his views. What I encountered during my time with him was far from the social media hype, but a conscientious, advocate for the underdog and a rather subtly vulnerable person who just wants to climb at his best on committing routes, irrespective of the hype.

It has been two years since your last significant solo project, The Sea of Dreams on El Capitan. How do you maintain your endurance between projecting?

I don’t. I have a very schizo life, and often let my body go fallow for long periods, get fat, etc. The upside of this is that at 46 I’ve no injuries that are dogging me while my peers are pretty much wrecked. I lived with a pro athlete for a while and picked up the need to do weight training to avoid getting injured—rather than get strong—and so every year I’ve always done this off and on, mainly dead lifting. Too many non-pro athletes just focus on what will make them better in the short and medium term, but being able to climb into your sixties is about treating your body with respect in the long term. 

You were recently quoted in your new film Psycho Vertical as saying, “I am a dangerous person”. Can you elaborate further on this? 

One of the most desirable traits in anything, be it an object or a living creature, is dependability. That’s why a hammer is a hammer; it is what we think it is. The same with a dog that only bites violent strangers and not your children. Lives, careers, businesses, states and empires are built on this one simple idea. If you start a relationship, get married, have children with someone you do so on the basis that you know what you’re getting; that this person might change, but not so much—plus you’ll change because of each other, wear each other in—so you end up the same. I came to the conclusion about ten years ago that I have never really ever had a grip on myself: What I want, what I’ll do, what I’ll say (or write). I find my own actions unreliable. I can’t trust myself, which makes me a dangerous person, both to me and to anyone close to me. I’m not a hammer. 

What is it that attracts you to soloing. Is it down to perceiving yourself as a non-dependable person?

I think often people who do solo trips do so not because they judge themselves better than anyone else, stronger and more confident, but the opposite; they don't see themselves worthy enough to tackle such a hard objective with someone else (who would be worthy). And so soloing allows them to muddle through, be weak, clumsy, pathetic, without anyone else around to judge them.

What draws you to climbing projects that all seem to have high degrees of suffering? 

I deserve it, I guess. Plus from the outside it makes people think I’m hard and invulnerable, which is what I’d like to be (a "man"). In reality there’s never any real suffering as I’m pretty good at it by now, I know how to get dressed, wear a hat, etc. I guess also where there is an environment where people imagine there to be suffering, they stay away, so you get them all to yourself.

You have recently teamed up with Jen Randall and the team over at Light Shed Productions to create the film Psycho Vertical, based on the book of the same title. How did this project come about, bearing in mind the book is now ten years old?

I met Jen in 2012 when I climbed El Cap with my daughter Ella for a doc for BBC kids TV. She was out there to climb El Cap but wasn't doing too well, having the usual epics. I like dishing out advice to people, to give a few ingredients that can be mixed for success, but only when you see someone who has a big bag of flour!  

It’s important that we don’t try and mask the human tragedy of it, that it is somehow noble or heroic to die going on your holiday to climb a rock

Jen looks soft and cuddly on the outside, but like many women, she's pretty hard on the inside (I think she described me in the same way once), and I guess I recognized this—maybe I saw her as an ally? Anyway, I told her to be more business-like about climbing El Cap, see it not like fun or climbing, but as a job, which seemed to work, her making an epic ascent of Triple Direct.

She made a film of the climb and went on to make several more films, each one more and more ambitious. I'd had it in my mind to make a film about soloing a wall for years, having the title Journey Through the Brain" and talked to a few filmmakers about it. But watching Jen's films you could see she wasn't chasing after being like anyone else, like Sender films or Al Lee; she was treading her own less adrenalized path, making her films stand out. 

And so at Kendal in 2014 I asked if she'd like to work together, which must have come out of the blue, neither of us knowing how much work it would take. It was a risk for both of us, as I’m a flake and might just have wandered off, but Jen kept me on track for the next three years! It was the following year when Jen made the multi-award-winning Operation Moffatt with the talented poet Claire Carter that I knew she was the right person to make this film.

The resulting film might be based on my words but it's 100% Jen's film; not the film I would have made, but that's why I wanted Jen to make it ("never make friends with the band", even if you're the band).

What influence do you think the absence of your father when you were a young man has had on your climbing/life? 

A huge effect. The same effect as having your heart broken by another if you’re a writer or poet or songwriter. It’s the most valuable gift I was given; to be imperfect or “badly made”. I also think a bigger factor in my story, a very ordinary story, was the loss of a whole life; losing your dad, your house, your school, village and the nature, and dropped into a council flat in Hull. That was what made the young me into the screw up I am now. I’ve talked to a few people who lost limbs or ended up in wheelchairs after being blown up in Iraq and to a man they say they could handle the pain and loss of a chunk of their body, but not the loss of the army, which was their life and family.

How has this valuable gift you refer to influenced you as a parent? How have you learned to balance your life as a full time climber and dad? 

Like most people I once liked to trot out the idea of a balance, but I don't think it really means anything anymore. Like a blind prayer. One life cannot be defined as something that can be balanced on the head of a needle, an impossibility once you add in other people, work, etc. Life is better viewed like a big, messy, ever-growing ink blot! I think the danger of 'balance' is it leads people to never fully commit in the moment; to be 100% a father, 100% a climber, 100% at work, to be 100% here or 100% there. Instead, in order to have a balanced life we try and do it all and all at once (pushing the kids at the park, on the phone to work, dreaming of Patagonia). I guess this is one of the most important gifts I've been given—given in the hardest and most destructive ways. But it's also pretty impossible to achieve.

People tend to identify themselves as something; a climber, a photographer, family man a politician. Who is Andy Kirkpatrick and what do you identify yourself as? 

We seem to live in the age of identity, to know what we are, like it gives life meaning, maybe something to do with being a post-religious society? At one time I'd say I was just a climber, but that was just the manifestation of me at that time. I always wanted to be less Bonington and more Bowie, never letting myself or anyone else get of what I was—or might be. But if you were a US immigration agent asking I'd probably say 'writer'. 

Your most recent book Unknown Pleasures is due for release on the 1st of March; a book about three decades of lessons learnt about life, love and loss. If you could have taught your 20-year-old self one lesson that you have since learnt, what would it have been? 

If it was a lesson in climbing then perhaps it would have been to climb more widely, as five trips to Patagonia and 34 trips up El Cap is a lot of time spent in the same place, often obsessing over the same routes. In the last year I climbed in places like the High Sierra, Squamish and Red Rocks for the first time, and I only visited Tuolumne for the first time in 2014 (Red Rocks and Tuolumne are two of the best climbing destinations on the planet), and in doing so I reflected on how obsession can easily get in the way of living a more rounded—and fun—life.

For life lessons I guess it takes a life to know what they are. I suppose I took life for granted a little, just went with the flow of it, that it was all a bit of a game, where to lose today was okay as you could win tomorrow, that your life’s winnings would rise and fall but never run out. Now I know life’s not like that, you are playing with all you have, all you could be. I suppose you only realise this once you get to an age where you realise how much of your stake you’ve lost!

For love? Don’t take it for granted, that it will be everlasting, no matter how strong. It is like a fire, a bonfire, making the skin of all who stand around it rosy and tingle. But come the morning it can be pile of ash. Love takes care.

Loss is part of the game we play, it’s what makes it real, makes it more than Subbuteo. At the same time it’s important that we don’t try and mask the human tragedy of it, that it is somehow noble or heroic to die going on your holiday to climb a rock. For some reason I got this lesson early on, and it has never really changed. Maybe that’s why I’m still alive?

Yorkshire based climber, photographer, writer, alpinist