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Paul Pritchard's Deep Play - Preface to the 2012 Edition

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Paul Pritchard and Adam Wainwright on the summit of Trango Tower in 1995.

Photo: Paul Pritchard and Adam Wainwright on the summit of Trango Tower in 1995.

Dossing in The Land of the Midnight Sun, I didn’t give a stuff about how much climbing rocks could teach me. I couldn’t care less that this uncomplicated life would instil in me an unshakeable knowledge that I had my own place and voice in the world. That it would prepare me for the pain to come was but a lagniappe, which would equip me with the presence and will to heal. At that time I felt there were only two things in my life: me and the rock.

However, pertaining to Deep Play, this dedicated existence furnished me with the follow through to realise my dreams. And one such dream was this book. It is only now, from a twenty-first century perspective, that I understand just how important a record of a great era – perhaps the last great era – of British climbing Deep Play is.

The eighties was a unique decade in British climbing: a time of flux. It was a time of economic depression and special was the fact that it was the first depression truly buoyed up by a welfare system. For climbing culture the eighties didn’t just mean shit jumpers, bad barnets and godawful tights. It was an age floating between more prosperous times. The seventies was notable as a climbing superstar culture with big names such as Doug Scott, Dougal Haston, Alex MacIntyre and Chris Bonington, who undertook major sponsored expeditions, the likes of which had not been seen since the first ascent of Everest – Barclays Bank put up one hundred thousand pounds for the Everest South West Face Expedition in 1975. The nineties saw the rise of the sharp-cut professional: Houlding, MacLeod, Cool and Emmett, an era which has continued to this day.

In a sense, climbing, at least for the adventure, lost its way in the nineties. However, the on-sight bold ascent has returned in the last few years with climbers on-sighting the ‘headpoints’ of the 1980s and making audacious first ascents on rock and in the Mountains. Dave MacLeod’s Echo Wall and many of Leo Houlding’s ascents on rock and in the mountains are examples of this. However, it is American Dean Potter’s B.A.S.E. solo of Deep Blue Sea on the North Face of the Eiger that really does show the future of climbing.

In Deep Play I mention the economic hardship, the huge rates of unemployment and the vast well of creativity that came with it. I also mention the distaste: some people simply felt that we should get jobs. With hindsight it is interesting to note that lots of artists made good in that time. Indeed, celebrated author Hanif Kureshi, who garnered a CBE in 2008, began his artistic career on the dole in the 1980s. One thing is clear: all the UK climbers of the eighties have one person to thank for giving them this golden opportunity: Margaret Thatcher.

As for my book: there are moments of naive pomposity within its pages. Yet far from being embarrassed about this, I believe these moments reveal an honesty that I would have trouble finding in my writing nowadays.

I opened the book with, 'I am definitely a climber who writes.' The judges at the Boardman Tasker Prize thought I was being swell headed; in fact, I remember John Porter translating my statement to, 'I was born to write about climbing.' I simply and innocently assumed too much from my readers whom I thought would have read their Drummond and their Child, who it is said of both that; it is not clear whether they are writers who climb or climbers who write. So the statement was my way of supplicating myself to these great writers.

Finally, I stand by the name of the book even though it could be seen to be self-indulgent. Eighteenth-Century philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who coined the term Deep Play, describes it as a game with stakes so high that no rational person would engage in it. Yet most climbers would describe themselves as rational. Wouldn’t you? It is precisely because your life matters to you, not the contrary, that you take risks. When you go out to climb a new route and publicly reveal such stakes there is an awful lot to lose. You risk your status, your pride, your dignity, your masculinity (I can only speak for males on this motivation) … but most of all your life.

Paul Pritchard
September 2012

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