Extract from Paul Pritchard
- Wednesday 25 September 2019
We're delighted to have a brand new piece of writing from double Boardman Tasker award winning author, Paul Pritchard. Born with an adventurous soul, it was not long before Pritchard and his friends were planning exotic trips. In 1987, paired with Johnny Dawes, Pritchard made an epoch-making visit to Scotland's Sron Ulladale to free its famous aid route, The Scoop. Pritchard and Dawes, with no previous high altitude experience, then attempted the Catalan Pillar of Bhagirathi III in the Garwhal Himalaya in India, a precocious first expedition prematurely curtailed when Pritchard was hit by stonefall at the foot of the face. In 1992, Pritchard and Noel Craine teamed up with the alpinists Sean Smith and Simon Yates to climb a big wall route on the East Face of the Central Tower of Paine, Patagonia. Pritchard followed this with an equally fine first ascent of the West Face of Mount Asgard on Baffin Island. Other trips – to Yosemite, Pakistan and Nepal as well as returns to Patagonia – resulted in a clutch of notable repeats, first ascents and some failures. The failure list also included two life threatening falls (one on Gogarth, the other on Creag Meaghaidh), which prompted the author into thought-provoking personal re-assessments, in advance of his later near-terminal accident on The Totem Pole in Tasmania.
Image: ©Pete Walsh
This chapter, Preparation, comes between The Approach and The Climb in Pritchard's anticipated upcoming title.
You now prepare to climb.
You slip off your hiking shoes and peel off your socks. You squeeze each bare foot, in turn, into rock shoes that resemble ballet slippers. You lace them up slowly, making sure the laces threading through the second and fifth eyelets are slightly looser than the first and third - to gives your toes and your arch more freedom. You do not need them so very tight as you expect the climb to be well within your ability. You scrunch your toes three times to bed them in; neat as peas in a peapod.
You sit back against the rock face and reach for your harness. You squint up at the granitic buttress which appears as a giant headboard to the valley. You slip each leg carefully through the loops, taking care not to tangle them and firmly buckle up the waist. You click the plastic clasp of your chalk bag around your waist. The sound has a satisfying finality about it.
I uncoil the rope, dropping loop after loop carefully on the mat. You look up, your face all aglow, and read the rock face. A sacred text. The rock catches the sun like an upturned beach at sunrise. The tide is low and each ripple diffracts the orange light as a lens would. The barrelled buttress disappears on both the left and the right. I pass you the end of a blue rope, your end, and it snakes through my fingers to yours. You look at me in silence and place the loose end on the mat. You won’t tie in just yet.
You choose the hardware for the pitch. You decide on each nut and cam by judging the size of the placements in cracks discernible from the ground. This requires a level of knowledge about the cliff or the mountain that not everyone is party to. You realise how fortunate you are. An intricate crack stops and starts and varies between the diameter of a pencil and the thickness of a paperback. You study the crack. But it eventually reaches its vanishing point.
You are re-familiarising yourself with your environment, learning more of this place. You have been here a handful of times before and can appreciate the importance of developing a sense of place. Knowing the landscape to such a depth that you know precisely what size a crack is on a remote cliff down to a millimetre is a special situation to be in. However, it is an important ritual you are undertaking here. The ritual of preparation.
You clip ten quick-draws to your gear loops with the carabiners’ gates all facing out so as to be easily retrieved from your harness in moments of extremis. You choose a double set of wires and six small to medium cams. There is no wide crack on the first pitch so you can forget the big cams. You loop three slings bandolier style across your chest. You twist your end of the rope into an exact ‘8’ leaving plenty of tail to work with. You run the end up through your leg loops and then through your waist-belt and mindfully re-weave the ‘8’. You then squeeze the knot in your fist and pull the tail tight to complete an acceptable knar. Finally you tie a single Fishermans knot to get rid of the tail.
All is done with the solemnity of a religious devotee. This is as any other ritual: a sacrament, giving thanks before a meal or making your bed in the morning. Reciting a mantra or turning the prayer wheel - "Om mani padme hum." All done to demonstrate the many dimensions of the human condition. Without even recognising it, for it is approaching the unfathomable, we are expressing an urgent need for purification from all this hatred and aggression. Our souls are crying out for a release from a possessiveness we cannot seem to shake off. We are desperate to rid ourselves of this all devouring prejudice.
Equally, this ritual is performed, and in all probability unbeknownst to each of us, as an aid in the realisation of the twin virtues of tolerance and generosity. And to assist us in gathering up those other strange bedfellows: perseverance and patience. In other words to help us maintain the course of our moral compasses … To slowly acquire, by degree, wisdom … To achieve a state of grace … Though we are wholly unaware of it, and simply think we are doing what we have always done below a cliff.
However, there are two kinds of ritual behaviours. The above are canon rituals; the canon of rock climbing. These include checking the weather forecast, the avalanche conditions, inspecting your knot, glancing at your second’s belay device, touching your helmet, boots, harness to see all are snug.All these are undertook in the interest of safety, to lessen the risk of injury or death. Dirty boots will result in a slip of the foot and a plummet, choosing the wrong size protection will lead to long run-outs and similarly dangerous outcomes. Just like the tapping and touching routine of Red Sox star Nomar Garciaparra as he steps up to the plate, those rituals, however wondrous they may be are success driven. It is of ultimate importance in a game such as rock climbing to be thoroughly present, to be calm and place yourself in the zone of non-judgmental awareness required to succeed (read stay alive).The other form of ritual is more difficult to get to the bottom of. This kind has meaning beyond its appearance. Before climbing in the Himalayas mountaineers always hold a Puja, a ceremony were the climber places flowers, fruit or incense at the foot of a diety or in a shrine. In Gangotri before attempting The Meru Shark’s Fin, Johnny Dawes, Philip Lloyd and I washed the lingam stone (a representation of Lord Shiva’s penis) and garlanded it with orange flowers. In the Nepal village of Gokyo we invoked the mountain gods to ask forgiveness for any damage we might do to the mountain, and to ask for the safety of the climbers.
Many mountaineers pray to various gods to keep them safe before they climb, but, as we have seen, rituals of the mountains do not have to be religious in nature. More examples of the non-religious type may be Eric Shipton’s ritual of smoking of a pipe before he set off on his mountains. Or legendary mountaineer Wanda Rutkiewicz who, before each expedition, would receive a blessing from her mother in the form of a fingered crucifix on her forehead.
To mark out our intention is an important aspect of many personal rituals. This prompts us to do our best, dispelling anxieties and subduing fears. To take back control by diminishing negative feelings and overcoming our tendency to procrastinate.
Ritual moves us. We bracket important life events: marriages, deaths and births. We mark crucial transitions, such as coming of age. Through ritual we can express ourselves in the joy of a a life, and the sorrow of a death. But, most importantly, through our seemingly arcane rituals we fashion and perpetuate ourselves, the self. Our identity.
Our forgotten ancestors created sacred rituals to firm the bonds of kinship necessary to stay alive in a perilous world. Now, these bonds signify connection to a particular group. But, just as the Eucharist, the partaking of the body and the blood of Christ, signifies a connection to all Christians, this ritual also signifies a very real physical connection to God. So too, having a craic with your mates at the base of the cliff or, of course, the pub ritual at the end of a day’s climbing is not just about social cohesion but a vital connection to nature, to reality, to truth. To The Mountain.
Personal rituals can underline one’s point, a tiny light among the great constellations of the universe, in the great scheme of things. Engaging in ritual means that we are actively participating in our own lives. This return of personal responsibility allows us be our best when we need to stay present in a harsh environment. When we need to act under pressure. Through this we create a sense of equilibrium in our lives. The ritual you follow at the base of the cliff proves you are responsible for how you live. You get to choose who you share your experience with on this grand voyage. You can define yourself on this rocky promontory you inhabit.
Added to this, just as Dumbo cannot fly without his white feather and Jimmy Grimble cannot play football without his magic boots, many climbers cannot soar without a ritual talisman. When Celia Bull and I climbed the first ascent of The Cornwall on the North Tower of Paine, in Patagonia I had to leave my trusty M.O.A.C. Original on one of the rappel stations. It was the first nut I bought at age sixteen. It was a sad moment for me. I remember watching it disappear into the swirling cloud as I descended the ropes. I always carried it on my harness, never felt safe on a climb without it. I bought another one but it was not the same. Anyway, that M.O.A.C. Original served its purpose and kept me safe.
Like a lucky rabbits foot we carry these ritual talismans to bring us good luck. This appears to go against logic but it has been proven that the carrying of a good luck charm can bolster confidence and so increase the chance of success. Big wall climber John Middendorf carried a Baja shark tooth up the whole climb of The Grand Voyage on Great Trango Tower as his lucky talisman. Kevin Jorgeson wore a T-shirt designed by his deceased friend every day on the famed Dawn Wall of El Capitan. And the first woman to ascend Mount Everest without supplementary oxygen, Lydia Brady, always took to her summits a piece of turquoise.
You position a beer towel at the foot of the climb and stand on it. You bend down and put your fingers in the snow - to wet them. You feel its refreshing coldness. You stand on one leg as if saluting the sun and rub the black sole of one rock slipper. The other one now. You rub them vigorously and generate heat which evaporates the moisture. The hue of the sole changes from a dirty grey to a satisfying deep black. Charcoal black crumbs of rubber fall to the snow and you listen for the tell-tale squeak which, like your very own starting gun, signifies you can begin.
You stand erect. Reaching out with your left hand you touch the rock. This allows you to reacquaint yourself with its grainy texture; close up it has wavelets in the surface that remind you of the growth rings of a great tree. The rock is cold to the touch. Still, you have the feeling that you are about to climb onto the back of a great living beast.
You gently close your eyes. You reach around behind and whiten your hands with magnesium carbonate from the bag. You take a single deep breath, inhale and exhale, and open them again. You rub your hands together to make sure they have an even coating of the chalk.
You are balanced on the liminal point, the threshold between, not only the horizontal and the vertical, but the world with all its materiality, and the netherworld … The frontier of life and death … The border line of Darkness and light … The side of absence and presence. You Stand amazed between the ordinary and the extraordinary. About to climb.
You give me a nod.
“I've got you,” says I.
“Climbing,” says you.
Pritchard's raw and emotional style will draw you in, and if this extract has whet your appetite you'll enjoy one of our very best books; Deep Play
Paul Pritchard's Deep Play is a unique, stylish and timeless commentary reflecting the pressures and rewards of climbing some of the world's hardest and most challenging rock climbs.
First published in 1997 by Bâton Wicks, and since out of print, Vertebrate Publishing re-published Deep Play in paperback and ebook in autumn 2012.
Pritchard started climbing in Lancashire before moving to join the vibrant Llanberis scene of the mid 1980s, at a time when the adventurous development of the Dinorwig slate quarries was in full swing. Many of the new slate routes were notable for their fierce technical difficulty and sparse protection, and Pritchard took a full part in this arcane sub-culture of climbing and at the same time deployed his skills on the Anglesey sea cliffs to produce a clutch of equally demanding wall climbs.
A penetrating view of the adventures and preoccupations of a contemporary player, Deep Play stands alone as a unique first-hand account of what many consider to be the last great era in British climbing.