Free extract - Unknown Pleasures by Andy Kirkpatrick
- Thursday 16 April 2020
Easy to read, sometimes difficult to digest and impossible to put down. Unknown Pleasures is the collected works of Andy Kirkpatrick – award-winning author, master storyteller and climbing addict. One minute he is attempting a rare solo ascent of Norway's Troll Wall and the next he's under the media spotlight climbing Moonlight Buttress for Sport Relief with The One Show's Alex Jones. In this extract Andy has just climbed Yosemite's El Capitan with his daughter, Ella - her first big wall - when she was just thirteen.
I wake with a start in a hot motel room in Mariposa. It’s 4 a.m.
My first thought is ‘She did it!’
My thirteen-year-old daughter is sleeping in the bed next to me like only a teenager can sleep, so deep only an earthquake could wake her, and she deserves it: last night she was sleeping on top of El Cap, having climbed Tangerine Trip over four hard days and nights. If there’s any teenager on the planet who deserves a lie-in today, it’s Ella.
I’m sure for every one who thinks it’s amazing that someone so young could find the strength to climb El Cap, there will be someone who is appalled a father would risk his child’s life in such a way. To be honest, I see it from both sides, and this adventure has been one of considerable soul searching and stress, as well as laughter and moments that made me want to cry with joy.
I should start at the beginning.
For many years I’ve brought my kids Ella and Ewen along to my slideshows. They’ve sat through dozens of talks, sometimes even lying on the stage at my feet, chuckling away. At first I felt a bit uneasy: do I want my kids listening to all these tales of derring-do? But climbing and the risks and rewards of this life make me who I am, and the lessons I have learnt are lessons I’ve tried to pass on to my kids. Adventure is in my DNA, and so it’s in theirs too – they should see what I get up to when I’m away, and understand both the risks and rewards of striving for impossible things.
I’ve never been a pushy climbing parent and have always wanted to leave it up to them to decide how to explore the boundaries of themselves, exposing them to wilderness and danger the way my dad did, giving them a taste of both while keeping them on a short leash.
One question that would often come up at talks was, ‘When are you going to climb El Cap with your kids?’, to which I’d reply, ‘Oh, not until Ella’s thirteen’, thinking the youngest girl to climb El Cap was that age (turns out she was fourteen). This always got a laugh, because it was obviously a crazy idea. Then Ella turned thirteen and asked, ‘So, Dad, when are we going to climb El Cap?’
My first reaction was ‘Why not?’ Having soloed it three times, climbed it in eighteen hours, and spent eleven days doing its hardest route and almost two months hanging from it I thought I knew enough to keep her safe. And having climbed it with two people with disabilities – Karen Darke and Phil Packer – I understood what was possible. When you’ve seen a woman do 4,000 pull-ups, and use only her arms (and nerve) to climb El Cap, you know it will be easier for a thirteen-year-old – well, physically at least.
‘Maybe we’ll go in the spring holidays next year,’ I fibbed, having no real plan to do so.
But Ella is persistent. Now when we went climbing she wanted to learn how to jumar, how to abseil, would ask me how she would go to the toilet ‘when we’ – not ‘if we’ – climbed El Cap.
Very soon her mum, my long-suffering ex-wife, said, ‘What’s this about Ella climbing El Cap?’, to which I replied, ‘Oh, it’s just a phase – she’ll soon forget about it’, assuming that at thirteen she’d soon be thinking more about boys than big walls.
But, like most adults, I underestimated my child.
She had made it her goal to climb El Cap, and I realised that letting her down was something I couldn’t do. I had to make it happen, no matter what it took.
The first person who needed convincing was Mandy, Ella’s mum. I left this up to Ella to negotiate, knowing full well the persistence of a child is the greatest force in nature when it comes to changing the mind of an adult. The answer was yes, on the conditions she would be safe and that my mate Paul Tattersall would be there – the only climber Mandy trusted. Paul agreed to come if I could cover the cost of the trip, and with much reluctance Mandy gave Ella her blessing.
In life, if you set out with the purpose of doing something amazing you will invariably find that circumstance will lend a hand – I’ve always lived by the motto ‘Act boldly and unseen forces will come to your aid’. So out of the blue a talented filmmaker called Ian Burton got in touch with an idea for a TV programme about climbing El Cap with an ex-Royal Marine sniper by the name of Aldo Kane. Ian wanted to see how someone like that – a trained killer! – would handle a big wall. ‘How about we take Ella along as well?’ I suggested, and so the idea was born. Better still, Ian could cover all the costs of the trip – handy as I had yet to work out how to pay for me, Ella and Paul to climb El Cap.
We set a date and started to train with more focus, with Ella learning wall safety, how to aid climb, pass knots and clean pitches, and self-rescue. She would have to miss some school and permission was granted – now that’s what I call a progressive school. The months turned to weeks and then days before we were due to go.
And then it all fell apart.
Ian could not get a visa to enter the US. With no money to pay for the trip, it fell through.
Although she put on a brave face, I knew Ella was deeply disappointed. I guess before then I’d just been going along with the notion of climbing El Cap with her, but now I knew it was more than just a climb, it was stepping up and fighting to make it happen, no matter what.
We’d planned to climb as a five-person team, with Paul leading, Aldo cleaning (who I’d yet to meet, but knew that as a safety rigger – and trained killer! – he would be invaluable on the wall), me hauling, Ella jugging and Ian filming. This technique was similar to a Russian four-person big-wall system – two pushing up the ropes, two hauling kit behind – which while heavy was very safe.
Telling Ella that we wouldn’t be going was hard, and harder still when she said that her mum had told her I’d probably not do it anyway. ‘Well, Dad, you are a bit unreliable.’ That was it; this was no longer about Ella climbing El Cap, it was about a father fulfilling a promise – I only wish it had just been to buy her a bloody horse!
Once again, circumstance came to my aid. Aldo was happy to pay his way there, glad just to be invited to climb a big wall, while my first royalty cheque arrived for Cold Wars. The money cashed, I spent the lot on two tickets to San Francisco and showed the confirmation to Ella.
We were going.
And so we finally reached Yosemite, arriving at night, Ella’s first impression of El Cap being its bulk blocking out the stars, the border between wall and space blurred by the pinpricks of head torches high on The Nose.
We were unable to climb until 5.30 a.m. on the following Monday morning due to our filming permit, so hung around the valley doing very little due to the heat – the coolness of autumn yet to arrive. In fact, I’d never felt such heat in Yosemite, even in June, the temperature being well above 30 °C. I began to wonder if it would be possible to even climb in such heat, as beyond The Nose the wall was almost empty – apart from Brits Vick and Guy climbing Zodiac, and another Brit Ollie soloing Tangerine Trip, all proving the adage about mad dogs and Englishmen.
Paul, Aldo and I took turns fixing ropes up to pitch five on Tangerine Trip, a route I’d climbed in winter conditions with Matt Dickinson many years before and which we’d chosen now due to its steepness – the steepest route on El Cap – which meant it should be safe in a storm and secure to jug. The heat was brutal; just climbing a single pitch left us close to heatstroke.
While I began to have doubts about the feasibility of climbing the wall, Ella was chomping at the bit. She had started to immerse herself in the Valley – its strange collection of people, its names and rules, bus circuits and cafeteria menus. One day I said ‘maybe if we finish early we can go to San Francisco and visit Alcatraz’, to which she replied, ‘Can’t we climb Lost Arrow Spire instead?’
Eventually, Sunday came around and I knew we just had to make it work. We carried ninety-nine litres of water up to the base of the wall that evening as we planned on having three hanging bivvies, and we set up in the dark to bivvy at the foot of the wall, dodging two rattlesnakes who were lying on the rocks, soaking up what remained of the day’s heat.
How I would wish I was cold-blooded in the days that followed.
As is usual on a big wall with such a big team, day one was a disaster. We all jugged a free-hanging rope for about 100 metres, then I began hauling while Paul and Aldo pushed out the ropes. The weight of the haulbags – ninety-nine litres of water, four days’ food for five people, three ledges, plus assorted crap – was insane. Ella and Ben Pritchard were on the belay with me all day as I inched the haulbags up while being roasted by the sun.
I spent most of that first day either hauling or telling Ella to drink, paranoid about her getting heatstroke. The bags finally arrived, but so did the night, meaning we bivvied where we’d been all day, hoping tomorrow would be more successful. The only consolation was that Ella had overcome her second biggest hurdle – weeing on the wall – which although messy for me (she weed on my legs and boots), was quick and efficient.
The following day was better but still slow and marked by more heat and some massive lower-outs for me, Ella and Ben. In the morning Ella had conquered her first biggest fear by having a crap in a wag bag – hanging her bum over the edge with the wag bag clasped around it – so I felt like things were looking up. My biggest worry was the amount of water we were drinking. Again, Aldo and Paul pushed the ropes up and we followed.
On each pitch Ella had to climb a fixed rope, backed up by a shunt on the haul line, inching her way up on her jumars. As the pitches progressed, she got more and more tired – and slower and slower. A few people had asked what I’d do if she couldn’t get up the wall; my reply was ‘she’ll have to!’ – I’d never actually considered what I’d do if she couldn’t. That night she was so tired I had to take her shoes off and get her in her sleeping bag, seeing in her the heavy fatigue that only a wall can bring.
The following morning it was tough getting her started, but started she had to be, as we had to move as quickly as possible to get to the top before we ran out of water – we were only halfway up the wall. The sun was dreadful, like something out of a science-fiction film, drawing near at dawn and bearing down all day until finally losing its grip just before dark. Worse still, El Cap was devoid of its usual cooling winds. Again and again I kept getting that Lawrence of Arabia line in my head: ‘There is nothing in the desert, and no man needs nothing.’
On this third day, Ella needed to be cajoled, bullied and distracted up the rope, her fatigue evident. Having done many walks, climbs and paddles with the kids, I had a lot of experience of this, but now it was serious; I found my fatigue hauling the bags too much to deal with. The low point came when I lowered Ella off a belay and she realised she’d dropped her iPod, a gift from her mum and engraved with her name. She started to cry and just hung on the rope at the end of her tether. I shouted up to Ben and Aldo that they should be prepared to haul Ella up the next two pitches as she was too tired to do it. In an instant, she came round and shouted ‘No! I want to do it myself. If I don’t I’ll only be disappointed.’ And with that, she slowly made her way up two more rope lengths to the belay. I was stunned by her strength, grit and determination. I knew it was this show of will that I had wanted to mine all along, the inner strength that she had – and we all have – but even so, it took all I had not to cry.
That night Ella fully endorsed the dirtbag life of a wall climber, drinking a can of Pepsi, eating tuna mixed with soft cheese, a tin of pineapple and a tin of cold beans and sausages. I asked her what had stopped her crying and she said, ‘I just thought that my iPod would always be in this beautiful place and that was OK … Plus you said you’d buy me an iPad.’
On the last day the sun finally lost its grip and the wind came, cooling us off as we climbed the last three pitches. A big wall is always like this. It grips you so tight you feel as if it will kill you and you’ll never reach the top; then, at the moment you relax, finally understanding the wall’s lesson, it releases its grip.
Ella wanted to free climb the last pitch, so I belayed her up, easy climbing in her trainers, but still on the edge of the world.
As is always the case, there was no room for celebrations as haulbags were pulled up and kit sorted. Each team member topped out one by one, and what a great team it was – this band of brothers, and a little sister. As I pulled up the last bag Aldo pointed away from the edge and I saw Ella sitting cross-legged in the dirt, her head bowed and resting on a tin of beans and sausages, fast asleep.
There is much to unpack afterwards with a climb like this – both physically and emotionally, so much it can take a lifetime. To have spent two weeks alone with Ella was fantastic, and also startling, enlightening and surprising. I saw this little girl grow before my eyes into someone amazing. It was also sad as I knew she hadn’t become this person on the wall, but in the thirteen years it had taken to get there. Before me was this human being who could get rigged up to jumar herself, carry a big pack and remain upbeat at the lowest moments, someone who thought her own thoughts and could look after herself. She tied on as my baby and untied as an equal to us all.
One thing I was always scared about was that it might all go to her head. But when we boarded the shuttle bus after the climb, the five of us looking so battered, and I said, ‘This thirteen-year-old girl just climbed El Cap’, the whole bus clapped her, and I could see only an embarrassed pride.