Articles - REVIEW: Cold Wars - Andy Kirkpatrick
John Horscroft - Posted on 31 Jan 2012
Vertebrate Publishing (2011)
It’s easy to underestimate Andy Kirkpatrick. I remember chatting to him when he was working at Outside in Hathersage, the shop’s clown prince, irreverent, rude and friendly. I watched him do a slide show for the BMC and he left a number of the audience helpless with laughter with his tall stories full of profanities and bizarre diversions. At first glance, Andy’s a joker, mountaineering’s wild card, not a serious climber. Then I heard he’d soloed Reticent Wall on El Capitan. Bloody hell, I thought, the wee fat lad can climb. Psychovertical was the result, a combination of autobiography and gripping account of that ground-breaking ascent.
Now we have the second instalment of Kirkpatrick’s life story, Cold Wars, which massively fleshes out the character beneath the buffoonery. My missus will tell you I’ve little patience for much that passes for climbing literature, our evenings often punctuated by exasperated sighs as I plough through another dismal diatribe on the vicissitudes of climbing big mountains. On this occasion she was dumbfounded when I read Cold Wars in a couple of sittings and the reason is simple enough - this book has something to say. Kirkpatrick demonstrates a level of honesty that is alien to all but a handful of climbers. His prose may verge on the miserabalist at times but, for those who prefer a bit of meat on the bare bones of a climbing tale, this amounts to a feast. It covers the noughties, a time when Kirkpatrick was trying to follow up his Reticent Wall triumph with something equally noteworthy. His efforts are tragi-comic. He and Ian Parnell do everything they can to fail on the Lafaille Route on The Dru including dropping a haul bag on the first attempt. On a trip to South America with Parnell, Kirkpatrick loses all the climbing hardware and in the Alps retreat is all too often the order of the day. The Troll Wall in Norway, a continuing bête noir, repeatedly proves beyond him.
Which would be utterly conventional were it not for the fact that throughout Kirkpatrick allows us to see into his troubled mind with punishing clarity in an almost unprecedented fashion. He illuminates the barely suppressed fury of the professional climber, fury that other climbers are better than he, less encumbered with responsibilities, even better looking. He finds himself on the Lesueur Route on The Dru with a virtual mountaineering novice who thrives in spite of the difficulties. Kirkpatrick takes this metamorphosis as a personal affront; how dare this greenhorn climb better than him. He both fights against and embraces his parental duties, loving his kids to distraction yet determined to return to the mountains even when they ask him not to, the climbing dad dichotomy. One is left with the distinct impression that for long periods Kirkpatrick falls out of love with climbing. Parnell even suggests it at one point and Kirkpatrick responds “I really hope so”.
His kids, Ella and Ewen, are his salvation throughout, his writing in many ways at its best when recounting incidents with them, a calamitous but hilarious camping trip or sending Ewen on an ill advised solo trip down an enormous slide. This is the Kirkpatrick we all warm to, funny and tender. I for one would love to see Kirkpatrick tackle something other than climbing for he is a truly talented writer.
Few books have so poignantly illuminated the love/hate relationship mountaineers have with mountains. Kirkpatrick waxes lyrical in the odd moment of triumph, extolling that moment of clarity having, in the words of Mo Anthoine, successfully “fed the rat”, but his prose takes a darker turn when his back is literally against the wall, when retreat becomes inevitable. It is then we learn about climbing’s dark heart and Kirkpatrick’s struggles with it. This is that rarest of things, a mountaineering book that matters.
This review was first published in the December 2011 issue of Climber magazine