AN INTERVIEW WITH ANDY KIRKPATRICK
Andy Kirkpatrick is one of the UK’s leading mountaineers. Specialising in big wall ascents, Andy has a track-record of finding himself plunged into extreme weather conditions, at the sharp end of some unusual climbing parties and combining high altitude drama with his own brand of humor.
We caught up with Andy to ask him a few questions about living above the clouds, and what it was like to take his 13 year old daughter up Yosemite’s most famous mountain.
You took your 13 year old daughter up El Capitan’s tangerine trip. What advice would you give to someone climbing with children?
I’d say that you need to make it fun, like a game, and to have plenty of rests, plenty of sweets for bribes, and plenty of patience! I often forget that kids don’t go as fast as grown ups, so end up dragging them into epics. I did a trip in Norway this winter, up where the Telemark heroes operated. The plan was to do a long ski trek, pulling pulks and living in tents. I had this huge route planned, which was actually a route I’d done in two days a few years before. Unfortunately I didn’t factor in that a: they were kids, b: the weather (which was terrible, with the tents getting almost totally buried on the 2nd night, or c: the kids had never skied before! In the end it took us 4 days to do what I thought would be day 1. Nevertheless it was a great trip and very memorable!
Were you more concerned about her safety than when you lead expeditions? Or do the same rules apply?
I’m always very focused on safety, and I think if you asked any of my partners they say it’s a bit of an obsession of mine – in that I’m very paranoid and detail focused. I think that it’s rarely the big things that kill you, but small things like a slip or a trip or a badly placed runner. With Ella we had a big team around her, both climbers and people who could fight off a terrorist attack – so she was always safe.
You seem to be attracted to a different type of challenge, often on routes with people who may not be considered elite climbers? Whether it’s for a televised charity event or just for pleasure, what are the contrasting appeals and challenges of these less ‘professional’ climbs?
I learnt a while back, as more and more friends got killed pushing the envelope that to survive this game you need to switch from hard to interesting. Climbing a hardish route with a novice; someone who can’t walk, or a child, adds a whole new level of difficulty that’s safe but still a new level of challenge. I guess I took these skills and ended up applying them to routes that were also cutting edge like Ulvetanna in Antarctica, where the team I was with were all novice climbers (like going to war with scouts!).
Mountaineering is often considered a very pure form of climbing, but for many it can be difficult to get into. What are the biggest barriers to entry and how would you suggest overcoming these?
Buying the plane ticket! Climbing mountains is just a holiday. You can beg and borrow the kit (climbing kit has never been so cheap), and travel is cheap too, and when you’re there you don’t spend any money. The biggest problem is finding a good partner who shares your goals. Once you have that the world – and its mountains – stand before you.
What is the future for mountaineering? Quicker ascents, more winter ascents, no oxygen; is mountaineering always going to be an arms race?
South West face of Everest, without oxygen, alpine style and in Winter… so all of the above. But for most normal people it remains the same, to find some quiet corner where you feel you are in the wilderness.
Geographically, what regions are going to see the next big ascents? What part of the map is the mountaineering community getting particularly excited about?
China is the place to go these days, as well as more remote areas of Alaska, but there are few blanks on the map. For me new summits don’t appeal that much – I’m not that adventurous – I’m more interested in going to places with plenty of history to dig my teeth into.
What is your favourite mountain and why?
I should say El Cap, as I’ve climbed it over 3 times (maybe 35… I forget), but it would probably be the Eiger. It has no easy way up or down, and when you’re on it you can feel its history under your fingertips (all the holds slope the wrong way, so it’s often only the history you can actually get a grip of!).
You’re asked by a keen climber who’s looking to begin mountaineering; ‘what should be my first UK mountain?’ which route do you send them off to and why?
I’d say the one that your head tells you not to, but your heart desires the most! If you push me it would be something like Tryfan, a mountain with no real easy path to the top (easy is not what you want when it comes to anything in life).
Of all climbers, past and present, who would feature in your ultimate dream-team expedition? What route would you attempt and why?
There are loads of amazing climbers in history, along with explorers and adventurers and I’m sure you could come up with an amazing dream list – BUT – I doubt they’d get on, and very often when you meet your heroes they turn out to be a-holes! The mountain is less important than the experience and the journey; the people you share that with is more important than success itself. It’s better to fail with good people, than beat the mountain with bad. For me I’d swap out the North Face of K2 with the hardest climbers of their day, for a week at the CIC hut on the Ben in winter with some good mates. Good or bad weather, climb or not – it would be a week worth having.
Andy Kirkpatrick is a British mountaineer with a lifetime of solo and first ascents under his belt. You may know him from when he took TV presenter Alex Jones up Moonlight Buttress in Zion for Sports Relief.