Paul Pritchard's 2021 book: The Mountain Path

...amidst some big wall history writings

Paul Pritchard and The Mountain Path

My good friend Paul Pritchard just came out with a new book, his fourth major title of mountaineering literature. Once again, Paul provides new insight of his life of a climber, with life lessons relevant to everyone who has ever pondered fate.

I have seen Paul grow in many ways over the years; when we first met in the 1990s at my house in Hurricane, Utah, Paul was at the cutting edge of climbing. He was wearing a big floppy hat and I wondered how someone so slight could be such a bad-ass. It was his art on first ascents that captured the public’s attention, as well as his crossover into the expeditionary alpine big wall realm, so I wrote a short piece for the oddly named “Players” section of Climbing Magazine, edited by Jeff Achey. It’s fun to look back on that piece, as for me now, it is difficult to call to mind the deeper roots of our attitude toward risk back in the day.

My family moved to Tasmania in 2008 largely because of Paul. Jeni, my wife, and I had travelled all around Australia on our honeymoon before we had kids; we would never have thought to visit the island of Tasmania, except for a short visit to see Paul. Once here, though, we both fell in love with Tasmania and have been here ever since.

Paul’s continuing climbing and adventuring has been a joy to witness and support. After he got back on the rock in Eldorado with my buddy Steve Quinlan, I helped prod him to add climbing back into his endless repertoire of ideas of amazing adventures he pursues every year, in between raising his kids and public speaking. Somehow he’s signed me up to an epic journey deep through the Tasmania wilderness to find a new route up a fearsome chuck of stone a thousand feet high in the first landfall of the southern ocean weather system. The raft trip we did through the Franklin was terrifying enough, but this one sounds more so. You have to be tough to hang with Paul.

Paul’s new book represents the finest form of mountaineering literature: page-turning stories sprinkled with insight of the broader context. Recently we put together an interview for UK climbing on his new book:

The interview appears at UK Climbing, with lots of olden Paul Pritchard pics.


Also: Enormocast interview with Paul

Paul Pritchard discusses his new book, The Mountain Path.
Interview by John Middendorf October 20, 2021
JM:  Hi Paul. I am really excited about your new book, with rad climbing stories and deep dives into the spiritual aspects of climbing.  Perhaps you can start by telling us about your writer's journey since your first book, Deep Play, which won the Boardman Tasker prize for Mountain Literature in 1997?
PP: Well Deucey, I began writing, like so many other ‘professional’ climbers from the 80s and 90s, by penning articles for magazines. That was one of the ways you could get a bit of income in those days, as was touring with slide shows (of the 35mm kind). I think the first piece I got published was an article on Gogarth for the (now long gone) climbing magazine, High. I remember running into my hero, Ron Fawcett, in Pete’s Eats in Llanberis and he congratulated me on my article. That gave me a real boost. I also wrote scores of profiles and trip reports, all with a very human bent, for On The Edge magazine.
Eventually someone suggested compiling them into a book, so I sent a manuscript to Ken Wilson at Baton Wicks, the leading publisher of climbing books in the UK, and those became Deep Play (a term coined by philosopher Jeremy Bentham as, "A game with stakes so high that no rational person would engage in it"). After that, I was on a high for months; having left school at sixteen with one ‘0' level, I didn't class myself as a writer. But that book seemed to hit the Zeitgeist. Of course it was your foreword that cinched it John!
JM: Indeed, Deep Play is the best - perhaps one of the only - book that truly captures the dirt bag climbing scene of the 1980's, when bold climbing was the highest art form, many of the top climbers were unemployed and living in tents all year, and peer recognition was the only "share" when climbing the wild vertical.  What happened next?
PP: With the prize money from the Boardman Tasker,  I went on a round-the-world climbing tour with Celia Bull that led to our attempt on the Totem Pole in Tasmania.
I guess for those that don’t know me I had better quickly explain what happened on that Friday 13th of February 1998. I was climbing up to Celia, when the rope dislodged a laptop sized flake of dolerite which fell 25 metres and buried itself into my skull, leaving me with a traumatic brain injury. There was just me and Celia down there and she performed an amazing rescue that has now gone down in climbing lore. On my return to the UK I was in Clatterbriddge hospital near Liverpool for a year and even now, a couple of decades later, I am paralysed down one side with hemiplegia and have epilepsy.
Being in hospital so long gave me time to think. At that point I thought I would never climb again and I knew I was a good writer, having just won the B/T. So, what better story to tell than the most amazing rescue by Celia on the most sensational piece of rock in the world (well, one of them). I wrote my second book, The Totem Pole whilst in hospital and that won an unprecedented second Boardman Tasker and the Banff Grand Prize. Now I was on a writer's cloud nine.
JM:  Your new book, The Mountain Path, begins with the Totem Pole experience. It's fascinating that you have recounted the story many times, but each time reveals new insights of your close brush with death.  Do you feel this relates more to your practiced ability to put thoughts to paper, or to years of personal growth since your accident?
So in a way, this is my third Totem Pole book, would you believe? It’s like, The Totem Pole trilogy!  The first book, The Totem Pole, was a seat of your pants ride were I was writing it, in hospital, as it actually happened. So, immediate and with a sense of urgency. The sequel, The Longest Climb, was a more measured affair about my return to the mountains and climbing and my nascent thoughts about the politics of disability. That book ends on the summit of Kilimanjaro seven long years after my accident.
And The Mountain Path? Well, It has been 23 years since that defining moment. The further in time I venture from the accident the more insight I gain into life and death, the more my philosophy deepens and strengthens. After all it was the defining moment of my life. You know, I often felt sorry for Joe Simpson (I did my first Himalayan trip to Bhagaratti III with him), because I thought he would forever be known for that accident on Suila Grande. And now, I am in the same boat of being well known because I had a rock fall my head. I don't feel sorry for Joe any more. I just see that one precious incident can be the vehicle for tremendous personal growth.
So I think this particular book is less about my improving my writing practice and more about personal growth and, dare I say it, spirituality. You can’t come within a hair's breadth of death and not gain some insight into the nature of all things. I mean, the lights were going out… I truly sensed there was nothing there… And yet, I was going home. Since then, I have gained more meaning from the trials and tribulations than might have been first apparent, or indeed, that I could ever imagine.
JM: Yes, not many people have had so many close encounters with death: your ten-minute underwater experience on Gogarth, wedged head-first between two rocks after a 30m fall into the ocean, and your 60m fall where your broke your back ice climbing, to name a few.
PP: Giggles.
JM: Even though I have known you for what, over 30 years, there are many fresh and deep stories and experiences in your new book; for example, your descriptions on the process of pain - something we often avoid, but can and often does lead to compassion and peace. In this sense, it is really interesting how you have structured the chapters of the book as experiences: Freedom, Pilgrimage, Pain, Fear, Death and Stillness, all leading to a crescendo towards focus of a goal: The Climb.  In a way, the book tracks the journey of all climbers, even though it's rare to explore the depths of motivation, gratitude, and emotion in the process of becoming a climber. The stories really highlight the spiritual aspects of climbing - often fleeting yet powerful - and so hard to remember and describe. Can you review a bit of how you structured the sequence of chapters based on the biographical stories reinforcing each topic?
PP:  Yes, the layout of the chapters is in no way chronological, but each event, taken in sequence, does serve as life’s journey. Or, at least, a life’s journey lived in the mountains or immersed in wild nature. But you’ve hit the nail on the head. Most of us don’t stop to analyse what the hell is going on in the mountains, or on The Mountain, because The Mountain is the central character of this book. I think one doesn’t stop to analyse probably because it is exhausting, and is indeed a life’s work. I don’t want to give too much of The Path away, but eventually if you continue with a sense of curiousness and mindfulness you will arrive at a point were it is possible to see what  a Buddhist might call ‘Ultimate Reality’.
Ever since that rock fell on my head, I’ve been epileptic right? You’ve seen me having a fit. To the onlooker it’s pretty scary, but inside my head I go to another place. I guess I’m simply reporting back from that place. And in that place I don’t intellectualise, I instinctively feel certain truths. But it’s really difficult to share in a way that makes sense. So that is the work I have done, and the balance I’ve tried to strike.
JM: You really dive deep in the management of fear; can you share a bit on the ‘Fear Therapy’ described in your book?
By brushing up against death as frequently as mountaineers and climbers inevitably do, climbing has far-reaching consequences. The act of doing such a potentially dangerous activity, and doing it well, must bring about a profound change in an individual’s psyche.
It seems obvious to any climber that top-roping and leading are two completely different things. Top-roping is similar to 'Exposure Therapy’, which is used today for treating all sorts of anxiety disorders. So if you are scared of big spiders, for example, you face big spiders, though safely under glass, and eventually you will become desensitised.
With lead climbing, on the other hand, we have to face our very real fear of death. And by and by, we become free of the tremendous burden death loads upon us. Mark Twain said, ‘Do the thing you fear most and the death of fear is certain.’  Taking such risks can free us of fear and make us more courageous in life. This being said climbing still has to be learned properly - I’m not advocating walking up to the base of The Rainbow Slab in Llanberis and tying in, not having climbed before!
Seems a bit evident, but if you read my full argument I try to make clear why most top climbers are shining examples of fear management.
JM: The Approach, Preparation and The Climb chapters in your book at first seem incongruous. Why have you added these, what could be described as "stream of consciousness experience" chapters?
PP: So often in my life of climbing, as soon as I get out there in wild nature, I breathe a sigh of relief… The silence, the colour, the texture and connection… You are home. I know, to some extent it is like this for every climber. That’s why we do it right? But I also know that it is possible sometimes to be oblivious to the reality of this amazing world around us. It is as if it would simply be too much for us to bear if we saw it all the time.
So, we let our ego invade the stillness of our consciousness - we worry, we  panic, we absolutely love things when they go our way. We absolutely dislike things when they don’t. In this way climbing a rock can be just like going shopping at the supermarket, or stacking the dishwasher, a mindless activity swayed this way and that by our circumstances. But if we are mindful, I mean really mindful, on a day’s climbing we can take another step towards ultimate reality, going back to the one, God, truth or whatever you want to call it.
What I attempted to do with these three chapters is to put a whole life of journeying on ‘The Path’ into a single day on The Mountain. It is an ‘every-man’ mountain that could be in any location.
So, a day of climbing in the mountains becomes a metaphor for the journey of life.
JM: Paul, amazing as always. Once again, I think you have nailed it, just as you did with your first book, Deep Play, but this time with an even clearer visceral examination of the deeper roots of climbing.  Congratulations!
Sometime in the 1990’s I found myself in Scotland on a trip with my mother & my brother & my partner at the time to visit my mum’s ancestor’s homelands. While we were there, Paul invited me to climb Old Man of Hoy so we spontaneously detoured to the Orkney Islands for a rainy ascent of the ocean spire. As a beginning climber, I read and re-read a weird and wild fiction story about the Old Man of Hoy which appeared in Robbins’ Rockcraft series, so the climb had been a dream since I was 14. Thanks, Paul! (I think that is my brother’s Stretch Armstrong climbing with us).


In the Beginning: Subtle Means and Engines

Pre-1492 climbing tools

The Modern Era of Mountaineering (1786)

American Trail Builders, 1800's

The rise of iron for ascent

Rope Technology in the 19th century

Mizzi Langer -- first advertised rock climbing pitons (Mauerhaken)

Climbing Pitons Early Evolution--part 1a

Climbing Pitons Early Evolution--part 1b

Climbing Pitons Early Evolution--part 1c

Climbing Pitons Early Evolution--part 1d

Climbing Pitons Early Evolution-part 1e

Tita Piaz-Alpinisto Acrobatico (Piaz PartA)

Campanile Basso di Brenta

Tita Piaz-Speed Climber and Rope Acrobat (Piaz PartB)

Tita Piaz-Guide and Rigging Expert (Piaz PartC)