FEW people can claim to be a “cult hero of vertical rock” but Andy Kirkpatrick is one of them.
He is a British mountaineer, a big-wall climber and a winter expedition specialist who has soloed the most difficult routes in the world, venturing vertically where others fear to tread.
Back on relatively level ground, he is currently on a tour called Psychovertical: A Higher Education, in which he imparts the knowledge of love, life and death that he has gained over 40 years of climbing.
His show, which comes to Horsham on March 15, coincides with the release of the film Psychovertical by director Jen Randell, which looks back at 40 years of climbing and adventures.
It was back in 2006 that Andy, who grew up on a “grim inner city housing estate in Hull”, wrote his first book, Psychovertical, an award-winning autobiography that also details his 13-day ascent of Reticent Wall on El Capitan in California, the hardest big-wall climb ever soloed by a Briton.
“I’ve had so many adventures I’ve had to narrow it down for the show,” says Andy. “The first half covers life-changing climbs and the second half is about how transformational it has been. It’s not a story about a hero’s journey, though. It’s not like that.”
It’s ironic that Andy, who is dyslexic, has titled his show A Higher Education and is an award-winning writer as he left school “illiterate”. “My life shows that a lack of qualifications is not always the end,” he observes. “I’m a very optimistic person and I always hope when I’m talking that it’s a positive message.”
After school, he worked for £100 a week in a climbing shop. “I remember realising I had no voice, no status, no confidence, but then when I started doing difficult climbs, people started to notice me and talk to me. I realised that by doing stupid dangerous things, then I was offered things like clothes to do stupid things and I ended up grabbing it because it was the only thing that was there.”
Andy, now a leading expert on climbing gear, has scaled El Capitan in Yosemite National Park more than 30 times, including once with his 130-year-old daughter Ella, and has climbed in places as diverse as Patagonia, Alaska, Antarctica and the Alps. He has also skied across Greenland and in 2014, he guided The One Show presenter Alex Jones up Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park in the US to raise money for Sport Relief.
Above and top: Andy Kirkpatrick on climbs
Below: Andy Kirkpatrick on the hardest climb in the Alps
Above: Ulvetanna in Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, which Andy Kirkpatrick scaled in 2013/picture: Andy Kirkpatrick
“People think climbing is an adrenaline sport,” says Andy, a father of two whose wife Vanessa accompanies him on his climbs. “But it’s more like stalking a lion. Fear and anxiety are universal but being over a 1,000 metre drop – well, some people have not pushed their boundaries like that.” In his website blog, he describes why he takes such risks with his life: “The rewards for risking your neck, all that travel and disappointment, and a mortgage worth climbing kit, are many and unexpected, and all deeply personal.
“It’s about not caring about the big things and understanding the value of the small. It’s seeing the magic. It’s doing the impossible safely. It’s lying in bed the day after and hearing the storm batter on the window, a day too late. It’s being on top. Better still, it’s being safely back at the bottom. It’s telling someone you’re safe and not to worry any more. It’s a handshake at the top. It’s about saying you did it when you enter the bar, or else having a great story why you didn’t. It’s kissing your child. It’s lifting them up. It’s putting them to bed every day for a month in recompense. It’s stepping from ice to concrete. It’s taking off your crampons for the first time in days and feeling like your feet are full of helium… It’s just because you can. It’s having an answer when someone asks you what you’ve been up to.
“For me, it’s about endings, which some may think is a good reason for not setting out in the first place. But for me, it’s the end of the journey I like, because I relish the fact that my world has changed, at least for a little while.”
Returning from a big climb and back to normal life is hard, he says. “When you are constantly driven all the time, you have a sense of relief at not being driven for a few days but normal life is really hard, in a different way. You have to deal with bills and tax.”
Andy’s new book Unknown Pleasures is out this month. It’s a collection of works covering subjects as diverse as climbing, relationships, fatherhood, mental health and the media. One moment he is describing an attempt of a rare solo ascent of Norway’s Troll Wall, the next he is surrounded by the TV circus while climbing Moonlight Buttress with Alex Jones. Yosemite’s El Capitan is ever-present; he climbs it alone, and he climbs it with his 13-year-old daughter Ella, her first big wall.
And his next climb? “I’m interested in pushing more boundaries,” he says. “Something really remote, like an ice cap.”
Andy Kirkpatrick – Psychovertical: A Higher Education is at The Capitol Horsham, North Street, Horsham, at 7.30pm on Thursday March 15. Tickets £17. The show is likely to contain strong language. Phone 01403 750220 or visit thecapitolhorsham.com.