Friday, October 12, 2012

Book Review: Psychovertical

I became aware of Andy Kirkpatrick some years ago when I was an avid reader of every climbing magazine out there. Kirkpatrick has written for the American magazines Climbing and Alpinist as well as for the UK magazines Climb and Climber. His articles were always engaging, often funny, and even more often, terrifying.

Recently Kirkpatrick's award winning autobiography, Psychovertical, made it's way across the pond and was reprinted by Mountaineers Books. And like his shorter work Kirkpatrick's stories from the mountains of his life are always entertaining and enlightening.

I'm well aware that a large percentage of our blog readers are Americans and are far more interested in tales from Alaska and Yosemite than stories from the Alps. And I also know that some of you might already be turned off to this book because it was written by a Brit. But rest assured, Kirkpatrick's sense of humor has a flair that we Americans can appreciate, and he even writes about the Sierra...extensively...

I don't believe in God, and intelligent design is only for those who know nothing about either, but when I stand beneath El Cap I always have second thoughts. How could nature be so brash and showy? And if there is a God, he must be an American, or the road wouldn't be so close to this glorious wall.

Kirkpatrick frames the story of his life around a solo climb of the Reticent Wall (VI, 5.9, A5) in Yosemite Valley, an incredibly committing and dangerous climb. The book is written as if from the climb. Kirkpatrick tells us the story of his life and his obsession with high end alpine climbing in a series of vignettes, always returning to the pinnacle of his climbing career on the solo climb of the Reticent.

Early in my climbing career, I become obsessed with big wall climbing. The idea of vertical backpacking was extremely attractive. And as such, I poured over articles about big wall routes throughout the world and found many of them to be...dull. This is not at all the case with Kirkpatrick's wall adventures. Even as he describes individual moves, which in the hands of a lesser writer would be incredibly boring, we are engaged. And we are never more engaged with this type of climbing than we are when he is relating comic stories from living on the wall:

For breakfast we had a big tin of fruit to share, and every day he would eat his half, then in the same motion as he passed the tin to me, pull out a paper bag, pull down his pants, and have a dump. It's not surprising that more often than not I would lose my appetite, the sight, smell and sound unconductive to keeping a mouth full of pineapple and grapes. 

Many of us learn the art of climbing with a little bit of trial by fire. Some of us end up running out of food. Others spend unplanned nights in the mountains. And a few of us even get hurt.  But almost none of us jump out of bed one day and right into high end climbing. Kirkpatrick was one of those who did just such a thing. He learned the art of alpinism as most of us do, by climbing local rocks and then graduating to the mountains. But most our graduation climbs do not include travel to a new range in the winter for our very first alpine climb...

Early in his life, Kirkpatrick threw himself at his climbing and became totally enamored with winter ascents in the Alps and in Patagonia. Psychovertical chronicles a number of these in his trademark comic, self-deprecating style. The winter ascents are incredibly engaging in part because so many of them turn epic, with dangerous descents in massive storms, rappels off terrible anchors into the unknown and freezing bivys in tiny snow caves...

After an hour we'd dug a coffin-shaped cave, just big enough as long as we left almost everything outside. I was putting the finishing touches to our temporary home, scraping any irregular lumps in the roof so water wouldn't build up on them and drip onto us, when, as I was leaning against one wall, my hand shot through and I fell onto my shoulder. I rolled away and realized we'd dug through into the side of a crevasse. It was so late that I just filled in the gap and climbed back out into the storm. I said to Aaron that he could sleep on that side, neglecting to tell him why. He was lighter anyway.

And while the book is chalked full of intermittent intensity and comedy, the heart of the book is in Kirkpatrick's obsession with high end climbing and the guilt he feels when he leaves his family for climbing trips. This is a theme that many climbers deal with. Most of our spouses understand that we need to climb in order to be who we are, but our kids don't understand that. Instead, they just see us as not being there. Kirkpatrick describes significant anguish around his lifestyle and how he feels when he's in the mountains that he should be home with his family; and conversely that when he's at home with his family, he wants to be in the mountains.

Late in the book, he makes this point more eloquently than any other climbing writer ever has, and by doing so places himself in the top tier of mountaineering authors:

I thought about talking to Ella, imagined her voice, what she would say.

She would ask when I was coming home.

I often wondered about writing her a letter, to tell her who I was, why I climbed, and why I left her, even though she was the greatest gift I had ever been given. But every time I started, my words sounded like the excuses they were. The only thing I had to give were the photos I had taken of her, boxes full. Through them you could see my love for her. And her love for me.

One day, I would write a book and hope she would then understand that fathers are only children too.

--Jason D. Martin

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