Why Big Wall Climber Andy Kirkpatrick Says Risk Gives You Butcher’s Eyes

Meet him in person and he’s a funny, entertaining chap, but Andy Kirkpatrick’s cheerful exterior hides a dark knowledge forged in the punishing, testing and occasionally fracturing pressures of big wall and extreme weather climbing. From dehydrated solo climbs up El Capitan, to two weeks spent climbing a new route on Antarctica’s Ulvertanna at -20°C, Kirkpatrick has been to the edge, peered over, and seen certain truths rise up to strike him square between the eyes…

RISING What’s the most important thing in a sticky situation – staying focused ‘in the moment’ or staying aware of the bigger picture?

AK ‘In the most hopeless situations, where everything is beyond your control, often how you chose to react and what you do next is the first step towards regaining control. Being able to detach is always important, especially if your feeble monkey brain is screaming it’s about to die. Early on in my climbing I did quite a lot of free soloing, soloing faces up to a thousand metres high, no ropes or hope of survival if I made even a single mistake. When you cannot fall you stop thinking about falling. I don’t believe in the mantra ‘failure is not an option’, but when failure is dying, your body smashed into its component parts, then success takes up 100% of your concentration. When you put your sticky rock boot on a sloping hold, or your crampon into a patch of ice no thicker than a Kit Kat you can’t be thinking: “Oh I hope my foot doesn’t slip”. Instead, you must have an unconscious belief, based on doing the same movement countless times, that it will not. The more you expose yourself to hazard the more able you are to stay relaxed and separate out the real danger, the tigers in the dark, from the shadows.’

RISING What’s been your simultaneously most challenging, and rewarding expedition, and did you realise it at the time?

AK ‘Trips and climbs are like relationships: the one you’re on is always best, but the one to come might be even better (I’ve just got married so that’s just a stupid joke!). I’ve climbed in a lot of challenging places, but climbing Ulvertanna in Antarctica in 2014 took the biscuit in many ways. The aim was to get a pretty experienced team up one of the world’s most challenging mountains, so they could base jump from the summit. It took us 14 days to climb a new route up the mountain, the wall over three times higher than London’s Shard, and in temperatures below -20°C. In the end we climbed a new route but with a storm approaching no one jumped, so the whole team was required to get down again. It was a very tough trip in many ways, and for a while afterwards I found it hard to return back to the real world. But maybe the toughest trip overall was just going climbing for fun in 2016, a month climbing in the Sierras with my wife Vanessa, where there was no ice, no rockfall, no danger at all. It felt wrong to be just climbing for fun, hanging out at the camp fire each night. What was the point? Where was the struggle? But on the last day I realised that if all my life, and those hard climbs, had led to anything good, it had led me to Vanessa, the one person in the world worth giving up the pain for something better.

‘The real warriors on a big trip or climb are not the studs, but those who are more human, grey instead of golden’

RISING Leading groups in extreme environments isn’t easy – what’s it like on a personal level?

AK ‘Someone once said that I’m a wolf in sheep’s clothing, in that on the outside I’m all soft and cuddly, laughing and joking, but inside, and on the wall, I’m a bit of a monster. I think that having done a lot of solo ascents, many of which lasted weeks on end, where you’re totally dependent on yourself, means I often don’t work well with others; a real failure. I’ve led teams up some of the hardest routes on the planet, often people who had no experience to be there, so maybe that explains why often I felt crushed by it.

RISING Does that mean you run expeditions back in your head afterwards, to learn new lessons?

AK ‘I think a lot about how things went wrong even on climbs that went right, as I aspire to be a better human being, especially when under pressure. I think it’s important to weed the toxic and damaged people out of a team, the ones who really don’t want to be there (most often due to their ego and wants, and coming up short of the reality it would take to see those satisfied). I think I’ve come back from trips very damaged by the experience, even to the point of breakdown, but it was never about the climb, always the people. The ability to balance between being a stone cold ‘killer’ and a vulnerable loving human being is often the crux.’

RISING What negative personal traits on a hard expedition really drag the group down?

AK ‘Pity or self-pity and general slack-giving is the real killer; we’re all scared, cold, hungry, need to take a crap, and don’t want to listen to that one person verbalising our pain. People who are always protesting their weakness generally just become a drain on everyone and often only sort their shit out by being put under genuine pressure so at least their whinging is valid. Very often the real warriors on a big trip or climb are not the studs, people who believe fully in their godlike qualities, but those who are more human, grey instead of golden. I guess the whole evolution of mankind, its history and art and wars was built on the back of grafters, farmers and factory workers, not kings and statesmen.

‘Trips and climbs are like relationships: the one you’re on is always best, but the one to come might be even better’

RISING People fall back on humour in high-pressure situations but can that be a double-edged sword?

AK ‘It’s important not to use humour and a quick wit to hurt or attack people, even when you know they deserve it. I remember crossing Greenland on skis and one member of the team was really struggling, due to blisters and getting into a deep funk over it all. She was the leader but slowly people lost respect for her, as is often the case. She starting laying out some plan and I offered up another suggestion, and she got really upset, saying that I always undermined her, that I would never agree with one thing she said, to which I replied: “I think you’re wrong there”. It’s a funny story, and everyone laughed at her, and I got some marks for being witty, but really I should have given her a hug and both of us should have worked it out. Very often in the depth of things we lose sight that we actually like each other and aren’t enemies at all.’

RISING In terms of mental robustness, is this something you get allotted early on, or is it something you can learn and then train to a higher level?

AK ‘Again soloing, having no one to back you up or take over really helps to build mental toughness, after all what else is there – rescue? Looking back at some things I did I find it remarkable how strong my past self was – like it couldn’t have been me who had the balls to do such things. I find this in writing as well, finding some blog I wrote and asking “who wrote this?” When you write, or when you’re climbing a dangerous route you often do go into a trance-like state (they call it flow), which means you don’t really have much control over what’s going on. I guess I’ve been lucky enough to be dealt many bad hands in my life and had a great many knocks and disappoints, which have helped forge someone who although moving at a snail’s pace, can push through problems and calamities.’

‘By the last day I was ready to drink my sun cream and had lost about ten kilos in weight’

RISING What has been the biggest barrier you’ve ever broken within yourself, on an expedition?

AK ‘I’ve spent ten days on the Eiger in winter trying to make the first solo of the Eiger Direct (Harlin), which drew on everything I knew about myself. When I soloed the Sea of Dreams [on El Capitan] in 2015 I started running out of water on day eight and had to make eight litres of water last me a further six days (normal water consumption on El Cap is three litres a day at a minimum). By the last day I was ready to drink my sun cream and had lost about ten kilos in weight. The most scary thing about getting old I guess is coming to terms with the fact you’ve got to leave such ideas as broken barriers behind. Maybe that’s the final barrier to break, the one that kills far too many great climbers.’

RISING Do you think there's a time in life, as an individual, where your temperament becomes fixed and you lose the ability to adapt to fresh challenges?

AK ‘The whole western world is stuck in a subjective reality caused by the fact there are very few objective dangers and concerns. But when you’ve experienced the objective reality – of falling in crevasses, polar bears, avalanches, mates killed or worse – it’s harder to slip into this post hunter gatherer thinking. You’re forced to be practical, to see people as individual human beings controlled partly by past experience, as well as ancient circuitry, be they men or women, black or brown or white. You end up with a butcher’s eyes, the people passing the counter each day with their worldly concerns, while you chop and butcher meat and bone. To remain able to survive and thrive in this world, to not become fixed in that subjective reality, to stay on the right side of the counter, you need to feel the blood.’

RISING How important is good planning to what you do?

AK ‘I’m a terrible planner, one reason why I’ve yet to ski to the South Pole or climb Everest, namely because I don’t think beyond the next six months (such trips take years of planning). My favourite trips are the ones where you say “let’s go tomorrow”, buy a ticket, pack one or two bags, and go. I’m also a very chaotic person, but I see it as an advantage as chaos plays a big role in life, especially on a climb where the aim is for chaos – an adventure is a journey with an uncertain outcome, so by definition requires some chaos. I want to go to the South Pole in 2018 but can see I’ll just end up trying to raise £200,000 through some crazy scheme a few months before!’

RISING What’s been the longest, coldest and most difficult challenge that you’ve taken on yet? And how did that go?

AK ‘When I climbed the Troll Wall [Troll Peaks, Norway] in winter in 2013 we spent 14 nights on the wall in some really cold weather. By the end of the climb I had lumps of ice the size of apples in the insulation of my sleeping bag. I had two partners who’d both climbed Everest with me, but had never climbed a big wall before, let alone in winter (the Troll is one of the world’s most fearsome big walls). It turned out one had only ever climbed on an indoor wall. I ended up leading all but 15 metres of the route while at the same time mentoring these two guys on how to climb a big wall (I found out later he was looking up on his phone how to tie knots). The daftest bit is that I’d soloed the route we were doing the year before, all but the last 15 metres and so spent 14 days in horrific suffering just to prove I could do it. In the end, when it was done, I realised an important lesson in that success was overrated, it was just another tick in the book, whereas to fail so close – and having tried – that’s what it was all about.’

RISING You’ve done expeditions ‘alone against the stone’ – are these kind of efforts easier than when leading a team?

AK ‘I have trouble living up to other people’s expectations of who they think I am, something I don’t need to worry about when I’m alone. Stalin once said “no people no problem” and this does apply well to teams as being the strong one often means you carry the burden for everyone, and maybe a true leader is the one who can shirk the burden back into people who don’t realise just how strong they are.’

RISING What adventure would you recommend that we could all do tomorrow?

‘Do something that scares you but won’t kill you (straight away).’

WHAT NEXT? Andy Kirkpatrick runs one of the internet’s most prolific adventure blogs on everything from how to poo while tied into a harness 1km above the ground, to swallowing fear…