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An Interview with Andy Kirkpatrick: The Dark Side To A Life Of Climbing

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Andy Kirkpatrick is a climber, an author and a comedian. His draw to suffering in hardcore, vertical and freezing locations, combined with the technical and mental skills to get by in such places, and an ability to tell the story of those experiences in a relatable and funny way, is unique. 

There’s a dark side to big trips that doesn’t seem to get talked about much. Whether that’s climbing, cycling, rowing, walking, pulling a sledge or whatever else. Maybe it’s not even exclusive to outdoor-type things, and is present in anything in which someone spends a long spell doing the same thing. Perhaps the reason for it not getting talked about much is because it’s scary to put too much of our true selves out there for anybody other than ourselves to see. But I guarantee, that if someone is on a solo trip their mind is not always full of metaphorical butterflies and rainbows.

Of course those moments are real too. There’s happy times when rainbows shine and a butterfly lands on your shoulder. However, sustained periods of time spent in your own head can make dark thoughts seep in through the cracks, and the negative mental side can drip and drip like a leaky tap. Self-doubt, selfishness, lack of confidence, uncertainty about why you’re there and whether you’ve made the right life choices up to this point, can become a huge weight – like a bucket that’s been out in the rain overnight. Maybe that’s type 2 fun and is part of the appeal, but it doesn’t make it any less of an issue in the moment.

Andy has a way of talking honestly about the dark side. His books, Psychovertical and Cold Wars, are amazing insights into much more than climbing. They do have vivid descriptions of things like rockfalls and sketchy gear placements being the difference between staying alive or falling to a horrible and gruesome death, but they’re way more than that and talk about (with often brutal truthfulness) life outside climbing – stuff like going through a divorce, cash troubles, being a parent who’s a climber and dealing with the risk vs reward dilemma, etc.

Recently he joined a team last-minute to climb a first ascent in Antarctica, and without much of a break went off to climb Moonlight Buttress in Zion with Alex Jones for BBC Comic Relief. Sounds awesome, right?  We spoke about both sides – positive and negative – to the life of a climber. Hope you dig it.

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What draws you to a life of climbing / trips?

I’m actually more of an indoor person, and probably spend more time not doing stuff than most people. What I like is saving up all my time then having a big blow out of an adventure, and really stretching myself. 

Do you ever struggle with contentment – the grass is always greener dilemma?

I’m never content, and always feel I should be doing something differently to have that ideal life, and that nothing is ever good enough. But then I think that the truly happy people are either too stupid to realise, they aren’t happy, they have low standards of happiness, or their happy life is a sham! 

Can you describe your happiest memory on a trip?

I’ve had so many it would be impossible to pick a single one, but the evening on top of El Cap with Ella [Andy’s daughter] after we topped out was very special, and I did a trip with Karen Darke – kayaking in the Patagonian archipelago – that was very tough, and I remember the last few minutes of the trip trying to make it to a remote beach in a gathering storm. That was one of my happiest memories. The end was in sight and I just felt so in control of the kayak.

And the time you were most scared? 

Again almost too many to mention. I don’t get scared too much in the mountains (I got scared jumping into the sea yesterday though). People often ask me how many times I thought I was going to die, and I replied it’s not when you think you’ll die, but when you know you’re going to die that means something. Trying to solo the Troll Wall a few years ago, I had a car sized flake I was on move a few centimetres before stopping, leaving me just hanging there waiting to die. That was scary.

What’s going on in your head during a ballsy solo?

The level of attention, focus and awareness of everything around you is incredible, very much like a bomb disposal man must feel. When you’re climbing, there is only that. 

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Your post about The Real World – seems like you’ve had a tough time recently. People might look at your trips, Antarctica and Moonlight Buttress a little while back, and think of them as being the stuff of dreams, glossing over the other impacts big trips can have. How do you view the less glamorous side?

I think the more someone seems to be doing the most amazing things, the more their real life is taking the strain. When you are in a normal relationship with someone who has plenty of stability, then going away adds a lot of strain. As long as you don’t take the piss, and you have a solid relationship, then it can work for a while at least. I think there is some kind of understanding, that you can follow your dreams as long as your dreams allow your partner some level of normal security over time. It’s fine if your dream is being a heroin addict but just don’t expect your partner to support you in it. In my last relationship I thought I’d found the perfect match, in that we both liked doing crazy trips, and joked we were like heroin addicts, so it was all fine. The problem is, a heroin addict, no how much they love you, will always put their fix first, so once we began doing our own thing we just applied too much strain on the relationship (if either of us had been ‘normal’ then it would have worked I think).

Which do you get the most from; solo trips or group trips?

I guess I had a long period of soloing, and I suspect that, partly, it was because it was both easier to do things without people, and that I didn’t feel up to climbing with others (I have very low self-esteem but incredibly high self-actuation – a perfect mix for a soloist!).  But in the last two years I’ve climbed with a lot more people, and have found it incredibly rewarding, even if it sometimes means we’ve failed when I think I’d have done it if I was soloing. Stalin used to say ‘No people no problem’, but I’ve come to the conclusion that, although true, it’s the difficulties and differences that give the experience it’s colour and texture. 

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It seems like a majority of people living big-trip careers portray their expeditions with ever-present positivity but gloss over any negative stuff  – whereas in reality there’s probably a lot at play – loneliness, head-games etc. You have a way of putting it all out there – everything from your innermost personal life to the honest mental side of expeditions. 

I have a real problem with being way too honest, which is fine when it comes to me, but not when it comes to others (this has put a lot of strain on relationships with those I’ve mentioned). Most people are very private, and the ones who are public either only want to show their filtered selves (sort of an Instagram version of themselves), or are just too self obsessed and don’t filter anything at all – but can’t express it in a creative way.              

What’s it like writing in such an intimate way? (Speaking of that strain you mention, your posts sometimes reminds me of a climber-version of James Altucher, who admits his pieces can be so personal that he’s lost friends and family over them and people worry he’s going to kill himself)

I think that’s very true, and often what you write is what’s really going on inside you, and what people see at other times is just a mask. There is much I don’t write, and blogging takes a while as well, so many good ideas/experiences just get forgotten. But having the balls to write a tweet about the sadness of removing your partner from your favourites on your phone, is as raw, honest and insightful as anything a hundred times longer.

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Do you think the raw honesty has been a positive or negative, overall? 

It can come across as being ungrateful or winging, when you tweet something like “Las Vegas is a depressing dump” – and people say “I’ll swap and you can go to my 9/5 job”. But then I don’t ask people to visit my site, or pay for what I write – it’s there, take it or leave it. I know that some people do find it uncomfortable to read (one guy said it was like an episode of Grey’s Anatomy), but that’s the beauty of the web, you can just hit the back button.

“Sure there are many things that are right, stuff that people always point out, like lots of amazing climbs and trips, books and shows that mean something to people, but sometimes I feel like the king of experiences sat on a throne of ashes”, does the self-doubt that you talk about stick around for long?

The self-doubt is always there, and I do feel like I wasted much of my life not just getting on with things, neither being present in this world or the other. The bottom line for me remains what I achieve as a father – that’s how I should be judged, and I think I came to understand this just in time.

What’s going on during the hard times of a trip vs that same moment in retrospect?

I’m always aware how lucky I am to be having hard times – in fact maybe that’s why I seem to be able to cope, as I want these tough times on a trip. It’s like when I skied across Greenland in 2006, it was bloody boring for 24 days, and it was only on the last three days, when things got almost impossibly hard (due to the broken ice and rivers) that things got fun. When you are being squeezed the hardest it’s like one of those bath toys you had as a kid – as soon as you let go it sucks everything in – and on a trip this rush of life/peace/chocolate hobnobs is transformational.

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The mental vs physical challenge – which is most appealing?

Mountaineering is 80% mental, 20% physical – and fitness means nothing when you’re playing the long game on a trip.

Any type 2 fun going forward?

I’m hoping to squeeze in another crack at El Cap solo in a day, Denali in Winter and the Eiger Direct in the next six months, so same as usual. I’ve been signed up by Montane who have kindly agreed to support me financially (I’ve had plenty of kit from companies but no cash for many years), which I hope will help give me a bit more balance in my life (I’m 43 now – so need to get a move on stupid-trips-wise!).

Thanks Andy. [If you enjoyed reading this, hopefully you’ll enjoy this film we collaborated on a couple of years ago at Visual Collective.]



Vague Direction: A 12,000 mile bicycle ride, and the meaning of life.
Available now: Amazon.co.uk | Amazon.com



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