Climbing books are routinely hailed as ‘impressive’ or even ‘awesome’. Rarely are the words ‘poetic’ or ‘delightful’ used to describe the narrative. Andy Kirkpatrick, however, does not respond to the stereotype of the gnarly, karabiner-clanging rock jock propping up the bar in Llanberis.
The charm of the stories in this book lies in the author’s skill in blending tales of adventure climbing with deeply human experiences. In the article about the climb of Yosemite’s Leaning Tower, Kirkpatrick recounts his one-day ascent of a wall usually allotted a three-day time slot, with two climbing partners he’d met via email. Once on the summit, watching the approach of a huge thunderstorm and a difficult and dangerous descent yet to come, the climbers’ primary concern was to make it down for a pizza before the restaurant shut.
The book’s 35 stories are interspersed with Kirkpatrick’s poetry and illustrations and often deal with experiences totally unrelated to climbing. What makes an artist is not what he draws, Kirkpatrick tells us. It instead lies in the vital importance of seeing the seemingly unimportant. Consider his account of the girl he observes in a café, sobbing her eyes out, sitting opposite her boyfriend, ‘white cups held tight in their hands’. The image brings to mind an identical incident the author observed a few days previously: a girl crying, only on this occasion the boyfriend sits tapping away at his phone, an all-too-familiar reminder of the digital barrier that can be erected between two individuals. The rain outside, the boyfriend fiddling with his keys, the pink marshmallows floating in the girl’s now-cold hot chocolate as they put on their coats – the reader is perhaps struck by an uncomfortable twinge of familiarity.
This collection of tales bears out Kirkpatrick’s credentials as an accomplished storyteller, be in at a table in a café charged with the angst of frustrated love, or when totally immersed in a desperate winter climb in Scotland.