“I realize there is a paradox here – why keep going back to a place that has hurt you so badly?” But the wounds and hardships one endures on the mountain can teach you so much ”: Paul Pritchard details the story of his life-threatening fall and climb in The Mountain Path.
One hundred and twenty-six one-handed pull-ups, a balancing act on ropes that would make a gymnast sit and notice, and an indomitable desire to return to an ascent that is synonymous with him today. It’s just a handful of ingredients that put Paul Pritchard at the top of the totem pole in 2016.
In 1998, an accident in the same ascent had left him hemiplegic on the right side of the body. Physical rehabilitation took its course, the mental scars took longer to heal. But in the end, there was little that Pritchard could do to suppress his adventurous spirit. He was soon back in the mountains he had called home for years now.
This journey, which began with a stubborn will to survive and a tedious recovery process in hopes of returning to where it belonged, is what Pritchard captures in the book, The way to the mountain. And at the heart of it is the Totem Pole, an ascension that finally healed his psychological wounds after 18 long years.
The Totem Pole is a sea stack, a skinny tower of dolerite rock off the coast of Tasmania in Australia. It measures only 65 meters. Yet it has attracted climbers from all over the world since its first ascent in 1968. The verticality of the ascent must be contested, especially with the relatively smooth rock face which is constantly blown by high winds. Then there’s the choppy waters of the Tasman Sea crumbling at its base, a constant threat to climbers as the entire stack could tip over at some point.
“The rocky tower is only four meters wide and is so slender that it sway gently in the wind. When I think about it, the crashing waves, the barking seals, the loneliness and a touch of heights are some of the things that come to mind, ”says Pritchard.
This first attempt in 1998 met a horrible end and changed the course of his life. Pritchard found himself hanging upside down on the ropes, blood escaping from a deep head injury after being struck by a stone dislodged from the tower. The sticky situations on other climbs in the past had taught him the need to stay calm and alert, instead of falling into a deep sleep.
“I had a huge hole in my head. I remember one of the times I slipped my fingers under the helmet looking at all that blood and cerebrospinal fluid. And it turned out that I probably fell asleep for two hours in a row, ”he recalls.
These were the days when there were no luxuries of cell phones and instant rescues. It took Pritchards’ partner Celia Bull three hours to secure him on the tower ledge alone, followed by a long hike to civilization. For seven uncertain hours, Pritchard lay there, dazed, waiting for help, a wait that seemed as endless as the horizon in the distance.
After an operation that lasted many hours, Pritchard spent a year recovering. The accident had left him with epilepsy in addition to hemiplegic, unable to speak or remember the simplest facts. With each passing day, he accepted the fact that he would probably never climb again. He sank into depression, his mind breaking, wondering what the future held for him. “It was torture to watch my friends climb while I was sitting in a wheelchair. I missed the mountain view and I was so depressed I needed medication, ”says Pritchard.
Climbing had meant the world to him since he was a teenager. The Idle Spirit was led by a school teacher, which led it to Wilton’s career in his garden in Bolton, England. The troublemaker soon climbs rocks, discovering a freedom of a different kind. His newfound passion was reason enough to put aside his apprenticeship as a carpenter and join a tribe of other dreamers like him in the 80s.
Wall climbing like the Torre Centrale de Paine in Patagonia made him realize that this was the life he loved the most. Daring attempts followed on mountains such as Meru in the Indian Himalayas and Trango Tower in Karakoram. It wasn’t like Pritchard was a stranger to accidents, either. He had survived three life-threatening incidents in the past.
“I realize there is a paradox here – why keep going back to a place that has hurt you so much?” But the injuries and hardships you endure on the mountain can teach you so much, ”he says.
After Totem Pole, the big question was about the survival of another guy. One of the things that helped the healing process was writing, typing millions of keys with one finger. He reflected on his injury every day. It was a means of catharsis that seemed to heal him gradually.
“I have learned to accept my situation – that the frail body we inhabit will wither and die. Once we truly accept it, we can begin to live properly, to let go of the future without any anticipation. Because when we anticipate something, and it ultimately does not happen, it can only lead to suffering or at least unhappiness. And it makes no sense to worry about the past because it’s already gone, ”he says, reflecting on his time after the accident. “Paradoxically, I was as smart as ever after the accident, which wasn’t much,” he jokes.
The physical disability meant that Pritchard had to relearn all aspects of life. The struggles with his mental state during the first few days quickly led to an awareness of the few positives that his condition exhibited. The memory loss meant he could live in the moment, similar to what he experienced while practicing vipasana a few years after the accident. This sparked his journey of self-discovery which helped him answer questions of pain, suffering, risk, fate, and most importantly, life.
“It was in neurological rehabilitation that I began to realize that I had a good teacher in the mountains. And that, I was about to embark on the longest expedition I would ever have – my new life. When I walked around the rehabilitation center, just 100 yards away, I realized that with persistence, maybe I could get a little semblance of the life I had before, ”says Pritchard.
A half-marathon follows, then his first ascent to the top. There were also three expeditions to Africa, each climbing 1000 meters higher, which culminated with the ascent of Kilimanjaro. There were seizures and body spasms to deal with; at other times it was just fear that gnawed at him. But throughout, he rediscovers the limits of his abilities, while realizing a new side of himself. “Due to the hardships I went through, the daily falls and a very slow recovery, I learned a strange blend of determination and patience. It was the most important lesson for my second life, although I never knew it at the time, ”says Pritchard.
Thirteen years after the accident, he embarked on his biggest test to date: a 1,200 km journey from Lhasa to Kathmandu alongside his partner, Carol Hurst. He traveled the distance on a tricycle, a modified bicycle, while experiencing the suffering and healing powers of a pilgrimage. He says he is grateful to his friends and professionals for their support over the years.
“Like a ramp allows a wheelchair user to be included in society, or a pair of reading glasses helps people read the newspaper or take an exam, with support, all people – disabled or not. – are capable of extraordinary things, “he says.
Year after year, Pritchard revisits the Totem Pole. It was the place he had last walked like any other person, and it had changed his outlook on life. The climb gnawed at him every time, until things finally turned sour in 2016. He found enough believers around him to help him achieve his dream of reaching the top of the Totem Pole. There was no looking back.
“My partner, Steve Monks, was almost 60 at the time and doubted he could climb it again on his own. But he did. I think the main concern for me was whether I could keep it safe with one hand, as it normally takes both hands to safely secure the lead climber, ”he says.
The mind games started as soon as he started the ascent. A wave of emotions ran through him as his familiarity with the tower took over – the place where he had hung upside down, seeing the empty space left by the boulder that had hit him. The crash came back to his mind time and time again, but he was concentrating on the number of his pull-ups. By the time he reached No.126, he had reached the end of his line as he rushed over the summit. At that point, he knew that all his struggles had been worth it.
Throughout the book, Pritchard explains his transformation process and why it is important to stand up, every time you fall.
Shail Desai is a freelance writer from Mumbai who loves to tell a good story. The opinions expressed are personal.