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Paul Pritchard: Rebirth on the Rock


After a devastating accident climbing Tasmania's Totem Pole altered the course of his life, renowned climber Paul Pritchard was forced to draw on the reserves of determination years on the mountains had instilled in him.

Climbing Tasmania's Totem Pole

Here’s a tip on how to get schooled in living for the moment – take your lesson from legendary UK mountaineer and rock climber Paul Pritchard. On your darkest day, if you heard him speak about recovering from his life-changing accident climbing Tasmania’s Totem Pole, you’d be hard pressed not to feel at least a glimmer of optimism.

On his recent speaking tour, ‘Beyond Doing it Scared’, Paul spoke of his life pre and post accident, his “rebirth” on the Totem Pole, and what keeps him planning new expeditions. It’s gripping stuff and not because it’s a tale of “disability defying all odds”. His is the story of the spirit of adventure, and how once it’s in your blood stream, it can’t be killed.

Was it this indomitable spirit that saved Paul on the Totem Pole, or was that just the hand of good fortune? Either way, hearing him speak about the 1998 climb had everyone in the room hanging on every softly-spoken, Lancashire accented word.

During the climb, a television-sized boulder fell 30m and hit Paul on the head. The result was a catastrophic brain injury, hemiplegia (paralysis of half the body), and the end of the life this cutting-edge adventurer had known. For some, the accident and the excruciatingly slow recovery  would have been the start of a downward spiral into deep depression. For Paul, it was the reason to draw on the strength, resilience and patience he’d been taught by years of scaling mountains, along with his robust sense of humour. With this determination, he faced the Totem Pole again and climbed it 18 years after his accident, the journey the focus of a short film, Doing it Scared.

Climbing Tasmania's Totem Pole

“I think I was always a pretty positive person,” Paul said. “But all the lessons I learned in the mountains about patience, determination and acceptance showed me that a realistic attitude works best. It is realistic to be positive.

“Also, if you are not determined you would never get up a mountain because 99 per cent of it is misery and hard work!”

Paul’s first taste of the freedom, commitment, and fear that climbing offered and demanded came early, at age 10.

“My mum took me to the Isle of Arran in Scotland, where we went mountain walking,” Paul recounts. “We got stranded whilst traversing the fabled ‘Witches Step’ when she dropped onto a narrow grassy ledge with about fifty body lengths of air below her, and I followed.

“We could not climb back up. I saw that we just had to keep following the line down as there were no alternatives. There was no freedom of choice, and through this fear I felt truly free.”

After this, a climb led by a school teacher at the age of 15 at a local quarry reignited that feeling.

“It was the first time I was good at anything,” Paul said. “I was dreadful at team sports and used to vomit on cross country runs.”

Climbing Tasmania's Totem Pole

Marathon running was obviously out of the question, but these experiences were the genesis of a long and illustrious career as one of Britain’s leading climbers of the 1980s and 1990s. Paul travelled the world, sought new and big climbs, and embraced the creativity and freedom the lifestyle encouraged. In his words, he “lived for the rock”.

However the bigger the climbs, the bigger the risks and Paul admits he was “going down a dangerous road”.

“The accident made me take stock.” But it was a painful intervention.

After a dramatic rescue from the Totem Pole, emergency brain surgery, an induced coma, and the better part of a year spent in a wheelchair learning how to walk and talk, followed. A lifelong adventurer, Paul was faced with a journey he had no experience in but he treated it just the same as the mountains he’d climbed. He faced the challenge head on and as he recovered, he began to plan a new expedition – climbing Mount Kenya. He documented his entry back into the world of mountaineering in his 2005 book, The Longest Climb.

After Mount Kenya, the adventures continued for Paul, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, caving, river rafting, and eventually, a return to lead climbing. A new challenge is happening right now. Paul and five friends all with varying disabilities are riding human powered tricycles 2000km from Australia’s lowest point Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre) to the highest point – the summit of Mount Kosciuszko (2228m). Paul will team up with his friend Duncan who is blind, on a tandem recumbent bike.

“I am only half joking when I say ‘I’ll be your eyes if you will be my legs’’, Paul said. “By working together we will form a strong team, cooperating so each individual is able to go beyond his usual boundaries.”

Paul’s top 5 climbs

1. Gogarth in Wales was my favourite cliff to climb, a loose frightening complex of zawns above sometimes raging Irish Sea. All the climbs there are serious undertakings, but if I was pressed to choose my top climb it would be The Enchanted Broccoli Garden on Left Hand Red Wall. This is still the only hard rock climb I know of where the belayer could die if her/his leader falls. We used shock tapes to lessen the load on the RP belay. This is where I learned to trust in myself and others.

2. El Regalo de Mwomo, Torres del Paine, Patagonia was my first ‘big wall’ climb. The 1.2km vertical face took us three weeks sleeping in porta-ledges (a cross between a stretcher and a hammock that hangs from a single point). Here, hanging on the wall in a raging storm, maybe facing the most terrible consequence, I learned acceptance. Fear is meaningless, in all situations. Being scared or being calm, the result will be the same.  

3. Hyperborea, the first ascent of the West Face of Mount Asgard, Baffin Island. There is a lot of creativity in making first ascents of mountains and rock walls. Here we spent 11 days finding a way up a seemingly blank wall inch by inch. On close inspection there was a system of flakes and seams that ran intermittently from the bottom to the top of this kilometre high wall in the land of the midnight sun.

4. Plache di Baonne, Arco, Italy. The world's first ‘no frontiers’ climbing wall. The climbs here are wheelchair accessible with climb names and grades written in Braille. The route I chose had eight metre run-outs between bolts, so if I fell making a clip I would fall 20m. I was so scared, the photographer could hear my heart beating. But I calmed down and started to look at myself while my body climbed. I had searched for this experience in my first life. Difficulty in life is relative.

5. The Totem Pole, Cape Hauy, Tasmania. 19 years ago I had a catastrophic brain injury on this 4mx65m sheer needle of rock. That accident was the best thing that has ever happened to me, as it fostered in me a vast pool of determination. Last year I returned and climbed it with one hand and one foot. 10 people helped me carry gear, water, food and camera equipment. From this climb I distilled that everyone, disabled or able-bodied, is capable of the extraordinary.


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