Paul Pritchard, mountaineer
One must accept reality as it stands now, in this moment, and then work to change it for the better ...
If you are currently debating whether or not you have the energy to go to the gym tonight, allow us to give you a bit of extra motivation. Paul Pritchard has been one of the world’s most adventurous mountaineers, known for climbing imposing peaks and scaling treacherous cliff faces with relative ease. On Friday February 13 1998, Paul was struck in the head by a TV-sized boulder while climbing The Totem Pole – a slender sea stack off the coast of Tasmania. Over the next few years Paul spent most of his time recovering from his injuries, but was left with hemiplegia – resulting in the loss of movement on the right side of his body as well as speech and memory impediments. Despite these catastrophic events, Paul has continued to live life to the fullest – having since climbed Mount Kilimanjaro, undertaken sea kayaking, river rafting and even successfully climbing the Totem Pole 18 years after his accident. Paul is coming Down Under to give a series of talks on his life and career, but before he does we caught up with him to find out more about his road to recovery, accepting circumstances and finding strength to persevere against staggering odds.
First of all, we’d love it if you could take us back to your days as a child. Did you have an adventurous streak from an early age?
Yes, definitely! I recall being about 11 and I was hill walking on the Isle of Arran in Scotland. We came to The Witches Step – a graded rock climb on a ridge – and I had lost the map. The wind took it out of my hands! My mother slid down a slab of rock and I joined her. We were committed now, because neither of us could climb back up. When we reached the bottom of the notch my mother broke down in tears, composed herself and climbed up the other side to the ridge in her hiking boots. It was touch and go, but that was the first rock climb I did and the first time I had experienced real freedom. Everyone talks about freedom of choice being the ultimate, but on that day I saw true freedom as the freedom not to choose. There was only one way to go and it was exhilarating.
Your passion for travel and exploring goes well beyond your typical holiday adventuring – can you remember what first spurred your love of mountaineering?
Well I think that first moment had the biggest impact on me. It is the meditative side of mountaineering that really interested me and still does. As soon as you step off the ground you have to be in the moment or you could injure yourself, or worse. So, in that respect it is like extreme yoga – you place yourself in all these yoga like positions, holding the pose for minutes on end in sometimes very dangerous situations.
In the immediate aftermath of your injury on The Totem Pole, can you remember the key things that got you through the early stages of recovery?
The key thing that got me through the early stages of recovery was the mind training that I honed through my work to that point. In the mountains I learned a strange amalgam of patience and determination. Sometimes – such as in Patagonia – storms would rage for six weeks and if you set off on the climb too soon you could get hurt. As for determination, well, if you don’t have that you will never climb a mountain face. I once spent three weeks in a portaledge (a cross between a hammock and a stretcher), slowly inching up a 1200-metre rock face in Patagonia.
What life lessons did you discover through the process of healing post accident?
After about nine months in a wheelchair I learned to accept my injury. With this acceptance comes the courage to navigate the vicissitudes of life that seem to affect us all at one time or another. Through this period I began to describe the accident, which really has taken an enormous toll (I can’t use my right arm, I have only limited use of my right leg, plus epilepsy and word-finding problems), as the best thing that has ever happened to me. Also, because of my slowness (don’t worry about my lecture – if I go to sleep just throw something at me), I go about my days at a reduced pace. I now notice things that other people may not, such as the colour of a piece of moss or a brief look of sadness on someone’s face. I guess I stop to smell the flowers, even though I cannot smell – I lost that sense in the accident as well!
Can you put in to words the emotions you experienced after you conquered The Totem Pole in 2016?
Well, you should know first that I’d just taken the exact same swing that released the block onto my head 18 years previously. I had just felt the rock scar – the hole in the Totem Pole from where the block had fallen 30 metres onto my head. I was having all these flashbacks of my then-girlfriend Celia screaming at me, “You’re going to have to help me here if we’re going to get you out of here.” So, when I got to the top it really was with a sense of relief that an 18-year loop was finally closed.
What key piece of advice would you give to someone facing a similar process of rehabilitation or any upward climb in life?
Once we have accepted our situation we can begin to heal. One note on acceptance – it is not the same thing as resignation. One must accept reality as it stands now, in this moment, and then work to change it for the better. Also, don’t sweat the small stuff.
You’ve also got a knack for the written word! What do you find most fulfilling about the writing process?
Well, the writing of The Totem Pole in particular was a healing process. My damaged brain needed to find new neural pathways to begin healing itself. I wrote that book in hospital. By writing day in and day out instead of going down to the day room with all the other clients and watching The Bold and the Beautiful I was engaging my brain in a process called neuro-plasticity. Moreover, by going over my story again and again for nine months was a cathartic experience like no other and healed a lot of my trauma. Now that I don’t spend every day God sends climbing, I have more time for writing!
Your travels around the world have taken you to some incredible locations. Aside from Tasmania, what spots hold the most significance to you personally?
There is a meadow above the source of the Ganges, above the Gangotri Glacier in India. It is called Tapovan and is dotted with golden granite boulders and laced with silver streams. There are the most beautiful wild flowers, and when it is cold enough ‘ice roses’ bloom in the morning. All this below some of the greatest mountain vistas in the Himalayas. That is my favourite place. Mount Asgard on Baffin Island has to be my favourite mountain. We climbed the first ascent of the west face over 11 days and reached the sunlit summit at 2:00 am.
We are incredibly excited for your visit to Brisbane on your speaking tour! What can audiences expect from the evening?
I will talk about my upbringing in Thatcher’s Britain, my climbs, my accident and what I have had to claw back since that rock fell on my head. I will talk about that climb of the Totem Pole last year and the lesson the mountains and wild nature taught me that enabled me to succeed.
We hear that you are gearing up for an unprecedented expedition across Australia later in the year. What can you tell us about the adventure?
Yes! The official name of it is World Expeditions Lowest to Highest – Australia. We are five people with significant disabilities riding human powered trikes from Australia’s geographical lowest point, Kati Thanda (Lake Eyre) at -15.2m, to the summit of Mount Kosciuszko – the highest point. This will be the first time this 2100-kilometre journey has ever been attempted and we estimate will be a six-week journey.
What would be a standard cycle for an able-bodied cyclist might be the ultimate challenge for our team member Walter Van Praag, who has only 38-percent lung function due to cystic fibrosis or Daniel Kojta who is paraplegic and uses a hand-cycle. What is an easy hill climb for someone will surely be testing for someone such as myself with half a working body. I will ride a tandem recumbent trike with Duncan Meerding, who is legally blind, therefore I will be his eyes (he refuses to be my legs, though). This journey is made all the more challenging because of the physical limitations the team face. However, it will be the first time anyone has attempted such a journey – disabled or able-bodied – and by working together we will form a strong team, cooperating so each individual is able to go beyond his usual boundaries.
We begin at Kati Thanda on Tuesday September 5 with an aim to arrive on the summit of Kosciuszko by mid-October. The expedition will be filmed by award-winning filmmakers Rummin Productions and photographer Matthew Newton. Through the film we hope to demonstrate how our disability does not define who we are and how co-operation makes everyone whole. We’re running a Pozible campaign at the moment to cover the costs of the film. As you can see in the little promo film we don’t take ourselves too seriously!
The public will be able to follow us by an interactive Spot Tracker daily. We will also visit remote communities and talk to students and the community about disability and adventure. Disabled people tend to be portrayed in just two lights: super-humans achieving against all odds or victims in need of paternalism. There often is no middle ground. We also aim to have school students ride a few kilometres with us. In this way we will interact with local and isolated communities through education, participation and inspiration.