The Longest Climb

An excerpt from The Longest Climb by Paul Pritchard.

Off the grating southern coastline of Tasmania stands a rock monolith known as the Totem Pole. It is the most slender sea stack in the world.

It is nearly seven years since I had a life changing occurrence on this 4 by 60-metre rock needle. A computer monitor sized block landed on my head from 25- metres and smashed my skull. The resulting brain damage meant that I lost the use of my right arm and my right leg has only limited movement. I also lost the power of speech for several months and developed post traumatic epilepsy.

My then girlfriend Celia Bull played a pivotal role in my rescue, hauling me 30-metres to safety and running to the nearest telephone, 8-kilometres away. When paramedic Neale Smith lowered me into a waiting boat I had been lying on a ledge in a pool of blood for ten hours.

Thus began my year-long journey through several hospitals. After a brain operation that lasted the whole night - the theatre nurses had to transfuse two litres of blood - I was in an induced coma for three days. When I awoke I couldn’t move or speak. I was in an hallucinatory nightmare where I feared for my life.

Gone were the days of living for the rock. I had been all over the world with one motivation - climbing. Pakistan, India, South America, the Pamirs. I’d been to those places which dreams are made of. The midnight sun summit of Mount Asgard on Baffin Island, straddling the top of Trango Tower in the Karakorum mountains. Now all that was gone.

Spending the best part of a year in a wheelchair I was evacuated to the Wirral Neuro-Rehabilitation Unit where slowly I learnt how to talk, walk and use my brain again. Some would say I am gathering up the scraps of a life torn apart by a terrible accident but I prefer to call it progressing on life’s pilgrimage; forging ahead and taking the adventure of being head on.

I used to say that the accident was the best thing that ever happened to me, for it put me on a different life course: a one-eighty shift from a predictable existence. I even entertained the idea that I had the accident purposefully, albeit subconsciously to avoid a humdrum life. I didn’t want to go down the road of many of my mates, doing bolder and bolder climbs, maybe getting my own guiding business or, perhaps, coming to a sticky end.
No, knowing what lay around life’s corner was never for me.

But now I realise that this was me in denial. Although my accident gave me a beautiful wife and child now I am more realistic. Nobody would have wished what I went through upon themselves.

Shortly after my accident, like many who have had a near death experience, I found myself making the most of everything in life. Sat in the rehab unit I saw the true beauty and symmetry of everything before me, from flowers and clouds to frying pans and wheelchairs.

After leaving the unit I began tricycle riding and hill walking. I read avidly and cooked and gardened and experimented with my new sexual being.

My first real summit was Snowdon in Wales and it rests on the toss of a coin whether the multi-day climbs of my previous life were more painful and tiring. In Patagonia, following twenty-one nights suspended in a hammock on a vertical wall over 1000-metres of air, I slept for three days.

Snowdon is but a blip on an ECG to that mountain’s spike, but in the upper reaches the path had its own technicalities for me.
“How can a footpath be technical?” I can hear you asking.
But a 10-centimetre difference in the size of a group of steps can alter, for me, what was to be a fairly straightforward day into a complete epic.

Three years after my accident I found I was lacking ambition in the very core of my being. I had been going on expeditions for 15 years of intense thrills and insight into life and death. Now I was in a vacuum in the excitement that was going on all around me.

Like the nourishment of food I needed a challenge. It’s in the blood - once a climber always a climber. The hills of Snowdonia were relegated to a distant murmur. In the dusty recesses of my mind I harboured a desire to go to 6000-metres again.

Being a hemiplegic meant that the actual nuts and bolts of climbing a mountain would be far more complicated than they had been previously. Whole new ways of approaching a problem would have to be developed. What if I had an epileptic fit at 4000 metres? I had to make sure that I never taxed my body too much.

Whatever mountain I did climb now would take several months of planning. I had to be prepared, mentally to say, “Let’s forget it,” again and again and treat whatever I came up against with detachment.

I wanted to prove to other people like myself that you don’t have to lie down and give up on life just because you have a head injury. You can still follow your passion, whatever it is, be it cooking, reading or hang-gliding.

So I wouldn’t be hanging from my fingertips with hundreds of metres of air below my boot-soles any longer, but I could still do easy mountains. In fact, I am becoming aware that these escapades are every bit as challenging as anything I have done.

What I did miss for a while was the yogic element of climbing, holding a strenuous position on a rock-face as if in meditation. But I learned that through disciplined, careful movement on scrambles this is still possible. Trying to pick a way across a boulder field, with dreadful balance and without one of those boulders rolling on your legs, I soon found the yogic element I had misplaced.

The first step on Kilimanjaro was of immense importance to me. It wasn’t just the first step on a mountain close to 6000-metres but the first step on a new voyage, a life of adventure in my new-fashioned body.

Climbing up Kilimanjaro with three other disabled people was profoundly challenging and brought me back into the circle, the fold of humanity that only exists when you are in close proximity with other like-minded people.

Paul Pritchard (left) with his three other disabled climbing mates with Mount Kilimanjaro behind.

Paul Pritchard (left) with his three other disabled climbing mates with Mount Kilimanjaro behind.

The brain never stops healing but it does get less plastic and therefore ever slower. I have realised for some time that there is not much more movement to be wrested out of my arm and leg.

With that half-paralysed leg I have traversed mountain ranges and with one useable arm scrambled up rocks. Although I am using my new body, reflections of my past life as a climber, full of agility, keep appearing at the most inopportune moments. Perhaps that will never cease.

Now I am approaching the end of the road as far as getting better goes and must adapt to what I’ve got. This doesn’t discourage me and all the striving has not been in vain: it has permitted me to have new adventures and allowed me to walk again, write again, dance again…

…And now climb again.

The Longest Climb is available for purchase. Buy it on Amazon.