Meet the adventurer: Paul Pritchard on Alpine climbing after life-changing injuries

The British climber’s latest expeditions show what can be achieved in the face of physical challenges.

By Matthew Figg
Published 17 Mar 2023, 17:40 GMT
Writer, speaker and adventurer Paul Pritchard

Writer, speaker and adventurer Paul Pritchard

Photograph by Melinda Oogjes

Why did you start climbing?

I grew up in Bolton in Lancashire. When I was 13, my parents were getting divorced, and I started going a bit off the rails. Eventually, a physics teacher called Harold Woolley decided to take some of us — delinquents, shall we say — out of school to go climbing. For the first time in my life, I found that I was good at something. I started when I was 15, and by the age of 17, I’d moved to Llanberis in North Wales to continue climbing.

What was life like in the Llanberis climbing scene?

I moved there in 1984. It was the Thatcher-era of mass unemployment, with miners strikes and IRA bombs going off. The country was in chaos. What that meant for the climbing community, though, was that it was very easy to just dedicate yourself to climbing, providing you could live off the meagre amount of dole money you received.

What draws you to climbing?

For me, I found a creative outlet in rock climbing. It just seemed to grab my attention early on and I really enjoyed the process. It’s like writing a book or a song — it’s very personal and is a product of yourself. Nothing can take it away from you once you’ve done it — those new routes I did 30 years ago are there until the cliffs fall down.

After Wales, you went on to climb all over the world. Are there any locations that are particularly special for you?

My first ever big wall was a new route on the Torre Central del Paine, which is almost 4,000ft high. It’s a hairline crack that runs for 3,281ft up the cliff — it took us 21 days, sleeping in portaledges amid the infamous Patagonian storms. That was in 1991. Ever since then, I never looked back. I just had this fascination for big walls and rock spires where there’s no easy way up. 

Your life changed on a climb in Tasmania in 1998 — what happened?

I’d seen a photograph of a remote sea stack in Tasmania called the Totem Pole. It just looked amazing. About 13ft wide and 210ft high, it’s the slenderest stack of its kind in the world. I dreamt of climbing it. Eventually, I found myself there with my girlfriend at the time, Celia Bull — a very accomplished climber herself. We were travelling around the world with the winnings from the Boardman Tasker Award for my first book, Deep Play.

We started climbing. Shortly after we began, the rope dislodged a rock. I didn’t even see it coming. It hit me in the head, leaving me hanging upside down a few feet above the sea, drifting in and out of consciousness. Celia abseiled down, and then had to haul me 100ft up to a ledge. I tried to help her, and that’s when I realised I was seriously injured. I couldn’t move my arm at all, and every time I tried to move my legs, nothing happened — they just wouldn't move.

Could you describe the rescue?

It was in the days before mobile phones, so Celia made me safe, got herself off the Totem Pole, climbed a portion of the cliffs and then ran more than four miles back to a ranger station where they had a telephone. About 10 hours after the rock fell on my head, I heard the sound of rotor blades and then a paramedic abseiled down to me. He clipped me to his harness and abseiled down with me to a lifeboat. We then raced to Fortescue Bay, where the helicopter was waiting to take me to hospital.

What were the early stages of your recovery like?

I spent a year at Clatterbridge neuro-rehabilitation centre near Liverpool. When I first arrived, I couldn’t get myself dressed, I couldn’t speak and I was epileptic. I couldn’t walk at all. I couldn’t even feed myself — I had to be on a liquid diet because I kept choking all the time.

Over the course of that year, I learned how to talk and walk again. I’d take a couple of steps further each week until, after nine months, I’d walked 650ft around the rehab centre. That’s when I realised, wow, if I could do this, maybe I could rediscover some semblance of the exciting climber’s life that I’d led before.

You’ve described the period after the accident as your ‘second life’ — what do you mean by that?

I do see the Totem Pole as my birthplace in some ways. I was 30, but after my accident, I was just like a baby again. I think I’m blessed to have this chance at a second life. Not many people have two lives like mine — it takes something like a car crash or a climbing accident. Of course, what I continue to go through every day is a challenge. But it’s a challenge that gives me the courage and strength to help me meet it.

You’ve gone on to participate in expeditions with all-abilities teams.

Kilimanjaro, seven years after the accident, was the first time that I went somewhere with an all-abilities team. I felt a common bond with everyone. You know that they’re all struggling just as I was struggling, and I realised I wanted to go on more trips with other like-minded and like-bodied people. 

I went on to cycle to Mount Everest from Lhasa, and then continued the trajectory of all-abilities expeditions on a self-powered journey from the lowest point in Australia to the highest. That was special. I was on a tandem trike with a guy called Duncan, who’s blind. I was steering with my one good arm and pedalling with one leg. Duncan, meanwhile, had two really strong legs. I like to say that I was the eyes, and he was the engine. 

What are some of the myths you want to dispel about disabilities?

For me, this whole thing is about fighting for inclusion in society. I find that people with disabilities are often the most creative and resilient people in the room because of what they’ve had to deal with for their whole life. I want to show what people with disabilities are capable of, but also not portray them as heroes succeeding against the odds. That’s the typical narrative, and the positive discrimination can be just as damaging as the negative. 

A lot of people also think that disabled people taking risks is just not on. People with disabilities ought to be afforded the dignity of risk the same as anybody else. That’s one of the big topics in the film of our latest expedition, which saw our all-abilities team take on the Larapinta Trail.

You eventually moved to Tasmania, and even climbed the Totem Pole 18 years after your accident — what was that like?

After moving to Tasmania, I’d go to the Totem Pole every year on the anniversary of the accident and just look at it. About five years before I climbed it, I started thinking maybejust maybe, I could climb that with one arm and one leg. I had to develop this one-handed rope climbing technique; there’s no way I could climb it with my hands and feet the same as everyone else. Everybody needs support, and that rope was my way of realising a long-held dream. 

Steve Monks, who made the first free ascent of the Totem Pole in 1995, led me up. It was amazing. After 80ft, I felt the actual rock scar where the rock that hit me had fallen from. That’s when I realised it was about the same size as a laptop. The accident was in my head all the time. It wasn’t traumatic by any means, just very cathartic really.

What’s next?

I’ll still go on hefty challenges, but I think I’m going to concentrate more on trike riding because that doesn’t put as much weight on your feet. There are loads of challenges I could do in Australia — I’m contemplating going across Australia along the Tropic of Capricorn.

Who’s been your biggest inspiration?

From the climbing world, it’s got to be Johnny Dawes. He was just so important to my climbing — and not just because I couldn’t drive (he took me everywhere)! He tried so hard to be the best that he could be.

Paul Pritchard is an award-winning writer, speaker and adventurer from Lancashire. After a 1998 climbing accident left him with hemiplegia, Paul has continued to lead an adventurous life, embarking on expeditions with all-abilities teams. Paul’s latest book, The Mountain Path: A Climber's Journey Through Life and Death, is published by Vertebrate Publishing, £24.

Published in the Alpine 2023 guide, distributed with the April 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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