Cold Wars by Andy Kirkpatrick – book review

Andy Kirkpatrick is a man who’s not afraid to look unflinchingly at himself in the mirror, and he’s not afraid to write about what he finds. Even as this book was being published, he was making a solo attempt on the Troll Wall in Norway, getting his fill of the “cold and suffering” in which he specialises. His second book, Cold Wars, carries on from where his award-winning debut memoir Psychovertical left off.  Kirkpatrick picks up the story of climbing the Reticent Wall on El Capitan, including the immediate aftermath of his success in Yosemite Valley, and the longer term effect it has on his climbing life. But he also continues to explore the issues behind his climbing, such as his family ties, his will to succeed and his tendency to sabotage his own chances.

Covering Kirpatrick’s life from June 2001 to January 2005, the book takes in Sheffield, Wales and Hull alongside the more glamorous and predictable locations of the Alps, the USA and Patagonia. The testing climbs are described in minute and loving detail: the gear used, the bivvy spot, the food and drink remaining. Often, it seems, disaster strikes and so you chuckle along with Andy’s tales of leaving a crucial bag of karabiners and nuts in the back of a taxi on his way to Patagonia, or of dropping a haulbag and portaledge from the Dru. The dry humour and gift for self-deprecation that Kirkpatrick has long displayed are certainly present here, and he even directs a disparaging look at Ian Parnell on one occasion, as his frequent climbing partner has a series of mishaps with a range of expensive cameras.

Despite often undercutting the stories of his climbing with humour at his own expense, Kirkpatrick acknowledges that there is truth in Ian Parnell’s assessment of him as “the most ambitious climber he’d met”. Kirkpatrick has always been ready to look more deeply into his motivations, and Cold Wars provides the clearest insight yet into the mind of a world-class alpinist.  Reflecting on a trip to the Alps with Parnell in 2003, Kirkpatrick comments that “each route [is about] chasing that feeling of being on the edge between success and failure, life and death” and his drive to succeed, to prove himself to the mountaineering community and to justify the conflict he feels in leaving behind his family to go to the mountains, is evident throughout the book. In many ways, I found myself being reminded of the picture painted of Don Whillans by Jim Perrin in his biography The Villain; a strange mixture of insecurity covered by a shield of arrogance and a determination to prove himself, a chippy working-class Northerner uncomfortable when surrounded by ‘middle class public schoolboys’ on the ski slopes of the Alps

Throughout the book, Andy explores his own relationship with his (mostly) absent father, and his ability to summon up his childhood feelings casts an especially poignant light on his feelings about his own children when he finds himself in dangerous or unpleasantly hazardous positions. His self-imposed struggles are also compared to those endured by his brother Robin, one of the few non-climbers within the book’s pages, who served as a crew member on RAF Hercules planes. The final chapter of the book, in which Rob’s life seems to hang in the balance as Hercules is shot down over Iraq, is a moving testament to the enduring power of family ties, ties which Kirkpatrick had often resented when comparing his life to that of his peers.

In the preface, Kirkpatrick says that while Psychovertical answered the question “Why do you climb?”, Cold Wars asks the question “What is the price?”. Although the explicit question is about Kirkpatrick’s own choices and the impact on his family, throughout the book both he and the reader are left contemplating the choices of those climbers who pay the ultimate price. Scattered throughout the book are the names of climbers who died in earlier decades, and stories of those Kirkpatrick has known personally who have suffered injuries, accidents or not returned at all.  His final chapter suggests that Kirkpatrick has the will to try and resolve the conflicts he faces, to fulfil both family and climbing ambitions. A book that is moving, powerful and hugely entertaining, often within a single chapter, Cold Wars joins Psychovertical as one of the new classics of mountaineering literature.