Though far from conventional it is pleasing, after a couple of years with conceptual winners, to have the 2008 Boardman Tasker Award presented to an uncomplicated climbing book telling terrifying tales of epics in the mountains. `Psychovertical' is a welcome addition to the ever expanding legacy of literature left by leading climbers. It is a gripping read with perhaps the only disappointment being its high proportion coverage of aid climbing.
Andy Kirkpatrick covers what is expected in an autobiography, embracing literally his birth in 1971, his deprived childhood, his early climbs initially with more failures than successes, and some of his world class exploits in the Alps and Patagonia, and particularly in Yosemite - all with continuing failures amongst many magnificent achievements. Difficulties when growing up were not helped by dyslexia not being addressed until Andy's schooldays were over; yet within a few years he set himself to write a story on his first escapades. He aspired to match the quality of writings by the likes of Joe Simpson and Jim Perrin - he hasn't! However Andy Kirkpatrick seems able to inveigle readers into sharing his moments of doubt - but then to support his `up-or-off' commitment as positive rather than recognise anything as insane or suicidal. Though his raw writing style may be limited and his storyline includes minor mistakes and some repetition, Andy Kirkpatrick's descriptions are graphic, his sense of humour shines through, his mood is self-effacing, and any shortcomings are offset by an innovative approach.
As an author Andy interweaves sections of `my life' with `my climbs', and within these he uses italics to insert queries, to construct commentaries, to deliver homilies, and to direct the reader to specific issues. Also interspersed are references to family, particularly to his wife's fears - readers may ponder how `psycho' climbers choose to risk their own necks but it is relatives and friends who are left to grieve. His unusual intertwining technique continues with an ongoing chronicle serialising a frightening solo ascent of Reticent Wall on El Capitan - then reckoned to be the most difficult and dangerous route ever soloed by a British climber. Reticent Wall is at the heart of `Psychovertical' and if individual parts of the ascent had been delivered together the story may have been somewhat tedious, but slipped cleverly into the narrative it adds vigour and becomes alive. The book is further animated by introduction of hand drawn topos for various pitches - a flip side of Andy's dyslexia is an ability to draw, and in addition to customary blocks of colour photographs his delightful black and white sketches are scattered throughout to identify mountains/routes and to explain gear/techniques.
Andy Kirkpatrick has survived and evolved to become one of Britain's top mountaineers with emphasis on wild big-wall climbing, yet he admits to "a scary and fraught learning curve". `Psychovertical' confirms he is lucky to be alive. It reveals an urge to extend his limits, but on many occasions this means courting disaster as he exhibits a form of blind confidence and he deliberately punches above his weight. But Andy's book is not just a jumble of hair-raising accounts, it is an open and conscientious assessment of what his climbing is about and what drives him on to break barriers and to grasp for greater and greater rewards. From start to finish `Psychovertical' is an inspiring and thrilling read - but even so some readers may feel relief when he tops out from Reticent Wall.