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Totem Pole and the will to survive: How Paul Pritchard recovered … – Firstpost

A hundred and twenty six one-handed pull-ups, a balancing act on ropes that would have a gymnast sit up and take notice, and an indomitable will to return to a climb that is synonymous with him today. It is just a handful of ingredients that put Paul Pritchard atop the Totem Pole in 2016.
Back in 1998, an accident on the same climb had left him hemiplegic on the right side of the body. Physical rehabilitation took its course, the mental scars took longer to heal. But eventually, there was little that Pritchard could do to suppress his spirit of adventure. He was soon back in the mountains that he has called home for years now.
This journey, that started with a stubborn will to survive and a tedious recovery process in the hope of returning to where he belonged, is what Pritchard captures in the book, The Mountain Path. And at the heart of it is the Totem Pole, a climb that eventually healed his psychological wounds after 18 long years.
The Totem Pole is a sea stack, a lean tower of dolerite rock off the coast of Tasmania in Australia. It stands at just 65 metres. Yet, it has drawn climbers from around the world since its first ascent in 1968. There is the sheer verticality of the climb to contend with, especially with the relatively smoothened rock face that is constantly blasted by high winds. Then, there are the choppy waters of the Tasman Sea that chip away at its base, a constant threat for climbers given that the entire stack could topple at some point.
“The rock tower is just four metres wide, and so slender that it sways gently in the wind. When I think of it, crashing waves, barking seals, aloneness, and a touch of vertigo are some of the things that come to mind,” Pritchard says.
That first attempt in 1998 came to a horrific end, and changed the course of his life. Pritchard found himself dangling upside down on the ropes, blood spewing from a deep wound in his head after being struck by a dislodged rock from the tower. The sticky situations on other climbs in the past had taught him about the need to stay calm and alert, instead of drifting into deep slumber.
“I had a huge hole in my head. I remember one of the times I crept my fingers under the helmet, I was looking at all this blood and cerebrospinal fluid. And as it turned out, I probably did go to sleep for two hours at a time,” he recalls.
Those were the days when there were no luxuries of cellphones and instant rescues. It took Pritchards’s partner, Celia Bull, three hours to secure him to the only ledge on the tower, followed by a long hike back to civilisation. For seven uncertain hours, Pritchard lay there in a daze awaiting help, a wait that seemed as endless as the horizon in the distance.
After surgery that lasted many hours, Pritchard spent a year convalescing. The accident had left him epileptic in addition to hemiplegic, unable to talk or recall the most simple facts. With each passing day, he came to terms with the fact that he would probably never climb again. He sank into depression, his spirit shattered, wondering what the future had in store for him. “It was torture to see my friends climbing while I sat in a wheelchair. I missed the mountain views and got so depressed, I needed medication,” Pritchard says.
Totem Pole and the will to survive How Paul Pritchard recovered from a deadly accident to get back in the mountains
Climbing had meant the world to him since his days as a teenager. The idle mind was handed direction by a teacher at school, who led him to Wilton quarry in his backyard in Bolton in England. The troublemaker was soon scrambling up rocks, discovering freedom of a different kind. His newfound passion was enough reason to set aside his apprenticeship as a carpenter and join a tribe of other dreamers like him in the ’80s.
Big wall climbing such as the Torre Centrale de Paine in Patagonia made him realise that this was the life that he loved most. What followed were some bold attempts on mountains such as Meru in the Indian Himalayas and Trango Tower in the Karakoram. It was not like Pritchard was a stranger to accidents either. He had survived three life-threatening incidents in the past.
“I do realise there is a paradox here — why keep going back to somewhere that has hurt you so much? But the injuries and hardships that one endures on the mountain can teach you so much,” he says.
After Totem Pole though, the big question was about survival of a different kind. One of the things that aided the healing process was writing, punching a millions keys with one finger. He reflected on his injury each day. It was a means of catharsis that seemed to heal him gradually.
“I learned how to accept my situation — that the frail body we inhabit will wither and die. Once we truly accept it, we can start to live properly, let go of the future without any anticipation. Because when we anticipate something, and it doesn’t eventually happen, it can only lead to suffering or at the least, unhappiness. And it makes no sense to worry about the past because it’s already gone,” he says, reflecting on his time after the accident. “Paradoxically, I was just as intelligent as I ever was after the accident, which was not very much,” he quips.
The physical disability meant that Pritchard had to relearn every aspect of life. The struggles with his mental state during the initial days soon led to a realisation of the few positives that his condition presented. The loss of memory meant that he could live in the moment, akin to what he experienced while practicing vipasana a few years after the accident. It triggered his journey of self discovery that helped him answer questions of pain, suffering, risk, fate, and more importantly, life.
“It was in neurological rehab that I began to realise that I had had a good teacher in the mountains. And that, I was about to embark on the longest expedition I would ever go on — my new life. When I walked around the rehab centre, just 100 metres, I realised that with perseverance, I might be able to claw back some tiny semblance of the life I had before,” Pritchard says.
A half marathon followed, then his first lead climb. There were also three expeditions to Africa, climbing 1,000 metres higher each time, which culminated in the ascent of Kilimanjaro. There were epileptic attacks and body spasms to deal with; during other times, it was just fear that ate into him. But all along, he was rediscovering the limits of his abilities, while realising a new side of himself. “Because of the hardships that I went through, falling everyday and a very slow recovery, I learnt a strange amalgam of determination and patience. This was the most important lesson for my second life, though I never knew it at the time,” Pritchard says.
Totem Pole and the will to survive How Paul Pritchard recovered from a deadly accident to get back in the mountains
Thirteen years after the accident, he set off on his biggest test yet — a 1,200km ride from Lhasa to Kathmandu alongside his partner, Carol Hurst. He pedalled the distance on a trike, a modified bicycle, while experiencing the suffering and healing powers of a pilgrimage alike. He says that he is grateful to his friends and professionals for their backing over the years.
“Like a ramp makes it possible for a wheelchair user to be included in society, or a pair of reading glasses helps people read the newspaper or sit for an examination, with support, all people — disabled or not — are capable of extraordinary things,” he says.
Year after year, Pritchard revisited the Totem Pole. This was the spot where he had last walked like any other person, and that had changed his outlook towards life. The climb gnawed at him each time, until things finally came to a head in 2016. He found enough believers around him to help him achieve his dream of reaching the top of the Totem Pole. There was no looking back there on.
“My partner, Steve Monks, was nearly 60 at the time, and doubted whether he himself could climb it yet again. But he did. I think the main concern regarding me was whether I could keep him safe with one hand, since it normally takes both hands to safely belay the lead climber,” he says.
The mind games started as soon as he began the climb. A flurry of emotions ran through him as his familiarity with the tower took over — the spot where he had hung upside down, seeing the empty space left behind by the rock that had struck him. The accident flashed in his head time and again, but he focussed on the count of his pull-ups. By the time he hit No. 126, he had reached the end of his line as he scrambled over the top. In that moment, he knew that all his struggles had been worth it.
Through the book, Pritchard explains his transformation process and just why it is important to get up, each time you take a fall.
Shail Desai is a freelance writer from Mumbai who thrives on narrating a good story. Views expressed are personal.
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