Recently, Find Your Feet were lucky enough to help host the presentation of ‘Paul Pritchard: Beyond ‘Doing it Scared’ in Hobart.
Many of you may recognise Paul from Australian Story last year (HERE if you missed it). For those of you who aren't familiar with Paul, he is originally from the UK and was a cutting-edge rock climber and mountaineer adventuring all over the world from Patagonia to the European Alps to name just a few.
He came to Tasmania on a climbing trip in 1998 to climb the Totem Pole, a thin sea stack off Cape Hauy on the Tasman Peninsula. It was while climbing the Totem Pole that Paul’s life changed. A TV-sized boulder fell on Paul from ~30 meters and inflicted such terrible head injuries that doctors thought he might never walk or even speak again.
Paul climbing in Snowdonia, Wales, 1986
Now, you would be forgiven for thinking that this injury put an end to Paul’s adventurous lifestyle. Not so! Since the accident, he has climbed Kilimanjaro, rode a recumbent trike through Tibet to Mount Everest and, in 2016 he finally climbed the Totem Pole.
Paul on the Totem Pole 2016
During the ‘Paul Pritchard: Beyond ‘Doing it Scared’ film tour Paul discussed life before and after the accident, and lessons he’s learned throughout his life. This was all delivered in a highly entertaining format (with some hilarious photos of climbing attire in the past!) but also contained many golden pieces of advice that we think everyone could learn from.
After the event, we asked Paul if he would mind answering a few questions with us and he kindly accepted. Please find below our interview with Paul!
What inspires/motivates you to challenge yourself?
Seeing what happens to you when you die, I know that this is our only life. So I make the most of every breath. That doesn't mean living life at a million miles an hour. It means just being present, which is a challenge in itself, and keeping doing interesting stuff.
What did fear mean to you before your accident? How did you manage/deal/approach things that scared you?
Being a climber, I was quite brave before my accident. I had my moments of youthful recklessness and luckily survived. When mountaineering it is not death we are attempting to avoid, rather it is an attempt at not avoiding life. Meeting life head-on.
If that has changed since, how has it changed? What does fear mean to you now?
Now, I know that fear and the acceptance of fear and to take risks, if properly handled can be a doorway to transcendence - not in some hippy dippy way - but to see the true reality of all things.
You mentioned at the talk a sense of mindfulness/calm when climbing/being outdoors. Could you expand on this a little more?
Just walking across a scree field teaches us how to be mindful. I like to see just how far I can walk without the talus shifting, without moving a stone. It is difficult and dependent of the size of the rocks. Rock climbing is even better in how it teaches us to be mindful. It is extreme yoga.
Recovery/rehabilitation following the accident - could you expand a little on how you mentally dealt with this and the application of the mental strength you had built from previous experiences?
I don’t think I would have been able to cope with the hardship of an ABI without the lessons that climbing has taught me, but much more interestingly, I have learnt through my own suffering. Only by suffering yourself can you have compassion for other’s suffering. Just like one needs to experience anger before one can be forgiving of other peoples anger.
What advice would you give your younger self?
I would tell that guy to do away with the mullet and tights!
Do you think society is becoming more risk adverse? Why/why not?
Of course. Society has forgotten the the lessons that suffering teaches us also. It is my suffering that leads to presence. Just walking down the garden steps I have to use all my concentration or I risk falling on my head. If I am angry - resentful of my situation I WILL fall. Richard Rohr talks about necessary suffering and that if you try to avoid suffering in your life you will end up suffering ten times worse.
You mentioned that you encourage your children to climb/be outdoors - how important is this to you?
It is very important in this techno-age to give children the chance to take risks and be outdoors.
How did you come up with the lowest to highest campaign?
After watching the film ‘Salt’ were Murray Fredericks photographs the dry lake inspired me to go there. And I began thinking about an adventure I could do. Then it hit “wow, I wonder if anyone has gone under their own steam from the lowest to the highest point in Australia.
What do you hope to achieve with this latest adventure?
The message we are giving is that disabled people are not unable, they just need a little help at times, like anyone else. They are capable of firsts, just like everyone else. And we are just a bunch of mates going on a great adventure, because that is what we do. Disabled people tend to be portrayed in just two lights: super-humans achieving against all odds or victims in need of paternalism. Most of the time there is no middle ground.
Do you believe in goal setting? If so, do you have long or short term goals/ideas/challenges that you work towards?
People with ABIs are notoriously bad at goal setting/planning. And I am no different - I am sometimes all over the place. I am very easily distracted. Without Melinda, my partner, I would be in a very different place right now. But I do have goals written down. Since having children my goals have had to be modified and the extreme adventure stuff necessarily has had to be scaled back. I have many cycling challenges ahead of me and I have located a 7000m peak in Tibet that I think I would stand a chance on.
What has been your favourite (or top three if you can’t narrow them down!) adventure/expedition/trip?
- El Regalo de Mwomo, Torres del Paine, Patagonia was my first ‘Big Wall’ climb. The 1.2km vertical face took us 3 weeks sleeping in porta-ledges (a cross between a stretcher and a hammock that hangs from a single point). Here, hanging on the wall in a raging storm, maybe facing the most terrible consequence, I learned acceptance. Fear is meaningless, in all situations, being scared or being calm, the result will be the same.
- Plache di Baonne, Arco, Italy. The first ‘no frontiers’ climbing wall in the world. This unique cliff catered specifically for para-climbers (climbers with disabilities). The climbs are wheel chair accessible with names and grades of the climbs written in Braille at the base of each line. Some routes have a bolt every meter, preventing a climber falling a long way. The route I chose had eight meter run-outs between the bolts, which meant that if I fell making a clip I would fall 20m with rope stretch. That is something a man in my condition could not entertain. I was scared, so scared the photographer could hear my heart beating from six metres away. But, then I calmed down and everything went white and I started to look at myself while my body climbed on. This was the same experience I had been searching for on all my previous climbs in my first life (I split my life at my rebirth on The Totem Pole). It made me see that difficulty in all spheres of life is relative. Here’s a link to the Youtube clip of the climb: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JX6V3Aigk4
- The Totem Pole, Cape Hauy, Tasmania. Nineteen years ago I had a catastrophic brain injury on this 4m x 65m sheer needle of rock, rising straight up from the sea. A block crashed into my skull from 30m, changing my life. I was in a wheelchair for a year, I couldn’t talk, couldn’t feed myself or dress myself. It was as if I were a baby again. But, that accident was the best thing that has ever happened to me: It has fostered in me a vast pool of determination. I never give up. Last year I went back and climbed it with one hand and one foot, thereby closing an 18 year loop. There were 10 people that helped me carry camping and climbing gear, water, food and camera equipment. What I distilled from the Totem Pole climb was that with a bit of help everyone, disabled or able-bodied, is capable of quite extraordinary things.
What lessons has climbing/trekking/the outdoors taught you over the years?
All of the above!
What do you do for relaxation?
Recently I lay on a bed of pig face on Maria Island with the kids for an hour, that was the most relaxed I’d been in ages.
Your books - was writing something you had always had a passion for?
No. I rarely read as a kid. Being mildly dyslexic, books take me ages to get through though I feel I get more out of them than some people. But, it was a way of making some more money from climbing in the 80s. It was very rare for someone to just get paid to climb. So i had to write a column in a magazine, test gear, and do presentations from being eighteen years old. When I won the Boardman/Tasker award for Deep Play it was very encouraging and after my accident I knew it was the path I wanted to o down.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
Recovery from that brain injury.
Climbing has always been a huge part of your life prior to the accident. What tickles your toes now?
Climbing is somewhat painful for me now so I don’t do a lot of it. But Expedition cycling I can do!
What is unique about Tasmania for you? What is your favourite place in Tasmania? What is the greatest challenge you see now for Tasmania?
Tasmania is heaven. I mean that. We are in heaven right now! We are fairing much better than the rest of the world in keeping our natural heritage but we have to be vigilant. The wolves are at the forest boundary - I am a Greeny.
How do you keep optimal wellbeing &/or fitness?
Meditation for my mental wellbeing, cycling and walking/dog walking for my cardiovascular fitness.
Thank you Paul for taking the time to answer our questions. Details on Paul's next adventure can be found below!
Things are hotting up for the World Expeditions Lowest 2 Highest - Australia, due to depart September 1st.
These friends are riding from 15 metres below sea level to over 2 kilometres above it! They’re riding from THE BOTTOM OF KATI THANDA (LAKE EYRE) to the TOP OF MOUNT KOSCIUSZKO. Together they have a range of disabilities – as if the trip isn’t hard enough! Five friends riding adapted bicycles 2000 kilometers over sandy desert tracks to eventually reach Australias highest peak.