Pritchard 'knocks-off' the Totem Pole

10 April, 2016
Paul Pritchard making another one arm pull-up on the Totem Pole. Photo: Melinda Oogjes.Eighteen years after a rock smashed into Paul Pritchard's skull, leaving him partially paralysed, and with expressive aphasia, he has returned to the scene of the accident in Tasmania and climbed the Totem Pole, closing a chapter on his life.

In Paul's words: "Well, after 18 years I knocked the bastard off! I'm feeling sated and as if I have been run over by a truck after the effort of climbing it."

It was the American big wall climber, John Middendorf, that convinced Paul he could jumar up the 65 metres to the top of the sea stack with only one functioning arm and leg. "Late last year I began experimenting with all kinds of rope ascending systems, including three to one and two to one pulleys, but these were too complicated for my literally 'half-a-brain’. In the end I settled on a simple one to one which meant having to haul my full 69 kilo’s with one arm. On the day I counted 126 one armers (well, with a bit of help from my leg)," said Paul.

In 1998, as Paul swung out on the abseil rope at the base of the remote sea stack, a rock hit him on the head and his partner Celia Bull was left with the daunting challenge of trying to get Paul back to the top of the cliff. In an excerpt from his book, The Totem Pole, about the accident and coming to terms with its life changing consequences, he wrote:

"I had to tuck my knees up to avoid getting my feet in the water as I flew around the arete… And that is the last thing I remember - until I came around with an unearthly groan."

"When I regained consciousness I was upside down, confused and there was blood pissing out of my head. I was immediately aware of the gravity of the situation. I needed to get back upright if I was to stem the flow of blood so I concentrated on shrugging my pack off. Once off, I tried again and again to get myself sat up in my harness but failed miserably. I was too weak and strangely uncoordinated."

This time round Steve Monks led up the Totem Pole for Paul to follow and everything went according to plan. Steve has a great deal of history with the Totem Pole. It was Steve, who made the first free ascent of the stack with Simon Mentz in 1995 and cleaned up the gear and mess left behind after Paul's accident.

Paul Pritchard climbing the Totem Pole 18 years after the accident. Photo: Vonner Keller.

Paul recounts: "On the climb all the memories came flooding back - I was at the base, the same place where all those years ago I got soaked up to the chest by the sea, before the rock hit me. I took the identical swing that dislodged the rock. And as I climbed the first pitch I was confronted by a huge rock scar, the hole where the block came from that changed everything."

"Steve Monks and I had a laugh - he was relieved that the pool of blood wasn’t there any more. Steve was great to climb with and his graceful style was incongruous with his 50 odd years. The crux for me was getting onto the actual summit - I couldn't do a one armed mantel shelf and so had to face plant on a pile of rope and flop around like a fish out of water. The scariest moment was launching off on the Tyrolean over the void to get back to the mainland. I'd not done a rope traverse for nigh on 20 years."

"It was very much a team effort and I feel a deep gratitude for the assistance I received. But couldn’t all of us use a little help now and again. Without the team of 10 people that helped me I could never have climbed the Totem Pole."

Paul won the 1999 Boardman Tasker Prize for mountain literature with his book, The Totem Pole. An award he'd won two years previously with his first book, Deep Play, covering the 'dole climber' scene, subsisting on what was called the government climbing grant, at a time when Paul lived in Llanberis pursuing wild adventures on Gogarth's sea-cliffs and developing the Dinorwig slate quarries.

You can follow Paul's continuing adventures on his blog.