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The Totem Pole—And a Whole New Adventure

The Totem Pole—And a Whole New Adventure. Paul Pritchard. Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 1999. 16-page photo insert. 216 pages. $22.95.

'The Totem Pole, Paul Pritchard’s first work since winning the Boardman Tasker award in 1997 for Deep Play, is a first-person account of a struggle with catastrophic injury and the possibility of permanent disability. Whereas I may not have been overly impressed with his last work, I found The Totem Pole to be one of the finest books ever written by a climber, a deeply moving account of the triumph of the human spirit in the face of a life-changing injury. Going from super hardman alpinist to a guy struggling to feed himself, Pritchard’s hope and optimism throughout his painfully slow (and only partial) recovery is a truly inspirational story.

Celia Bull, Pritchard’s girlfriend and climbing partner at the time, is responsible for his heroic rescue. She later wrote in her journal regarding the accident:

“He is there beneath me, hung by a thread of fate and nylon. He is suspended navel up. Limbs thrown out. He is limp and lifeless, faded. Here are the dying petals of a once exuberant flower. Just beyond, the sea is drinking thirstily at his blood. Horror is roaring in my ears. These tentacles of seaweed, they’re unfurling, they’re stroking softly at the sacrificial red, beckoning him to join them in their sempiternal kingdom.” (p. 206)

Can you imagine the terror of seeing someone you love dying before your eyes? And what if you were in a strange country (Tasmania), miles from anyone, looking at a technical climbing rescue that would require at least a helicopter and a powerboat, not to mention advanced life support?

But this is not just yet another imitation of Touching the Void. This is a deeply unsettling book based upon Pritchard’s later interpretations of tape recordings made at the beginningsof his recovery as soon as he had learned to speak again. Keep in mind he had his brain literally knocked halfway out of his head and then stuffed back in. Now, talking in a tape recorder as soon as one regains their power of speech is not an ordinary thing one might think of doing. But Pritchard is obviously no ordinary guy.

What we are left with is the perfect postmodern account of a man trying to literally rethink himself and understand what his thoughts once were. Then comes the haunting question of how to interpret it all. So what exactly is the “self’? Who is Paul Pritchard? Before the accident, we have a fanatically gifted climber and writer; during recovery, an individual fighting for his life and against despair, disappointment and depression; after the accident, a nonclimber and brilliant writer.

In the end, Pritchard states, “I have seen things with new eyes since my accident, especially the relative importance of climbing. I once thought I would rather die than do without.”

Have you ever wondered what you would do without? I know I have.

So why did Pritchard push himself so hard? Why do some climbers tempt fate over and over again, barely escape, then turn right around and hurl themselves back into the maelstrom?

Much has been made of totems in anthropology. They are the embodiments of spirits, gods and power. Cliffs, towers and mountains are the climber’s totems of power. Friedrich Neitzsche wrote in Will to Power, “Thus a man climbs on dangerous paths in the highest mountains so as to mock his fears and trembling knees.” This mocking, this “oppression” of our fears is a “tyranny of the soul” whereupon the prudent, the timid, the cautious part of all of our souls is demonized. Why? So that we may idolize and worship, in the highest form of vanity, our false courage as gods.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Hesiod’s Theogony and Plato’s “Symposium,” there are retellings of an ancient Greek myth. The story is always the same: the Titans—half men, half gods—attempt to storm the heavens, located fittingly on Mount Olympus. Such hubris invited the wrath of all the gods. Pritchard’s story is a cautionary one. We should be careful when we tread upon high places. We are not gods, and we tempt their patience.

David Hale