Writing Place 2021

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Redefines

By Paul Pritchard

My name is Paul. I was a professional mountaineer. I climbed in some of the world’s most remote places – from Patagonia at the very tip of South America to Baffin Island up north of the Arctic Circle and the Himalayas in Pakistan, India and Nepal.

But, on this occasion my then-partner, Celia and I were on a round the world climbing expedition and we found ourselves at this isolated and exotic island called Tasmania. More so, we found ourselves at a remote headland on the Tasman Peninsula called Cape Hauy. We had come to climb The Totem Pole, a rock pillar in the Southern Ocean, sixty-five metres high and only four metres wide. It is so slender that it sways when you are stood on the top of it.

It was a Friday the thirteenth when a rock the dimensions of laptop computer scythed into my skull from twenty-five metres, causing a devastating brain injury.

Celia was at a halfway ledge thirty metres up The Totem Pole and I was at the bottom of the pillar, a metre above the sea when the rock struck me. She heard a dramatic splash and peered over the edge. When Celia called to me and got no reply, she roped down to me, got me upright in slings, put her helmet on me and climbed back up to the ledge. It then took Celia three hours to haul me to the ledge. Her hands were bleeding when she finally got me there. After making me safe she knew she was going to have to go and get help. There was just me and her down there and it was in the days before mobile phones. So after extricating herself off The Totem Pole she ran six km for help.

Ten hours later I heard the whirring of helicopter rotor blades on the wind and a paramedic roped down to me. He thought he was in for a simple corpse recovery when he saw the amount of blood on the ledge but when he realised I was still alive he knew there was no time to lose. He clipped me to his harness and abseiled me down into a waiting tinny that was acting as a lifeboat. When the ‘lifeboat’ reached the beach I was transferred into a helicopter and flown to the Royal Hobart Hospital.

The surgeon worked through the dead of night to mend the gaping hole in my skull. It’s made of plastic now. After six weeks at the Royal Hobart, I was returned home and spent a whole year in a Liverpool rehabilitation center.

I was left epileptic, hemiplegic, aphasic and agnosic. Don’t worry if you don’t know the meaning of these words. I didn’t either. Suffice to say I was paralysed down one side, unable to talk or understand language. I also had great difficulty in recognising faces and recognising emotions in people. It was a bit like being a baby again.

It was during my year in Rehab that I wrote my book, The Totem Pole. I pressed a million keys with one finger. It was either that or watch reruns of the Bold and The Beautiful on daytime TV with the other clients, not that there’s anything wrong with watching daytime TV.

I began to despair at the prospect of never climbing again. However, it was on walking around the rehab centre, about a hundred metres, that I realised; “Wow,” with some perseverance I might be able to claw back some tiny semblance of the exciting climbing life I had led before. So, I slowly got back to mountains again. First walking up tiny hills near my home (I was living in Wales at that point). Then seven years after my brain injury I found myself on the summit of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa. Seven years is an incredibly slow recovery curve, you understand, but the exciting thing about a brain injury is that you never stop recovering.

Though, my life changed moment that rock landed on my head. Ever since that moment, I have experienced prejudice and discrimination first-hand; people shouting ‘spaz’ at me in the street, and turning around to find people mimicking my walk. I’ve even been in a university tutorial where a student said people with disabilities shouldn’t be allowed to have families. Now, I am a fairly resilient, strong person, so I don’t let this verbal bullying affect me, though I can see how it could be very hurtful to some people.

What’s more, people with disabilities often arouse suspicion. On more than one occasion I have been challenged whilst taking pictures of my son at soccer or looking for my daughter in the school grounds. Luckily, I have a black sense of humour and can see the funny side of these moments. But it’s hard to see funny side of the physical attacks I have copped on more than one occasion.

In the most recent attack, I was taking my children to a matinee performance of Wind In The Willows at the local theatre in Hobart. My lurching gait must have attracted the attention of this bloke who, unprovoked, punched me in the ear from behind, knocking me to the ground. My head hit the pavement. The man leant over me. He swore at me. He then ran off. A passer-by helped me to my feet. I’m just grateful my kids didn’t have to see what happened. They were already in the theatre collecting their tickets.

It is bizarre why so many people with disabilities experience hate crime. Though it is not surprising that some able-bodied people have little respect for us. With upwards of fifty percent un-employment nationally and, get this, forced sterilization of Australian people with disabilities still legal and occurring in 2021. I believe that the public take their lead from those that lead us and make the laws. I realise this is a big subject and outside the scope of this personal essay.

Hence, my personal experience of prejudice and discrimination, which comes from harmful stereotyping, has made me less confident, more timid in social situations. I am wary of unpredictable or people and try and stay away from them. Obviously, I had bags of confidence when I was climbing mountains.

Yet, without the hardships that I’ve gone through, I don’t think I would have learned some valuable lessons. The accident taught me determination, and patience by the bucketload.  But more than this the accident taught me acceptance. How to let the future go without anticipation, without expecting it to be a certain way. I sure as hell did not expect my life to be changed forever when I got up the morning of The Totem Pole.

Having said that, I feel there is no room for me to just settle for ‘normal’, whatever normal is. I feel I must constantly prove my worth to society by pushing myself. I think this is a common feeling among virtually all minorities. Since my brain injury I have cycled to Mount Everest, rafted The Franklin River, pioneered new rock climbs, completed a university degree and I have just completed my fourth book. All while raising a family.

Later, with this new perspective I came to see the Totem Pole as my second birthplace. I saw that it was important for me to finish what I had started almost two decades before.  It felt right and important to return and finish the climb. As soon as I revealed my plans to my friends everybody got on board and it was ten people that helped carry ropes, water, climbing and filming equipment out to the end of the cape.

As I clipped onto the abseil rope my mountaineer’s brain, well what’s left of it, knew how to act. It was a very emotional climb for me. I caressed the rock scar, the hole where the rock had fallen from. As I clambered onto the ledge I swear I could hear Celia screaming at me – it was all in my mind because she lives in Scotland. But I swear I could hear her: “You’re going to have to help me here if we’re going to get you out of this!”

And, finally, after 126 one-arm-pull-ups I collapsed onto the summit and an eighteen-year loop, or circle, was finally closed.

 

About Paul Pritchard

I was a mountaineer hailing from the UK. My climbing adventures took me from Patagonia to Baffin Island and the Himalaya. When I won the Boardman/Tasker Award for Literature in 1997, with Deep Play, I spent the prize money on a world climbing tour that found me in Tasmania climbing a slender sea stack (needle) known as The Totem Pole. It was here that all I had known before was turned on its head. In 1998 a falling boulder inflicted a terrible head injury. Being in hospital for a year gave me the impetus to write my second book: The Totem Pole (a narrative about my journey through hemiplegia). I have continued to lead a life of challenge. I have climbed Kilimanjaro, rode a recumbent trike through Tibet to Mount Everest and I have just completed my 4th book ’The Mountain Path’. In 2017 myself, and 4 other people with disabilities made the first ever journey under human power between Australia’s extremities of altitude. On the Lowest To Highest Expedition the team members cycled from Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre (-15m) to Kosciuszko -Targangil (2228m), a distance of 2152km. I was nominated for Australian one the year in 2018 and won the Aspire award for literature 2020.

 

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