In this exclusive extract from his new book The Magician's Glass: Character and Fate, leading mountaineering writer Ed Douglas meets British alpinist and artist Andy Parkin, and asks what it is about mountains that's so compelling for those who love them
The south face of the Aiguille du Midi in the Mont Blanc massif after a 72 hour winter storm
Driving out of Les Praz towards Chamonix, I catch sight of an old man in my rear-view mirror walking stiffly along the opposite side of the road, hoisting his left leg in the air to move forward. I register the iron-hard Aiguilles looming over him and look ahead again. A heartbeat later, I realise I know this man. He is not some anonymous pensioner, but Andy Parkin, one of the best alpinists Britain has ever produced and a successful full-time artist. We are going to the same place, he and I, the gallery in Chamonix that exhibits his work. In fact, I’ve spent the afternoon tracking Parkin down. So I pull over and wait.
Two questioning blue eyes appear at the open door. A mane of blond hair, dirtying to gray, falls forward a little as he leans down. It’s an experienced, sharp-nosed face, but not an old one. His jacket is a little ragged. His scarred left hand rests on the door frame as he scans the interior of the preternaturally clean rental car, like an animal sniffing a new cage, and then levers himself into the passenger seat.
It’s fair to say he’s not wildly pleased to see me. In summer, when climbers and tourists choke the valley, Parkin tends to retreat a little, hunkering down in his stamp-sized apartment and his studio, patiently following the ascetic path he chose for himself two decades ago: climbing and creating without compromising his carefully thought-out vision. Interruptions by visiting climbers are a distraction. In the winter he is planning to return to Tierra del Fuego and he has a lot of work and preparation to get through first. He’s just completed filming for a documentary about his life. He’s had enough of talking about the past.
‘I’m not normally in the front line trying to explain,’ he says. ‘Trying to impress people. Why should they care? It’s way too personal for all that. There are enough people out there in climbing who want to talk. Let them. The climbing’s for me. I don’t care what people think. My friends, people I respect, I’d rather have their respect than not, but, y’know … ’ And he trails off. Talking about his life also requires him to revisit the accident that nearly killed him in 1984, leaving him with injuries that would qualify him for a disabled parking permit, should he ever buy a car. It’s an old story, and one that Parkin is done with.
His art is a different matter. He’s going to the gallery now for its regular Wednesday evening open house, organised by owner Johnny Reid. We chat and drink wine. Parkin talks more freely now, as if he’s adjusted to the idea of my being here. We arrange to go climbing the next day. People start arriving. An elderly couple drags Parkin away to explain a painting. As I leave, I catch sight of their faces turned towards his, their attention rapt. His hands are pulling shapes from the air. In the warmth of the room, his shirt is open a little at the neck, his face a little pinker – an unselfconscious display of passion. It’s hard to believe I’d mistaken him earlier for an old man. Parkin now shines with the intensity of someone half his age.
It’s that intensity that I’ve travelled to Chamonix to find. Because while Parkin’s climbing is important, at least tangentially, to what I’m trying to find out, it’s his artist’s way of seeing that seems most essential. I can’t think of many climbers who have put more thought into what it means to be an alpinist than he has, or applied such a creative imagination to the task of climbing difficult routes. That’s what I want to capture, the art of climbing, the spark of creativity, the shift in perspective that changes the way you – and others – view the world.
Why now? I don’t honestly know. Maybe it’s my time of life putting all these questions and doubts in my head about climbing and what it means to me. What it’s for. Twenty-five years ago, almost to the day, I first came to this valley as an overgrown boy, wearing ill-fitting boots that gave me blisters and an old rugby shirt that soaked up sweat as I laboured under a borrowed pack in the August heat. Chamonix seemed like an existential kindergarten. Here was a place I could find out who I was, invent myself – write myself a story. Unwashed and awkward in our filthy T-shirts, with our faces crisped by the sun at altitude, my teenage friends and I gorged on patisseries (but only after we’d done a route, not before). Beautiful girls turned their heads away as they passed us on the town’s main street. At that age, it still seems possible to grow up into the ideal version of yourself who stars in your daydreams. The version where the beautiful girls didn’t turn their heads away.
One season, I dossed in an abandoned trailer. Another year, I camped in the woods behind a parking lot on the edge of town. The site was popular with flat-broke Eastern European climbers and their strange, home-made gear. We’d sit around the campfire sharing beers as they sang their songs. One morning I woke at dawn to see a man prowling through the trees, his arms describing arcs through the dew-heavy air. He was from northern California, which to me seemed as distant and wondrous as Mars. I nudged the bloke sleeping next to me, and pointed at the strange vision. Any amazing thing, it seemed, could happen in this place.
‘Tai chi,’ he mumbled. ‘He’s doing tai chi. Chinese martial thingy. Now fuck off and let me sleep.’
This was in 1986, the year of what became known in London’s financial district as the ‘Big Bang,’ essentially the starting gun for the turbo-powered capitalism that would transform Chamonix, along with the rest of the world. The trailer is long gone. Camping in the woods is now forbidden. The tai-chi man is probably twice divorced in LA, working at some banal job and failing to meet his child-support payments. The last time I climbed in Chamonix, a couple of years ago, I slept in a comfortable bed, in the chalet of a wealthy friend. I ate in restaurants and talked about the price of property. I walked straight past the patisseries. These days, I’m trying to cut back on cholesterol.
What had happened to that naive sense of possibility? Did I just get older? Or had I got it wrong? Had I wasted the last few years climbing through habit, trying to recreate some youthful enthusiasm, just because I couldn’t think of anything else to do? Was I reading too much into an activity that had shaped my life because, having invested so much in it, I needed it to be true? I could have done something more useful, or made money and bought my own damn chalet. I couldn’t help feeling I liked the kid living in the trailer more than who he’d become.
Andy Parkin still hangs on in his little apartment, a tenacious survivor of Chamonix’s bohemian past. But since he moved here in 1983, consumerism has grown like a fungus throughout the climbing world, spreading deep underground among the roots of our activities, fed by the compost of financial interest. The emphasis on sponsorship and earning power becomes heavier with each passing year. With that change has come a need to differentiate between climbers. Overt competition and rankings are the business of sport: you’re not necessarily trying to be original; you’re trying to be better than the next guy. Climbers, and the industry that supports them, have come to emphasise grade, height and speed, all things that can be measured.
Imagination, creativity and thoughtfulness, the unquantifiable, have faded from view. I felt – feel – that these qualities ought to be part of mountaineering, or else the pursuit would be diminished. So should a feeling for the mountains, a sense of place, an attentiveness to the world outside your own story. Somewhere other. Maybe talking to Parkin would help me see all that clearly again.
‘The how is so important in climbing,’ Parkin tells me, drinking tea outside his studio the next day. ‘It’s the reason we do it. It’s gratifying to be successful, to have ambitions and all that. But the actual execution has got to be as pure ethically as I can make it. Otherwise there’s no point. I’d rather not go near it. I don’t ever want to become complacent about anything. For fear of losing that edge. The creative edge, not the sporting one.’
‘I know a lot of climbers who don’t necessarily love the mountains,’ he continues. ‘They love the activity, they love the sport. But it’s not the same love of someone who really loves the mountains, every aspect from the moraine, from the brooks or streams at the bottom. Their moods.’
The Magician's Glass: Character and Fate - eight essays on climbing and the mountain life by Ed Douglas (Vertebrate Publishing, £14.95) is out now.
Ed Douglas is a writer and journalist with a passion for the wilder corners of the natural world, with a particular interest in the Himalaya. You can find out more about him on his profile at The Guardian.