It was February 1998—Friday the 13th—and for Paul Pritchard, life was sweet. Thirty years old, he had come into his own as one of Britain’s most talented rock climbers and mountaineers. During the last six years, he had put up audacious routes on granite fangs in Patagonia, the Karakoram, and on Baffin Island. For a decade, he had seamed the crags of northern Wales, where he lived, with bold new lines that would become test pieces for the next generation of climbers.
Just the previous year, Pritchard had assembled 18 of his journal articles and unpublished essays in a small book titled Deep Play. To his astonishment, the collection was short-listed for the Boardman Tasker Award, the most prestigious prize in mountaineering literature. Certain that he had no chance of winning (his book was up against Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, among others), Pritchard recruited what he called “a team of the loudest girls you could imagine” to ride the train from Wales to London and cheer him on inside the stuffy precincts of the Alpine Club.
There, his raucous entourage heard Pritchard announced as the winner....
Three months after winning the Boardman Tasker, on that bright, windy Friday the 13th near the end of the austral summer, Pritchard and girlfriend Cecilia Bull approached a cliff on the southeast coast of Tasmania. Before them, impossibly slender, a spear of clean-edged dolerite thrust 200 feet [61 meters] skyward out of the ocean. The Totem Pole, which has been called the most beautiful sea stack in the world, had received only one free ascent. Pritchard and Bull hoped to make the second.
...the pair emerged on a headland even with the top of the Totem Pole. A film crew that had been at the sea stack a few days earlier had left a rope spanning the narrow void. After traversing the rope, the climbers soon stood on a ledge only 15 feet [5 meters] below the pinnacle’s summit. Pritchard set up a rappel with one of his three 60-meter (200-foot) ropes. The plan was for both climbers to rappel to a ledge just above the waterline, then pull down their ropes and climb the Totem Pole from base to top.
Halfway down, Pritchard alighted on the only other ledge on the tower, then rappelled the tower’s lower hundred feet [31 meters], swinging himself to the right so he could land on the base ledge.
Besides its extreme technical difficulty, another reason the Totem Pole had only once been free-climbed is that its lower reaches are accessible only when a low tide coincides with a small swell—not more than a few days out of each year. Pritchard quickly discovered that he had miscalculated the tides. Moments after landing on the bedrock, still on rappel, he was swept by a wave that soaked him to the waist. The first pitch, Pritchard realized, was too wet to climb. He and Bull would have to content themselves with tackling only the second pitch, from the halfway ledge to the summit.
Shouting over the wind and waves, he warned Bull, who was about to get on rappel: "Stop...at...the...ledge!" Then he got out his jumars—mechanical devices used to climb ropes—and started “jugging” up the line toward the halfway ledge. As soon as his weight came on the rope, he started to swing back to a position plumb beneath the ledge. Pritchard had performed such maneuvers countless times in his climbing career. But this time the rope caught on a chunk of dolerite about the size of a cinder block wedged just below the halfway ledge. As Pritchard’s momentum pulled it leftward, the rope flicked the block loose.
A falling rock normally tears through the air with a snarling whir. Over the waves and wind, Pritchard heard nothing. He did not look up. He was not wearing a helmet. The rock fell 90 feet [28 meters] without once touching the tower. It struck Pritchard directly on the top of his head. That it failed to kill him was a fluke. What it did was change Paul Pritchard’s world forever.
Learn Pritchard’s fate in the full articleonly in the May/June 2000 ADVENTURE. (Subscribe today.)