The Style that Counts
Andy Parkin and a Creative Life in the Mountains
“It was the final bit, in this massively exposed position,” he remembers. The ice looked funky — thin, brittle, dicey — and British ex-pat Andy Parkin paused to read the moves. Parkin, as has proven his habit over the years, was opening a route onsight and solo, on the north wall of the Grandes Jorasses, above Chamonix, France. All-in and fully committed, nearly 2200 feet off the Leschaux Glacier, he went for it.
“I was above a Camalot and a half-driven ice screw and sure enough, the ice ripped. I fell onto slings. I just hung there, I couldn’t believe it. I even took a photo to remind myself I was alive,” Parkin recounts.
Parkin collected himself, finished the route, and named it La Belle Helene (V, 5+, A1 M-Hard 90° 750m), adding the route to a climbing resume that now spans four decades of cutting-edge alpinism practiced from the Karakoram to Tierra del Fuego, on everything from gritstone in his native England to the aerated summit mushrooms of Patagonia. Piolet d’Or winner, avowed minimalist, and accomplished all-‘rounder, Andy Parkin might’ve been a standard bearer for pared-down full-adventure alpinism…that is, if he’d ever reduced himself to marketing his climbs and publicizing his achievements.
Parkin recalls his parents soon grew “tired of seeing us go off with crappy pieces of string”, so they helped him get a rope and a little gear. On a school trip to Scotland, he and his mates hid their cord and hopeless rack in a sack and snuck off, finding a cliff nearby. Parkin, or another brave member of the gang, would trail the rope to the top of a crag and then, he says, “The question was whether we could find a belay!”
Soon the boys discovered there were indeed other men and women out there climbing — “the big game was freeing rock routes,” he remembers. Climbers like Don Whillans and Joe Brown had begun the game in Britain and by the mid-‘70s, Parkin recollects, “I was pretty much confirmed” as a die-hard climber. Of his self-guided apprenticeship on the runout grit, he says, “You become very bold, climbing like that.”
Parkin’s adventures began in his hometown of Sheffield, England, and by the time he had survived his first decade on earth he’d expanded his horizons throughout the Peak District. Naturally he and his buddies discovered the gritstone and limestone crags in the countryside and as young boys are wont to do — they climbed.
“We started by doing new routes. We didn’t know any better. We didn’t know there were proper routes,” Parkin recalls, explaining that, because he and his posse lacked a rope, pins, or nuts, they “soloed from the word ‘go’.” Furthermore, they usually ditched school to climb mid-week and rarely, if ever, happened on others. For all they knew, they were the only crew in England climbing rocks.
By 1973, at the age of 19, Parkin took his passion to the road. In three days he hitch-hiked to Zermatt, to visit a friend. From there he headed west, through Martigny, and over the Col des Montets to France — to Chamonix.
“I’ve never forgotten that image of the (Chamonix) Aiguilles. I’d seen the 18th-century paintings, but I thought the artists had been exaggerating,” he says with equal parts resignation and awe. He wasted no time: “My first thing in Cham was a solo.”
By ’76 he’d spent three seasons in the Alps, pushing his limits, honing his craft. He traveled to the States and Canada in ’77 — freeing Eldorado Canyon’s Naked Edge (5.11a/b), Yosemite’s Astroman (5.11c), and sending Zodiac (5.7 A2). Meeting some Americans after the Zodiac, they said, “We didn’t know Brits could aid climb.” Parkin responded, “Neither did we!”
By the early ‘80s Parkin had moved beyond repeating routes. He established the first 8a (5.13b) in France with Thierry Renault in the Verdon Gorge. By 1982 he traveled to Pakistan with Al Rouse and attempted Ogre II, alpine style. In ’83 he and Rouse summitted Broad Peak, again alpine style, and that same year he and Doug Scott turned back merely 100m from the summit of K2.
“Above all, it was simple,” he says of his minimalist style. “We didn’t know any better!”
Parkin had developed an unshakeable ethic, one rooted in history and respect for the craft, as well as alpinism’s old-school players. As his ambitions grew, he pared down his style, cutting away excess, leaving the essentials. When climbing with a partner, they went “disaster style”, pre-dating the Wharton-Cordes-House-Prezelj vision by nearly two decades.
Often, though, Parkin reduced the equation to its purest form: “I got into soloing. It was homage to the first ascensionists. The Walker, for instance; that’s why I had to solo it in winter. Stylistically, it was the best way to do it.”
After soloing a line on Les Droites in ’83, that winter he ticked the Walker Spur (ED1, IV, 5c/6a, A1, 1200m) — solo, onsight, alpine style, and without a topo, in 19 hours. It was a first. That same winter, he and Renault reunited to up the ante, stylistically, on the north face of Les Drus, doing the third-ascent overall and the first winter ascent of Lesueur (Scottish Grade VII).
Lesueur was a major tick — steep, technical, with thin, poorly protected ice and tenuous mixed climbing. They spent three nights on the wall, on the edge of possibility. “I don’t remember grading it…That was one of the routes I’m proudest of,” says Parkin, though he shrugs off any superlatives, adding, “People called it avant garde.”
It all came to a crashing halt the following season, though. At the height of his powers, Parkin nearly died while guiding the Riffelhorn, in Switzerland.
“I woke up in the ICU, wiggled my fingers and toes,” he remembers. “I knew I was alive. I thought, ‘Oh, an accident, OK.’ I didn’t remember the rock breaking…at least then. That came later.”
After a ledge on which he was standing collapsed, Parkin had plummeted more than 30 meters, shattering his left arm and left hip, and more dangerously — rupturing his pericardium, the sack in which the heart rests. Doctors gave him little chance of living, but he survived. Once he awoke they gave him little hope of climbing, let alone walking, but he would eventually do both despite having severely restricted movement in his hip and a fused elbow.
“I threw myself into painting more,” Parkin says of the time after the accident. “It’s all I did for a time.”
Parkin had painted and drawn since boyhood. The convalescence allowed him to rediscover his creative capacities — and the emerging synergy between art and alpinism would gradually push his climbing to the next level.
“In 1988 I went to Makalu with Doug Scott and Greg Child, just to paint, big canvasses and tents,” Parkin recounts. “Suddenly I’m up on the mountain, about 7500m. I thought, ‘Maybe I could do this’.”
The Makalu trip finalized the confluence of his life’s two passions. As he rediscovered the climbing, he realized the art helped develop a keener eye and an outlet — an escape from the hard climbing and soloing, as well as a means to harness and focus the heightened perception gleaned from hours and days spent in the inimitable state of climbing at his limit.
By ’91 he was back on top form — summiting Everest’s north ridge without oxygen. It was a rebirth and a return to top-level alpinism.
“I do more new routes in the mountains now because I study them for hours in order to paint them,” he says. “I learned to observe. As an artist you learn to observe, it becomes obvious. By the early ‘90s I’m back putting up routes. With Mark (Twight), that thing, it took us two years. We were obsessed with it.”
“That thing” became Beyond Good and Evil (V WI 5/6 5c A1/A2), after the pair finally sent in April of ’92. “It was doubtful to the last pitch. We were taking falls, pushing it,” remembers Parkin.
The route, on the north face of the Aiguille des Pelerins, became something of a controversy after Twight defied the French to repeat it — which Francois Marsigny and Francois Damilano eventually did. But for Parkin it had been, as one girlfriend at the time commented, a bit of a “holy grail”. After eyeing the line for several seasons and at least three attempts on it, they’d put it up—without bolts, without compromise.
“It was all part of the healing process,” says Parkin.
Twight, never one to gladhand or pander, says, “Andy is one of the most gifted climbers on mixed terrain that I have ever had the pleasure to climb with.”
That same season Parkin established Pelerinage (IV 6 400m), on the Peigne, again above Chamonix, with Christophe Beaudoin. It was desperate, modern, mixed climbing — on one pitch he managed a single Friend on half its lobes in 60 meters. He then put up Sans Nom-Sans Ame (IV 5 6a/A2 750m) on the Aiguille Sans Nom — onsight and solo.
After success on the Mont Blanc massif, he returned to globetrotting, never leaving the art behind. He’d sketch in base camp, paint canvasses and tent interiors, sculpt in the forest. The art became his barometer of sorts.
“I found,” he says, “if I could paint well, I felt I was in tune with myself, then I’d go.”
In ’93 Parkin took his game to Patagonia, teaming up with Stephen Koch to establish Tierra del Hombres (6a 85° 600m) on Cerro Guillaumet. The same trip he onsight-soloed a new route, Vol de Nuit (ED A2 90° 600m), on Aguja Mermoz, saying, “It was loads harder (than Tierra). I tried to bail before the crux, but I just couldn’t. At the crux it was an overhanging bulge, no gear, to a blind placement in verglas, a one-arm, then another….”
The painting and climbing were feeding one another — he’d studied the Mermoz for hours prior, then painted it before sending Vol. “I like extreme contrasts,” Parkin says, identifying Patagonia as an ideal landscape. “I can create the tension between the art and the climbing.”
He returned in ’94 with Francois Marsigny to try a new line on Cerro Torre, a direct and committing approach to the west ridge which would hopefully continue to the summit. The pair put up A la Recherche du Temps Perdu (ED+ 90° 800m), before being pinned down for three days at the Col of Hope. Deciding they could go no higher, and fearing a stormbound retreat on the scoured line they’d climbed, they rapped off the other side of the massif, to the hielo continental and walked for three days to an estancia and eventually back to base camp.
(Americans Colin Haley and Kelly Cordes completed the line envisioned by Parkin and Marsigny, linking Recherche and the 1974 Ferrari West Face route to the summit in ’07, alpine style.)
The exploit earned Parkin and Marsigny the Piolet d’Or, the French “Oscar” of alpinism. “At the time I didn’t even know we were nominated. I didn’t attach too much to it…but over time…I’m not proud of the fact that I won that,” Parkin confesses. “In my world, I don’t talk about the Piolet d’Or. It’s not on my CV. I’ve told them since — I will never accept it again. I’ve noticed there are one or two people chasing it. That’s exactly the wrong philosophy. It’s not a sport, climbing; it’s a way of life.”
Of the award, he finally asks, “Should we carry on? My argument would be ‘no’. It’s such a personal affair…the climbing. I’ve maybe learned to talk more openly about (it),” though he believes the Piolet d’Or might be “past its sell-by date.”
The climbing continued, unaffected by the award and indifferent to the bolt-craze that had swept Europe and was ablaze in the States. Parkin tried to solo Supercouloir on Fitz Roy in ’96, but was shut down by abominable conditions, saying, “I was in this mode…on Fitz Roy it hit me: Maybe there’s a limit to it. In terms of soloing, where could this go? The answer is obvious.”
Whatever the little voices in his head were saying, he resisted. He and a British expedition failed on the east face of K2, again in ’96. In 1998 he failed on the north face of Cerro Standhardt with Beaudoin; sent Belle Helene in ’99; turned back on a new line right of the Moonflower Buttress on Mount Hunter in Alaska; backed off a winter solo on the Compressor Route in 2000; attempted the southwest face of Shishapangma in winter in alpine style in 2003.
As many failures as highlights, to be sure — a sign of ambition and vision. Parkin says, “We’ve always gone for massively long shots. There’s literally no chance of getting up the stuff we go for. It’s style that counts, in your way of living, in climbing.”
By the turn of the millennium, Parkin began climbing more with friends, in wilder places — he and Simon Yates have put up new routes on Mounts Ada and Iorana, on a sailing/mountaineering trip in Tierra del Fuego (2001), and on Hispar Sar in Pakistan, (2004). He regularly new-routes in the Aiguilles Rouges, above his home and art studio on the northern outskirts of Chamonix.
To speak of his alpinism apart from his artwork is artifice, a contrivance. Parkin’s young life practiced one at the expense of the other, but his accident allowed him to blend the two disciplines, creating a sum-total greater than the parts. Today he wins commissions throughout Europe and continues to climb at a high standard, in spite of a disabled arm and leg, eyeing routes where others might not, and practicing his craft amongst the mountains he’s always sought.
In the age of satellite-blogs and hokey Zen platitudes, Parkin represents an alternative to the modern hero-climber. He emphasizes “experience over sensation”, which, if followed logically, means one’s climbing is entirely subjective — rendering awards, grades, and gymspray exactly what they are: meaningless. The integrity, in climbing and in life, is in practice and craft, not fame, and certainly not fortune.
Still, the world takes notice. For upcoming speaking engagements and art openings, his friends have been “coaching” him to open up a bit, talk more openly about his work and alpinism. He considers the connection between the two for a moment. The sound of voices, raucous and some in French, comes over the phone line. He is, after all, a Brit and a climber — it sounds as though he’s at the pub, in Cham.
“They’re two practices that require taking an idea through to its conclusion,” he says over the din. “It’s too vulgar, to let my art become commercial, or why I’m climbing. I try to keep the art non-commercial. The climbing, I keep it personal.”
And he adds one last bit: “It’s style that counts, in your way of living, in climbing. That’s been my theme throughout my life. I come back to that myself. Everything, the accident, the rehabilitation, the art. My life just kind of limps on.”
Rob Coppolillo writes, skis, and climbs in Boulder, Colorado, and — sometimes — the Alps. He dedicates this piece to his father, Henry Coppolillo, who passed before its completion. Grazie, papa. A dopo. . . .
For more read: Behind the scenes of Andy Parkin - "A Life in Adaptation"
A Clean Record: Parkin’s Greatest Climbs
In the mountains, Andy Parkin climbs in alpine style, sans bolts or fixed ropes, often onsight solo. Below is an abridged curriculum vitae.
- 1977 — Astroman (V 5.11c), Zodiac (VI 5.7 A2), Naked Edge (5.11a/b)
- 1981 — Fenrir (FFA 5.13b), Verdon Gorge; with Thierry Renault
- 1983 — Walker Spur (ED1 IV 5c/6a A1; 4,000 feet), Grandes Jorasses, Cham; first alpine-style solo winter ascent
- 1990 — West Rib of Shivling, Garhwal Himalaya, India; without oxygen
- 1991 — Pèlerinage (FA VI 6a; 1,312 feet), La Peigne, Cham
- 1993 — Tierra del Hombres (FA 6a, 85°; 1,968 feet), Aguja Guillaumet, Patagonia
- 1994 — Aiguille Sans Nom Direct (FA V 5+ 5b; 3,281 feet), Aiguille Sans Nom, Cham; À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (FA ED+ 90°; 2,620 feet), Cerro Torre, Patagonia
- 1997 — PF (FA ungraded), Flammes des Pierres, Grand Dru, Cham
- 1998 — Northeast Gully (FA III 4+; 1,640 feet), Pointe Tournier, Cham
- 2000 — Voie Ferroviaire (FA V 6; 3,281 feet), Aiguille du Midi, Cham
- 2001 — Parkin Route (FA III 4+; 1,640 feet), Aiguille Talèfre, Cham
- 2004 — New line on the southwest face of Hispar Sar, Karakoram, Pakistan
"A Life in Adaptation"
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