Boardman Tasker Winner Deep Play by Paul Pritchard

Deep Play by Paul Pritchard won the 1997 Boardman Tasker Award.

Four stories up, by Mr. Wooley’s physics classroom, a young Paul Pritchard looked down well-like spiral stairwell, and dropped down. He saw a classmate that passed too quickly to shout to, and recognized the school’s heat radiators as he flew, and the red tiles at the bottom by the pool before he blacked out. Pritchard woke up in the hospital. No one dared him. He wanted to see if he could do it.

Pritchard was the climber many people, possibly even my parents, had in mind when they thought of a rock climber: A risk taker that wakes up after “accidents” in the hospital, if he wakes up at all. He fell, went unconscious, and woke up in the hospital at least three times, including the flight from Mr. Wooley’s classroom, in his 1997 book Deep Play: A Climber’s Odyssey from Llanberis to the Big Walls. This was before his horrible and life changing fall on Totem Pole in Tasmnia. He suffered from a severe head injury that has impaired his use of his body’s right side.

I put Pritchard’s book on my Short Long List because it interested me and I wondered whether it could be a climbing classic. Part of this was that Prichard had climbed on many amazing climbs I read about when I just started reading about climbing. These routes were the big wall climbs of my daydreams: Mount Asgard, Paine’s Central Tower, Trango Tower, and Meru’s Shark’s Fin, and Pritchard tells his story of these routes in his book.

Deep Play is a memoir told through a series of essays told chronologically. He starts at the beginning of his life and I adore the first sentence: “I was born on top of the quarry.” There he and his friends played with explosives, found a dynamic climbing rope, and learned to climb with some real climbers. From there, he and friends developed routes along the sea wall cliffs of England, which appears to earn him invitations to bigger climbs. Later, he says, the Garwhal Himalaya was the “coolest” place he had ever been.

Pritchard was always poor. He lived off unemployment and relied on friends to help him out. His caring character and mischievous spirit earned him his adventurous friends, who were quite loyal. Scrounging and dealing for food, gear, and transportation was a perpetual theme.

What I don’t like is not knowing what actually happened at times. His writing is mesmerizing and kept me interested throughout the book. My favorite chapter was On The Big Stone; he retells one of his early climbing road trips in snippets and clues. It resonated with me and felt like the carefree and sometimes frantic qualities of an adventure with friends. But, there were a lot of details that I wanted to know that went unaddressed. For example, upon leaving, he says he forgot his pack with his gear, but it appears that they kept going, but they might have turned around and got the bag. Yet, they were low on gas. Does that mean they kept going and Pritchard used someone else’s shoes? Did he need shoes or was he climbing in his everyday sneakers? I don’t know and Pritchard doesn’t say.

David Stevenson addresses this in his review of Deep Play in the 1998 American Alpine Journal:

When I say “one gathers,” I mean it literally—it’s hard sometimes to tell exactly what happens. Pritchard quite consistently abandons the literal for the figurative, imaginative, impressionistic. The reader can’t always tell exactly what happens, but nonetheless has arrived (if he’s patient) at a sense of what has happened that’s somehow larger than the literal.

David Stevenson, 1998 American Alpine Journal

Stevenson was harsher than I want to be. He wondered whether we would be complicitous with Pritchard’s next great accident if we consider to praise him. I don’t think that would be the case. As read in Deep Play, Pritchard has been both daring and reckless since arriving at the quarry. Still, it was an ominous question as Pritchard had his life-changing fall on Totem Pole the year Stevenson’s review was published.

Deep Play was short-listed for the Boardman Tasker Mountain Literature Award with Against The Wall by Simon Yates, Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, Icefields by Thomas Wharton, Spirits Of Place by Jim Perrin, and Dark Shadows Falling by Joe Simpson. These are well-respected writers, even if people (like me,) disapprove of some of the stories they told (which is a tale for another time.) Pritchard’s writing was not comparable and it is a little surprising it surpassed these works.

However, Pritchard’s climbing resume, told in Deep Play, has a gravitas, and his disjointed writing is still understandable to the reader even if details (which aren’t always critical for the wonderfully mesmerizing tale anyway) are discarded with abandon. It’s a passionate, authentic, and whirlwind of an adventure that you feel much more than you see. You enter Pritchard’s dream-like memories of the climbs, and road trips, and late nights at the disco between adventures.

I recommend it to meet Paul Pritchard and feel the mountain through his writing alone.

Rating: 4/5

So that was the review. Now let me consider whether Deep Play should be advanced from my Short-Long List to be a candidate for a climbing classic? It is about significant climbs, told authentically by the author, but I am not sure if the writing and how Pritchard conveys his experiences is worth naming a classic for the good of the readers of the final list.

I am undecided. Or perhaps my reservations could put it on a to-be-determined list. Maybe it would be most suitable to be an honorable mention since the language and communication techniques are unique.

Pritchard has written other books, including about his accident on Totem Pole and a new book out this year, The Mountain Path. Perhaps after reading those, or hearing your take, I might have my opinion on the book’s place more firmly positioned.

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