Paul Pritchard: Five places that changed my life


My family escaped the harsh northern cold of my birthplace with regular holidays here. Here, I was "home schooled" on the beach for an hour a day, giving me a glimpse of freedom from an early age.


At this place, just above Bolton, they used to extract gritstone to line the waterways and reservoirs that powered the world's industrial revolution. When I was 15, a teacher took a group of us climbing there and it was the first time I was any good at anything (I was dreadful at team sports and used to vomit every time I went on a cross-country run). This started a lifetime of rock climbing and mountaineering and further instilled in me what it meant to be free.


This was the site of my first "Big Wall" climb. The 1.2-kilometre vertical face took us three weeks sleeping in portaledges (a cross between a stretcher and a hammock that hangs from a single point). Here, hanging on the wall in a raging storm, maybe facing the most terrible consequence, I learned acceptance. Fear is meaningless, in all situations; being scared or being calm, the result will be the same.


This is where I experienced – momentarily – what happens to us when we die. I was 30 metres up, climbing a sea cliff when I fell, plummeting and instinctively landing on my feet … crack … ankle. Then I bounced and came to a stop in a narrow cleft full of seawater, of which I breathed deep draughts. Glenn, my Australian climbing partner, said later he could find no pulse. I was in a warm, dark garden surrounded by tall hedges with insects buzzing. I later wrote "This is it, the most beautiful part of all my life. Utterly final."


Nineteen years ago, I had a catastrophic brain injury on this four-metre-by-65-metre sheer needle of rock, rising straight up from the sea. A block crashed into my skull from 30 metres, changing my life. I was in a wheelchair for a year, I couldn't talk, couldn't feed myself or dress myself. It was as if I were a baby again. But that accident was the best thing that has ever happened to me: It has fostered in me a vast pool of determination. I never give up. Last year I went back and climbed it with one hand and one foot, thereby closing an 18-year loop. There were 10 people who helped me carry camping and climbing gear, water, food and camera equipment. What I distilled from the Totem Pole experience was that, with a little help, everyone – disabled or able-bodied – is capable of quite extraordinary things.

Paul Pritchard's speaking tour kicks off in Sydney on June 20. Join him on a four-day World Expeditions walk along Tasmania's wild coastline – his annual pilgrimage to the Totem Pole. The tour departs Hobart on November 9. See