Speaking on the phone to adventurer and disabilities advocate Paul Pritchard, there are times when you can hear his injury. Upon occasion, his words are punctuated with long pauses as he searches for the right word.
In 1998, the British climber was on a trip to the Tasman Peninsula to climb the Totem Pole. No one could have foreseen the piece of rock becoming dislodged from the sea stack and falling directly onto Paul’s head. Some might say he’s been in recovery since then, overcoming challenge after challenge, before finally returning to complete his ascent of the Totem Pole last year.
Paul’s words flow smoothly and eloquently between those minor and occasional breaks, still holding the northern English accents of his birthplace in Lancashire. His candour and humour override any lingering annoyance he may have with the occasional interruption.
“I’ve had to learn bucketloads of patience and determination to get through the past 19 years,” he says. “I’ve had to learn how to accept what has happened to me, and with that acceptance comes the courage to navigate the vicissitudes of life that affect us all.”
This elegant thought of Paul’s is echoed in the film ‘Doing It Scared’, which will be appearing in this year’s Banff Film Festival and follows Paul’s journey from the accident to his successful climb of the Totem Pole in 2016. However, the film is not the subject of his conversation today. Instead, Paul’s excited to be talking about his upcoming work with the adventure tour company, World Expeditions.
“World Expeditions has been very good to me. They’ve helped me put on this speaking tour, which in turn will help raise awareness and funds for ‘Lowest to Highest’, a 2,000-kilometre cycle from Lake Eyre or Kati Thanda to Kosciuszko.”
“We have a Pozible campaign set up for that expedition at the moment, by which we hope to raise $20,000. We’ve got a way to go on that, so every bit of support helps.”
Lowest to Highest will see five disabled riders, including Paul, ride the enormous distance over a period of weeks in September and October of this year. Yet Paul isn’t concerned about the physical aspect, brushing off my question on training in saying: “We’re all quite fit”.
As a disabilities advocate, Paul talks about his experience with school groups and at other public events often, but being able to share his insight with an adventure audience is also important to him. Not only does he feel adventure activities are critical to developing resilience in life, he also has a message of equality to impart.
“You may find it interesting that I didn’t actually climb the Totem Pole last year, not in the traditional sense,” Paul confides. “Instead I climbed a rope by way of 126 one-armed pull ups to get to the top that day.”
“I’ve come to see that rope as my support, just like a wheelchair ramp might make it feasible for a wheelchair user to access a building, allowing them to be included in society. It’s like a pair of reading glasses that makes it possible for somebody, even you perhaps, to sit an exam or read a newspaper. With support, everybody is capable of quite extraordinary things.”
This incredible insight, which is really just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the wisdom Paul plans to share at his upcoming speaking engagements, is hard won. Paul tell me that, immediately following the accident and a long convalescence in hospital, he spent a long time facing despair.
“After the incident, I made the decision to sell all my climbing and expedition gear. I thought I’d never go climbing again and it made me feel like despairing.
“After about nine months of rehab, I walked 100 metres around the hospital grounds for the first time and I realised, ‘Wow. If I can do that in nine months, in 18 months I could walk 200 metres.’ I gained solace from that.”
Once out of hospital, Pritchard made it his mission to walk up a hill in Wales, which lay just above the village he was living in. Seven years later he climbed Kilimanjaro.
“A life in overcoming challenges prepared me for this. My life led in the mountains.
“If you’re not determined when you set off on a climb, you’d never get up the mountain, at least not with haste. I learnt determination in the mountains and that determination has got me through in many ways.”
Despite not having the use of the left side of his body to this day, Paul has come to see his accident as the best thing that’s ever happened to him.
“A lot of people can’t understand how a catastrophic accident is the best thing that ever happened to me, but I certainly stop to smell the flowers a lot more.”
Paul will be appearing at multiple venues around the country throughout June and July this year. See the World Expeditions website for tour dates and ticketing.
To celebrate the speaking tour, World Expeditions has also launched a special, four-day walk with Paul along Tasmania’s wild coastline on his annual pilgrimage to the Totem Pole. The ‘My Tasmania’ tour with Paul Pritchard departs Hobart on the 9th of November.