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Review by Tony Lourens
Let me just start off by saying that this is the best biography or autobiography I have ever read. And I don’t mean about climbing, I mean the best biography, period. True, I can’t say I have read many non-climbing biographies (although I have read a few of what I think are the gooduns), but I don’t think I’m far off when I say I have read probably ninety per cent of all climbing biographies, from way back in the day (Bonatti, Mauzeud, Rebuffet, Bonington, et al) to the modern-day writings of Moffat, Moon and McClure, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed each and every one of those books, experiencing their exciting lives with them page by page. But Pollitt’s book takes biographies to a whole different level.
Although it is intensely about climbing, and his passion and obsession with climbing at the very top of the pile comes bursting through in no uncertain terms, his tales of life around climbing – his almost equal passion for the ‘good life’ (wine, women and song), is hugely entertaining and often extremely funny (haha)!
Many a night, while reading in bed, I would burst out laughing, and my wife would want to know what was so funny. So I would end up reading long excerpts to her aloud, so we could both enjoy Pollitt’s extremely descriptive, ‘say it as it is’ writing.
Pollitt grew up in the ’70s and ’80s; smack bang in the middle of the golden era of extreme, ‘boaty’ climbing. Before the real onset of sport climbing, but after the advent of harnesses, chalk and sticky rubber. This meant if you had the ability you could climb really hard, but because it was mainly totally trad, many of the extreme routes were terrifyingly runout, often to the point of looking at ground falls from waaaay up.
And Pollitt certainly had the ability. Talented and strong, he was a prolific new router, opening tons of routes in Wales and also the Peak, but he was also fanatical about getting second (or very early) ascents of other new desperates. One that stood out for me in his book was the story of his second ascent (onsight) in 1886, of John Redhead’s The Bells, The Bells!, on North Stack Wall, Gogarth, which, when opened in 1980, was the first E7 in the country, and by all accounts had (and still has) an X rating. His tale (which can be read in this issue of SA Mountain, as an excerpt from his book), is masterfully written, and has you on the edge of your seat for four palm-sweating pages, dragging the reader through every sequence and near death fall in his three-hour escapade to claim this coveted ascent. He then goes on to put up The Hollow Man, an E8, essentially a direct of The Bells, a few months later, with Johnny Dawes.
Many big names hailed from that era – Fawcett, Moffatt, Redhead, Dawes and Moon, to mention just a few, and Pollitt was right there with them, pushing the limits of climbing, which at the time was probably the hardest and scariest stuff any climbers were doing anywhere in the world. Pollitt’s book is an amazing journey, weaving together many of these names during this period, bringing to light brilliant stories and mind-bending tales of life as an obsessive dirtbag climber. A climber always striving to be the best (and for a time he certainly was up there with the best).
In the early ’90s, Pollitt became obsessed with the iconic route, Punks in the Gym, a route put up by Wolfgang Güllich, at Mount Arapiles in Australia. It was the world’s first 8b+ and Pollitt desperately wanted the second ascent. Sadly this was not to be. He spent 44 days spread over three trips across two years, before he finally succeeded, but not before his great friend Jerry Moffatt, took the coveted second ascent from under his nose in a mere two days, followed shortly by Sean Myles. Pollitt then promptly gives up climbing – totally and for good. Right there on the ground he lowered off on after his ascent of Punks.
Punk in the Gym is a brilliant book in every respect, written from the heart with no punches pulled. It portrays Andy’s life as a climber, a womaniser and a lover of lots of beer and other stuff. It is exciting, scary, hilarious, riveting, bizarre and absurd, but at the same time, sad and melancholy in places.
If you only read one climbing autobiography, there is no question that this is the one to get.
In fact, I am about to start it all over again from page one. And I have never done that with any book before, with the exception of Lord of the Rings – now that is saying something.