Andy Parkin: from hard solos to innovative art

From hard solos to innovative art, Andy Parkin has a passion for the mountains. Now, as Sarah Stirling finds out, he’s inspiring a new generation in Nepal.

Andy Parkin’s survival story is one of the greatest in modern mountaineering. When he suffered a horrific climbing fall in the Alps back in ’84, doctors advised his family to hurry to his bedside to say their farewells. Andy not only lived but, despite permanent physical disabilities (he’s registered disabled), went on to become one of Britain’s most accomplished alpinists.

Andy won the Piolet d’Or in 1994 for an epic climb in Patagonia and has put up many hard first ascents world-wide, some of which have never been repeated. During his long rehabilitiaton, Andy turned to his art for expression, and has also become one of Britain’s best-known mountain artists.

Andy’s regular art gigs include sculpting trophies for the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc and Kendal Mountain Film Festival. He lives in Chamonix and often wanders up to the foot of glaciers collecting sculpture materials: tree roots, wire, copper from old mountain refuge roofs.

These remnants of mountain life have been reformed by nature’s forces, as his own body was back in ’84. The mountain equivalent of flotsam and jetsam, most people wouldn’t begin to see how they could be recreated into something new. This spirit of creativity and independence runs through both Andy’s passions – soloing hard new routes and mountain art – and makes him an inspiring character to talk to.

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Andy Parkin

I first went to Nepal in 1988, four years after the accident. I was hobbling around up there on crutches, painting. I threw myself into the art, because I’ve got to do something 100%, and I could no longer climb. It was a very different life from the one I envisaged when I moved to Chamonix in ’83. I was going to become a mountain guide, set up in the valley with my girl and earn us a living.

Later I had a chance to go to Makalu with Doug Scott and a load of other friends. I planned mainly to paint but funnily enough I found myself climbing at 7,500m with Greg Child. I thought: “God, this isn’t finished, I can still do it!” The gift of getting climbing back was the most amazing thing but by then I couldn’t imagine not being an artist either. I thought: “Well I’m an artist and a climber.” My life is so much richer now because I have these two things.

Above all I’m into the experience, like intensely on my own in Nepal in winter. Or with a group of good mates, on an unclimbed 7000m peak in a strategically difficult part of India. I wouldn’t be happy if I didn’t climb in the best possible way because I still have my ethics. Back in the 80s, if you fell on a climb it was a failure, even if you did it. The idea was to choose so well and be so tuned in that you could turn up and do it on-sight.

Climbing ice and mixed is easier for me now with the physical problems I’ve got. And I can deal with the psychological problem of being on my own. I like going to a place I don’t know much about and soloing. If you’re the only one who’s ever been there, well it’s bound to be good, isn’t it?

I like first ascents as long as they’re mine. I’ve got routes here in Chamonix that have never been repeated and I like that, it’s a secret link between me and that climb, that mountain. I can still remember the feel of it. It’s similar with my art. While I’m working on a piece, it’s mine. I’m not sure I’m going to sell it – I don’t need to sell it, but I don’t need to keep it either because I don’t want to get too precious about my own work and I need to create space for other projects. So it can be sold, it goes on, other people now live with it – these things have a right to evolve and develop.

Summit: Andy Parkin 2

I like living and working in Chamonix. It’s a good place to be and a good place to get away from. The only problem is of course the thing that makes it work; the tourism. Each season has its own charm and character like any mountain region but we’re invaded twice a year, which de-stabilises your way of living. Like the animals here – the chamois, the ibex – I start fleeing.

Going to Nepal reminds me of when I first came to Chamonix in the 70s. There was tourism here but a lot of people still made a living from agriculture. I didn’t speak French particularly, I just thought about climbing, but slowly I got drawn into the culture. Learning the language, friends; it all opens up and you’re drawn into everything. It’s not just about the climbing any more, it’s being part of the community. Certain parts of Nepal are now in a transition phase towards tourism so I’m seeing it all over again.

It’s an exciting time for Nepalese culture. It’s not the country I first met in ’88, it’s like a new country trying to reaffirm itself. A contemporary art scene is establishing itself, particularly in the wake of the 1996-2006 Nepalese civil war. Nepalese artists are no longer just painting thangkas. These are like icon paintings – just copying a traditional style. There’s a strong current of creation coming from south-east Asia at the moment, through China, India, Indonesia, and it’s spread to Nepal as well.

I carried on going to Nepal to climb through the war years. That put me into special contact with the people because they’re flattered that you show that confidence in them and are seeing their place at the worst time. I got to know people and I began learning the language. Now I’ve got a lot going on in Nepal as well as in Chamonix. I’ve lectured at the Art College in Kathmandu, I’m a resident artist at the annual mountain festival, and I teach art to Nepalese kids.

For the past five years I’ve been going to the Kusum Kanguru region of Nepal to solo. When not climbing I’m usually based in the village. I’ll be painting and the kids will come around. One day I said: “Come on, instead of bugging me you lot have a go, show me something.” And from that I determined that some of these kids were quite good actually. I proposed an art project to the British climbing charity Community Action Nepal. CAN is a group of British climbers, all friends. It’s up front and transparent, we know what money comes in and where it goes.

So I began teaching art in a deaf school that was started by Doug Scott. Some of the children are also autistic, some can’t see very well. Whatever they do they get into it and really enjoy it. One reason I’m really behind what I’m doing with these children is that I know art is really therapeutic. This winter I was trying to solo a new route on the North Face of Kusum Kanguru. I was on my own for three weeks but I was happy because art takes you completely away from everything – just like climbing, right, you don’t think of anything else.

So I’ve learnt how to teach, but it’s a very on-sight approach to teaching. You can just do it Nepal and the beautiful thing is that the kids are so keen to learn and the parents have made huge sacrifices so their kids can have access to things that they never had themselves. It’s fascinating but the first time I worked with the kids for three weeks, it was so intense I thought: ‘What have I let myself in for?’

I don’t just teach the children techniques, I teach them the way of thinking to be creative. I just get it going then let it work. I take materials for them, but I’ve also taught them that if you don’t have anything you pick a piece of charcoal out of the fire. Wood, a stone – anything. Pick up cardboard and you draw on that, right, because it’s about doing. I taught them how to make paintbrushes by cutting my own hair, and sticking it onto bamboo. That shocked them. I’ll be a mentor for them as long as it needs but when I’m not around I want them to be inventive enough to carry on.

I sell the children’s paintings in exhibitions in Chamonix and Kathmandu. We’ve created bank accounts for when they come of age, or if their families are in dire need. The families are starting to sit up and take notice now that there is actually money in the kids accounts, which is great because I want to persuade the parents to leave the children time to paint. While they are in the school it’s OK, but once they leave they’ve got to help support the family. If they can do that in an interesting and dignified way, well it’s good for everybody.

Trek, Art and Culture Retreats in Nepal

It’s taken Andy decades to get to know special places to paint and the people in Nepal. He and a Nepalese artist have recently begun sharing their knowledge with visiting artists on unique retreats. The 17-day trips take place in Spring and Autumn, outside the main tourist seasons, when peace and charm return to Nepal. Beginners and experts alike are welcome.

The accommodation is in luxury lodges in the village of Thame, west of Namche Bazaar, so the artists have hot showers and good food as well as the chance to surround themselves with local culture and the world’s highest mountains.

The next retreat runs from 22nd November to 8th December. More information can be found on the Yeti Mountain Home Website: www.yetimountainhome.com