Alan Mullin: Image Ian Parnell
This is an excerpt from Atlantis Publishing’s forthcoming book. Crazy Sorrow is a biography of Alan Mullin, the UK’s top winter climber of the turn of the 21st century. After surviving an abusive childhood, Mullin served in the British army for eight years before being invalided out.
Having been introduced to ice climbing during his military service, only two years later he was making first ascents of the hardest routes in the harsh discipline of Scottish winter climbing such as Steeple (IX,9) in 1999. A complex and often controversial character, he abruptly retired from climbing, and due to mental illness committed suicide in prison at the age of 34.
The editor, Grant Farquhar, has used the writings that Alan Mullin left behind and combined these with anecdotes from other climbers to create a compelling tale of Alan’s life including his childhood, army service, climbing career and final tragic days.
The book is told mostly in Alan’s own words but also includes contributions from Jim Fraser, Leo Houlding, Andy Kirkpatrick, Dave MacLeod, Kevin Mullin, Neil Morrison, Simon Richardson, Niall Ritchie, Guy Robertson, Ron Walker and photos from Kevin Thaw, Ian Parnell and Heinz Zak.
The excerpt below is Mullin's tale of his incredible on sight solo first winter ascent of Rolling Thunder (VIII-8) on Lochnagar during a blizzard in December 1999. It snowed so hard during the afternoon that Parallel B and Raeburn's Gulley avalached to either side of the Tough Brown Face. His solitary figure was captured by the lens of Niall Ritchie climbing the route while avalanches crashed down either side of him.He reached easy ground in a fierce storm, abseiled down in the dark and was back in his car, driving home by 9pm.
Alan Mullin on the first winter ascent of 'Death by Misadventure'. Photo Niall Ritchie
Death by Misadventure by Alan Mullin
When I wandered alone – for what did my soul hunger in nights and labyrinthine paths? And when climbing mountains – for whom did I ever search except for you on the mountains?
Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra
I arrived back from the Accident and Emergency unit three hours ago and my eye is still excruciatingly painful. I should have known better than to sharpen my crampons with the angle grinder without wearing goggles. Well, I paid the price for my stupidity: a shard of steel straight into the old ocular. I don’t yet know what was more painful, the shard that was lodged in my eye or the needle that was used to remove it. I’m lying in my darkened living room looking like a character out of Treasure Island. I still intend to go climbing though, as I can use one eye to climb with – of that I’m sure. I only have one problem: no bloody partner to climb with.
I had my heart set on Rolling Thunder on Lochnagar having looked at it with my binoculars the previous summer. It’s an E1 rock route and to my knowledge no one has repeated it since its first ascent in 1982. It was an ideal target for a winter ascent being very grassy, wet and foul in summer and, surprisingly, it looked to me to be quite easy from the ground. I was sure it was climbable. I called various people about doing it, but as usual I’d been let down with promises of, ‘I will call you back, honest Alan.’
As was the case on so many occasions the return phone call never materialised, and I resigned myself to another missed opportunity. The weather was looking fine – albeit a bit stormy. I guess it was the thought of on-sighting this unrepeated E1 on a cliff notorious for its few weak spots that put partners off. I believe now that had I known how tough its armour really was I wouldn’t have embarked on my appointment with fear. I don’t consciously know what made me want to solo it. I guess it just popped into my head and seemed the right thing to do, but in retrospect there were probably subconscious factors at work as well.
First, I climbed Steeple a month before and I felt confident in my ability. Secondly, I’d been having a particularly bad time of late due to much criticism of my ability in the media and by other climbers. I also had more than my fair share of personal problems which had turned me into someone even my wife could not comprehend. I felt that my life was one big bloody mess. I’d suffered many setbacks such as losing my beloved job in the army, and at the same time losing some of my lower spine.
This, consequently, resulted in my addiction to painkillers and alcohol sending me spiralling into depression. I’d fought so hard to overcome all these things, and more, and now this shite about me being a crap climber had really taken its toll on me. I made my mind up there and then lying in the dark alone with my thoughts — I was going to solo Rolling Thunder, and what better time than right bloody now?
It’s 10pm and my eye still hurts, but as I say goodbye to my wife I can sense she is not happy with yet another one of my insane ideas. I reassure her that my eye will be fine by the morning and that if it still hurts I can always come home. I know this is a lie and even if it feels painful I will still climb. I know deep down inside that she worries intensely about me, but I am selfish at heart and always have to get my own way. Perhaps that’s why I love her so much, because I guess she understands me better than anyone else and does not hold my selfishness against me.
The weather forecast is crap and the roads are almost impassable but that doesn’t deter me. I simply take the long road towards Aberdeen, but even this is quite hazardous. I’m missing out the road through Tomintoul as everything is blocked over that way. I struggle slightly with the driving as one eye is not as good as two. It’s still dark when I arrive at the Loch Muick car park. I sort myself out, and although I have not slept since the previous night, I feel OK. I see a car arrive just after me. It looks like Pete Benson, but I don’t bother to go and speak to him as I’m in a world of my own right now and don’t feel very sociable.
Alan on 'Top Gun' Aonach Beag: Image Simon Richards
I have to wear my goggles for most of the walk in. With deep snow underfoot it’s tough going and the heavy sack soon starts to make my shoulders ache. I have no other thoughts in my mind except for Rolling Thunder. I can feel the wind pick up as I reach the Meikle Pap col, but I don’t worry too much as cols are often blustery places due to the channelling of the wind. I can’t quite see the Tough-Brown Face yet, as it’s shrouded by low cloud cover, but I can feel the chill in the air. This is definitely going to be a full-on winter ascent and no mistake. I carry on humping my load through the now thigh-deep snow in the corrie and am beginning to feel slightly tired, but one bonus is that my eye no longer hurts so badly, and I can now remove my goggles which have been misted over for the past three hours.
I eventually reach the first aid box and can now see clearly my objective up on the right of the Tough-Brown Face. Jesus, it’s wintry alright. I witness an airborne avalanche sweep over the top of Parallel Gully B. I still have to negotiate the slopes and the deep snow that lies in the bowl formed just below the face. It’s hard work, and as I approach the foot of the route I can see other climbers over at the first aid box. I am sure they are wondering what the idiot over here is up to. I finally get the monkey off my back and have a well-earned rest.
I survey my intended route above: a series of steep slabs and grooves finally ending at a big roof. I am sure I can climb this route on-sight, but I have no idea what gear I will need. I have just brought my normal soloing rack which consists of four pegs, which are all I own, along with my trusty Hexentrics, a few nuts, quick draws, and a few cams. I have come to rely heavily on my Hexentrics as they can be hammered into icy cracks where nothing else will suffice.
I sort out a peg belay and anchor one end of the rope to it with the free end running through my Soloist device and am now ready. I start climbing up the initial overhanging roof that is harder than it looks. I clear the snow from the groove on the left-hand side of the roof only to be confronted with a horrible blind crack. Damn! This is quite confusing as it looks just like the cracks normally found in Cairngorm granite – in other words quite accommodating. Sadly this was not the case here, as the cracks seemed to be horrible, blind and misleading. I hope this is not normal on this cliff otherwise I could be in trouble.
I manage to get a semi-hook in the groove which allows me to reach a little higher and get some turf and strenuously pull over the roof. I’m now on a nice terrace. I go right under a small roof and climb another unprotected blind groove. After ten metres climbing on reasonable ground I eventually find somewhere to place a decent hex. I thank God for this as I’m beginning to get seriously worried. I make a small traverse out left and pull up onto a half-decent ledge below what looks like a hard slab with cracks running up it. I’m sure this will certainly constitute the lower crux as it is steep, and as it leans left I can’t seem to get straight on it without doing a barn door out leftwards, which is throwing me off balance.
I’ve now searched for protection, in vain, for half an hour. I finally get a small nut at the base of the slab in a very icy crack that I know is shite, but it’s better than nothing. I survey the slab above. Two crack runs up the middle of it with a smaller corner crack on the right-hand edge of the slab. I try to convince myself that they will be nice deep Cairngorm cracks. Wrong. They are bloody useless, shallow and crap. I now know that when I attempt to climb the slab I will not be able to stop and place pro’ as there is no possibility in this blind rubbish, and anyway it’s way too strenuous and looks technically awkward to boot. I eventually manage to place a lousy copperhead at the base of the corner crack. I dare not test it as it has fallen out twice already. However, it does give me the confidence to work a few moves up the slab.
Jesus! It’s technical and there’s nothing much for my feet, but more worryingly there’s nothing in the way of protection at this point to stop me hitting the ground should I fall. This makes for a very hard decision. I must give it my all if I’m to commit. I focus on the moves, remembering everything I’ve ever learned about technique. I make my mind up and decide to take the gamble.
OK, get psyched and go. Left tool hook in the crack and flag left foot out onto the slab. Hook the right tool in a small corner up right. I bring the right foot up for a mono in the crack. Now, high step up; left tool up above head and crap hook in the crack; right tool again in the corner. Now, quickly heel-hook with my left foot on the ledge above. Man this is bloody mad: no gear and well mental. I remove my right tool and thwack into turf and mantle on the heel-hook. I feel great. I am amazed; I did it. That took total concentration. I actually climbed in a trance; I really felt no fear – nothing but the moves coming together. I feel a sense of elation.
Sorting myself out and calming down a bit, I look up at the next section: a small groove leading to a ledge. No problem, or so I think. I manage to place a decent nut at the base of the groove, but it’s choked with ice above so I know I won’t get any gear there. I get a hook for my left tool and move up, getting a thin one for the right in the ice above, but as I try to pull up into the groove my hook rips sending me flying backwards down the slab I’ve just climbed. I’m also upside down. I pull myself up and immediately check myself for movement of all limbs. Phew, I am OK. No injuries and I can now pull myself back onto the ledge. Well that will teach you to be so cocky you dickhead!
This time I get a slightly better hook that allows me to pull onto the ledge above. The guidebook description, which is firmly implanted in my memory, says go out right on a grassy ramp, but I can see a better line directly above. I look up and can see that it’s a thin groove leading to another slab. I manage to get another nut at the base of this groove; it’s small but it’s better than nothing. I start up the overhung groove, and bridging out I can at least maintain balance on this one.
I really wish there was some pro’ here but it’s all blind shite, only good enough for small hooks and little else. I pull onto the slab above and just as I get a decent hook my feet come off. I fall all the way back down to the ledge somersaulting in the process. I’m very lucky that the back-up knot stops on my Soloist and, unbelievably, the nut has held — just. I don’t feel scared just annoyed and even manage a deranged sort of laugh to myself. I stand up and go again as there really is no time like the present, and this time I am successful. I climb the thin groove up the slab and reach a really nice ledge above, thank God!
I’m really hoping for something bomber here as I need to go down and pull my rope up. I manage to get a good thread and a half-decent cam. I sort myself out, rap’ back to the base, and get ready to remove the bottom belay. I can’t believe what I’m seeing here: the bloody peg that I’ve been belayed on has fractured and as I hammer it outwards it snaps off. Well, once again that was bloody lucky Alan, I think.
The weather has now turned really bad with strong winds and a chill that’s eating away at my very bones. However, I’m more determined than ever as I know deep down inside that I’m a good climber and can deal with this. I refuse to give in despite the atrocious conditions now prevailing. I re-ascend to the belay above. I have a 60m rope so it should be enough to link the final two pitches together. This section looks hard as it’s a 20m slab, and I’m guessing that I will be getting no protection due to the totally unaccommodating bloody granite. I climb up a shallow groove and look at the ground ahead.
There’s a bulging arête to my left with a shallow crack running up its right-hand side. I scrape away at the crack in the hope of finding just one deep weakness, but, predictably, it’s another useless shallow load of pants. I can see some small clumps of turf higher up on the arête, and if I could just reach them then I’m sure I can link the moves above to the ledge which is tantalisingly close now. I can just put my left foot on a sloper on the arête. As I try to stand up on it my foot comes off. I have no bloody tool placements, so I’m catapulted backwards through the air. The next thing I know I’m dangling upside down again on the slab below the ledge.
Once again I’ve been stopped by my back-up knot. The Soloist does not work on upside down falls so I have to rely on my back-up knots, which can be difficult to tie or untie in extremis, but they are my only fail safe. I have one tool in my hand but cannot see the other. Is it on the ledge above, or has it gone to the bottom of the cliff? I really hope not; this is all that concerns me at this point. All I can think about is where my other tool is. Without it I will have to retreat and there is no bloody way I am giving up on this route for anything. I pull back onto the ledge only to break out in the loudest fit of insane laughter I’ve ever known. I see my tool lying on the ledge and thank God once again for his kindness. Predictably, I can’t believe my luck. What a jammy bastard Alan; not a scratch or mark in sight.
I quickly regroup. Fully confident that I, at least, have a totally bomber belay. This time I stick the foothold on the arête and precariously reach up high to moss and turf which allows me to climb the arête and mantel onto the ledge above. I now arrange some rubbish runners under the slanting roof which is the junction with the route Crazy Sorrow. The guidebook says you carry on straight up, but the weather is really foul and I don’t like the look of the way ahead or what little of it I can see through this horrible blizzard. Instead, I opt for the guidebook tip of ‘possible escape out right’.
Christ, it looks no better. A large roof blocks the way with yet another slab below it. I’m fed up with all this slab climbing as I find it all rather thin and more to do with good footwork than strong arms. I traverse up right to below the left-hand side of the roof and look below. Cool, there is a load of ice under the roof, but I can’t see any way of protecting it, and the ice means that there is not even the chance of a psychological runner.
I manage to place a Spectre hook in the turf on the left-hand side of the roof, and now I can step down to reach the slab. It feels steep and a fall here will send me smashing down left for a bad landing. I really need to focus my attention and stay nice and calm. I traverse under the roof delicately; no room for mistakes here. Now climbing mainly on my feet, I’m grateful that they are sticking for now. Finally, after much heart-in-mouth I reach the right-hand end of the slab and can get a torque under the roof, which allows me to reach high with my right tool and get some turf and, thankfully, reach a ledge above. Phew!
That felt weird but only after I climbed it – not during. Quite bizarre this climbing game. The weather has really taken a turn for the worse now and I’m now being blinded by spindrift and the wind feels fiercely strong. I carry on traversing for a while; the ground is friendlier here, and I’m getting better gear at last albeit not where I really need it. I’m forced to make a slight descent then more climbing straight up takes me to the crest of the Tough-Brown Ridge, or what I believe is the ridge anyway. Sadly, I can’t see where the hell you are supposed to abseil from. There was something in the description about a block with a sling around it, but as I can hardly see my hands in front of me, I don’t think I’m going to find it.
I switch my head torch on and look again: nothing but bloody spindrift blasting in my face. I think I’m going to panic, but, wait, what about the way I have just come? I know where everything is, and I have belays that will allow me to descend. I mean, what’s the difference? Descend here – providing I find said block – which is looking more unlikely by the minute, or go back – which I will have to on the last pitch anyway – then descend. I have made my mind up, and it’s back the way I came and descent for me.
I pull my way across my rope, and eventually I’m back at the roof. I’m not keen on the traverse but it’s this or, in my mind, confusion over on the ridge trying to find a lousy block in this shite. I manage to place my tools on the turf and step back down to below the roof. I know the ice is good enough so I just have to remember that. I traverse again tenuously and thinly but my feet are doing all the work and they’re sticking to the thin ice here. I seem to be willing my monopoints to stick and they’re doing it.
Almost being blown off several times, it feels like the longest traverse of my life. I begin to feel sick. I can now reach the turf on the other side of the roof and pull onto the ledge. I throw up all over the ledge. The retching has made my eyes water, and my tears are freezing straight onto my cheeks. I also discover the Spectre hook has completely ripped out of the turf. I rap’ from two nuts sideways under a roof then decide I would be better rapping from the in situ thread lower down. Well I have tested the thread fully and at least I know it’s bomber. I rap’ from the thread to the ledges below. Another rappel, and I’m safely back on terra firma. But, I have problems seeing in the white out and know it’s far from over yet.
I put away my frozen rope but can’t remove my harness as the webbing buckles are totally frozen stiff. I put my sack on and try to get out of this nightmare. I’m having a horrendous time descending as I can’t see my compass properly and the snow is waist deep in the corrie. I don’t know if I can carry on. My body is exhausted, and with no sleep for two days, or decent food, I’m at breaking point. I’m not even at the first aid box yet, and I’ve been floundering here for more than an hour. I sit down. Blasted by spindrift and freezing cold, I start to cry – it’s hopeless. So this is how it ends for those stupid enough to defy common sense and all that goes with it in the mountains.
I drift off to sleep; somehow it no longer seems important to move. I think I’m dreaming, remembering my time in the Army – remembering how many times I’ve had feelings just like this. But when I was at my lowest ebb, tired, starved and feeling hopeless, I never ever gave up. I always managed to keep going; that was my spirit, and I needed that resolve right now. After all, I had everything to live for: a great wife, lovely kids, and an insatiable lust for life.
I open my snow-encrusted eyes, get up and start moving. I’m thinking: as long as I don’t descend I will get out of here. Up and right is the way home, and that’s where I put my head. Four hours later, I eventually reach the Meikle Pap Col after what can only be described as the basic struggle for survival in the mountains when they are venting their fury. I’m weary of body and mind, but I keep moving with the enduring thought that I must get home foremost in my mind. I reach the track going towards Glen Muick and can rest.
Thank God it’s finally over; with just a walk down a long track I will be there. I rest my aching body and have the strangest feeling. I start to shake uncontrollably and break down in tears. I’m filled with unknown emotions. Wait a minute, I know what they are now. They are feelings of remorse and fear. I am remorseful because I could have easily killed myself and that would have been selfish as I know my wife deserves better. That’s it. The feelings I should have been having on the route were those that I’d repressed.
AM on 'Rudolpshutte' Austria: Image Heinz Zak
That’s why I felt a profound sense of calm after falling so many times, but now all the feelings of fear and common sense that I had ignored are suddenly filling my mind, flooding back like waves. It feels like a wake-up call. I’m suddenly intensely aware of my own selfishness, yet it feels too late. I pull myself together and carry on down the track. I get the frozen clothing off and get in the car, anxious to get back home and see my wife. I feel content and am slowly warming up. I feel a strange kind of satisfaction. I know that I no longer have to worry about what people will say about me. I can climb, of that I am now certain.
‘Death by Misadventure’ by Alan Mullin was originally published posthumously in the SMCJ, 2007.
Crazy Sorrow will be available on 1 August 2019 from Amazon as paperback (£28) and ebook (£8).
Grant Farquhar 2019