Original Image: Heinz Zac
Crazy Sorrow. The life and death of Alan Mullin. Edited by Grant Farquhar. 264pages Paper Back. Perfect Bound. ATLANTIS PUBLISHING. £28 or £8 in e-book format.
His hunger burns, he learns how to steal, and he learns how to fight’. In the Ghetto Elvis Presley
No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning oneself. Nietzsche
I faced the thought of reading ‘Crazy Sorrow’ with some trepidation, for I already knew the Alan Mullin story climbing wise, and had read Ed Douglas’s article about his terrible death. I feared that in learning about what had led up to that, some of my own father’s mental breakdown would be in my recall, although unlike Alan Mullin my sister and I never suffered physical abuse at home.
The story begins with a short Forward by his brother Kevin, three years younger than Alan who also eventually joined the army, finishing as a senior NCO. There then follows an authoritative overview ‘The discipline of Suffering’ by the historical guru of Scottish winter climbing, Simon Richardson. This is replete from the earliest ascent of Ben Nevis to collect plant specimens in 1771, to a winter climbing Grade X10 and beyond two hundred years later. All the major historical figures and their climbs are included and the story finishes around the time Alan Mullin begins his ascents. Ascending unbelievably in two years to the top of the grading system; which Richardson explains of how it developed and its workings over so many winter seasons of trial and error. Being a pendant I found only one mistake in this excellent review, on page 20, the first ascent of the North Face of the Droites in September 1955 was by P.Cornau and M. Davaille.
A major part of the book is detailing where and how Alan Mullin was coming from; beginning with his early life growing up on two different housing estates near Glasgow. His father was partly deaf, earned a living as a pipe fitter, but abandoned his family when Alan was 13, leaving him to fend for himself and his younger brother, with a mother who sank deeper and deeper into alcoholism, living off benefits, which resulted in Kevin being removed into care. It is warts and all, for his father was a Protestant, and his mother a Catholic, and once his father had departed he was moved from a Protestant School to a Catholic one and he became a Celtic supporter; and on one occasion actually attended at an ‘Auld Firm Derby’, Celtic versus Rangers. This was at the latter’s ground and wearing his Celtic shirt he was lucky to get away without a beating, for having lost a friend and transport home he was accosted by older, bigger Ranger’s fans who were ready for a fight having lost the game to their Catholic Rivals. He had the sense to get his shirt off and hide it from sight. For the uninitiated the Protestant versus Catholic rivalry between these Clubs supporters has in the past being the cause of much violence.
In the early Chapters there is also violence and much fighting for Mullin had to learn the hard way that he needed to toughen up, and assume the role of ‘The Hardest Kid In Our Street’. And although he was small physically he made up for this when challenged by his level of aggression. Unless you have experienced this kind of milieu yourself it may seem pointless but we are a product of our environment, and if you live in any such area throughout the UK, it is likely you too might experience such a culture. How do these sink areas develop? When I was 15 in 1951 I had met in Wales, Mick Noon of Glasgow’s Creagh Dhu Club (Mick is mentioned in Richardson’s review) and he had invited me to visit him and attend a Club meet on the Cobbler. I hitch hiked from Leeds and was met by Mick who lived in Denmark Street in The Gorbals; a sea of run down tenements and dilapidated saloon bars. It is from the redevelopment of such inner city areas out into Estates/New Towns on the peripheries of major conurbations, with many of their denizens moving there from these districts that some sink estates seem to develop?
It is a National disgrace that in some of these poverty and depressed levels exist that no country should allow to-be so. But let me be clear here, there was nothing depressed about the members of the Creagh Dhu when I eventually met up with them. However as I was to find out later in the mid-sixties working for a firm in the Anderston District of Glasgow, that many of these places on the fringe of the City were just as Alan Mullin experienced when young, districts to avoid unless you were also willing to trade a Glasgow kiss or two!
Mullin was determined to get himself out of his troubled environment, and as soon as he was able, at 15 years of age he joined the army. But incredibly he joined an English infantry regiment, The Green Jackets. After one year of basic training as a junior soldier, he was posted into the regiments 2nd battalion. Having expected life to be so different in the army, he quickly learned that it could be just as violent as it had been at school and on the two Council estates on which he had lived. In another life, when I was forced into National Service, before I was posted to Manchester in February 1954, I had to undertake three weeks of infantry training in Wiltshire. This educated me on how such can dehumanise anyone who is of a sensitive nature, for one of those I shared a barrack with, Rosenheim a young Jewish teenager just could not stand the constant verbal attacks on him by the NCO’s and the antagonism from bigoted fellow recruits, so he killed himself. In true army style the ranks closed and though his parents along with their MP arrived at the camp demanding answers, the true situation as to what had happened was brushed away without any real consideration by the officer corps.
I think I need here to give an insight into how such training affected Mullin, by a direct quote ‘After almost a year of training, I had transformed from a scrawny young recruit into a finely tuned psycho with a thirst for violence: exactly what the army was looking for’.
Over the next 8 years Mullin served first in Northern Ireland at the height of the troubles, then Cyprus and finally in South Georgia. Good and bad things happened to him during these years, a positive one was meeting his wife Marion whose first husband had also been in the military, but who had died in a helicopter crash. But a negative one was when nearing the end of his tour in Northern Ireland, whilst engaged in the rumble of a game of indoor football. Rifleman versus NCO’s he was rammed into a wall badly fracturing a knee. This was so serious he was flown to the Woolwich Military hospital near London, resulting in an operation and a month in bed before returning to Belfast. His final posting in South Georgia perforce because of the terrain meant a course in mountain training, including some ice climbing and this is when he became fired up by a wish to become a climber.
Unfortunately whilst on another exercise carrying a heavy rucksack he suffered a slipped disc which made continuing on with this outing a physical agony. It was a big mistake to go on battling this for he was doing himself real physical damage. I also once slipped a disc and I was likewise in physical agony, but I had this dealt with in 48 hours by a Neuro surgeon. It took me a few months to recover completely, but despite moving onto light duties, Mullin’s situation became ever more serious and eventually resulted in him needing a spinal operation. And this eventually led on to him being discharged the service, a decision which he found hard to contemplate, for despite all else, he loved the army and had no wish to leave a life which he found so conducive to his own attitude in living. By the end of his story I had to agree with a view expressed by his brother Kevin; that retiring him from the army on grounds of physical disability was truly a questionable action.
On returning to civilian life he moved with his family (his wife Marion had two children via her first marriage, and they had a son together) to a village near Invergordon, and for a time they seemed settled. Although Mullin was drinking heavily, and on occasion experimenting with drugs, and getting into fights in Clubs (he acted as a bouncer for some short period); he unfortunately found that life in what they had thought could be a honeyed existence in a traditional Highland village, turned, out not to be so. Resulting in confrontation with a family of local trouble makers which ended with criminal charges in court, over which Mullin and his wife were completely exonerated. They then moved 20 miles away to another village where they did find the lifestyle that they had originally sought, with an environment for their three children to safely grow within. However his heavy drinking, drug taking, with bouts of anger and worries about where he was heading; he had been only 23 years old when he left the army, made him begin to question his mind set. And so he booked himself into a series of appointments with a psychologist and confessed that despite his apprehension about doing this, he found the meetings worthwhile and even enjoyable!
He then almost by accident rediscovered what he was good at; climbing. In the 1990’s mixed winter routing was taking off and after what was, an unbelievable short apprenticeship of two years, he went from soloing at grade I to climbing at grade VIII. For Mullin, the hardships that are hand-in-hand with Scottish winter climbing seemed no worse than those he had come to expect in the army. Initially he was very much self-motivated and self-taught, but in 1997 he teamed up with Steve Paget, a highly talented but relatively unknown winter climber. Together they focussed predominantly on mixed climbs in the Cairngorms.
Making full use of the equipment revolution then under away, and the new technique of dry tooling, over the next few years either partnered by Steve or climbing solo Mullin repeated many classic Cairngorm mixed climbs. Simon Richardson noted that he was rapidly moving to the forefront of Scottish winter climbing. Ascent followed ascent, a standout climb being The Needle on the Shelter Stone Crag in a 17 hour push in 1998. A ten pitch route, the first to be graded IX. They bettered this the following winter with an ascent of The Steeple also on the Shelter Stone, seen by many at that time as the ultimate last great Scottish winter problem. Again Simon Richardson opined that this ascent was ‘without question the most sustained technical winter route climbed in Scotland to date’.
But others were not so complimentary, for both these climbs were made early in the season, in the case of The Needle in late October, and I know when I lived in Scotland it was rare that routes were in winter condition so early in the season, but conditions in an area like The Cairngorms change so much from year to year, and even from day to day. However not all the responses to these ascents were critical; Andy Kirkpatrick noted ‘Alan was a revolutionary in the history of Scottish climbing, a total outsider who shook a closed scene to pieces’.
He further upped the ante by making an incredible on-sight solo first winter ascent of Rolling Thunder on Lochnagar in December 1999 (V11 8). This in summer conditions is a four pitch, E1 5B and there was no doubt about the cliff being in winter condition on this occasion, for other climbers were in the area and took pictures with long lenses of the Face on which Mullin appears as a red dot in a hanging sea of white.
One Chapter I really enjoyed reading was about Mullin attending the 1999 BMC International Winter Climbing meet based at Glenmore Lodge. As the person who organised the very first such BMC International Meet in Wales in 1973, it was interesting to note how much had changed. I do not remember any of the attendees then being prima donnas; although some of the 51 climbers there from 19 countries had made major first ascents in their own countries and the Himalaya. It seemed by 1999 some of those who were in attendance were such and one of them in particular did not rate high on the Mullin personal behaviour acceptance scale. However good came from this for Mullin met Kevin Thaw and Leo Holding with whom he did gel and before the meet was over he had an invitation to climb in the USA and Patagonia from Thaw.
During 1999 and 2000 Mulin’s desire to widen his experience led him to the USA, the Dolomites and Patagonia. In Yosemite he climbed his first ever big wall climb and aid route The Prow. His first trip to Patagonia with Kevin Thaw, an expat Brit based in California in January/March 2000 was very successful and the pair made a free ascent of the Czech Route (V1, 5ll+) on Fitz Roy’s West Face. This was Alan’s first of three trips to Patagonia, the other two were to be attempts on infamous Maestri Egger line on Cerro Torre. The first of these attempts, climbing again with Thaw but also accompanied by Leo Holding, ended when the latter took a leader fall badly fracturing an ankle, and the second attempt was totally bombed out by the constant bad weather. At least some good came out of these last two trips for Mullin made friends with the Austrian climber Peter Janschek and visited him to do some ice climbing of which there is plenty in that country. The famous photographer a friend of Peter’s, Heinz Zak accompanied them resulting in an impressive picture in Crazy Sorrow of Alan leading an iced up route at the Rudolfshutte, winter ski and climbing area.
Back in winter Scotland, the first ascents or difficult repeats continued, ‘Centurion’(VIII,8) solo on Ben Nevis, The Demon Direct (IX,9) in the Northern Corries with Steve Paget, and Crazy Sorrow (X,II) with Steve Lynch in Lochnagar. Over this latter, the first so highly graded, a storm of criticism erupted. ‘Pre-placed gear, abseil inspection, aided moves etc’ being the screams from the keyboard warriors but also some of the protectors of the Scottish winter climbing ethic, but Mullin either did not care or pretended not to. An innocent enquiry about this controversy by Simon Richardson hit a raw nerve and resulted in an unfriendly response to be followed by three abusive e-mails. And that was the last time Simon communicated with him, although he writes that despite everything he still regarded Alan as a friend, and that he was the best winter climber of his day. Interestingly Dave MacLeod who also climbed with him gives him the same high rating, but noted he was without a doubt ‘the most intense person I’ve ever spent time or climbed with’.
(For those interested the name ‘Crazy Sorrow’ comes from a lyric by Bob Dylan, but it is also a book title by Susan Bowes about a deadly family feud in the Appalachian Mountains)
In 2004 Mullin, abruptly announced he was giving up climbing, his injuries suffered during his army career had caught up with him. He had an operation in a private clinic in Sheffield to try to alleviate this in 2003 but he had to accept that his injured knee was ruined. He also still suffered from his spinal injury for which he had continued to take an opioid pain killer.
Stopping climbing in which his star had Shone so brightly despite the fact it had been for such a brief period seemed to be as Kevin Thaw writes, ‘the beginning of a downward spiral’. Marion his wife noted ‘he became very withdrawn and we could see a dramatic change in him’. He was admitted twice in 2004 on an informal basis to the local psychiatric hospital in Inverness. He was diagnosed with ‘Bipolar Affective Disorder-manic phase, Personality Disorder and possibly drug induced problems’.
He then became an outpatient but in August 2005 he failed to attend an appointment and thereafter had no contact with the hospital until his next admission in 2007.He had stopped taking the antipsychotic medications he had been described citing bad side effects. He tried to find new directions away from climbing by studying philosophy and psychology via the Open University. He was very enamoured of the writings of Nietzsche. He trained as an alcohol counsellor, but quickly gave that up, later enrolling on an anthropology course at Aberdeen University.
The whole terrible story then unfolds, and no one is better qualified to give insight into its development and causes than Grant Farquhar the books editor, for he is a practising psychiatrist. I will leave the reader to follow this to what may seem an inevitable demise with first a suicide attempt by slashing his wrists and walking in front of a car on the A9 road suffering an ankle fracture, damaged ribs and multiple soft tissue injuries. He spent eleven days in Raigmore Hospital in Iverness before being admitted in the care of his wife as a voluntary inpatient at the New Craigs Psychiatric hospital.
Ten days after admission the medical staff wanted him to stay but he wished to go home so on his own instigation he discharged himself ‘against medical advice’, although once again he was prescribed a suitable antipsychotic- medication. There was much more suffering for his family and Alan before the final breakdown, when he became so delusional his wife drove to the Dingwall police station to seek help. Two police officers followed her back to her house, and managed to enter but Alan told them to leave, moved himself upstairs to a bedroom warning the policeman that to come up to him would be at their own peril. Knowing he had been in the army and was a trained combatant the coppers then called for backup. 15 officers arrived at the house, five in riot gear along with negotiators and dogs!
Eventually after five hours of stand-off, and Alan threatening, under orders of the area commander they removed him from the house. Instead of having him sanctioned and entered into hospital, due to multiple misunderstandings he was held in police cells and appeared the next day at Tain Sheriff Court charged with ‘a breach of the peace!’ Instead of being removed to a psychiatric hospital he was sent down to prison. And on March 9th 19 days after this, again due to a series of calamitous decisions, including the stopping of ‘special observations’ and the removal of his cellmate to attend court; when officers did check his cell they found him hanging by a radio flex. He could not be resuscitated. They discovered a number of suicide notes in his cell.
There was an inquiry held into his death eighteen months later, but it appears nothing has changed and throughout Britain there have been numerous inquiries, but the sad conclusion is that the culture seems to be in many cases like Mullin’s, that suicide is inevitable. I do not think Grant Farquhar thinks this is so and there is much more to his analysis than I have written. Preventing suicide is difficult, but rates vary within different countries prison systems and real effort should be made to bring the best practice into our service.
There is then a final chapter of reflections and thoughts about the subject, but for me my view is that Alan Mullin was the classical case of an Outsider. Throughout history such people have appeared, disrupted, and changed how other people think or behave about the meaning of their lives or the approach to their activities. They are often difficult to know but they usually make a positive contribution to our lives, often like Alan Mullin at great cost to themselves and those who love them.
Photograph: Ian Parnell
Crazy Sorrow is well illustrated with many outstanding historic colour prints and contains contributions from many other climbers and sources. It is well produced and though highly priced is unlike any other climbing book I have ever read; think Irvine Welsh and ‘Trainspotting’ or Colin Wilson’s ‘The Outsider’. It is a hard read, but it touches on a subject that we all need to know much more about. So my recommendation is despite the sadness at the terrible outcome do, buy and read it!
Dennis Gray: 2019