Thursday 22 March 2007

Alan Mullin

While I was on a climbing trip I got a text to let me know that my friend Alan Mullin was dead at 34. I can’t honestly say that I was shocked that he died before old age; he seemed to always be living his life right on the extremes in nearly every way. He had a troubled life. But I felt it was a terrible tragedy that he couldn’t find the comfort in his life he needed to live the rest of it.

When I was learning to climb, Alan was the best winter climber in Scotland. I got to climb with him a few times during the last couple of seasons before he stopped climbing. He was without a doubt the most intense person I’ve ever spent time with or climbed with. As a climber he was utterly driven and his efforts in the mountains like wandering into the gorms in the middle of the night by himself to solo unclimbed new routes or soloing Centurion on Ben Nevis with some horrendous brushes with death made us shake our heads in disbelief.

Climbing with Alan required a psyche up more than the route itself. The routine was I jumped on the evening bus and met Alan in Lagangarbh or Aviemore and we headed to our chosen mountain to sleep in the boot of his 4x4. Alan was very isolated from climbing most of the time, so he talked and ranted furiously about it through the wee small hours, his car slowly filling with grass fumes which never seemed to calm him down one iota! When he was finally persuaded to get an hour or two of sleep before we began the 4am trudge there would be a minute or two silence before he’d leap up again and say “Fuck it, let’s just fucking walk in NOW mate!” Alan didn’t do sitting still. In 2001 we climbed a grade IX in bad conditions. Alan, frustrated that the climbing day wasn’t perfect climbed a 40 metre grade VII pitch as a blizzard blew in 35 minutes, placing 2 runners. It remains the most impressive piece of climbing I’ve ever seen with ice axes. “Only fuckwits climb slowly mate” he reminded me at the top. In his words, Alan always cut through the crap and politeness and was brutally direct.

He was constantly aware of his own vulnerabilities and never seemed comfortable with himself. This showed in his climbing; maybe this was one area where he could stay on top of situations that could easily get out of hand. His success in climbing brought new opportunities and friends, but his controversial views and uncompromising manner also caused friction with other climbers in a sport more bound by tradition and scrutiny of style than any other climbing discipline. All around he could see that climbers egos got in the way of the good things about climbing – people and experiences. He would often rant about how disgusted he was when other climbers came up to him to ask him questions and ignored his wife Marion standing next to him.

The contrasts in his nature were instant from moment to moment and extreme. From driving brutal effort on the mountain and wild ranting about the sport of climbing, to gentle calls home to Marion to let her know what time he’d be home, or light-hearted jokes and digs. I spent an excellent night out in Glasgow with Alan and Marion before he headed off to Patagonia. I was so happy that he seemed calmer and happier than I’d ever seen him. That was the last time I saw him and shortly after the troubles in his life took him away from climbing. I hoped that I’d be able to pick up where we left off in a café in Glasgow smiling and laughing sometime when the time was right for Alan. I thought it best to leave it until Alan was ready for that, but I almost picked up the phone and called him just to remind him that I was thinking of him and to get in touch if he felt like it.

My best memory of him was a three day trip in the Cairngorms to climb Happy Tyroleans. We spent the first night drinking in Aviemore until 4am and turned back at 8am from the base of Coire an Lochain in a fierce blizzard, spending the rest of the day dry tooling on a railway bridge. The next day Alan’s car broke down and we had a late start on the climb and eventually a retreat from near the top. When we got back to Cairngorm carpark Alan’s car wouldn’t start again so we rolled it to the edge of the ski road and jumped in as the downhill started to try and jump start it. We had to get the thing started before the bottom of Cairngorm otherwise we were stuck! But a herd of Reindeer decided to cross the ski road at that moment and I remember being doubled up with laughter as Alan ran alongside the car pushing reindeer out of the way and waving his arms, occasionally leaping back into the car to steer. It didn’t start and we had a long cold wait for a pickup. The next day with the help of Cubby and his Panda, we climbed the route in perfect conditions.

I have seen the extremes in Alan in many other climbers who are driven by something inside to push themselves right to their limits. This nature can be a gift and an inspiration to others in certain circumstances, but sometimes a destructive curse as well.

Alan a lot of people will miss your company. I am so sorry Marion and the kids.

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