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Tome On The Range

Disco Legs Part I: Thirst, Scree & Terror, by John Doran
John Doran , January 29th, 2010 06:36

A story about alcoholism, terror, stupidity and a failure in the field of mountain climbing by John Doran. Photos courtesy of Holly Barringer, Andy Kirkpatrick and Maria Jefferis

DISCO LEGS

1989

I’m in Silhouette's. A gay club in Hull. The old one on Spring Bank. Talk turns to what we want to do when we get older. I feel slightly embarrassed when I say writer but am not ready for the extremely unpleasant reaction from Dave Wryde.

"Say something proper you cunt", he says.

"That's what I want to be, I know it's not likely but . . ."

"That's not a proper job. No one earns a fucking crust doing that", he continues.

"Some people do. Why are you getting so angry, do you think I shouldn't have ideas above my station?"

It goes on like this for some time until he punches me in the face cutting my lip and loosening one of my teeth. Bouncers throw him out and I have to be restrained but it is all forgotten about by the next day.

1999

It turns out he thought I said rioter. We laugh and get drunk.

PART ONE

2001

The last time I saw Andy Kirkpatrick he was surfing down the stairs of his squat on an ironing board with his birthday cake on his head.

In the early 90s he was a slightly plump, bespectacled boy who used to live round the corner from me in Hull. His flat was above a butcher's shop on Newland Avenue that you reached by walking down a litter-strewn back alley and climbing a greasy set of metal steps. In summer the front room always smelled of raw meat. There was a life-sized fibreglass butcher with his hands on his hips that stood grinning and bearded outside the window, blocking out most of the light and casting an ominous shadow in the room. It was full of slightly shiny ex-office furniture and there was a crucifix made out of empty Marlboro packets on the wall above the fireplace. The walls were covered in Andy’s art. Different sized photocopies of aerosol cans and public service posters that he’d made, and huge oil paintings of air disasters and cancer cells. A giant candle, the size of a dust-bin, made from other candles, crayons and the skins from balls of Edam that had been melted together, took up all the room on the formica table in the corner. Andy had the time to be my host because he was an aspirant artist on the dole. I had the time to hang round because I'd just been thrown off an English course at the University and was already firmly in the grip of alcoholism and quite happily throwing myself into chaotic substance use; something that would eventually dominate my life for over two decades.

Andy is now a world famous mountaineer. A lauded winter alpinist, he scales remote peaks that very few have ever seen let alone climbed. If you’re the sort of person who understands mountain climbing then you will know that climbing Yosemite's El Capitan - 10 times, a winter climb of Patagonia's Fitz Roy, and a fortnight-long ascent of the Lafaille route on Europe's Petit Dru are no mean feats. That said if you’re the sort of person who understands about mountain climbing you probably already know who Andy is. This is not to say that he is universally respected; some other mountaineers regard him as “stupid” or “psychotic”. But when he’s not being stupid and psychotic on the side of a cliff he tours the world giving motivational seminars on not falling off glaciers or getting crushed by boulders. And when not doing that he is a safety expert on the sets of Hollywood films.

Now in his thirties, all the puppy fat has gone and he looks really fucking strong. He looks like he could kick your head clean off its shoulders with one well placed motion. His arms are wider than his head. But more than anything, he actually looks like a mountaineer. The glasses have gone and his eyes glitter. He is as broad and muscular as he is of medium height.

His geniality and his strength put you in mind of Henry Rollins after anger management classes, extensive laser surgery for the removal of tattoos and two good quality ecstasy tablets. It is raining outside but he wears flip flops – the sort of affectation that only the supremely self confident, the hard or the mentally unbalanced adopt.

Even though now, a lot of things have quite patently changed, the cake incident feels like it happened yesterday. I think this time I mustn't lose touch again: he always has the best stories. We are sitting in the marginally more salubrious surroundings of my East London local sinking round after round of continental strength lager. He is telling me strange and funny tales about frostbite, tornadoes and ice fields and it is clear that a different man sat in front of me now.

Andy up a proper mountain

An old friend alerted me to the fact that Andy was in town and I made it my business to meet up with him. He thought I was dead apparently after someone said they remembered seeing me in 1993, sitting in the fountains near Paragon Square Station in Hull one afternoon, talking to myself and cradling a bottle of sherry. I tell him that this thirst for life and (combined with an NCTJ qualification) has seen me not die but become a journalist. I level with him that although it is good to reacquaint myself with him after all this time, I also have an ulterior motive. I think he would make an ideal subject for an interview. Andy may well be the country's leading solo winter Alpinist but my ascent of the career ladder has been less vertiginous and dramatic. I'm a struggling freelance writer - a career dictated by my lifestyle rather than any other considerations like desire, enthusiasm or aptitude. One of the magazines I write for is Loaded and I've got this idea for a feature that involves me talking to a mountaineer who takes risks, who kicks shit up. A climber who isn't that stiff.

Mountaineering is a notoriously unsexy subject for the UK media, seeing the sport, perhaps rightly, as elitist and anachronistic. They seem to concentrate on the stuntish end of it such as Brian Blessed's buffoonish attempts to climb Everest without oxygen. But still we have British people like Andy climbing mountains so remote, so difficult that fewer men have been up them than have been on the surface of the moon. We constantly bemoan our lacklustre performances in the fields of international cricket, football and tennis but we have world class players in the arena of rock climbing that we totally ignore. Don't get me wrong, I'm not going to lose any sleep over this but the bigger picture doesn't make any sense. Look at the coverage Crown Green Bowling gets on the television. Table tennis, squash, hockey even. Curling during the Winter Olympics. I've seen more coverage of the Eskimo Olympics on television – and that includes events such as toe wrestling, ear pulling and carrying a man in a straight line. The time I spent on the dole when I was younger was made considerably more tolerable by live Scrabble from Leeds. I hate sport really and when I was younger I couldn't think of anything more worthy and dull than 'outdoor pursuits'. I knew nothing of competitive games and in fact I used to labour under the misapprehension that the Tamil Tigers were a football team.

Mountaineering, whatever you think of it (and at the moment I happen to think it's pretty fucking stupid – sort of on par with Russian roulette or train surfing) does not get that much coverage relatively speaking. I have an idea that I might be able to exploit the fact that it is so underexposed and earn some money for a change. I figure that I have a great story in Andy. He has a reputation for climbing insanely dangerous routes on his own during winter. I believe if I write it up well I'm doing a great thing for society. Hopefully I'll be allowing other people like me, to live the extreme mountaineering dream vicariously without them having to stray too far from their lightly ash-coated and beer-stained armchairs.

So we're sat in the bar side of the Northcote Arms in Leytonstone and as the lager flows, so do the stories of logic-shattering madness punctuated by exciting sounding jargon. There is talk of "nuts popping all the way down", "ten pitch climbs", "frigging up gulleys" and "a nine day snow hole". If like me, your idea of danger is running the gauntlet of the hood wearing young chaps at the end of your estate to get to the off-licence, the idea of "a nine day snow hole" should chill you soul deep.

Andy laughs and says: "If the weather is bad and you are on an ice cap or a glacier, you have to dig yourself into a hole in the ground and then cover yourself up. If there are two of you, you basically end up in a two-man coffin made out of ice and you stay there until the weather improves.

"It sounds bad but your body heat warms the small space up quite a lot. It's just very wet, cold and uncomfortable." Some time ago he had been climbing with a friend called Rich in the God forsaken region of South America called Patagonia. They were walking toward the alien spire of Mt Fitzroy framed as far as they could see by an ice sea of glaciers when The Mother hit. “La Mama” was an ugly in-law of “El Nino”, the weather system that had wreaked death and destruction all over the southern hemisphere earlier that year. And when the weather turns bad in Patagonia it does so with implacable violence. The temperature can drop within minutes to below minus 30 C and the hundred mile per hour winds can suck climbers straight from the rock face.

Andy, who had suffered another near miss in Patagonia two years previously, agreed immediately when Rich said they should dig into a snow hole and wait for the weather to clear. After all, they had enough food for four days, more provisions stashed near-by and a week and a half left before they had to return to the UK.

Six days later the weather outside was still bad enough to kill them and they had hardly moved an inch.

Andy says: "Rich went outside for a crap after about three days and he nearly froze to death in minutes."

They had little in the way of entertainment. Andy had brought a book on Auschwitz and Rich a collection of traditional Yorkshire jokes.

Andy added: "We spent nine days in that hole – but it was on the first day that I found out that Rich had absolutely no conversational skills whatsoever.

"After four days I would say something like 'How old do you think chess is?' and he would just go 'How should I fucking know?'"

"I would wait for another day or two and say something like 'Who do you think invented kettles?' and get exactly the same response."

But there was always tea.

He continues: "We must have drank about fifty gallons of tea by the 6th day. There was nothing else to do. We'd get the same bleached tea bag out of the rubbish and make more brews.

"We were quite careful at first. Pissing into a cup and throwing it down the other end of the hole. But after a while you just start slinging it everywhere.

"After about three days you realise you are going to die in a tomb made from solid, bright yellow urine.

After coming back from the bar with fresh pints he adds: "But then one day I knocked the gas stove over and it set fire to my sleeping bag and the snow hole started filling up with carbon monoxide.

"It was like being in Apollo 13. But a new version of the film where the spacecraft was made entirely of frozen piss."

Andy felt like he was approaching death and attempted to lighten the mood with a joke, saying: "You know, in the dark, a man's mouth is very much like a woman's."

They spent the rest of the time in silence.

With no food for days, their bodies cannibalizing themselves, close to getting frostbitten hands and feet, Andy knew that they would have to flee or die. And clinging onto each other for support they ran and scrambled through the storm for hours before eventually reaching safety.

On returning to the UK, it was a long time before Rich spoke to Andy again.

The author stood in front of a hill

I originally met Andy through a mutual friend called Wayne who I used to live with. Back then Wayne was in a band called LIMB. He painted the band's name onto a railway bridge to immortalise his furious and feedback-driven music. A copper clocked him when he was about 90 percent of the way through his act of vandalism, causing him to run off. To this day if you are walking up to De Gray Street from Princes Ave you can still see the word LIMP in massive letters above the road.

I met Wayne in a pub in 1989 and he moved in with me not long afterwards. Like Andy, I lived in a squat; mine was a shabby tenement flat on Park Street past the Silhouette Club - the new one - and the Robin Reliant Dealership down by the railway tracks. There were many off-licences and pubs within stumbling distance.

Wayne was a master of psychological torture and within weeks I'd tried to murder him.

The most annoying thing was that he found everything funny and even as you choked him until his eyes rolled into the back of his head you could still hear him laughing faintly. Then people would scream at me and hit me with saucepans until I let go of him and the whole evening would be ruined.

None of them had to live with him though.

Wayne was a bit like Dustin Hoffman in Rainman but without the ability to make you rich in casinos. Everytime I left the house to go and buy a bottle of sherry and ten Berkley red I would dread coming back to see what he had done in my absence.

My aunt, who lived in Childwall in Liverpool, would come over once a month and leave me a sack full of leftover food she got off a dinner lady friend. She did this because she thought (correctly) that I spent all of my dole money on sherry and cigarettes.

Once I arrived back from Cellar Five with a litre of own brand pale cream to find that Wayne had made an entire 1kg cylinder of dried Marvel milk up into liquid form.

Every receptacle in the house was full of lukewarm synthetic milk. The saucepans were full of milk, the mugs, the saucers, the bowls, the casserole dish, the pressure cooker, the washing up bowl were all full of milk. The fucking bin had been emptied and half-filled with milk.

"Look at all the milk," said Wayne with a big smile on his face.

"Why . . . why would you . . ." I started saying but I could tell I was going to start crying so I went upstairs and drank enough sherry to put me to sleep.

Another time I went out to sign on and when I returned he had divided up a school catering pack of apple crumble into approximately 50 portions and made up some custard to go with each one.

When I went into the kitchen the entire fridge was full of portions of apple crumble with custard on each one. So were the cupboards and shelves. Anything that would feasibly hold dessert now did so.

"Look," said Wayne "Dessert for three weeks."

We sat in silence on the couch eating apple crumble. I was trying to ignore the fact that he knew I hated custard. I was trying to remain calm.

Then something occurred to me.

"Where's the rest of the food?"

"What food?"

"The food that we used to have in the fridge. The food that we used to have in the cupboards."

"Oh, that food. I threw that out to make room for the dessert."

Again I couldn't talk all I could do was attack Wayne, trying desperately to break his nose. But he is very strong and he held me off easily with one hand. He carried on eating apple crumble with the other.

This behaviour carried on for half a year. When I was not looking he would add unnecessary pots of marmalade to big vats of stew I had made. He would kiss the tips of his index finger and thumb, say it added "that little bit extra" and would stand there, smiling, waiting for me to try and hit him.

Once, months later, he annoyed me so much that I ended up chasing him through Liverpool city centre determined to rid the world of him once and for all. He ran past a line of coppers idling by a riot wagon and, unbeknownst to me, said to them: "Help! Help! My pimp's trying to rape me." I caught Wayne and started strangling him. The police caught me not long after that.

I still get angry when I think about this incident, even though it happened 15 years ago.

Still, it wasn't all spoiled food and unlikely sounding explanations to members of the local constabulary.

Wayne seemingly knew everyone worth knowing at the time and we ended up throwing one of the greatest parties ever that year.

His friends, who were doing an MSc in Chemistry, brewed us up several litres of ethanol which had been thoroughly screened for impurities. We lined a bin, poured in all the ethanol and topped it up with fruit juice. Two people brought acid, someone brought pills, everyone brought speed, weed and beer.

All my furniture got put on the bonfire, as did all my spoons and all my toiletries. There were records being spun inside, live tunes being played outside. People sat up in my tree house. People were all over the roof. People were dancing all night long in my garden. People brought guitars. Someone brought a piano. We played them all then set fire to them.

Everyone was covered in Castrol GTX and I can't remember why.

The next thing I knew I woke up in the back garden next to Wayne. I only had my boxer shorts on and I'd pulled a bike up to my chin like a duvet. Wayne had no shoes on and someone had drawn all over his face in red Biro.

The garden was on fire and there were firemen with breathing equipment everywhere.

"Are you inebriated sir?" asked one of them sternly.

"Take a fucking guess," said Wayne.

The born again Christians who lived in the loft must have called the fire brigade. I noticed that someone had written "Burn again Christians" on the wall at the end of the garden.

Ironically Wayne is a fireman now working from a station on the lip of an industrial estate up in Immingham, in Humberside. There are very few fires up there because it is a non-residential area. Though there was one fire in which Wayne saved a parrot by giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. This act landed him on page three of the Hull Daily Mail. I spoke to Wayne recently and we agreed that we only lived like that because we were always drunk and there was literally nothing else to do. "Plus", he added, "you've got to stop telling people that fucking story about the milk. It makes me sound mental."

But it was through Wayne that I met Andy. He said: "There's this guy you've got to meet. He reads Charles Bukowski and knows about Francis Bacon and a little bit about mountain climbing." That sold me.

In the Northcote he casts his mind back: "Growing up in that part of Hull in really shitty accommodation definitely gave me advantages. Our house was condemned when we moved in but they only knocked it down 12 years later. They kept on putting it off because of all these plans they had for it. So we lived in a house that had really bad heating and was incredibly damp.

You had to sleep with all your clothes on and the wallpaper was all hanging off the walls. There was water everywhere – they were flat roofed maisonettes that used to leak everywhere. It was horrible"

He continues, laughing: "Also living in the top floor maisonette meant you were living really high up and you got used to being far from the ground in a way.

"You have to become aware of gravity at a very young age. You learn that you shouldn't fall out of windows or hang your young brother off balconies and that kind of thing.

"My mum was obsessed with the fact that we didn't have a garden to play in but as a kid having balconies, lifts and stairwells, who needs a garden – it's much more fun."

"My school was one of those places where you would skit a kid and say 'Your mum's a prostitute' and they would say 'Yeah, I know'.

"All the kids who went to my school would live down by the marina where all the prostitutes used to hang around.

"We used to play around the marina and go swimming in it. Every year kids would drown in it, there would be dead dogs floating in there.

"I remember jumping into the water and when I came up I was in agony. All the soles of my feet were ripped to shreds. I'd landed on something metal underwater.

"There would always be loads of syringes under the bridges where the smackheads would go to shoot up. There was a big graveyard nearby as well that we used to play in and once when we sneaked in there was a big tomb that was smashed to pieces. We saw human bones.

"When I talk to other people I climb with now, they all went to university and I never did. They all seem to have had different upbringings to me. Not swimming in filthy marinas with dead dogs and syringes like me."

Andy's dyslexia also went undiagnosed at school. He adds: "When I was at school I'd always had trouble learning. When I was at secondary school they told me I had a learning disability but they never told me what it was.

"Apparently it turned out that although I was obviously dyslexic, the council at the time had closed down the section that dealt with people like me to save money. If you were diagnosed as dyslexic the council were duty bound to do something about you but if you were not called a dyslexic they didn't have to deal with you – just said you had a learning difficulty."

It's getting late now and all the regulars are trying to shift next door to the lounge subtly so they can stay back for a late drink. I'd usually join them but I want to remember everything that we've been talking about tonight. And besides – I've got two bottles of red and a half crate of Stella back at the house.

As we start putting our coats on, Andy says: "You know what you should do if you want something to write about? You should do some climbing yourself. Climb one easy peak, then another, then another, then end up soloing El Cap or something. And then if you can climb a mountain we should go out clubbing and do whatever you do. You could end up a mountaineer and I could end up a drug addict. It'd be interesting."

I laugh and he carries on.

"We should go climbing together this summer. I could take you up a peak in Wales.

Jesus Wept. What a fucking great idea. Never one to think things through properly I agree on the spot.

"Mountains? I shit 'em. Count me in."

Disco Legs Part Two continues here

To learn more about "Hull's second best climber" visit Andy's website. He does stand up a lot and he's the funniest guy I know. Except, as he's pointed out, I don't have a particularly good sense of humour.

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