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Tome On The Range

Disco Legs Part II: A Self-Inflicted Leisure Injury
John Doran , February 5th, 2010 19:37

The second part of a story about alcoholism, terror, stupidity and a failure in the field of mountain climbing by John Doran. Photos courtesy of Holly Barringer, Michael Gray and Maria Jefferis. Essential moral and technical help: Natasha Soobramanien

Read part one here



There could be nothing better, nothing cooler, than being an alcoholic writer right? Imagine the lifestyle. It's all I want to be.


I hate Christmas. It's when everything starts to unravel. People go from not wanting you to drink to expecting you to. I'm back stage at Earl's Court getting stuck into Iron Maiden's not inconsiderable rider. All pretences of holding it together have evaporated. I'm fucking destroyed. Wandering through a sea of faces concerned, disdainful, horrified. There's probably a slice of cucumber in my beard again.

On the bus on the way here I was looking for change but the driver said "Just get on mate, you're alright." He thinks I'm an urban camper. He thinks I sleep behind a hedge on an A-road roundabout.

The gig is amazing.

Later at the K-West I'm trying to finish off a feature with Trivium, the support band. Interviewing them for colour. I'm so drunk I get thrown out of the hotel by security without my coat. Thankfully Herman from Dragonforce finishes interviewing the bemused band for me.

Outside in an alleyway I've forgotten where I am and I'm stood round bellowing. A group of guys show me a knife and ask for my wallet. I grab hold of the blade firmly with one hand and give them my wallet with the others. I can't remember what is said but one of the thieves looks appalled. Like I've done something to lower the tone of the evening. They push me over and run off.

Out on the main drag by the big cinema a police car beeps me. I have blood all over my face and hand. I'm dimly aware that I'm about to be arrested not helped so run off.

I get in at 7.30am where my distraught girlfriend is waiting. We have half an hour before we go on our Christmas holidays.

I lie in a steaming hot bath for ten minutes with teeth chattering.

Well, here I am. Living the fucking dream.



I speak to Andy over breakfast the next day and he says we should hire a cottage for the weekend and have a little bit of a holiday. Bring our partners, his kids and a few of our mates.

But as a man who uses the cigarette as a means of filtering out London’s polluted air and whose only exercise is the nightly walk to the off-licence, I’m starting to have doubts. Is ten weeks enough time to get fit? What sort of mountain will it be? How safe will I be?

Andy comes up with a training regime for me. I need to be able to use a rowing machine for twenty minutes, a tread-mill for twenty minutes, a step machine for twenty minutes and an exercise bike for twenty minutes.

He says: “Look, it isn’t about strength. Climbing is all about stamina and dexterity.

“Men haven’t got any advantage over women in climbing because upper body strength isn’t going to help you. Your arms are there just to balance you and position you – all the work is done by the legs.

“It’s about balance as well.”

Balance? Jesus wept. I still have a headache from the time last week when I tore out of a pub in Shoreditch at midnight realising I only had five minutes to catch my last tube home and tripped over a dog. Luckily my head hitting the kerb broke my fall and I only twisted one of my wrists.

Tactfully he adds: “You still drink a lot and smoke . . .”

I answer: “Yes. To be honest, I’ve been thinking about cutting down for some time. About seven or eight years now. This could be just the thing I’ve been looking for.

“I won’t go mad. I’ll carry on as normal for the next few weeks and then cut down gradually to a teetotal week before the climb itself.”

He treads carefully around another issue: “Ah, have you got vertigo? I seem to remember you were afraid of pretty much everything in Hull.”

“No. Absolutely not,” I reassure him.

He is right.

I was afraid of some spectacularly stupid things back then. This was a side-effect of always having a Heart of Darkness style hangover. Everything was frightening. Sometimes I would be so sensitive that I couldn’t bear to be in the same room as a balloon.

Once at a party I walked into a room which had been filled to chest height with balloons. I stood there frozen still for about half an hour, unable to leave in case I set off some kind of terrible balloon-bursting chain-reaction.

Spiders, planes, cars, the dark, madness, death, bears, satellites, Victorian children, dinosaurs, sharks, sabre toothed tigers, the moon, quantum physics, nuclear war, clowns, ghosts, goats, oil tankers. I was afraid of everything.

Once in Hull, I was so hungover that I was too afraid to walk home on my own from my friend’s house, even though I only lived twenty doors down and it was only 8pm on a Sunday night. In the end I persuaded Jim (who was as big a coward as me) to walk me home with the promise of a pint of wine the next day. Just yards from his front door Jim started screaming. Then I started screaming because he was screaming. When he calmed down he was almost sobbing with relief. I asked him what was up. He’d seen an estate agent’s To Let signboard at the base of a garden wall and thought it was a rotting head on a stake.

Jim and I had both recently begun to suffer from the delerium common in people withdrawing from alcohol too quickly, but neither of us realised it. I just thought I was going mad. The symptoms are almost indistinguishable from the mental confusion suffered by schizophrenic people.

But not anymore. I’d cut down drinking drastically. Now I only drank heavily every day instead of drinking myself unconscious every day.

I was still scared of spiders and most forms of transport, especially planes but these are fairly common phobias and don’t really restrict you that much.

If I need to go somewhere by plane, not a frequent occurrence, I will get a script of diazepam from my doctors, and I avoid the eight-legged bastards by not watching nature programmes and by not going to hot countries. Which you have to fly to anyway.

As a journo friend of mine Curley once said, with his usual lack of accurate anthropological and geographical knowledge: “I wanted to go to Australia but I couldn’t – the spiders out there are so big that the Maoris ride around on them instead of camels.”

Another Night In Paradise. The author and Curley

But no, I’ve been up tall buildings – I’m OK with vertigo I’m sure of it.

While packing all of his gear up to go back to Sheffield Andy says: “Great. We’ll go up Cromlech. It’s like a big hill with some craggy stuff at the top.”

When he leaves I am very happy. I go down to the pub to tell all the regulars that I am going to become a mountain climber.

The next day I email my sister in Australia to tell her about the planned escapade.

The fact that she lives in Australia is very apt – she is my opposite in so many senses. I am overweight and unfit, she is slim and athletic; as she is naturally gregarious and friendly, sober, I am morose and insular; as she loves travel and living abroad I am happy mooching around England; and as she is pretty and fashionable I have a broken face and was once escorted out of Harrods by the security guards.

And by the same token she climbs things and I don’t – or never have done before.

She explains some terminology that I will need to know in a mail.

“Happy birthday and all that. You may find these useful:

“Big jugs are large hand holds that you can hold like a jug of beer. When you get one it’s so good that people who are leading will make an orgasmic cry (I kid you not) and will not want to let it go of it. Big jugs are especially good after tiny crimpey one finger holds/ finger locks (when you stick your finger in a crack and then pull up your entire weight onto it.)”

This can’t be right. Pull yourself up by your finger?

“Hand Jams are when you put your hand in the crack make a fist and pull up on to it.

“Getting Pumped means holding on so tight that the blood stops flowing to your arms, eventually you loose your grip and your arms get all hard.”

I also learn that if you are “spanked” it means you can’t go on and “decking” is the action of hitting the ground when you fall off a volcano.

The prime rule of mountaineering appears to be: She who gets to the top without decking, wins.

“If you’ve got disco legs, it means you are shitting yourself with fear so badly on a climb that your legs start to shake uncontrollably. This can result from stress on the muscles – for example, when you have your legs in a totally weird position or you are totally puffed out or shitting yourself. You can sink your weight in to your heels, which sometimes helps. Sometimes you get it so bad that you can do a bit of an Elvis impersonation and shake yourself off the climb!”

Holy Christ, “shake yourself off the climb!” What an inappropriate exclamation mark. Is that what these people find amusing?

I go to my local leisure centre where I’m already a member. I say I’m already a member but this doesn’t mean I actually use the gym. I spend most Saturday and Sunday mornings there in the sauna arguing with retired Jamaican and Irish builders and listening to Studio One albums on the cd player. So much more civilized than strapping yourself into some high-impact, aerobic, trauma machine. As Douglas Coupland once asked: What will archaeologists of the future think when they dig up our gyms? Will they guess that they were massive dungeons for torturing the peoples of the early 21st Century or will they think that we were a race of sado masochists?

On my first visit to the gym itself (or Resistance Arena as the laminated A4 poster on the door would have it) I manage four minutes on the rowing machine on the lowest setting, and five minutes on a tread mill at a glorified stroll. This isn’t going well. I’m drenched in sweat and I feel sick. My vision goes and I have to sit down for a minute. I manage to do ten minutes of step before I have to stop.

Fuck. I’m really unfit.

The Author. North face

The truth is. I’ve never exercised in my life. A detached retina as a boy meant I could duck out of whatever sport I felt like when I was at school in the North West. No rugby in the snow for me, no football on ice-blasted soil, no lung-bursting long distance runs around the rust coloured sandstone outskirts of St Helens.

Between leaving school in 1987 and 2001 I have only purposefully exercised once. I remember it quite well, though. It was an autumn morning in 1991 and me and Jim decided it was time to get our acts together and get fit. We went down to a gym and half heartedly threw a medicine ball at each other. Other people looked at us incredulously.

“What are we supposed to do?” whispered Jim to me.

“I have absolutely no idea.” I replied.

A group of girls came in and started lifting weights purposefully all around us.

I decided to save face by sprinting up and down the hall. I did this three times before I felt really ill. I ran out of the room and was sick into the bag I had brought my clean clothes in. I went back and mimed the drinking of a pint to Jim through the window. We walked to the pub with a level of animation that we had failed to show in the gym. None of us got changed. No one noticed.

Back at my house, I think it’s about time I looked at this mountain, started girding the loins, started getting my bottle up. After a bit of searching on the internet, I find a good link.

There is a picture of a reasonably inoffensive, almost pretty mountain with some craggy stuff at the top of it.

I click on another picture. Then another. Then another. And just when I’m becoming reassured that this is a totally doable thing and I haven’t, for once over-reached, I click on a picture that says West Wall.

As the feathered image gradually sharpens into view I lose my grip on my mug of tea, it drops and breaks on the floor. There is a man on a sheer cliff that looks as smooth as the side of a battle ship but hundreds of times bigger.

He appears to be three thousand feet up a shiny grey wall of death.

What are those things? What are those little things? What are those fucking tiny little things at the base of the mountain? Oh Christ. They’re cars.

The cars look so small they’re barely perceptible.

It seems more reasonable to ask someone to climb Canary Wharf with a moose strapped to their back while wearing roller-blades. On my computer it looks like a granite skyscraper stretching half-way to the moon. I’m ruing the day.

My vision is going, my head is swimming. I feel like I’m coming up on acid. What is this unpleasant feeling?

I flick back to the more picturesque snaps of the peak and the feeling vanishes immediately. I send a link to the picture to some friends.

Responses include: “I’m not going with you. I know I said I would but I’ve had second thoughts.” “Ha ha ha! You’re going to die!” “Don’t be a fucking dickhead – you can’t climb a ladder without having a nervous breakdown.”

I need to know more about what I’m doing so I start reading about what it takes to get up it.

According to several internet sites Dinas Cromlech is a bit crap by the alpine standards that Andy is used to; generally speaking you don’t need Sherpas to carry your deck chair and XBox up a Welsh mountain for you. It’s no Mount Everest. (Mount Everest is no Mount Everest either apparently. “A walk not a climb”, as Andy describes it.)

But it is one of the most famous - if not the most famous - crags in the UK. For the first time I’ve been confronted with the fact that I’ve got to start taking this seriously and start preparing.

But at the moment I can’t walk up the escalators at King’s Cross without compromising the aridity of my shirt.

I phone Andy in a state of agitation.

“I thought you said it would be just like walking up a hill?”

“It is just like a hill,” he replies. “One of those hills that has large bits of vertical cliff sticking out of it.

“The sort of hill where you need to hammer nuts into the rock and haul your self up massive sections of wall with little or no hand holds or footholds. “That sort of hill.”

He starts laughing. He’s joking I think. He tells me that I’ve been looking at the hardest bit and there are lots of other routes up it.

Something else about the site has upset me.

“What does the E stand for?” I ask Andy.

There is a letter and some numbers after the name of the mountain in the literature I’ve seen so far. Dinas Cromlech E11. The letter E makes me think about the time I was in New York. I remember a warm and boozy evening out in a shabby punk bar on the lip of Alphabet City, so named because of its streets labelled A to E.

The bar man warned me in a friendly manner not to go down any of those roads – no matter what time of day it was.

“Those letters have meaning man,” he confided, “A stands for adventurous, B stands for brave, C stands for crazy and D stands for dead.”

“What does E stand for mate?” I asked.

“I don’t know any fucker that’s been down E Street man”, he shrugged.

Adventurous, Brave, Crazy, Dead. The author in NYC

That was ten years ago when I was still youthfully lean and relatively healthy. Now after an accidental decade and a half drinking binge, I’m flabby and I wheeze when I try to jog up stairs. Every yard of the quick march from the men’s changing room to the poolside is a step of shame – I gave up sucking my stomach in mid-1994.

I think of the cars almost indistinguishable by height on the internet picture of Cromlech.

I’d seen it before in real life. In New York I had stood on the observation deck high up one of the World Trade Centre towers with my head pressed to the window looking down. The streets below looked like thin strands of yellow – an illusion created by the number of yellow cabs that gridlocked the streets at its base. I remember a total sense of calm.

I was probably drunk.

“What does the E stand for Andy?” I ask again.

“Extreme,” he answers. “It’s a form of classification telling you how difficult the mountain is to climb.”

I’d intended to stop smoking and drinking at least two weeks before I went to Wales and I did manage it. For one day.

My diary of the week before the climb goes a little something like this.

Sunday: I’m too hungover to get out of bed. The bathroom needs painting. I need to write a bunch of reviews. I need to do the laundry but I can’t do anything but lie here snivelling. The phone goes at 3pm. Someone’s calling from the Northcote. I leap out of bed pull on some clothes and run out of the house. I leave at a similar time the next morning.

Monday: I bravely manage not to drink all day and even do a little work. At about 9pm I meet a friend for a quick one at the Northcote. He leaves at 10.30. I forget to. I don’t remember going home or what I’ve done after the pub but the next day I can tell I’ve been snorting cocaine and my pancreas feels like a soldering iron.

Tuesday: I do not drink or smoke anything. I feel like I’m going to die. While waiting in line for a bus I see a horrifically deformed midget and start screaming. A second later I realise it is not a midget but a child wearing face-paint to make her look like a tiger. She looks upset. Her father scoops her up and strides off. Everyone at the bus stop stares at me until the bus arrives.

Wednesday: The Loaded 100th Issue party in Madame Cynthia’s Robot Bar at London Bridge. It only goes on from 7pm til 6am the next morning so me and Curley go for a drink first somewhere else. Just in case like. We are served by a giant metal robot. All the men are on cocaine and all the women are wearing bikinis and stetsons and have surgically enhanced chests. By 2am I think Curley is going to attempt to fuck the robot. He thinks I’ve had enough to drink. Only he is right. Chris, one of Loaded’s section editors says to me a few weeks later that at three in the morning he caught a glimpse of me facing a corner and mumbling to myself - a little bit like the last frame of the ‘Blair Witch Project’.

Thursday: Me and Curley wake up in a state of no little agitation and go straight to the Northcote. We have to wait fifteen minutes for John, the landlord, to open the doors. We drink through ‘til about 5pm when I remember I have to go to a dinner party. I engage the other people in attendance with incoherent rants about the Middle East, the drug laws in Hackney and mountain climbing before doing an impromptu impersonation of a bear. This involves me jumping up at the table with my hands over my head shouting “Roar!” at the top of my voice, while discombobulating some humous. I am guided to a cab soon after.

Friday: We’re going to Wales today and not only do I not feel fit. I feel like I’m going to have a breakdown. How am I supposed to climb a mountain?

That's the thing about mountains you see. They're handy enough as all purpose metaphors until it's time to climb one. Then they're just, well, mountains.

Part III of Disco Legs 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.