A SLIPPERY SLOPE (Confessions of a climbing alcoholic)by Al Evans May/2006
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Today is Tuesday 15th February 2005. I am lying in a bed in the Sheffield Hallamshire Hospital Emergency Admissions Unit. I was admitted with a suspected bleeding gastric ulcer and possibly severe liver damage. How did this come to happen?
I was 14 years old with a passion for the outdoors and had recently discovered a branch of mountaineering called 'rock climbing'. We had scrambled on the rocks for years, at places like Wyming Brook, Rivelin and Bell Hagg, it was only when we ventured farther abroad one day across the moor beyond Redmires that we alighted at the top of Stanage Edge to find a man tied to a large rock with a rope, the other end disappeared over the void.
I don't remember the name of the climb (doubt I ever knew it) or very much about it, but fishing or not, the man had certainly got us 'hooked' on rock climbing. Pete and I spent the next few weeks reading anything we could find on rock climbing. Pete found in the library a copy of the old cloth bound guide to Stanage, no photocopiers in those days so we took turns in copying it out into one of our school exercise books. We knicked an old sisal rope from a roadworks and we were away. Climbing, mostly on top ropes every route left to right on Stanage.
However this is not a climbing biography, so I'll come to the point of the article. At some stage along our journey across the edge, we met a proper climber by the name of John Conn. John took pity on us and realised if we carried on without proper advice one or other of us was soon going to get hurt, he invited us down to the weekly meet of The Parnassus Climbing Club, which inevitably met in a pub. We soon found out that all climbing clubs in those days met in pubs, mostly they were hard climbers, hard men and hard drinkers and we tried to follow in the wake of our peers. I became a 'proper rock climber' (and I also became a proper drinker!). Weekends of ecstatic pleasure by day gave way on Saturday night to darts, debauchery and 'Drink' in the numerous climbers' watering holes up and down the country. Sunday was invariably spent climbing some kind of overhang with some kind of hangover.
I am lying on my hospital bed contemplating my life and drinking. How did it progress from 3 or 4 pints on a Saturday night to up to two bottles of vodka a day? With different crowds the level of drinking went up and down, then a group of us found that drinking at the crag could turn the whole day into a party. A few judicious cans would be carried up and cracked open at lunchtime. We also found that often we could easily lead or solo routes that had been stopping us in the morning. It seemed as though we were stronger with our fear and inhibitions muted by alcohol (this is actually physiologically nonsense, alcohol in fact impairs oxygen uptake). It did not, however, seem to affect our technical ability, (I suppose rather like drivers claim to drive better after a couple of pints).
Did you know that The Tippler was only completed after Barry Webb sank 8 pints of 'lunch' in the Scotsman's Pack, hence the name! I once spent all morning trying the first ascent of Soapsuds at Stoney, after Sid Siddiqui arrived with a bottle of Martini. It was dispatched first go!
Of course such happy endings are not really par for the course, Keith Myhill was lucky to survive an alcohol induced solo of Green Death, merely breaking his pelvis after a fall from the top move. Adrian Garlick had an horrific accident on The Fang after eight lunchtime pints in the Tremadog pub at lunchtime, all his poorly placed runners failed. Phil Burke scared onlookers half to death with his solo of Our Father after a session in The Moon, fortunately with no serious consequences. Who knows how many other serious falls have been precipitated by drink?
Alcohol almost certainly played a part in the death of John Syrett, and was surely involved in the demise of Ed Wood. Al Harris was just one of a number of climbers involved in fatal car and motorbike accidents while under the influence. Who knows how many have died from alcohol related diseases?
I know these things happen to non-climbers too, but my point is that the combination of an adrenaline high and an alcoholic one is a very dangerous combination indeed. Climbers often live on the edge, sometimes unwinding with a pint is a sensible thing to do, just beware.
Back to me. In 1974 I made the fateful move to a job in the media, in particular TV; specifically I became a TV cameraman. Now if you think climbers drink a lot (at weekends, parties or on trips) media types can be at it 24/7, and of course with me it was, I was either driven everywhere or on PT so I had no problem with drink driving. It didn't seem to affect my work, I was well thought of as a cameraman and often got plum jobs. See, I still had my drinking under control, rarely ever actually got pissed and generally stuck to beer. (If as a beer drinker you suddenly switch to spirits, because you are used to large volumes you tend to drink far too large measures, I ended up on two bottles of Vodka a day at my worst and final time of crisis). Got married, had kids, got divorced.
The first time I ever let it nearly ruin my life was over a woman, who I am still deeply in love with as it happens (more of this later). After being talked down off New Mills Viaduct at 3.00am totally over-depressed due, quite frankly, to being drunk on six cans of Carlsberg Special Brew, I went into supervised de-tox and treatment for depression. Soon all was normal and my drinking was, at least, constrained.
I'll skip the personal ups and downs of my life in the intervening years; suffice to say the woman flitted in and out of them providing me with great joy and misery in unequal measure. It was climbing that kept me sane.
Ironically, I was now drinking less when climbing than I was during working periods (albeit usually after the day's work was done) particularly on expeditions. Though it is true, there were assignments that took me into 'dry' countries or places which I suppose were a natural de-tox. I would never suffer withdrawal symptoms during these dry periods, but as soon as booze was available I would start again. Eventually I retired and moved to Spain, ostensibly to climb in the sun and do new routes.
The problem with Spain is that booze is incredibly cheap; I would always have a well stocked wine/spirit cabinet and beers in the fridge. When its there it's so easy to drink it. I'd turned to spirits by now (I thought drinking beer without the strenuous job would pile the weight on) and as mentioned earlier, a beer drinker changing to spirits tends to be used to volume. I fell into the trap and gradually, without realising it I was becoming an alcoholic.
I was to go on a road trip from Chamonix back down through France to the Costa Blanca with a good friend, Annabelle Ison.
Anni quickly realised I was drinking excessively and made a valiant effort. She managed by careful monitoring to straighten me out for our road trip through France. This was my first introduction to DT's and withdrawal symptoms, it was awful. That should have been it, but I let her down almost as soon as she took the chains off. Back to drinking, lying and trying to keep it from my friends who actually would have helped me.
To date; she (the woman, not Anni) finally did it again, tricked me into working for her and then let me down, certainly for the last time. To get fit for the job I'd done an un-aided de-tox. It was a nightmare and I was very, very ill but I flew to England and did the job for her then she kicked me in the teeth yet again.
I don't want to go into detail but being the weak person I am I turned to the bottle again, two in fact (and left a suicide note), realised my mistake once I'd sobered up and when JCT (Jude Calvert-Toulmin) finally got to me she wouldn't let me out of her sight until I went to seek help. The doctor was convinced I had seriously damaged myself (I wont go into details why, it's a bit gory) so straight into emergency admissions which is where I'm writing this from.
As it happens I've been very lucky. I've responded well to treatment and now, not only do I not have an ulcer but also my liver is only very slightly damaged in just one of its functions which should quickly fully recover if I cut out the alcohol (this has to be divine intervention, thank you god even though I don't believe in you).
As I write this I am being visited by JCT and Brian, Geoff Birtles and Jack Street (himself a reformed ex-alcoholic) two of my newest and two of my oldest friends, who have formed a support network. I have had many calls of support from climbers, some of who I have only met once, some never. My long suffering ex-wife has called me (thanks Andy) and my daughter, as has Anni who I failed so badly 6 months ago. Thanks Sis and Simon for calling round too.
I feel deeply touched and eternally grateful for all your concern and a great amount of guilt, there are so many genuinely ill people here and mine was self induced. I'm determined not to let you guys and myself down again.
Why do I write this? Well apart from the fact that it's climbers who have rallied round, I can't warn everybody, but to those of you on the slippery slope, and to you young guys just starting down it, control those skis guys. Take stock occasionally, as a climber you are part of a drinking culture, learn from the mistakes of those that didn't make it, and those like me that nearly didn't. Keep climbing and drinking as separate as you do (I hope) driving and drinking. You'll be better climbers and better healthier people. And don't, make my mistake and turn to it in depression, it just makes it worse.
PS. There was a good side to this, a very pretty, very young (female) doctor said to me,
“I'm really sorry, but I'm going to have to put my finger up your back passage”
“I'm not hurting you am I”
“Are you kidding, that's the nearest I've got to penetrative sex for years” She smiled!
Al Evans has been climbing since the sport was invented. He's had enough of work now and is a full time climber based in the Costa Blanca, still climbing hard and establishing new routes. He was part of the Yorkshire/Peak Scene in the 1970's and 80's and climbed with all the greats, Fawcett, Reagan, Livesey....a list too numerous to list. He has always been an avid new router (Jean Jeanie at Trowbarrow is one of his greatest hits) and was involved with Crags magazine and the climbing media baron Geoff Birtles.