Last Blast Article

© Keith Sharples

Chris Hamper, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2015, shares the story of what he thought would be his last outing on rock with friends. 

I arrived at the gate with plenty of time and was taking off my rucksack when an elderly German lady jumped up: "Would you like som azziztence?" I always accept azziztence, so let her untangle the strap from my arm and lower it to the floor. "Danke". "Ah, sprechen Sie Deutsch?". "Only danke." I didn't let on that I also knew Achtung! and Englisch Schweinhund, learnt by reading other boys' copies of The Victor comic.

Hamper's Hang. Mark closely spotting with a concerned look on his face.  ©
Hamper's Hang. Mark closely spotting with a concerned look on his face.

I was never allowed The Victor comic. I had to settle with Look and Learn, where I learnt about levers and the atom and grew up not hating Germans. I must look like a poor old thing. It has its advantages though. When I missed my next flight, through all fault of my own, my shaking, bent-over body got me priority boarding and a free replacement flight. And when I passed out momentarily on the plane, I got Coca Cola (with sugar), oxygen and my own private doctor.

In the automatic passport control I got timed out and had to be assisted to reverse out of the cubicle. I wasn't exactly going far, just two short flights from Bergen to Birmingham, but I managed to pack a lot of trauma into the trip. The main reason for the trip was to visit my mum. After spending a week with my mum, I was going to take a bus to Sheffield and meet up with a bunch of friends that I used to climb with. 

Grit bouldering at Stanage.  © Keith Sharples
Grit bouldering at Stanage.
© Keith Sharples

This is the sixth article I have written for UKC. The last one was about paraclimbing. At the time of writing I hadn't actually done a competition, but eventualIy did one, the Norwegian championship. Before competing I had to have a medical to make sure I was bad enough. I qualified in the useless arm and the useless leg categories, I chose arm and won. There were only two other competitors, a climber with one arm and a 13-year-old boy with cerebral palsy. He was a beginner, but there were so few competitors that he was in the final. I wouldn't normally compete against an amputee but hey, I didn't make up the rules. I won a climbing rope, which I sold on Ebay.

The idea was to do some classic grit routes before it was too late. I have been suffering from Parkinson's for 8 years now and that means I am getting to the end of the so-called honeymoon period when the drugs work well and I can function quite normally. Parkinson's affects my left side, but I have been noticing that my right side is starting to slow down too. The most obvious consequence is when using the computer mouse, sometimes my hand just won't move. It's a bit ironic that the thing that started me writing is also stopping me.

The File VS. Overcompensating with high feet.  © Keith Sharples
The File VS. Overcompensating with high feet.
© Keith Sharples

I decided to stop going to work. I am 66, so almost at retirement age and to be honest I am struggling to do my job as a physics teacher properly. I have sort of blackouts, I call them dream-outs. Without any warning I fall asleep and unlike a blackout where it's black, I enter a dream world. This can happen at any time and but it usually happens when I am talking to a student. The problem is that I keep talking when in the dream and what I say has nothing to do with what I was saying beforehand. "The changing current in the primary, who let the dog out?" Sometimes the students don't notice, they just sit there nodding as if what I just said makes some sense. There might be some interesting answers to exam questions this year.

A year or two ago I was watching a bouldering video on YouTube called Blocbuster. Halfway through, one of the boulderers being followed held forth on the subject of dopamine, how it was dopamine that made it all worthwhile. It made me think about why I still do it. I guess bouldering for me is beyond the chemical, maybe spiritual? Let's not get carried away now. I think it's more habitual than spiritual. I boulder because I always have done. I was moved to comment on the video. "It's all about dopamine. A bit depressing for someone without it. Nice vid though."

So, classic grit: Dangler, Tippler, Peapod, the Unconquerable, Archangel, Hamper's Hang. I used to be a real grithead and a lot of my first routes were on the grit. From the age of about 14 my dad would drive me and my school mates to Stanage from Coventry. We would go climbing and he would sit in the car and read The Times. He was so scared of heights that he couldn't even watch us. Probably a good thing since we didn't know what we were doing.

I had a copy of Alan Blackshaw's mountaineering bible, so we knew how to tie the Tarbuck knot but had little idea what to do with the chocks. We each only had one birthday a year and there is only one Christmas so it took us many years to collect sufficient gear for the likes of Inverted V, Eliss's Eliminate, Cave Innominate and Right Unconquerable, our choice of route being based on photos in the guidebook or books we borrowed from the library.

Leading green crack age 17. Note the Fifi hook disguised as a fly!  © Chris Hamper
Leading green crack age 17. Note the Fifi hook disguised as a fly!
© Chris Hamper

We knew nothing; we were just a bunch of kids with no connection to the climbing world. The only thing connecting climbers at the time was the magazines, in particular Mountain magazine, but you could only buy it from climbing shops. I'd seen one at an outdoor pursuit centre and ripped out a couple of nice pictures to put on my wall, but the article that made the biggest impression was 'True Grit' by Dave Cook. It is a masterpiece and each photo a work of art.

In those days, if you entered Sheffield on the train at night you would be dazzled by the northern lights, not in the sky but on the ground as sparks flew and flames flared out of the open doors of the many foundries that lined the track. It was actually quite frightening. The lights were bright but the effect it had on the buildings of Sheffield was to make them black and these photos captured that blackness. Not just in the black of the black and white but in the deadly nature of the subject, Geoff Birtles' rope hanging down from his waist as he undercuts along Green Crack and tiptoes across Great Slab. I promised my mother that I would never try climbs like this. A promise I later broke along with the one about never drinking alcohol. Gritstone extremes were the ultimate.

Tom Proctor on Great Slab.
© Mountain magazine

Geoff Birtles on Green Crack.
© Mountain magazine

For the past 10 years I have mainly bouldered. Outside on the hundreds of boulders close to my house and inside in the bouldering room and Kilter board. When you don't have many cards to play with, it's best to play to your strengths and my strength is my strength. This works to some extent, but would it be enough to deal with the weirdness of gritstone? Only one way to find out.

So I sent a message to the old men. Chris Gore, Mark Leach and Martin Veale. How about a couple of days on the grit. Apart from Martin Veale, who is made of grit, none of them had climbed on grit since the '80s so they were keen provided we could find a leader. Chris Plant was around and agreed to be our rope gun. It's always a bit awkward initiating a trip. I'm not only asking if they want to go, but whether they will drive me and let me stay at their house. Mark Leach broke the silence and offered his services.

The week before the planned expedition, my wife Hilary was visiting friends in and around Sheffield and one asked how I was doing. This group of friends all have or did have climbing partners. Hilary has me, Louise Hall has Brian, Trish - Mark Stokes, Sue Lawty - Mark Hutchinson, Vanita – Bush and Jan – Burton Schrader, who wasn't a climber but he employed lots of them when he was managing director of CAN UK, the rope access company. They get together once a year and go on walking cycling, canoeing or sailing trips. I don't know what Hilary said about me but the outcome was an email from Jess (the son of one of them) about the possibility of making a film about my struggle with Parkinson's. He was keen and so we agreed to meet up at the weekend to start filming. I thought it would be a couple of shots and a quick chat, but it turned out to be full on camera-action fly-on-the-wall stuff, me being the fly.

Chris Hamper.  ©
Chris Hamper.

Our first mission was to look at Hamper's Hang. I had visited Stanage during the summer some years ago. I felt the holds and couldn't see how it was possible to hold onto them. There is no way I could ever do this again. This day it was cold and misty. The friction was excellent. Hmm, maybe I could hang on the holds? I can hang the holds, all of them. Sudden realisation. I can do this. I remember heel hooks, but legs are stiff and arms are strong, so I decide to campus. My left hand is weak, but it doesn't matter. Friction alone is sufficient, well almost; it slips but the slipping is slow, giving enough time to move my right hand along the edge. A couple of attempts and I've done the sloping part, but my left hand is bleeding. I then connect from the corner and start to work the start.

An hour of effort and I'm done. I don't mean I've done the problem, I mean I'm done in. I have completed two sections and know I could do it all given another day. I'm not going to give it another day though, not now. I am completely satisfied. Jess sits me down and starts the first of many short interviews. What do you feel? Nothing. Well pleased I suppose. Parkinson's takes away the chemical that gives you the buzz after doing a hard problem. So why do I continue to do it if there is no buzz? I don't know – pause – because I am a climber?

Filming at Hamper's Hang.  ©
Filming at Hamper's Hang.

When planning this trip I had imagined also reliving the night time activity. In Wales that would be a visit to the Vaynol arms and a night in Humphries barn. In Sheffield it would be the Porter Cottage followed by a wander around the streets looking for a party which hopefully included food. Instead I had a curry, half a pint of Cobra and was in bed by nine. Well, I hadn't had my afternoon nap had I.

It was Stanage again on Saturday. This time with a rope. We used to just call it climbing, now it's called trad. I refuse to use that term. I also refuse to say "send" and "gaston" and try not to do fist bumps. I don't think Parcour is bouldering and have never done a double dyno. I watch a lot of youtube bouldering videos. During Will Bosi's Burden of Dreams campaign I checked his Insta many times a day looking for updates and posted on his videos. I follow Aidan Roberts and Janja Garnbret. Janja is amazing, but what has she done on grit? Well I have done Right Unconquerable, and was about to do it again.

Right Unconquerable.  ©
Right Unconquerable.

Chris Gore tied my knot — a figure of 8, not a Tarbuck. I can tie it myself, but it's painful to watch. My shoe laces are permanently knotted, maybe I should leave my harness attached to my rope. My climbing shoes are some expensive variety of slipper, bright yellow and quite out of place on this HVS. For reasons unknown my left foot is permanently swollen, so I take a long time getting it on. Plant Pot sits patiently with his legs dangling over the edge at the top. A mother explains to her daughter what's going on. "He's got Parkinson's like Uncle Albert." The climbing is easy, I knew it would be, the holds are massive. Unclipping the runners is the most difficult bit. Just got one move to do. Oops! I get shut down and have to traverse left to the alternate finish. How do I feel? A bit tired I guess. Does it bring back any memories? Nope. At this rate, it's going to be a pretty boring film.

I used to write these articles in the airport lounge on my way home. I'm on my third day of writing now. I don't seem to be having any good patches when my hands function. Oh well, on and downwards. Talking of downwards, they lowered me down so I didn't have to walk. Touched by their concern for me, I almost get a twinge of emotion.

I also follow the WideBoys [Pete Whittaker and Tom Randall], but watching their videos didn't stop me falling off Left Unconquerable. I couldn't get the flared jam at the crux to stick. I blame the runner placement. Steve Bancroft told me about the jam. I used to layback it, which is what I resort to now. I can hear Steve in my head: "Tsk, amateurs".

Time for some bouldering. After my traversing success I suggest Green Traverse. This makes Martin happy, it's one of his. Unsure about mat etiquette, I shy away from wading through the sea of sponge and we moved quickly on to an insignificant problem involving two pockets and a high step. Martin climbed it and three other problems in one flowing motion. The Chris's used more effort, but I couldn't touch it. Encouraged to keep trying, I kept trying. After a lot of effort, I hit the final hold and was up. From zero to hero.

Jess met me on top and the emotions finally caught up with me. I cried. The effort, the kindness of my friends, memories and future prospects hit me all together. The problem was one move, but that move moved me. I have no idea what I said, but I babbled for a while. The grade was not important, I didn't want to know. Later I found out it was 5+. Did it matter? Yes, of course it did. How embarrassing.

On Sunday I fancied a pure jamming crack. I remembered a climb called The File on Higgar Tor. A short overhanging crack. I remembered wrong, this is The Vice and it's on Stanage. We were met by Jerry and his dogs. Yes, Jerry Moffat. He's done a lot on grit. We chatted about shooting, fishing, fishing, surfing and elderly parents. I used jamming gloves on The File and what a difference they make. Definitely cheating. The jams are so good they are difficult to remove. I led this one with the runners in place. Almost fell off the top.

Jess took me to the bus station and I returned to my mum's house. I am not sure what I was expecting to achieve and I'm even less sure about what I actually achieved, but who cares. I titled this article Last Blast, but I don't think it was. I have a feeling that I have a few more blasts in me yet.

When I got home I watched some of Jess's work. One of them was a bouldering film, Blocbuster. Yep, the dopamine video I commented on. Well, well, well. The circle is complete.

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25 May

Brilliant. And heartbreaking. In equal measure. I read Chris's autobiography online not too long back, and his writing is always disarmingly honest and unfailingly amusing.

25 May

You might have to write slowly, Chris, but it reads beautifully. Outstanding.

25 May

Lovely. I enjoyed that. Both moving and funny.

25 May

THis is almost unbearable to read. Chris Hamper is a monumental character. I hope if I have anthing like this I bear it with the same fortitude. Respect!

25 May

Hilarious and beautiful. Please keep writing Chris!

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