One Hand Clapping

'80s climbing legend Chris Hamper was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease after a long career of enthusiastic climbing and training. He has written a few articles now on climbing with his illness, always with a good dose of self-deprecating and off-the-wall humour. In this latest piece, Chris writes about climbing with his students as a physics teacher.

I don't think Thomas meant anything by it when he suggested the route. One Hand Clapping is the name of a classic route at Donner summit, Lake Tahoe, California. It's also a good description of what it's like to have Parkinson's. It doesn't really work to clap with one hand and it doesn't really work to climb with one hand either.

Selfie with Thomas.
© Chris Hamper

Thomas is an ex-student of mine. I taught him physics and introduced him to climbing, the latter being the most successful part of the deal. He was one of those students who had done with education by the age of 16. Already knew what he needed to know. Was an exceptional programmer. We worked for a while trying to create an online application for the Moonboard - never got it finished, pity, it was way ahead of its time. It had a feature where you could zoom in on the holds and see which sides were incut. I've pretty much got my own Moonboard at a local sports hall. What I like best is to set up just one problem at a time. It's much easier to appreciate the beauty of a line when there's only one to look at. I'd spend ages lying on the mat just looking at a problem. Haven't been there for ages, maybe I should give it a go; doesn't matter if I tweak a tendon now. Probably not strong enough to hurt myself anymore.


James Riley on the warm up wall at Flatanger., 229 kb
James Riley on the warm up wall at Flatanger.
© Chris Hamper

Over the years I have climbed with a lot of my students; some I have introduced to climbing, others climbed already. James Riley is probably my best student climber. He was at one time the youngest person to have climbed Raindogs 8a. I was a house parent at Atlantic College at the time. We got to select the students for our house so I'd check the application forms for climbers and surfers. One year I selected all the applicants called Daniel and put them in the same room - just to avoid confusion, you understand.

South Wales may have coal but it isn't Yorkshire, so James postponed climbing for a while. We did manage a trip to France though, where we climbed at Font and Saussois. He lent me his GriGri but forgot to tell me how to use it - he dropped like a stone. There were a couple of other climbers at Atlantic College during my time there. Ben Heason is the most famous, but I never climbed with him. Dave Alcock's son was also there but didn't climb. I used to have a photo of Dave climbing Garotte on my wall. The only time I met him was when he caught me sleeping in a room at Plas y Brenin without paying. Managed to avoid him whenever he visited his son. There was a climbing wall at Atlantic College. I used to take my daughter Josie there when she was little. I made her a harness. She was good at climbing so didn't fall off until the top, where she turned upside down. I bought a proper one.

Andy Pollitt once gave a lecture at Atlantic College, where he showed some photos of me in my pink tights which amused the students. When I worked at Sidney Stringer, an inner city comprehensive in Coventry, Ben Moon and Jerry Moffat came to visit on their motorbikes. They sat on the table at the front and chatted with the kids. I don't think it was anything like the schools they'd been to; they couldn't believe how relaxed it was. The kids thought they were really cool. I was hoping they'd think I was cool too - but they didn't.

Rob Scaiffe was a pupil at Thomas Rotherham 6th form college. We built an early training board in a store room where he got strong and I got injured. The walls of the school, which looked like a castle, were pretty good too. On one occasion everyone came to school in fancy dress. I didn't but every now and then I'd pop out, change into a Spider-Man outfit and climb up the outside wall to the window of my classroom. No one suspected a thing. This was just after Josie had been born. We shared a nanny with Chris Gore's family, had a big mortgage and a crap car. Couldn't possibly afford the usual Easter trip to Buoux...but I had a plan.

We'd buy a crap camper van and drive down with Rob and his mate Jonathon, splitting the cost of petrol etc. We bought an old VW, which needed a new clutch, exhaust and door lock. The boys came round at the weekend to help lift the engine out to fit the clutch and the bus was on the road. Got to Buoux, but overspent the fuel budget due to a leaking fuel pump. Broke down once but used an elastic band to replace the broken return spring on the accelerator cable. Ah, the beauty of old cars. Breaking down actually used to be part of the plan for many climbing trips, but then the AA stopped doing 5 star insurance that included a hire car, hotels and trailering your wreck home. Shortly after returning home the bus failed its MOT due to a completely rotten floor, so I put all the old parts back on, sold the new ones and traded it in for a new car.

Dopamine is related to pleasure and happiness, but it's not a simple relationship; if it were I could sell my medicine for a lot of money. I'd be rich but unable to move. A lack of dopamine makes life a bit flat, which can be OK provided the elevation isn't too low.

First route was a warm up. I led quickly, clipped the lower off and let go. Freefall, scream, stopped by the rope and not the ground. I don't normally swear, but I did on this occasion. Rob had never climbed a sport route and thought I would tie in and bring him up, so let go of the rope. A nearby climber grabbed it as it whipped through the figure of 8. No idea who he was, but he saved my life. Rob was mortified and hardly climbed for the rest of the week. I found someone else to climb with. Totally my fault - it was of course my responsibility to make sure he knew what to do.

When I first moved to Norway, I had no choice but to climb with students. There was a group of very active young climbers in the region but I was the age of their parents, so I didn't think they'd want me hanging around. Samuli from Finland was keen but inexperienced. He held my rope as I tried an 8a on a newly developed crag, Myggvegen. The local lads watched as I grabbed my rope each time I fell. They were concerned for my safety, so they invited me to join them. Not surprisingly I climbed much better with a proper belay and had some great times with the likes of Jomar, Ola Johan, Jaran, Cato, Karsten and Per of course. My wife Hilary would often meet people at work who would tell her that their son knew me. The Dennis Gray of Norway.

The Norwegian lads grew up and had children, so I am back climbing with students. A bit more careful these days but you can't go wrong with a student called Roche. He was from Canada and climbed around 7b. By the time I had got comfortable with the fist bumps and being called dude he injured a shoulder and didn't climb for a year and a half. He stayed on for a couple of weeks after the end of term to make up for it. Others heard that there was a student staying at my house and asked if they started climbing could they stay too. It's no good starting to climb, I said, you have to be good at it.

I'm a physics teacher, not a climbing instructor, but I do like to introduce students to the sport in the hope that they will actually become rock climbers and all that entails. When I was at school all the kids were either freaks or skin heads; I was a rock climber. Whilst living in south Wales I tried to become a surfer but never made it. I could surf but the community was not so inviting. At university, climbing and Steve Bancroft saved me from a lonely existence. Maybe being good at it helped, although Steve would never admit it. He once wrote in my diary "On the 3rd of March Steve and I went to Caley, where he pissed up High Noon and I failed, cos I am crap and he is my hero". He had a big sulk once when he failed on the top pitch of seventh grade at Malham, so he let me have a go. I wasn't supposed to be able to do it, but I did. He made me ab back down on a single thread as punishment.

On my recommendation, when she was at university in Scotland, Josie joined the climbing club. I thought it would be a good way to meet people and make friends. It wasn't. Insular rather than inclusive. Makes me feel bad about the way I behaved when I was president of the Leeds University Mountaineering Club. We spent the grant on beer, had a party, then advised students who wanted to climb to catch the bus to Caley.


It's the end of the summer holiday. Norway has been hot and I have no one to climb with anyway, so I've spent the past 6 weeks working on my car, a 50-year-old triumph spitfire I'm restoring ground-up. Maybe not the best preparation for a climbing trip, but it's my latest obsession so I had to do it. The good thing is that I'm absolutely pants at anything to do with metalwork, always have been, but maybe won't always will be. The great thing about learning new skills is that you get better at them and when you're really bad you have a lot of potential improvement. This has been the case in most of the things I do. It took me about 3 years of surfing several times a week before I rode a wave, 4 years of salmon fishing before I caught a salmon and 5 years of cross country skiing before I gave up. I don't think there is any real possibility of progressing beyond my best in rock climbing, but I do get a lot of mini progressions. One day I'm struggling to do my usual warm up (that's a lie, I never warm up) and a couple of days later I'm cruising a 7b.

I won't go into the details, but Hilary and I ended up with a flight to San Francisco. The original idea was a road trip, but neither of us like driving so that idea didn't last long. I tried to convince myself that I could spend a week in the city, but knew that Thomas lived there and Yosemite wasn't far. A day in the valley, run up a route and back to the city, how cool would that be? I've never been to Yosemite, always too tight to pay for the airfare. My relationship with the area is via Mountain magazine. That photo of Jim Bridwell on Butterballs was my favourite, we all started putting chemicals on our hands after that. An article featuring photos of Max Jones and Mark Hudon had everyone looking for their old cricket trousers. I luckily had an endless supply, never played cricket but my dad was a Baptist minister and white trousers are what people get baptised in. Did you know Baptist churches have little swimming pools hidden under the floorboards in front of the pulpit? I was at an educational trade show recently and one of the reps said they know Mark Hudon. I wanted to say that I know him too but I don't - I've just seen his picture. I wonder if he still wears those trousers.

Climbing outfit aged 12., 167 kb
Climbing outfit aged 12.
© Chris Hamper

Thomas was up for it and suggested Northeast Buttress on Upper Cathedral. 5.9 is about HVS but it's 1000 feet long! I've only done one route that long in my life, the girdle traverse of East Buttress Scafell. Did it with the Berzins brothers and fell asleep on a ledge. Well, it would be an experience, but I was a little apprehensive. In preparation I thought I should climb a crack, so I contacted an old university friend, Terry Hirst, who lives down the road from my mum near Birmingham. There aren't any crags near my mum's house but it's close to Warwick University, which has a wall with a crack in it. I hadn't been to an indoor wall for a long time, so nervously shook my way through the belaying test.

When I was 12 I'd already been climbing for a while and was excited to go on a school trip to an outdoor pursuits centre in Wales. The instructors made fun of me because I had my own boots and homemade climbing breeches. The instructors at Bear Rock are thankfully more friendly. I didn't tape up for the crack so got a bit cut up, but I almost got to the top using a combination of jamming with my right and wedging with my left. Wedging is like jamming but you don't use any muscles. It doesn't work well and tends to result in abrasion. When I was at university I always had cuts from jamming. There used to be a photo of me in the prospectus that showed them nicely.

Image used in physics department prospectus showing hand jam scabs.
© Chris Hamper

The week before we left, news of wildfires reached the west coast of Norway, then the Valley was shut down. For a while it looked like the climbing was off but "climbing near San Francisco" revealed Lake Tahoe. I had definitely heard of it, realised where I'd heard of it as we drove past Grand Illusion. Thomas booked a cabin, picked us up and drove us to Donner Summit. It was a long way, but he didn't seem to mind. We warmed up on a single pitch route called Peter's Principle. I managed it on a toprope, but was very glad not to lead. I stopped trad climbing just as Friends were introduced, so was interested by the lack of any wires or hexes on Thomas' rack. I have difficulty clipping bolts with my left so placing cams is impossible; just taking them out is bad enough. Mark Vallance, the inventor of Friends, had Parkinson's. He told me that Parkinson's has a habit of spoiling your fun. He died recently. They say you don't die of Parkinson's, but you die with Parkinson's - not particularly reassuring. Dopamine is related to pleasure and happiness, but it's not a simple relationship; if it were I could sell my medicine for a lot of money. I'd be rich but unable to move. A lack of dopamine makes life a bit flat, which can be OK provided the elevation isn't too low.

The line., 202 kb
The line.
© Chris Hamper

One Hand Clapping is the classic 5.9 of the area. I could see the climbing was easy but it didn't feel like it. I kept wanting to lead but was glad when I didn't. Looking for ways to pull my way out of uncomfortable crouching positions and tying myself in knots that were difficult to untie. Forgetting my chalk bag didn't help, but I got to the top. It was a great route, but I would've liked to have enjoyed it more. Realised that I hadn't seconded a HVS since I seconded Steve Bancroft on Black Dyke at Malham in 1976 and that's now E3 so doesn't count. I very much doubt that it was a chalkless ascent, never was a member of the Clean Hand Hang, unlike Hilary, who used to go out with Arnis Strapcans. I stayed at his house once and thought it funny to pour a bag of chalk into a box of Clean Hand Gang T-shirts.

The Clean Hand Gang., 142 kb
The Clean Hand Gang.
© Arnis Strapcans Collection

The other mega classic of Lake Tahoe is "The Line", with a name like that it sort of has to be. Got to the route as the sun came onto the face. Another team were just about to do it, but they let us go first. I wanted to explain why I shook so much and climbed so bad but it didn`t seem appropriate, so the conversation stayed at the level of me trying to answer the typical American questions like "How are things in Norway?" Californians are very friendly, especially on the buses - one homeless guy offered me some of his cheese. I ran out of things to say, so came out with "Where do you live?" I think he must have just raided the bins of a supermarket as he had 4 bumper cheese trays and 6 large packs of steak. I know this because his bag burst and it all spilled out onto the seat between us.

The Line is quite easy if you can climb, but difficult if you can't. It's also long. The length of a sport route is limited by the middle of your rope, but the length of a trad route is limited by the height of the cliff. This was two complete rope lengths. I have to admit that halfway up the second pitch I was wishing it to be over. Being slightly frightened for 300ft of climbing is not entirely pleasant. It's not that I didn't trust Thomas, I totally trusted him and was impressed by the way he organised the rope, hanging it in a sling for me so it payed out nicely. We used to let it hang down the cliff, which annoyed anyone following behind. No, it was nothing to do with trust, it's the non-shaking side of Parkinson's; I get anxious going into a shop so this situation was rather challenging.

I thought that maybe going back to easy trad routes might be the next step down as the illness steps up, but now I don't think so. I climb way better on my routes at home in Norway, maybe it's better to simply keep doing them. Without climbing we would never have met up with Thomas or visited Lake Tahoe, but the climbing part wasn't the highlight. To be honest, the best part was the cold beer and the meal he cooked in the evening. Well, there's more to rock climbing than climbing rocks.

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by Chris Hamper

Forums 15 comments

When I first started climbing, I used to see Chris and his mates a fair bit at Kenilworth Castle. At the time I thought they came across as a bit up themselves but they were "Rock Gods", we were then the punterest of...
I couldn't actually read the whole article. The writer comes across as arrogant and up himself, it got boring quick. Apologies if you don't agree, seems like many people were able to enjoy this and I am glad for them,...
Hi Chris, Brilliant. I love the associations you make: from clapping one hand, to a crap camper vans, to Arnis Strapcans... and the secret swimming pool under the pulpit is Devine. Makes me ashamed to have taught for...
Hi Denni ,,,, err, Chris, Given you barely ever used both feet when we climbed together I can't see the loss of one hand stopping you. I had good footwork and you just powered through time & time again wi' out ...
The mention of crack climbing at Warwick reminds me that we used to do laps on the jamming cracks there - on at least one occasion with Chris as I recall, which makes the article even more poignant. A really...
Thanks, I really enjoyed that. As I approach a certain age, articles n the Other Half Of The Bell Curve of performsnce become more important.    Chris, you have a very special writing style too!! Ta again.

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