'80s hero 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 recounts a recent trip to Leonidios, Greece with some friends. When you suffer from Parkinson's, rating flat bottoms becomes somewhat of an obsession, as Chris explains...
Don`t worry, this isn't an article about how I reached rock bottom, it's more about the bottom of rocks. Just spent ten days in Greece with a team that had a combined climbing experience of 300 years. Close to forty of those are mine but it didn't feel like it. Basher, Gore, Plantpot, Phil Burke and myself rented an apartment in Leonidios. Rab (yes, the Rab), Keith Sharples, Simon Lee and, save the best to last, Steve McClure (yes, the Steve McClure) rented another.
Both teams were welcomed by a huge pile of fruit and veg and a selection of local produce. We wondered if we'd booked for ten single nights whether we'd get ten welcome packs. A characteristic of Greece is toilets you can't flush paper down. After almost pulling a muscle trying to tear off paper, use it and deposit it in the pedal bin I realised that standing up and turning round was the way to go. I reckon we were three folders and two scrunchers, but I never brought up the subject.
I'd been looking forward to this trip for about six months; it's what keeps me going during the long hot summer months when I have no one to climb with. I was actually climbing quite well for a while. No training, just lost 6 kg. Basher even said I was thin, went to the doctor but nothing sinister, just lucky I suppose. Overdid it on my 8a project. Perfect for my condition, everything on the right arm, managed to climb through the pain and got more pain. Couldn't lift a coffee cup for a while. I'd already booked the ticket but was contemplating changing it. My wife Hilary said I should just go and have a holiday. NO WAY. Took the advice of my physio and did some pathetic exercises for ten weeks and they worked, I could do pull ups again. A couple of bouldering sessions and there was no need to cancel the flight.
It can be cold in the shade in winter so I packed my winter jacket; a 25 year old Mountain Equipment down jacket with a Gore Tex outer layer. At least it used to be Gore Tex but I think that white powder coming out of the sleeves is the remainder of the membrane. Fine at the crag, but didn't like the looks I got walking through the streets of London on my way home. Tried to part exchange it for a new one at Lockwoods in Leamington but it didn't have an MOT so I bought a new one outright. Now at last I am the proud owner of a Rab Jacket (and fleece) which means I no longer need to point to other people's Rab labels to say "I know Rab", rather I can point to my own. Must find that POD sac.
First day we went to what was supposed to be the best area, Mars. I used to love that perfect grey limestone in Verdon, but orange is the new grey and Mars is so orange it's red. Easy tufa warm-ups kept me occupied until I fell off Chuck Notis (7a) signifying the end of the day. Returned on our final day and did some of the tufas again then caused a stir when Phil laid our rope slightly to the right of our ready-clipped line. I tied in then got into the wrong groove. The team just about to set off on it were too polite to point out my mistake. Must have misdiagnosed my Parkinson's for dementia. I'm not sure if it counts as onsight when you think you've done it before but onsight it was. I picked off a couple of extra draws hanging on the belay and returned to Earth. Requests to give back the draws to the waiting team of German climbers was met with indignance as I argued that they belonged to Animal. It ended in laughs not blows. We met them later that day and they said how much we inspired them, giving them hope to be still climbing in ten years time, umm, thirty actually.
Animal is another of Chris Plant's nicknames. A misheard conversation led me to reveal that I'd never realised he'd got the name because he looked like Animal from the muppets. He hadn't, took me some time to dig my way out of that one. Three Chris's led to some confusion, which became more complex when we met another one at Elona. He said it was the same at Leeds Uni when he was there. Well, well, welI, I was one of them too. Chris the Flash meets Chris the Fuzz after 40 years. I may not be the Flash anymore but he certainly isn't the Fuzz, having lost his fuzzy black hair.
Oh yeah, this was supposed to be about rock bottoms. I like a crag to have a nice flat bottom. Balance isn't so good so I prefer to be on the flat. Mars has a 6/10 bottom. Elona is more like 3/10. Almost hurt myself there when I sat on my hand and rolled off the boulder I was about to sit on. Did a good impression of a turtle on its back for a few seconds.
On day two we went to Twin Caves. 2/10 for the bottom. Met Dani Andrada plus a large team of very talented women. Ok, we didn't meet them, we saw them. I met Dani once before at Oslo airport but he won't remember me. I remember him though, I took a secret photo so I wouldn't forget. Dani has extremely wide shoulders and very thin legs, a bit like me really, well the bit about the extremely thin legs. I used to have the thinnest ankles in the world but the Baker's cyst in my left knee keeps bursting and draining down my leg causing it to swell. Now I've got one of the thinnest ankles in the world. First time it happened I went to the doctor. He thought it was normal until he saw my right leg. Rushed me into hospital with a suspected DVT.
I've never seen anyone climb like Dani before but I did see it again when our mate Steve tied on. When someone asked us if anyone had lost a hat: "Not me". "No". "Haven't got one". "Nope" we answered coolly. "Oh I thought it belonged to one of Steve's friends, are you with Steve McClure?". "YES", we all chimed in unison. Although I was a member of Steve's team I can't say I got to know him very well. We did visit their apartment one night and he was there. He had a copy of Jerry's new book on his lap and was stretching his forearm tendons. All around the apartment were Post It stickers saying things like "I am the best", "My legs are thinner than Dani's". I made the bit about the stickers up but I wonder what it would have been like in 84 Hunter House Road if Jerry, Chris, Basher and Andy had all put their own motivational Post Its around the house. Would have to be colour coded to avoid confusion.
The evenings were all pretty much the same. Conversation would go from climbing to cycling to football to Brexit and Trump and back to climbing. We all have a similar outlook, but that didn't matter and loudness was proportional to time. Chris Gore was referee with Google backup. I kept my head down but did learn some interesting stuff. Paul Scholes is 7ft, Manchester have a player with orange hair, Nottingham Forest were a very good side and 10% of the population are transexual, or was that 1%. I also heard many frightening stories about what it's like for young men working in factories, which made me glad to have such a sheltered upbringing. Climbers often say how they weren't good at school sport. This lot couldn't say that. Phil was a national level runner. Gore swam and played rugby as did Basher and the pot played football. I was called Kangaroo Features by the PE teacher and was always last when teams were picked. Rugby gave me a headache, cross country running a stitch and I always forgot my swimming trunks and was made to wear a girl's costume. I always seemed to have the wrong kit. My football boots had rounded toe caps and I carried a tennis racket in a cricket bag. For the trip to Greece I'd bought a new 75m rope. It was too heavy, too slippy, too thick and the centre mark isn't central (allegedly). Well, at least it didn't get worn out.
Elona is a magnificent crag and it was very impressive watching Dani, Steve and the ladies climbing beside us. One of the women had a habit of letting go after unclipping the last bolt and swinging into Plantpot. He called her the Wrecking Ball, which she took in good spirit. I tried the easiest route on the main wall, Kneebaropoulis 7a. From the name you'd expect it to have some kneebars but it doesn't, they must be after my high point; the last bolt. Was going great while Basher was telling me what to do but then he started talking to someone else and I got confused. Everyone seems to be wearing a knee pad these days, Dani wears two. Don't know why they are called knee pads, more like thigh pads. Tried one on but it didn't fit, soon became an ankle pad. How do you know which leg to strap it to when onsighting? Maybe that´s why Dani wears two? When we first moved to Norway I put snow chains on the rear wheels of a front wheel drive car. Worked fine.
Parkinson's is a degenerative disease which means it gets worse, however as it gets worse you get used to it and so has the team. They still go quiet when my hand freezes at a clip. To be honest, climbing onsight isn't always that pleasant. I focus on my hands, forget my feet, clawing my way up with little technique. On a worked route I can still flow moves together, still feel I can climb, but it's not easy to divert the conversation away from football and it's not easy to divert the climbing to short, worked routes. Go with the flow, even when it's not going the way you want.
The boys were concerned about me at HADA, thought I might fall off the bottom (1/10). Climbing high point Sokolatina 7a+ flash then tried too hard on Nitinta 7a+ and got so wasted I almost couldn't dog to the belay. They said they'd go up again for the gear but no one wants to be a burden. Did my bit walking up to Panorama (3/10) with Basher, felt even colder after a morning in the sun at Adspach wall (5/10) but what's a pair of cold hands between friends.
Flew home via UK to visit my mum. Flight cancelled due to a couple of inches of snow. Norwegians always laugh at the Brits' attempts to drive in the snow, but in Norway we use winter tyres. Just imagine if every car in the UK had two sets of tyres. A rubber mountain. In Norway we also find that the plough is mightier than the salt when it comes to clearing roads and runways. At the airport I queued for four hours before realising that there was a separate line for Gold Card holders. As I left my queue friends, I lied about how bad I felt to be jumping to the front. My left arm freezes when I try to find the arm hole of my new jacket and I become aware of people watching. The manager at the KLM desk senses my distress and sends someone to help me, not only with the jacket but also to take me to my bus. 7a+ isn't bad for someone who can't put on their jacket, I suppose.
Thanks to Strong Steve we probably climbed an average grade of about 7c, not bad for an average age over 60. Leonidios is a great place, but if you like flat bottoms you'd be better off at Stoney.