Shaking Out: Climbing with Parkinson's

© Chris Hamper

Chris Hamper was diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease after a long career of enthusiastic climbing and training. In this article, Chris describes his diagnosis and his determination to keep climbing with this degenerative disorder, which significantly affects motor control.


ven before I knew climbing was climbing it's been a big part of my life, but it's only when something is taken away that you know how addicted you are. I went to Kuwait once and there was no bacon for breakfast, I don't normally eat bacon for breakfast but when you can't you really want to: I ended up eating bacon substitute. I've been a climber all my life although there was a period, when I lived in Wales with 3 small children, that climbing trips became inconvenient. Not so inconvenient really, I lived 15 minutes from Ogmore but it's better to say inconvenient than too scary. Blame the children.

Chris struggling to chalk up on a 7b  © Chris Hamper
Chris struggling to chalk up on a 7b
© Chris Hamper

There is no shortage of rock in Norway but not much of it has been climbed on, so I bought a drill and changed from Jackal to new router. Won the local climbing competition and met some climbers, another come back and still climbing 8a+ at 53. Built two bouldering rooms, one a moonboard, rather damaging to ego and fingers but good to know how bad you are. Winters spent hanging on the walls and lying on the mattresses, good on moves I'm good on, play to strengths, ignore weaknesses, always be the one who sets the problem, don't do moves you can't do. More power, always more power. Introduce the open hand crimp rule, that'll keep you ahead.

After a lifetime of climbing injuries you get to know your body and what is likely to break it, doesn't stop it breaking but you normally know why. You also get to know what improvement to expect with different levels of training. So why am I getting weaker when I'm training so much? How come I'm losing weight when I'm eating more than usual? Why do I feel so tired? Why did my hand just explode off that hold? Another injury, must be those new volumes, stick with what you're used to. My friend works in rehabilitation, tries to cognitive therapy me, negative thoughts will hold you back, climbing through the pain just leads to more pain.

Chris on a successful redpoint of a 7b at The Beach, Stryn in Norway
© Faith Isham

Tendon injuries get better with time but this one didn't, better see the doctor. Can you open and close both hands at the same time he asks. Well of course I can. No I can't. That's really odd, I never knew that I couldn't move my hand until he asked me to do this. I had a pain in my elbow but not in my hand. It's a tendon injury I explain. A second opinion and I'm rushed into hospital. Not a brain tumour is the good news, probably Motor Neurone Disease is the bad. Google tells me only 3 years left. Hilary sees the positive side of a physics teacher having the same disease as Steven Hawking. I'm struggling to see anything positive. Motor Neurone Disease is muscle wasting which would explain why I have lost so much muscle on the left side. It also means climbing is over which hits hard.

When faced with the prospect of only 3 years to live you start thinking of how you want to spend those final years. Do you give up work and spend time doing what you want to do or do you work as much as possible to earn money to leave behind. Norway has an excellent social welfare system so I can give up work and still get money, but I like my work. Not easy to walk away from something you've done all your life and anyway - if I did give up work what would I do? Climb all day? Who with? In Norway I live in a small town with one other climber, Per, who works full time so can't climb every day. Maybe I could go on one of these climbing holidays? I think not. I could contact all of my old climbing friends in the UK, many now retired, and put together a climbing adventure. Just a minute, I'm sick and going to get sicker. Better do it quick then. Hmm, my withered arm says it's already too late. Of course it's not too late, I'll climb easy routes. Definitely not. Actually I don't want to climb everyday or even all day. I once did the girdle of the east buttress of scafell with the Berzins brothers and fell asleep on a belay ledge. Big wall traversing is not for me.

More tests and the doctors are smiling, it's not Motor Neurone it's only Parkinson's, well thank goodness for that. Just a minute, Parkinson's? That's not so good either is it? Well, the good news is that it's not muscle wasting. That loss of muscle was due to lack of use not a disease. No reason why it can't be built up again so my neurologist refers me to a rehabilitation centre for 4 weeks.

Vesle Daniel, 8a. A route which Chris wants repeat post-diagnosis
© Ole Karsten Birkeland

The rehab centre is right next to where I live so quite convenient really. It's also where Per works so maybe they'll make a good training programme for me. First day and it doesn't look good as I play games on the lawn with the other patients. I hate games. This is going to be more challenging than I thought. Don't focus on the illness they say, but that's why I'm here. So from the salsa sessions I learnt that I have immoveable hips, from the Tai Chi no sense of balance, I am hopeless at swimming, and have very stiff legs. How on earth can I climb with such a useless body? By the way, none of these problems are anything to do with Parkinson's apart from the balance maybe. Parkinson's makes me walk with one hand hanging and my head forward. The stooped posture has been there for years, I thought all climbers were like that. They are aren't they? Look at Chris Gore.

I was asked to make some goals, things I will try to do with my left hand. I hardly used my left hand before so not easy to use now. I lied about a few things I was doing but my main goal was to climb a 7a boulder. (not only with my left hand of course, who do you think I am, Johnny Dawes?) It was one I'd done it before many times but not post diagnosis. It's a sloping traverse. Ever since Hampers Hang I've been on the look out for more sloping traverses, I have quite a collection here in Norway, Holten Hang, Maureen Lipman, Slope John Paul 3rd and Deerless. All 7a, well they are either 7a, too hard or too easy. I had to wear my proper shoes but I managed it in the end. By the way it wasn't me who named Hamper's hang, Steve Bancroft would've never forgiven me.

The rehab programme was good as a whole but at the time I couldn't see the point, I met other Parkinson's sufferers, inspiring and frightening. You know how, when you talk to someone with a stutter you start to stutter yourself (Oh, only me). Being with people with Parkinsons makes you walk with a stoop talk quietly and shake, if you've got it yourself it's even worse. Rehab resonance. I learnt how to exercise my voice by blowing into a bottle of water, stand on half a ball, and how to do things big to stop them getting small. Even got to know what I should eat.

Problem is I've never done anything for the sake of being healthy. Everything I do is to be a better climber (sad and ineffective but true) the fact that I'm healthy is a side benefit, or not as the case may be. So yoga would be good for me but I hate yoga. Why do people assume that when you get ill you will enjoy things that you hated before? So I have to admit I don't do any of that stuff, and I still don't brush my teeth properly. When I walk past the windows of the rehab centre on my way to work I stand up straight and swing my arms, the perfect patient. My teeth are rotten.

That was all about 6 months ago and although not exactly on top form I'm climbing 7b+ (sport) again and on my way up. My left hand doesn't work when I want it to but works ok if I don't think about it. When I started it was really weak, I could only hold on with a straight arm so had to use my right arm for all upward movement, hang >match > pull > snatch. With continued use it's getting stronger. My strength was always my strength so I have to find new beta for routes I used to power up. The problem is, when I find an easier solution the grade comes down. If you can't climb 7c then make it 7b. At this rate I'll never climb 8a again.

Chris refusing to let Parkinson's prevent him from climbing
© Faith Isham

Clipping is a bit of a problem, if I use my good hand to clip it means I'm hanging on my bad one which can't be trusted. If I clip with my bad hand it sometimes freezes and I can't open the karabiner. No one likes to fall off with a pile of slack in their hand but luckily the drugs make me reckless. Balance isn't a problem on overhangs and I don't climb slabs but it can be a problem scrambling about at the bottom of the cliff. The other week I fell over and rolled down a hill in front of a group of students I was instructing. Probably best not to spend too much time at the top then. Belaying is also slightly problematic, holding the rope is OK but when my mate falls off I fall over. Actually the worst thing of all is chalking up. I dip into my chalk bag with my left hand and suddenly it decides to stop moving and won't come out. Reminds me of a chalk bag my sister made for me with an elastic draw cord. Revenge of the clean hand gang. No need to stop for a shakeout, I shake all the way up, all the way down and all the way back home. The man with the wobbly hand.

They say the best way to hold off the symptoms (shaking, involuntary movements, drooling, difficulty swallowing etc.) is to be active so that's what I'm being. I hope it works but even if it doesn't I'm having fun. Must be awful for those who have to be active for the sake of being active. Makes me wonder though, if I do manage 8a with Parkinson's, surely I could have managed more than 8a+ without...

UKC Articles and Gear Reviews by chrishamper

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9 Oct, 2015
Bloody hell Chris. I never thought you could make me cry! A very thought-provoking article indeed. 'My strength was always my strength...' Doubt anyone could argue with that. Only thing I'd add is that your inner strength seemed commensurate with your (all too evident) outer strength. Just do what feels right. From your article it seems that, right now, climbing is the right thing for you to do. All best wishes (and apologies for the past). Mick
9 Oct, 2015
Thanks for this. It is inspiring: a tale of great courage and determination which ought to be a lesson to all of us about life and its course. Lovely pics too!
9 Oct, 2015
Ahh 'Christmas' (Hi Hilary), I'll second Mick Ward. Am balling my fckn eyes out, though please don't feel embarrassed or uncomfortable... What a beautifully written article. See! Told you you had a wonderful turn of phrase... and I wasn't stuttering when I s, s, said that. Well, what does,,, can,,, an old friend say in this circumstance? 'Dreadfully sorry to hear this,,,' smacks of 'poor me' - not your style. Shamefully I didn't quite grasp the gravity of your condition during our emails earlier this year (2015) then again, you made somewhat 'light' of things. How we laughed during those fantastic days down 'Smee Dale' and the fish and 'chips' we shared that week in Cornwall - ha! Precious Time. Am channeling Pat Benatar; (Pen Trwyn, E something six something - always thought that name would come in handy... sorry you copped it Chris!). Have any of the medicos suggested sunshine? And surf? Isn't it dark in Norway nine months of the year? Its very sunny and warm in Upsidedownland plus, your daughter's at Uni here. Don't send her money for the flight home,,, come visit yourself (key's under the mat)... Best in all things Chris. Oh, and 7-something with a bung hand is still pretty blimmin' good you know! A. x
9 Oct, 2015
What a fabulously encouraging article - to horribly misquote the late Yogi Bera "you ain't beaten until you're beaten" and it sounds as if you are a long way from that. I feel generally encouraged and admire your courage. And your wry writing style. An initial diagnosis of motor neuron disease - good grief, I'd have curled up into a ball and hidden in a corner. As your medics say "at least it's not that".
10 Oct, 2015
What a great article. Puts so much into perspective. Why we climb, what it means to us, how we cope with the challenges, both lesser (many of us) or greater ( as so well articulated by Chris) we may have for all sorts of reasons. Most of all this article provides an incredible inspiration to just climb for as long as we can, as best we can, with as much passion and energy as we can muster. Easily the best thing I have read on UK climbing.
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