Chris Hamper reminisces of Font trips old and new, and of the people who support him as he continues to climb in spite of Parkinson's disease. If you haven't read Chris' previous articles 'Shaking Out - Climbing with Parkinson's' and 'Losing the Thread' then they're well worth a read!
I first went to Font about 40 years ago. Never been abroad before, only Wales. Eddy, the climbing shop owner in Coventry had sung my praise to a visiting French climber. He must’ve sung well because we got an invite to stay at his house near Fontainebleau. Bill Turner and I, that is. I had a blue Triumph Spitfire at the time. Spent my first year's salary in advance of earning it. Was so low I could drive under car park barriers. I bet they have cameras now.
I’d heard about them from Mrs. Ripon at school. You have to stand or something, no seat. I was quite relieved to find an ordinary toilet in their bathroom so got down to business. My relief was premature, however. Mrs Ripon had forgotten to tell us about the toilet paper. Sheets of cardboard. I was bought up on Jeyes parchment both at school and church but cardboard was rock bottom. It took some time but I managed to soften the squares to a manageable texture and got the job done, standing up to pull the chain I spotted a pile of boxes on a high shelf. Packs of toilet paper, each with a square of cardboard under the pile of tissues.
The bouldering was excellent and we got pointed at an assortment of problems that after a while all became white. I did the Cuvier classics Charcuterie, Abattoir etc. Then we stopped for lunch, a proper one...
Other climbers arrived and I ran out of steam...for the rest of the week. What I hadn’t realised was that they took turns but I tried everything. A good lesson in sandbagging that I should’ve tried to remember.
My second visit was with another Bill, Bill Birkett. He was writing a book about female climbers, no idea why but he was and I tagged along so he could hold my rope. There weren’t many female rock climbers at the time, just three as far as I remember: Geraldine, Lynn and Catherine. We stayed at Catherine’s parents’ house, they were very hospitable and gave me some cream for my wrecked fingers - it smelt of fish for a good reason. The wrecked fingers were a result of my second time making the mistake of trying every problem that I was pointed at. I think we were supposed to take turns, but Bill was always taking pictures. I did quite well as it happens, using determination where technique was missing. Learnt an important lesson, let them go first then simply copy what they do. Doesn’t work anymore, better not to watch and try my own way. As usual she was amazed that such an un-athletic looking person could drag his way up problems that they had taken years to perfect - cake icing with a plasterer's trowel.
Almost all my early visits were in the summer, I wish someone had told me that this is the worst time of year to go; feeling those slopers that were impossible to hang and in awe of the way someone had been able to pull on them, not realising that at this time of year they never had. We always stayed at the free campsite, only facility was a tap. I don’t like going to the toilet in the woods so we’d time everything to coincide with the first thing in the morning visit to the supermarket. The campsite is only a U turn away from Cuvier so that’s where we always went. Once spent a week there with the best climber in the world, but he never mentioned me in his book so I’m not naming him here. We spent a week wiring all the white problems ready for the weekend visit by the Parisians. Problem was that no Parisians go there on a summer Saturday. We knew the trick and did half the circuit each, my party trick was Carnage footless. I did an insignificant arête that he couldn’t do, so he threw a wobbly and his shoes.
Apart from the many trips passing through with the family I have had two proper trips with some local boys from Norway. Old enough to be their dad but still able to hold my own - ticking 7B+ a couple of times, crying with laughter when the font of all bouldering knowledge, Jomar, wrapped Bachen up in his pad and pushed him over. Trying to emulate Knut Sømmer’s fluid movement was a step too far. One day's climbing, four days recovery.
This trip was going to be a Chulilla reunion, but Chris Gore couldn’t make it so we swapped a Chris for another Martin and Martin Veale joined the team (bad name for a vegetarian). I first met Martin on the streets of Sheffield. I used to cruise around with Mark Stokes and Ed Wood looking for parties. On one occasion we were a bit early, first ones there in fact. Didn’t know either of the party throwers but sat down anyway, Ed asked if they had any cheese but they didn’t so we left. Martin was on his way to a different party and we thought we’d tag along but he didn’t think we were invited. He had a girlfriend and a motorbike. Martin was one of the first peak climbers to introduce the sit start, a good way for us short climbers to get our own back on the likes of Ron. Martin used to crawl under rocks and climb out. He also did the first ascent of Big Air at Stanage, jumping from a big boulder to a pocket. I never tried it, scared that I wouldn’t be able to do the move or jump back - a sit start would be impressive. Jumping onto boulders could be a new sport, but the problem is there aren’t many possibilities. You'd have to take a step ladder to the crag, set it up and jump from it onto the problem.
To protect us from rioting teenagers we invited Phil Burke and Rory Gregory, both a bit older than me. Probably not able to fight as well as they could but looking like they can. Phil was one of my imaginary rivals in the 70s and 80s. I used to stalk his routes, Tales of Yankee Power, Central Route, Menopause all had something to do with Phil. Didn’t actually meet him until I moved to Sheffield. Phil and Rory used to have big motorbikes, they’d sometimes park them at Stoney. They could probably get work modelling leather jackets in the NEXT catalogue if it still exists.
Arriving at Charles de Gaulle four hours late, I got some stick from the boys. I was the one laughing last though, the 350 Euro compensation paid for the whole trip. It’s always expensive travelling from Norway, a big hassle too, car, bus, boat, bus, hotel, plane, plane, arrive. Listened to a group moaning about the price of a sandwich at the airport, 10 quid for a sandwich and 5 for a bottle of water, how do people here afford it? We don’t, we make our own and drink water from the tap.
First day follows a typical first night but we are raring to go. Isatis is where it’s at. By the third problem our plan to do the complete red circuit becomes half of it. I start well but soon I’m having to try hard. Training on roofs does not prepare me for vertical walls and sharp crimps. Several times I make it by the skin of my teeth. Poor technique, weak arms, weaker fingers but extreme determination and a crazy will to succeed. Several times I get to the top and hear the comments between the crowd of spotters - everyone comes to the mat when the lunatic has a go; “Bloody hell, that was close”; “Thought he was going to die there”; “Did you see his eyes”; They see it, I feel it. Encouragement comes thick and fast although I get my fair share of put downs. “Stop shaking!” 31 gets slapped and it’s time for home but not before discovering that beer in Fontainebleau is the same price as in Bergen.
For weeks before we confirmed the trip I had been watching the weather forecast, half hoping it would be bad so I wouldn’t have the hassle on the travel. I’d also been watching my weight, which was refusing to go down without me reducing what I eat or doing more exercise. Funny how even though I really wanted to go I was at the same time looking for a way out. The day before I strained my arm opening a bag of crisps. I knew this would happen, luckily it was better after an hour or two.
The Martins took care of the food making sure we had no meat by replacing it, according to Phil, with sawdust and plastic. Even though some of the raw ingredients did have a slightly inedible appearance the result was delicious and I ate too much, over compensating for all the energy burned off in the daytime - wasn’t only my luggage that was too heavy on the way home. The Atkinson diet.
Day two was forecast to be sunny all day, it wasn’t. Mooched around all morning then went to find dry rock at the exposed boulders of Cul de Chien. Eclipse was dry, just saying. There was a team of young Brits trying it, I poked around in the cave. “What are you looking at?” I didn’t think fast enough and replied "Arabesque" the easiest problem on the stone. Should have gone for something more difficult, no harm in looking.
Weather looked up on day three but we arrived at Ellie Font to early. Couldn’t believe it was wet, so tried a 7A with a heart on it and got nowhere. Packed up and drove to Gorge aux Chats. None of us had been there before so we were all excited, even the big boys were like small ones, running round looking for dry patches. A couple of sharp "warm ups" led to a nice looking problem by an arête. Basher and I tried a couple of times and worked out how to get to a sloper just below the top. Mark had been a bit behind the pace on the walk in but arrived and easily climbed to the top. It was a good half an hour before Basher and I also topped out. Another eye popping experience for me, a series of sliding slaps disproving what it says in my physics text book that sliding friction is less than static. Mark made the most of the opportunity by burning us off every time we failed. Why do 56 different problems when you can do one 56 times? Play to your strengths, exploit others' weaknesses.
After several suggestions that we should try something steeper, we eventually left the crimpy walls and tried an overhang. I manage to finesse the start with a heel and toe jam but had to revert to wild slaps over the top. My joy of getting over the top was overwhelmed by the relief of the watching crowd who seemed to be more concerned for my safety than I was. I overcompensate my tendency to overreach by getting my feet really high - fall off like that and you don’t go down, you go out. Trusting completely in the ability of my spotters without actually knowing if anyone was spotting. My youngest daughter, Florence, used to be the same: totally confident that Daddy would catch her from 5m, but when she was only 4 I could.
The way it always used to be was that first attempts on a difficult boulder were hopeless, often you were not able to hang the holds let alone make a move. Adjustments to body position enable weight to be supported and moves linked. When you eventually do the problem it always seems easy, at least much easier than you’d thought. Things are different now, I look at a problem and it looks easy but I can’t hang the holds. Will power enables me to lock my fingers and withstand the pain. My comfortable shoes don’t help as I try to use my feet in the way others do. Continually throwing myself at the problem eventually leads to success as I somehow manage to stay in contact long enough to get to the top - certainly doesn’t feel easy.
Last day we were going to reminisce at Cuvier but the heavens opened and we drove south to Elephant. Did 1 and 2 on the black circuit. Felt more my style with big holds and long reaches. Funny how one emphasises the thing that sounds hardest. When referring to a black problem it’s "black 1 and 2" but if it's red then you say "6A and 5C".
Where I live in Norway I have developed something like 50 problems on a variety of different boulders. Almost all are 7A+ with the occasional 7B. Never bothered brushing anything easier, means there’s a whole load of easier classics waiting to be done on boulders I’ve always walked past with my nose in the air. Even without dopamine* I can feel the tingle of excitement thinking of potential areas with new possibilities. Happy days.
*Dopamine is the substance responsible for that “It's Christmas tomorrow and I can’t wait” feeling you had when you were a kid. It’s also the Chemical missing in the brain of people with Parkinson’s.
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