Shockwaves had already reached the rock-climbing community when Carol was awakened in the night with the news of her son's death. Chris Hampson-a well-known climber whose grace, warmth, commitment, and Zen-like focus inspired many friends-had fallen to his death in Yosemite National Park.
This moving memoir tells how a mother, seeking to understand her son's passion and confronting deep questions of mortal life, learns to climb up from despair. She had always believed that to encourage her children's freedom was the greatest gift she could give. But now that belief is shaken. Grasping for ground, struggling to accept his passing, she discovers a remarkable truth: love transcends time and space. You never really lose who you love.
The first anniversary of Chris's death is marked by Carol's pilgrimage to Yosemite where, among perennial climbers and granite gods, she scatters his ashes and begins to release him.
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Freedom To Fall
By CAROL HAMPSON
Balboa PressCopyright © 2012 Carol Hampson
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE FALL
I was nervous about that particular trip. In his time off from work, Chris traveled many places to rock climb. It was his passion. I was used to his going off into the wilderness for as long as a month. And while I understood the dangers of rock climbing, I knew he was a skilled, cautious climber. But that trip felt different.
Throughout that fall and winter I had noticed the glow in Chris. He was joyful, full of life, funny. He'd tell stories about his life as a bellman at a hotel in the Colorado ski town of Breckenridge. At moments he'd have me in stitches. At other moments, he seemed increasingly wise beyond his years, knowing at twenty-five what I'd worked a lifetime to understand.
In February I called to set a time for our next dinner together in Breckenridge. "Is it okay if I invite a friend?" he asked. "You'll like her." My interest perked up. A girlfriend? That was something new. Chris sounded smitten.
It was a night to remember, freezing cold and snowing. Chris sat between us at the Japanese restaurant with a gigantic smile smeared across his face. He was brimming with affection and positively radiant. As we left the restaurant, he grabbed the sides of my furry hood and said, "You look so cute!" It was an expression of unrestrained happiness. I was thrilled. Chris was in love.
That spring we saw each other a couple of times, but the fates seemed to keep us apart. Snowstorms hit hard. Chris came down with the flu.
In April my daughter, Kate, called. She was having a hard time in school, unable to concentrate, exhausted. "Something feels very wrong," she said. I flew out to San Francisco to be with her. One day as we walked down the street, these words ran through my mind: It's just going to be you and me, Kate. The thought came through and was gone.
When I returned home I called Chris, hoping to see him before he left on a spring climbing trip. I was too late. He was leaving the next morning.
Kate needed me again and I flew out, thankful to be with her in a time of difficulty. School ended, and Kate came home the first week of May. All that month my mind was on Kate. She was having trouble thinking and sleeping; she wasn't herself. Day after day we confronted the problems upsetting her life.
In the third week of May, a friend flew down from Idaho for a visit, our first reunion in five years. We chatted incessantly, bought flats of petunias and planted them in the garden.
On Sunday morning, May 23, before taking my friend to the airport, I suddenly remembered my son. Oh, Chris—I must call him right now. There was a sense of urgency.
I got his answering machine. "Chris, where are you? I miss you. Call me."
On Tuesday he called back. "Hi, Mom."
"Where are you, Chris?" I asked, feeling apprehensive, then brightening with hope that he might already be home.
"I'm in Yosemite, getting fruit at the grocery store," he answered. "I'm sorry I didn't call sooner. I can only use my cell phone so much."
"Chris, are you having fun? Are you with other people?"
"Oh, yes, I'm having a blast. There's a whole community of people here. I'm staying in Camp 4." His voice was full of vigor.
"When do you plan to come home, sweetie?"
"Plan? What would I do with a plan? I'll come home when I'm ready."
I laughed. It was so typical Chris. "When you get home we'll have a barbecue. I love you, Chris."
"I love you too, Mom."
On a beautiful Thursday afternoon the last week of May, I opened the screen door and stepped into the backyard. The yard looked lovely with its fresh green grass and newly planted flowers. I eyed the new charcoal grill, anticipating family gatherings in the sweet summer months ahead. As I stepped back towards the door, I turned to admire the scenery once again. For an instant life stood still. A haze hovered in the air. I had the distinct impression that something was about to happen.
Between 9:30 and 10:00 on Friday night I was relaxing in bed, when a sparkling golden light swept into my room, surrounding me in a Heavenly glow. I felt wrapped in an aura of protection, as if I'd been transported to a magical place, very safe and wonderful. The light felt like incredibly deep love, like God was right there with me—and I couldn't imagine why.
Saturday morning I took a walk. The golden light had mellowed, but I could still sense it. God has given me an incredible gift, I thought, and wondered what it meant. Kate and I spent the afternoon at a frame shop, framing some of her artwork. She complained of lack of energy and motivation. She didn't know what was happening and seemed to be holding on by the barest thread.
Saturday evening an old high school friend called. Though we spoke occasionally when I visited my mom, he had never called me at home in the thirty-five years since I had moved to Colorado. When he asked about my kids, I told him Chris was climbing in Yosemite. He said, "Doesn't that make you nervous?" "Yes," I replied. "But Chris is a good climber, and he is careful and meticulous by nature. I take comfort in that."
I went to bed with my mind on Kate. There is something in the human spirit that can rise above adversity. There is something of the miraculous that can work with whatever comes up. I believe in Kate. I will help her find her way.
At four o'clock Sunday morning the phone rang. Instead of answering, I rolled over and drifted back towards slumber. Minutes later the doorbell rang twice, followed by loud knocks.
Kate called from her bedroom. "Mom? What's going on?"
"I don't know, honey." I grabbed my robe, hurried downstairs, and looked through the peephole. Under the bright porch light stood two policemen and a woman in street clothes. I opened the door.
"Ms. Hampson? May we come in?" The woman followed me to the couch. The policemen stood just inside.
"Your son, Christopher?"
"He's climbing in Yosemite National Park?"
"He had a rock climbing accident yesterday, and he is dead."
I felt a firm hand over my heart. Chris—protecting me, soothing me, cradling me with love.
Kate ran downstairs. We held each other and cried.
* * *
Chrisfelt the calling of his deeper home. But before he could go, he had to be ready. He had to get everything out of this life that was possible for him. And he had to give up attachment.
When Chris was growing up, he was attached to the house, the forest, family, friends, his belongings. When he was ten, we were on our way to Homestead Days at the museum when a motorist hit us from behind, sending us into a fence and totaling the car. Though I bought a new car, Chris wasn't happy. He wanted the old car, which had been a daily companion. During his first year of college I gave away his summer camp trunk. He had painted it turquoise and filled it with relics: firecrackers, Legos, broken prairie dog bones, stuffed animals, crumpled paper. When Chris came to visit, he noticed that the trunk was missing and asked about it. When I told him it was gone, tears welled in his eyes.
The college years brought change. One day he came in with a friend and wanted to know if I had things in my new house that belonged to him. I asked him if he meant the things he had when he was a little kid. He and his friend had a laugh over that one. Moms would be moms. "No," he said, between chuckles. "I'm talking about climbing equipment."
Chris was attached to this earthbound existence. He loved his tattered climbing books and the feel of his old flip-flops as he walked uncharted paths. But his true attachment was to the freedom beyond clouds.
* * *
Perhaps I knew. Perhaps I've always known. Perhaps Chris came to me, to us, for some special purpose. Perhaps I will spend a long time learning to understand. In my grief I cannot yet fathom it.
Chapter TwoTHE EAGLE FLIES
Alan had been at his team's soccer tournament in Albuquerque. A teammate had wakened him in the predawn with the news of his son's death and then had driven him to my house in Denver. When Alan walked through the door, he was the voice of reason. "Carol, Chris died doing what he loved."
Meanwhile my family, whom I had called minutes after receiving word, was flying in from different parts of the country. They all arrived at once: Sunday night the doorbell rang, and I opened the door to find them clustered together on the front doorstep.
That night with everyone in bed and the house dark, suddenly the wind kicked up. Kate was gazing out my bedroom window. "Chris is shaking the trees for me," she said.
On Monday afternoon Alan swung open the screen door and stepped outside to the patio. I followed him out.
"I feel Chris," I said. All at once he was there, a sparkling aura close to the ground, curled into a radiant smile. At the center was a knowing eye. It was all Chris, the very essence of his being. My, what an old soul!
I saw that everything was as it should be. He was joyous, whole, and beautiful. Death had not scarred him, far from it. He was in his element. Look, Mom, at who I have become. What I saw was the ancient core of wisdom and knowledge, a soul on intimate terms with the universe. He had learned his lessons well, shed all burdens. His joy was absolute. Chris was a free spirit.
From this side of life, that is what I saw. It was the same Chris I have always known, only more. I called Kate down from the balcony. While Kate, Alan, and I sat with hands interlocked, Chris wrapped around us in sweetness and love. He entered my being and spoke the words we needed to hear. He spoke of a golden cord connecting us with him. He said he would always be with us. He said we would make it through.
At some point I wearied. The vision faded. Kate and Alan remained on the patio, while I opened the screen door and went back to bed. The next day my friend Vanessa came with yet more flowers.
"The energy feels different today," she remarked.
I blurted out, "Chris is gone. He's gone; he's gone."
I reached my hands towards Heaven and cried. Vanessa stayed right with me, looking into my eyes. Her black eyes held me, pools of light.
* * *
Chris had said that last time we talked that he wasn't ready to come home yet from Yosemite. Now I know he had to take that step that led him to his death. He had to die first, and then he came home, for the last time.
But Chris has gone home. I had him for twenty-five years. That is a long time.
* * *
After Chris died I kept a journal, recording my experience, seeking insight and help every day. Often I wrote directly to Chris, certain that he could hear me.
June 2, 2003
To my dear son, Chris, The golden cord that ties us together cannot be broken. Is there anything you want me to know? To find the strength to endure this? This is final. I will never see you again. But you have been comforting me since word came yesterday. Your spirit is so precious and gentle.
June 6, 2003
Part of my mourning is to learn to feel okay about missing you, to know that your physical presence will no longer be here, that you will no longer bend down to hug me and tell me that you love me. You are one of God's own. You are part of the light of the universe. You were taken away from me, but I never had you. You were my child, and I loved you with all my heart. I gave you everything I know how to give, so that you could grow your own wings.
You did not have a long life, darling, and that pains me. But you were not concerned with how long you lived. You were a shining presence, and your presence lives on.
Pain exists especially when we hold on, cling to someone. But we cannot have anyone else. We only have ourselves. You came to me after you died and showed me your essence and that is what I have—your essence—so free.
It will take me quite a while to absorb all of this. It is a gradual unfolding. I need to be fearless in my approach to pain, not run from it but allow it to come through.
June 15, 2003
I am so grief-stricken. Today I need to help myself think about things in a certain way. I don't want to be so consumed by grief when it hurts so much. I need to come back to the bigger picture, beyond my own personal trauma. I need to help myself get up out of myself.
I can't bear this any longer.
Okay. It's okay to get those feelings out.
The worst thing is that I want my son back. That is what is so devastating. And he isn't coming back. This is so much the hardest part to deal with.
I know all of this pain is the not letting go. You hold onto your child and that only brings despair. So you have to let go every day.
I need help in the letting go. And I am getting that help right now. It's not just me doing this alone. Someone is helping me with the pain and suffering. It is the suffering that I want help with.
Receiving help—I feel myself receiving help. Thank you. I don't know where it comes from. So I need to keep coming back to these words—to let go—and I feel the comfort of letting go. And I know that all is well. There is something other than my grief, a calm place, a place of light. It is love that comes to me and helps me.
To love someone does not imply clinging. The highest form of love is letting go. Love is not clinging. Love is always about letting go.
When a child is born, you hold that bundle of preciousness to your heart, and every day thereafter you let go a little more. When a child dies, you unfurl your hands and blow, for the child, endowed with Spirit, is now truly free.
Through days of mourning the loss of Chris, I seek the guidance to release him. Each act of unleashing is an act of love. To encourage the freedom of our children is the greatest gift we can give. It requires seeing them, not as we wish them to be, but as they really are, and nurturing the heartbeat that is them.
There is order and beauty in the universe. Our children deserve to pursue their freedom—to die even—when God calls.
* * *
While Alan was on his way to Denver from Albuquerque, he saw a cloud take the shape of a seven-pointed star. Later in the week, while sitting in his office typing out an obituary notice, his forefinger kept involuntarily hitting the star key. "Stop it, Chris," he said. Even then his son sported playfully with him. Alan ended the obituary saying: "His extraordinary spirit is now free and soars as an eagle." He had a photograph of Chris copied and inscribed with those words for guests at the memorial. From the moment Chris died, that was Alan's understanding of his son.
Alan and his wife, Susan, held the memorial service outside their home in Golden, in the foothills west of Denver. Greg Van Dam was the first to speak, after the priest. Greg told a story that Chris had told on himself. It was a bitter cold night in January. Chris was walking home through the forest after a party wearing only a light jacket and tennis shoes. The cold was biting into his flesh, and he wondered how he would make it home. He came into a broad clearing and saw the full moon on one side. He looked to the other side and saw an enormous shadow cast across the snow—his shadow, engulfing the entire field. Chris began dancing, making shadow puppets in the moonlight as he bounded for home.
At that point in Greg's story, as people were laughing, a golden eagle came out of the east and flew directly over Greg's head, casting its shadow across the gathering of friends. It circled three times and then flew off to the south.
That morning, in the midst of community and rarified air, Greg spoke the words we needed to hear. He had been Chris's principal climbing partner. They had learned together, lived outdoors together, and put their lives in each others' hands. Greg said, "Abraham Maslow, the great humanist, once wrote, 'A musician must make his music, an artist must paint, and a poet must write, if he is to ultimately be at peace with himself.' And so, too, a climber must climb, an outdoorsman must be outdoors."
* * *
Greg told Alan a remarkable story. The first week of May, Greg and Chris had met in Canyonlands in Utah, before Chris went on to Yosemite. For several days they camped and climbed and then decided to do a big climb in the back of the area.
This trip was entirely magical. I believe that at some deeper level, we knew it was the last time we would be together, and so we thoroughly enjoyed each other's company.
Chris had selected the climb—Moses, in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, near Moab. It's a gorgeous tower, a monolithic rock formation that looms above the valley carved out around it. The climb wasn't a well-known one that gets done too often, but it features pristine sandstone crack climbing.
The long drive to approach it deters most people from going back to it. We loaded my gear into Chris's Subaru Outback and headed out the dirt road that would take us there. The road alone was one of the most interesting drives I've ever done. It winds down, quite precariously, the side of the cliff that drops into the valley. You can see the remains of rolled cars hanging off the mountainside where unfortunate drivers were not so careful. The views were spectacular, revealing the true power of weather and time. This magnificent valley had been carved out by a small river that we were heading towards.
Excerpted from Freedom To Fall by CAROL HAMPSON Copyright © 2012 by Carol Hampson. Excerpted by permission of Balboa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents"Young Climber Happiest when Scaling New Heights"....................7
The trees in the forests are the disciples by Chris Hampson....................11
1 The Fall....................13
2 The Eagle Flies....................19
3 Mother and Son....................31
4 Spirit of the Mountains....................45
5 The Fire of Life....................61
6 Love of Climbing....................73
7 True Freedom....................83
9 At Overhang Bypass....................115
10 Beyond the High Sierra....................125
11 "We Take These Risks"....................137
Epilog: Stone Steeple....................149
Glossary: Climbing Terms....................153