I was sitting, drenched in rain at St. George’s concert hall, eagerly awaiting the arrival of Neil Gresham. “We’re just going to wait a little while longer. The weather is like hell tonight folks.” I’m still unsure if the announcer was regarding the remaining audience who had yet to show or our speakers – stuck in a traffic jam perhaps? The weather really was “hell”.
Ten minutes later and finally an enthusiast Neil Gresham cannonballs on stage to a rounded applause. Gresham is young, gaunt but athletic and carries himself in a calm and consolable manner.
Gresham and the interviewer are friends, this is clear from the onset. The two begin to reminisce. The interviewer speaks about the “Rise and Shine” climb in Switzerland, where the two played a game of rock-paper-scissors to decide who would be first to ascend a precarious 50ft ice wall. The interviewer, or “fat boy” as Gresham jokes, lost and whilst scaling the wall, a “huge chunk of ice broke away” narrowly missing his head.
Gresham speaks of his upbringing in London where he started climbing from a young age. There were limited facilities in his area but he found the sport enjoyable and his Dad (also an avid climber) helped endorse this by taking him on trips out to rock walls in the countryside. His Dad stopped climbing when he slipped on a “jaw stone” in South Devon and unfortunately, lost all his confidence. This left Gresham grounded in London until a friend, Hamish, who owned a car registered an interest in climbing. The two tried to get time off from school, but failed.
“Care to discuss the tower incident then Neil?” Gresham laughs cautiously. “I really, really wanted to climb it.” Gresham asked the bursar at Hamilton School where he studied if he could climb the South West tower. The bursar replied “over my dead body”. Gresham however took this in his stride and with the help of his aforementioned friend, broke through the fire escape and onto the roof, setting the fire alarm off in the process. The whole school was evacuated. The principal shouted from the ground “Gresham come down”, which he did; just not as intended. “I abseiled”.
It may seem a bit cliche, but Gresham was clearly a troublemaker in his youth. His seemingly endless supply of anecdotes are as bewildering as they are enjoyable to listen too, and his stage presence enhances this. We delve further into his past as he speaks of his time at Sheffield University where he studied Geography, and met his friend and former mentor Matthew Smith.
Smith set up a campus board in the basement in their student house. “It was made out of grubby boards of wood”. The board comprised of horizontal rails of wood attached to an included board, and every night Smith and Gresham would “plunge” between the wooden runs to build up their strength.
Smith seems like an eclectic character. Gresham speaks of his training regime, which he found printed on a piece of paper one night. Listed was an activity called “testosterone rest”. “It was supposedly part of some intense soviet regime Matt had researched online”. Gresham pauses. “Later we discovered it was more along the lines of being intimate to yourself”. The audience roars with laughter.
Gresham starts to drift away from his personal life after he hear the sad story of his talented girlfriend Rachael who slipped and fell to her death on a climb out in Southern France. “She was studying medicine at Sheffield at the time and had a bright future ahead of her”. He found the whole experience incredulous, and it had a dramatic impact on his general wellbeing. He stopped climbing for almost a year and moved to North Wales where he secured a job at an outdoor clothing and equipment store.
Neil Gresham is also one of the original pioneers of Deep Water Solo.
Picture courtesy of David Pickford