I want to describe and represent a visceral recollection of a bouldering session. I’ve been in N wales for a few days and recalling a session yesterday as I sit in my van after a long night’s sleep and write. I’m reading William Finnegan’s ‘Barbarian Days a Surfing Life’ which is most likely one of the best and articulate surf biographies ever written. He describes with accurate and restrained words the experience of surfing waves and a life lived to surf waves. In one LSD inspired moment the power is extraordinary and ultra communicative. Although having also surfed large waves I find just one bodily dimension missing, the ultra physiological pressure of the extreme. Finnegans words convey richness and the richness layers itself upon its own richness, a feast for sure.
My body hurts, a few months ago I pulled an intercostal muscle snowboarding. Bouldering of course prevents healing, yet still I keep on. My right thigh muscle is sore and my fingertips are sore. The session yesterday at the Rhiw Goch Boulders, near Betws y Coed, resides in my body through a series of micro tissue and tendon damage, the purple patch on my left middle finger, bruising from a sharp hold, acts as a visual reminder of the bouldering.
Session one. Recollect and remember…’I lay on my bouldering mat and watched the sun and shadows on the boulders southerly aspect, overhanging, 30 degree face. I ring a friend, we talk about difficulties in our lives, and I’m not sure why I have done this at this point in time, to distract myself maybe. To get away from the…it doesn’t really work, equilibrium is lost…again…It seems unfair…this is my time this is supposed to be me, my essence…the boulder being.
Does it go, can I do the moves? Yes I can. I clean a hold, the sun has passed across the face, I go shirtless and I tell myself I’m strong (I’m not, at least not on this day). I pull on, left hand on a sharp and slightly shattered layaway (sideways hold) and my right hand on the jug, I breathe and stay still, my left foot on a small dink. From this position of tension I lift my right foot and place my heel by my right hand. I pull with my right heel adding more tension, shifting the frames of tension ever so slightly upwards. Using my heel Like this is a technique I’ve had to learn, part of the lexicon of modern compression bouldering, I used to see a heel as a hook, something to hang from and not as I’m doing now, using it to pull, generating tension and movement. It’s getting good, I’m in the moment, the dribbling preoccupation I described in the past paragraph has receded and I’ve got the intensity I crave.
It’s easier to push myself now, I pop my right hand to a small sharp triangular crimp, to get this I had to release the tension and momentarily de-weight, become weightless as I dead-point to the crimp. The body does of course start to fall ground-ward (but it doesn’t feel this way). In reality I have contracted all my muscles, creating a kind of surge to compensate for taking my right hand from the jug and moving/snatching for the crimp. The tension becomes conscious again as I move my left foot six inches or so to a higher dink. I have to mark these footholds with small chalk marks, or else they become invisible during the eye popping, eye watering straining I’m enduring. I pull and contract again and throw my right hand far out left somewhere over my left shoulder. I catch the hold momentarily but my heel loses contact from the jug and I spin and helicopter, twisting outwards as the tension releases. This was a better effort than I had expected. I tell myself I could have held on. I’ve done the crux I tell myself. I can do this problem. What I didn’t know, but which I now know after my second session is that I had got the beta wrong for this particular move, more of that later though.
This kind of activity draws me inwards, focuses me in an unconscious manner on the macro. I notice the sun passing across the face of the boulder and I feel the sun on my back. I make a kind of impromptu sundial, crucial because the holds are too small and hurt too much if the sun is on them. Because the skin oozes moisture, the friction between skin and rock becomes poor and it all becomes hopeless. My patience is tested though as I wait, again this is why I got distracted and phoned a friend as I described before. As I wait, I clean the holds, file loose shreds of skin from my finger tips, drink water, urinate, wave a towel at the rock, fanning and willing it to become cooler, I feel happy, I feel depressed, I look at my phone, I eat half a banana. I try the problem, still in the sun, my fingers hurt, I get nowhere, and I’m an idiot. Desire, romance, the unconscious and the rational play themselves out, using me as their tool, a body a ‘boulder being’ as unable to control events as the small hold is unable to affect the passage of the sun across the face, oblivious to the forces of meteorology and planetary movement that are marking the rock with non sentient intention.
The tired middle-aged man in his van is not an athlete of clock, chart, spreadsheet or nutrition. He lacks a coach, mentor and confidant. Yet he may well be an athlete in the classical sense as his mind and body collaborate in a journey that is always continuous and always of beauty and improbability.
The Rhiw Goch boulders are a recently developed sector, post the 2004 guide. The problems range from 7A to 8A+. In reality the area comprises of two massive blocks fallen from the cliff above, intact in their sculptural form. The fault lines within the rock have encouraged the block to split in two. I’m interested in the front one of the two blocks leaning at an angle of 50 degrees away from its partner. The steep face is in two sections, split by a vertical crack and corner. The right side of the face is the one that contains Nazguls Traverse. The bounding right arête of the block is undercut and leans slightly rightward, creating a slightly crazy, visually confusing and deceiving set of angles (steeper than it looks). The base of the boulder is a bit boggy. But flat rocks placed by other boulderers have made the base quite amenable. A flat sloping shelf of rock faces the boulder; here is all my stuff, wellies, and socks. Three pairs of climbing shoes, chalk bag, a brush, finger tape, nail clippers, sanding pad for my skin and flappers, bananas, water, towel for drying shoes, hold drying and general flapping. I have three bouldering mats and a brush on a telescopic pole, plus a tarpaulin for the wet ground. I also have the clothes I stand in, plus a down jacket to keep warm whilst resting. I have a guidebook in the van and I’ve watched three videos online this morning for beta.
I’m well equipped, if not prepared. The preparation is all the stuff that swirls around in my head and that’s the crux of it. I imagine myself looking on, as an onlooker. I must appear as my Jack Russell appears to me as I watch him on a long lead tied to small tree, as he pulls one way then the other. He was here at this spot on my last trip, sniffing and digging in one corner under a rock, then stopping, looking around, completely distracted and unfocused. Something unknown to me gets his attention and then he’s off again, this time snuffling and yelping with excitement. This on-of-on attitude matched my action and inaction, my shouts of frustration and self-encouragement and sulking.
Further macro thoughts…I peer closely at the crux hold, the crimp, maybe I’m wondering if visually something will be revealed that I’ve missed. My touch though has surely told me all there is to know. The two senses have corroborated and tell me the hold is small, looks lighter in colour than the surrounding rock, maybe bleached by the constant presence of chalk and brushing. It’s overhanging enough that it would rarely if ever get washed by rain, maybe the sun gives it the sandy look, maybe I register this, because I know I shouldn’t even be trying this move whilst the sun is on the rock. The hold angles down to the right, the surface that I reach for, fits three fingers comfortably, the little finger struggles to stay put, depth wise it’s half a pad, less than a cm I guess, deep. It’s also slightly crenelated, this causes an uneven compression of the skin, which is why it can start to hurt so much. My thumb drops of to the left of the edge getting some purchase as a kind of pinch. This is all what happens when I catch it open handed (open grip). Alternatively and this is what I do in reality and anger is that I crimp it. This means pulling on the hold till my fingers are bent, knuckles squashed and pointing upwards, my thumb then falls across the top of my forefinger. This grip is more solid, more powerful, and also more injurious and as I said hurts more. But it gives more power to lock and make the next move. I’ve been trying this move and getting nowhere, unable to pull hard, the sun makes the hold greasy, my skin hurts, blood is oozing from a split on the top of my forefinger, where the skin joins the nail, the force has disfigured and eventually split the cuticle. A sure sign that I’ve put the effort in, although not one that I welcome.
From this description the reader might think that this all about fingers and finger strength. Indeed it is primarily, this is vital but the rest of the body apparently dragging along behind believes otherwise. It always seems easier to think about the extremities, hands, fingers and feet, the core tends to act intuitively, and it also acts from habit. Sometimes these habits need to be unlearned, unpacked, this can often be the key to unlocking a problem. Yet this is also the hardest aspect to self analyse, awareness comes with difficulty. Often the last factor to be addressed is the head, capable of being the key to the problem and also the problem to the boulder (problem’). By this I mean emotion and in the case of this boulder problem its physical, physiological position. The gaze or look is the physical manifestation of this process. I look at the holds and what else, why do I notice that cobweb and that rust coloured patch of lichen, is this good focus or distraction, I’ll never really know.
Second session. I had high hopes today, at the end of the last session although tired I had sorted out a vital section of the sequence. Instead of keeping my heel on as I popped from the high left hand crimp, I turned it into a toe, so heel became toe. I tried this as an afterthought; yet it worked and I’d done the move first go. So I was confident I could get it done on this day. The weather was bright and breezy. I sat out the morning, hoping my stiff and tired body would respond to the rest and ibuprofen. Mid afternoon I drove out of the Pass and into the landscape in the easterly lee of Snowdon, the cloud cover increased and the wind dropped, it didn’t look good. I was still optimistic though and even as I walked up the hill through the bracken, midges biting my arms, the humidity and overcast sky should have made me turn round.
I didn’t though…I pulled on…my first go…felt cheated, it was horrible and greasy, moisture pricked through my thin skin. I felt dejected and depressed…I’d wanted to move on, get this problem done. Now I had that familiar feeling that this might become a siege, would I even get it done before I had to leave in a weeks time, would the weather crap out? My head was filled with doubt and negativity.
For something to do and address what I thought might be holding me back I had a go at the final move. I’d had a stab at it, decided it would be ok when I got to do it in anger so to speak. But deep down maybe this was holding me back. Basically after sticking the final roll over crimp, you get your feet high and then make a long throw sideways for a good but sharp hold. At this point both feet cut loose and the swing has to be held, it’s a violent and slightly intimidating move. I gave it some focus and did it second go, so not so bad really…I topped out for good measure. So although a disappointing session I did leave feeling that I have now prepared for a send, everything is in place…hopefully.
Third session, video shows below that there was no send. Watching the edit, I see a jerky, unrelaxed climber. No joy, just ‘the pangs’. But as Samuel Beckett said;
‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’