Three or four years ago I found a really good boulder in the Vicdessos valley, near the popular and developed area of Laramade. I was very surprised no one had found it before, being about 45 degree overhanging some evidence of cleaning or chalk would have been visible, but nothing showed any sign of having been climbed on.
Initially the wall seemed very hard. I spent about a year with the occasional visits spent trying moving and envisaging the lines. After a couple of forays up the far left and far right of the face at about 6c /7a ish I decided the original line I was trying was too hard, it was not an eliminate but it did not necessarily follow the easiest line. Two years ago, I started to understand that climbing the easiest line was also in fact quite hard.
I feel very ambivalent about climbing this problem. I expected a far greater sense of joy. I think that having a long term project over a period when so much has happened and changed; deaths, marriage, births, global pandemic and Brexit. That it is what it is and that is not much at all. I thought I was having an existential crisis, but I think in reality my reaction is actually in proportion.
Since that time things have inevitably changed. Currently there are people practising bouldering as an art form consciously and often less consciously that is still a fact. Yet a much higher percentage of boulderers are now participating in a sport and maintaining the growing fashion of calling themselves athletes.
What is the situation right now? It depends on how and from what point you look of course. However if we ask this question and our research is a scan of current trends and media coverage, on the internet and social media platforms then the answer is that it is definitely a sport. In actuality you would be hard pressed to find much evidence suggesting otherwise.
The problem that is emerging here as I see it is that the sport that is being practised is largely derived from the art. This is a one sided relationship and I think it is fair to claim that the sport doesn’t add much to the art. What does art give the sport then? Namely creativity, opening new boulder problems outside being the primary example. Secondly indoors the contribution is both problem setting on walls and in the problem solving from the climbers. It is the creativity that ties these acts together, it is the creativity that nurtures the sport. If however there is no support or recognition of the role of creativity in this practice/activity/sport, then what will happen?
Route or bloc setters, I would hazard a guess have all climbed outside and have bouldered at places like Fontainebleau, Magic Wood,Rocklands, Bishop to name a few top class venues.. The knowledge they gained from this experience they then bring inside into the climbing walls and gyms and into the creation of the problems/blocs. What will happen when these bloc setters retire, give up. Problems will then be set by a younger generation who have climbed extensively or predominantly inside. Their knowledge of movement, their creative understanding of what a bloc can be and how their body fits with that bloc will be derived from an increasingly narrow field. Ultimately this will undo the sport, making it increasingly anodyne and boring, well at least for those people that understand bouldering as art, or even the people who have a flickering remembrance of an experience that constituted more than a blob to blob hop skip and jump.
It is this kind of imbalance in the media of representations of bouldering that I have tried to address in my Phd and through the occasional foray into the world of digital platforms and publishing.
Initially I had thought I could publish it, then I moved to France, started a family and lost interest in all things academic. Tentatively I began re thinking this position and thought after the OLympics and the steepening curve of athletic terminology creeping into the climbing world. Plus what I began to see as an existential crisis developing in the climbing world. I thought it was time to stick it on the web. This blog post is also a small step in that direction too.
Climbing, skateboarding and surfing are this year all included in the Olympics. I can’t say this fact particularly excites me. In fact I felt distinctly underwhelmed. So I had a chat this morning with my boyhood self and asked him what he thought.
He said he started skateboarding in the late 1970’s. At this time skateboarding was rebellious, adults and the police hated it. In a village out of town an older lad had built a halfpipe, he also had a pyramid in the back garden. Like William Burroughs orgone accumulator described in Kerouac’s On the Road.
I can’t remember where they came from but American skateboard mags were the source of all available imagery and cool, one word Dogtown said it all. My boyhood self said that he doubted if watching the olympics on television would inspire him, why would it, skateboarding was counter culture, not the Olympics.
The boy also started climbing, a few years later in the beginning of the 1980’s. It was a slow burn process and in those days entirely typical, starting with hill walking, gritstone, old school brick climbing walls and rubbish equipment. Weekends away dossing in old buildings and caves. Then a few years of teenage independence, adult free, poor diet, near misses, but complete unadulterated fun and freedom, with a dash of the anti social. Would my young self, after watching a bunch of dreary miserable (mainly) athletes (clones), do sport, BLOC (bouldering) and speed, want to start climbing. NO he screams it looks shit and no fun at all, even less fun than skateboarding and they have to wear a sports kit!
A bit older, he started surfing. Skateboard skills helped, the dossing skills acquired in climbing helped. Surf trips demanded intense action followed by complete action. I never ever thought surfing was a sport, I never thought I was an athlete. In the UK it was a complete minority activity. It kept me going decades well into middle age, until it hit mainstream and finding uncrowded surf spots became increasingly difficult. Would he start surfing now after watching the less than perfect Olympic surf in Japan, no he says.
If however I could show my younger self, an uncrowded point break, a cluster of boulders hidden in the mountain forests or one of the perfect skateparks that are all over the place now, then I think I could persuade him to give it a go. I would tell him that none of these things are a sport, they are more than that. A form of creative communication with the physical, bodily world. Something that is entirely lost in their current manifestation in the 2012 Olympic Games.
Edit. I thought to myself, of course this all the sour, bitter moanings of an old git. Which of course it is, but I do really think that climbing, skating and surfing will lose out as an emphasis in media and representation pulls them into mainstream commercially packaged contexts known as sport. What will they lose? Art, creativity, exploration of the exterior and interior world, real community as opposed to social media platform (non)community. Of course there are plenty of men and women, boys and girls who transcend these boundaries and float between the oppositions of art and sport, I just hope they can find their voices to speak out above the olympic bubble and the corporate push and the social media pull.
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