boulder being

I’m often moved to question what bouldering is all about and what it means.

So much of my time is spent bouldering in isolation. This is when the intensity and focus becomes greatest, yet it can also makes me question why I’m engaged in such a solitary pursuit.

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Bowling Alley, Godrevy, Photo by Rowan Spear -Bulmer. 2015.

As I move away from the social, finding myself deep in the black and gloomy ‘bowling alley’ at Godrevy, I’ve thought… I’m done with this place. Two months ago I did what I genuinely thought was the culmination of my interest. I’d added a couple of moves to To LTP left and thought that was that, nothing harder to do. I called the problem madeleine eats cake, But as I hit the finish jug, there was little elation, I felt empty, I’d expected more, both from the problem and my response. On this occasion I didn’t walk away and drink chanpange and rest on my laurels…I shifted my mat two feet to the right and started work on Dave Biggs LTP traverse. The Passage of Time.

I have such an intense love hate relationship with this place. The approach when the tide is in, is down a steep path to the flat rock platform above the trench or alley. It’s a perfect spot to survey the problems before climbing down to the bouldering. I then find myself in a narrow corridor of rock, the problems on the overhanging black face, in front of me and the stepped descent behind me. After spending time down here it’s a relief to climb up the steps and regain a vista and a sense of perspective. This perspective is also accompanied by a powerful sense of nostalgia and recognition of time passing. The original and somewhat pretentious names* that I gave these boulder problems now kind of mock me with a retrospective prescience as I fail to walk away, as I fail on a problem, or in this case start working a new problem.

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Looking down into the Bowling Alley, Godrevy, Photo by Rowan Spear -Bulmer. 2015.

I breathe deeply and smile inwardly, this problem felt hard, I was happy again, as this became a project for the next couple of months or so.

It is the process and the journey that’s so engaging, the result  basically so profoundly uninteresting, only mattering at the cutting edge of bouldering, the sport. For me, my passion swings between ebbs and highs and some-days as I sit at home and wonder where or what to do, a gloom transcends over me, the black dog hovers over my shoulder…yet the ‘boulder being’ takes over, it’s a place where I can be and even in the gloom of a cloudy and damp day, with the rock oozing moisture and a damp sea fret pushing in off a sea that rises fast with an oncoming tide. I flap and brush and curse at the rock, yet in a small and intense way I am happy. Nothing much comes of sessions such as this, at least not in any easily quantifiable way, yet it reinforces a connection to the material world that matters to me.

I drive home and the loneliness surfaces again, I want to drive and drive until I can think no more.

This kind of thinking has got me once again into the position of considering the nature of a bouldering philosophy. I’ve completed a PhD and I find a publisher that is interested in my solipsistic musings on the nature of this activity. I’ve declared that I will write a book, he says ‘great’, I say ‘great’, I say I will write it in the autumn.

* Le temps passe

So solitude takes us so far then the search for the meaning takes us back into the realms of the social. In this case this was the best I found after a search for bouldering philosophy on the internet. There’s not a lot of reflective thought and writing on bouldering and philosophy, at least not much stretching established conventions. Understandably the Bleausards have a good go, the second video has some nice stuff and the first is the legend, John Gill laying down some thoughts.

madeleine eats cake

I’ve written a few times about this project specifically here between-the-see-er-and-the-visible/

I got back from the States and had a good run of getting up things, the sticking point of failure and nerves seemed to have disappeared. I’d done AWOL 7C at Tintagel the week before and on the 28th May, I turned up with little expectation in the Bowling Alley at Godrevy. It was dry and breezy, I warmed up and three goes later I’d done my project. It’s fair to say the first move is pretty hard, on small and sharp holds. Grade wise I’m struggling, it’s not an eliminate, it starts on the lowest crimps, climbs into and finishes as LTP left. I wanted it to be 8A, maybe it is, time will tell.

I finished the problem in the obvious and regular way on the large jug/ledge. It is possible to finish higher as in the video in the older post. It would add a bit grade wise, but is maybe a bit contrived. So I’m settling with this version.

It’s hard to rationalise a grade, in comparison it’s harder than AWOL. The first  move is the crux and as a singular move I think it’s harder than any move on Burnt Toast 7C+ and Blacking Out The Friction 7C and Dave Biggs’s  LTP traverse 7C+ also at Godrevy. I’ve recently been in North Wales and did Diesel Power in 2/3 overlapping sections, again as a move it’s harder than anything on Diesel Power. A few years ago I did Guy Fawkes 8A at Portland, which I think has dropped to 7C+ in the new Portland guide, (at least it has on the UKC logbook), Madeleine is quite a bit harder than this problem. So all in all, with my limited experience and the fact that the problem is my favored style and strength, I am optimistic it’s hard enough to be in the region of 7C+/8A .

Madeleine Eats Cake from andy whall on Vimeo.

between the see-er and the visible

Early January. What does it mean to have a project?

I want to call this a curve of possibility. This experience occurred on the project I was on today as I added a move to what was already an existing problem.

‘I really don’t know if I can do it. So much seems to go against me, today I rolled some skin on my tip, just arranging my fingers on the right hold, and I hadn’t even pulled on. Below is a clip, this proves I can do this move. I look at this clip to prove to myself that I can. Yet in all the tries I’ve only ever done this move once. Conditions need to be good; this is rare, skin needs to be good, the crimps are small, very small. The sand levels change, this is a big issue, as the move from the ground feels a bit different every time. But these are all excuses; it is possible, yet time and motivation ebb away. I ask myself why I’m not more psyched, extracting energy seems impossible, maybe its my diet, my weight, my mind, maybe it’s the abstinence from wine or maybe it’s the…’

I want this process to tip into the possible; ‘I want this problem to be  8A’. The holds are horrible and small, the moves long to more small holds, then to slightly bigger small holds then it all ends and doesn’t even top out. What a strange thing to be doing.

A session later. I have done the move, once more, yet it still seems still like a long way to go to actually doing the problem.

Climbing down into the ‘bowling alley’, the personal history of the place strikes me. I’ve been coming down here for years and this current project is the culmination of all that time. The LTP, Le Temp Passé, seemed a pretentious name at the time, now its seems prescient. At the time of climbing LTP (2002) I was adding a lower start to the existing and prosaically named ‘crimp problem’ this used to be 6c in old money (UK tech grade), so I guess about 7A  (FA of this problem is unknown). My addition was to start in the triangular pocket and move left onto the crimps of the original problem; I gave this V8 at the time, which fits with a current consensus of 7B. Last year I started this problem a little to the left, doing a move before putting my right foot up onto the triangular pocket, this avoids the pocket as starting handhold, which is good because its often wet. It also seemed like an independent line as it starts further left and goes straight up the wall finishing high. I called this ‘Madeleine’ and gave it 7B+, though it might be harder, possibly 7C. This then opened up starting a hold lower and moving into Madeleine. I’d only ever looked at this start as a fantasy; yet it became a reality in a shockingly fast manner. In January 2015, I pulled on and stayed on. If I could pull on, I should be able to move, it was a revelation. So this leaves me with a project that is now very possible, albeit one that destroys my skin and has holds so small it takes a real effort of will to try the thing.

From a phenomenological perspective Merleau-Ponty describes a moment such as the one described above as being:

between the see-er and the visible, between touching and touched, between one eye and the other, between hand and hand a kind of crossover occurs, when the spark of the sensing/sensible is lit, when the fire starts to burn that will not cease until some accident befalls the body, undoing what no accident would have sufficed to do…’[1]

 For me meanwhile I wait for the confluence of tide, wind and a feeling of lightness and desire.

[1] Maurice, Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind, Merleau-Ponty’s ‘Essays on Painting’, The Merleau-Ponty Aesthetics Reader, Ed, Galen A, Johnson, USA, North Western University, 1993, p.125.

projects and process

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project and lichen

Today I went out and had a bright and windy session on a new project, out on the north coast; I’d first checked this problem quite a few years ago. My memory though had played some tricks on me because on revisiting it a few months ago, it seemed very different. It was in fact much better than I could have imagined. It’s non-tidal, quick drying and very steep. Initially I’d been drawn to it for the compact rock in the upper wall, overhanging by about 25 degrees, few holds and long powerful moves. Today though, I realised the beauty of the bottom section which is a near horizontal roof. My core has been worked hard and in reality the problem may be far too hard, and I can’t even do a single move. But I did leave with a few ideas as to how to proceed. Also as is often the case with a new problem, half an eye was involved with figuring out where I would fall, if I would land on any of the boulders that surround the base, where the mats should go. All in all, it’s good, no problems with landings at all.

This session made me realise how much I love finding and working new problems. The evolution of what seems possible, revaluation as time passes with new visions and increases albeit small in strength. After a session trying one move and failing I’m happy. This is in stark contrast to my recent failures on the first move of Verdict in Font. I was failing there also on one move, but I was not enjoying it, I did enjoy it sometimes, on some of the sessions, but my last session I felt blocked. There was no joy or psyche, in the back of my mind I knew I was leaving without doing it, I was looking for excuses and in the end the injury list built to a degree that I knew it was over. Relief and a kind of depression filled me as I walked away for the last time and drove straight back to England.

Even though I had done all the other hard moves and worked out good beta for the first move, did it with what Jane described as a very small push from her, ‘one that wouldn’t have broken an egg, well almost’ she said. I could never in reality believe that I could do it; this was the problem, as well as accepting defeat. It made me feel a bit stupid, which further eroded the will and motivation. My desire to tick an 8A in Font was all I had and it wasn’t enough. Contrast this with a very surprising week in Magic Wood, with no real expectation; I was on my last day trying an 8A that I felt I had a really good chance on. I’d done the 7C version pretty quick, so was hyped and keen. I spent a day and night thinking of the problem, I was completely consumed. It didn’t happen of course, but I will be back.

It the consuming nature of a boulder project that interests me, this mainly comes from new problems rather than repeating existing problems. The quietness and back water nature of Cornwall gives me this privilege. It allows me the time to become consumed and absorbed in the process of projecting. The process can often become in itself the consuming characteristic of the activity. This also can only happen down here in Cornwall. Today I climbed alone as I often do. The ego and context generated by others is a far off idea, I’m alone to act and do as I wish, and the process is driven entirely by my relationship with the boulder and rock. There is competiveness within this I guess, the desire to keep these projects secret from the marauding folk from up country, to do it first. However I think that ‘to do it first’ is also the creative act that aligns bouldering with my art, makes it art in fact. I feel ownership of these projects, the project today comes from nowhere but me. Solipsistic I suppose, but the experience I had today feels very different from the experiences I was having in Font, bouldering with lots of people around. It’s got very busy there over the last five years or so. It feels like a climbing wall sometimes, which I don’t like; the bouldering becomes a social experience. This can be good of course, but bad for me in the way that I feel watched, that some kind of performance is taking place; stuff seems to detract from the purity and absorption of the movement and the relationship with boulder and process.

To make some reference to some theory…Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes that, ’we must avoid saying that our body is in space, or in time. It inhabits space and time’.[1] To establish this position ‘Merleau-Ponty relies on the Gestalt[2] discovery that one perceives one’s surroundings as requiring one to perform certain actions or as being appropriate for certain forms of behaviour’.[3] He describes this as the power to reckon with the possible.’[4] This is directly applicable to the scenario of boulderer and boulder in that the boulderer perceives the actual surroundings, the environment they are familiar with and together with learnt, practiced motor skills, acts in an appropriate way. The key element here and one that gives this response its creative potential is that the boulderer is not passively receiving data from the world, rather they invest their environment with a bodily significance.

On another note, my dog hated today. He got freaked by the exposure; he is more cowardly than me. He then spent the next two hours, shaking, nervously. He was so keen to leave he pulled me back to the van.

[1] H Gordon and T Shlomit, Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception: A Basis for Sharing the Earth, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004, p.161.

[2] Gestalt theory focuses on an existential/experiential approach that emphasises the individual’s experience in the present moment. Fritz and Laura Perls and Paul Goodman developed Gestalt therapy between 1940-1950.

[3] Komarine Romdenh-Romluc, Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Merleau-Ponty and Phenomenology of perception, 2011, Oxford, Routledge, p.101.

[4] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Phenomenology of Perception, 3rd edition, Oxford and New York, Routledge Classics, 2009, p. 127.

the eternal return…Godrevy and Nietzsche.

For Nietzsche active nihilism was the capacity to instill value, for to project meaning is the prime expression of the will to power, the sole underlying motive force of the world.

Malcolm Bull in Anti-Nietzsche says that for Nietzsche ‘this final form of nihilism is the point of transition, the moment of metamorphosis into a new comprehensive “yes” to the world.

The collapse of meaning and value is what Nietzsche in the Will to Power calls the ‘eternal return of the same’. He envisages the world as a ‘monster of energy, without beginning, without end…a sea of forces flowing and rushing together, eternally changing, eternally flooding back, with tremendous years of recurrence, with an ebb and a flood of its forms’.

The eternal return and the capacity of man to deal with it ‘is a measure of the degree of strength of will to what extent one can do without meaning in things’.

These ideas didn’t seem to be helping me yesterday as I spent several hours working on a low and defined start to a Dan Varian addition to a problem of mine at Godrevy. My state of mind swung between the hopeless and the mundane. What was I doing wasting my time, yet what else was there to do? I thought of another problem of mine at Godrevy, I named it le tempe passé, 7b+. Its well over a decade old and what was at the time a faintly pretentious name, now seems prescient as years later I’m still bouldering at Godrevy and still attempting to extract meaning from the experience.

The value that Nietzsche rubbishes could in this case be my desire to make a better start to Dan Varians problem; it could be my desire to claim back what was a long-term project for myself. It could be the attachment of times passage to this piece of rock and my relationship to it. I make a move, this is progress, now nothing matters, I can indeed do as Nietzsche suggests and do without meaning in things.

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I wasted too much time, months later and I have forgotten where the start hold is for the right foot.