Becoming a boulderer…

Back in 2012 I got back from the Himalayas in need of a change. For the past however many years (all the years I’d been climbing) I’d been gearing up to go on an expedition and now that I’d been on one I returned feeling a little empty. There was no huge sense of satisfaction or completion, and certainly no desire to return. It felt like a time to go back to basics. After years of trad climbing, winter climbing, alpine climbing, then Himalayan mountaineering what I really wanted to do was to go bouldering…

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The best bit of the Himalayas: watching Predator at Base Camp
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The worst bit of the Himalayas: being around 600% sure I was going to die abseiling off a Bulldog hammered into a decomposing ridge…

I remember going to the Indy Climbing Wall shortly after and having my first session on resin after five weeks of sitting in a tent. I was pretty weak (which I was expecting), but what was funniest of all was the fact that my hands were so soft from wearing gloves I could barely climb for half an hour before my tips were tender. As such, it was a case of slow gains, but bit by bit I made some.

In and around this time there were a few other things going on in my life. The need for change wasn’t just in my climbing, it permeated virtually every other aspect of my life too. I began to take more regular trips over to the Peak District, staying with friends Tim and Emma (who’s spare room was affectionately know as ‘Rob’s Room’) and heading out on the Grit. It was nice to be somewhere a little different. Maybe it was something to do with having lived in North Wales for 10 years, maybe it was something about being in my mid to late 20’s, but I felt like there was something I needed to do, some other places I needed to go, things I needed to do, so I decided to see how spending a load of time in/around Sheffield would feel (and it felt good).

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The world’s worst boulderer in action

One aim I’d set myself around this time was to climb my first ‘up’ 7B. Being someone of a traddy disposition I’d always benefitted from problems that traversed sideways, because fundamentally they had a lot more in common with routes than with boulder problems (i.e. they’re not really boulder problems). Hence, I wanted this 7B to be a genuine boulder problem. Strangely the one I chose wasn’t the easiest, but it held everything that I was hoping for being both hard (for me), dynamic, subtle, and balancy. Sean’s Arete is – as you would expect – an arete too, which have since come to be one of my favourite styles of climbing – they’re never giveaways and more often than not as frustrating as they are rewarding. I think it took me two, maybe three sessions, then I did it, and ever since the winter season has come to mean something very different.

All of this is quite ironic of course, because only a few years previously I remember telling my best friend/long-term climbing buddy Alex Haslehurst that he was wasting his life by putting his efforts into bouldering. At the time I was at the height of my puritanical alpine/winter climbing phase and – in short – a bit of an arse. I looked upon bouldering as a shallow and soulless pursuit, lacking the depth and substance of the greater and clearly far more meaningful activities I was partaking in. Looking back on it I can only laugh, albeit in a slightly awkward way, as I really did believe it at the time (sorry Alex, hopefully you have the last laugh reading this). I can’t help but wonder what the person I was then would say to the person I am now. Maybe just a simple “you’ve changed”, but my response would be that it’s been for the better.

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Alex enduring yet another lap of Utopia Traverse, a problem I must have made him do around 100 times simply because it was the only one I could do. I think this was taken before the time I called him a simple minded fool for wasting his life bouldering, a sentiment I still can’t believe I actually vocalised – let alone thought!

My memory now goes a bit hazy as to what came next, other than eventually getting a job with the BMC and moving to Sheffield. This marked a bit of a change, because in North Wales – as a sweeping generalisation – I’d say that people have a more natural predisposition towards the trad. In Sheffield, people have a natural inclination to train, then maybe occasionally go bouldering or sport climbing. Embracing this shift in ideology, I got in/amongst it and started a program with Dave Mason. The idea behind the program was pretty simple: get strong. I’d always got by on fitness, (relatively) strong fingers, and good technique – strength was not my strong point.

Several winters went by where I’d focus on my training, often being down The Climbing Works twice in one day, then out as much as I could in between. There were times when it felt like torture, there were times when it felt easy, but pretty much for the whole time I had my eyes on the prize – get stronger. Now one thing I’ve come to learn is that to get stronger you initially have to get not only weaker but also quite a lot more tired. This took some getting used to. Whilst  ‘in season’ (i.e. when I also wanted to go bouldering) it was hard to come to terms with the fact I wasn’t always climbing at my top level. It’s a strange thing how most climbers expect a personal best every time they go out climbing, but I think we’re all guilty to some extend. Anyway, over those years I managed to climb a few problems that I’d known real boulderers (i.e. not me) speak of in high regard: West Side Story, Flatworld, Suavito, Brad Pit.

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Another pic from years gone by, this time at the infamous/famous ‘Hound of the Basket Meals’ van at Hound Tor. So much was my anathema to bouldering that I did Aerobic Wall – an amazing highball – with gear, probably making it around five grades harder as I dragged a Cam 5 up with me too.

Again, at this point my memory goes a little fuzzy and I can’t really remember what happens next. After the third year of training I decided to have a years break, not least because my brain felt a bit fried, but also because of a trip Penny and I were going on to Tasmania, and on the whole I wasn’t finding training that fun anymore (as good a reason to stop as any). I was basically just keen to head out climbing without too much of an agenda, grade, or discipline in mind. If I wanted to boulder, I’d boulder; if I wanted to sport climb, I’d sport climb; and if I wanted to trad climb…you get the picture… Then winter comes around, the Grit starts getting good, and here we are now – back in 2018 and into what I would describe as ‘bouldering mode’.

Despite not having done a great deal of specific training, last year was one of my best ever years climbing of my whole life. I’d managed to do a load of routes that I’d wanted to do for years and many more that I simply thought I’d never be able to. This winter has been no different – something had clicked – and it’s really difficult to put my finger on exactly what that is other than all of the above (hence writing about it). Gains are infrequently made overnight and I think mine essentially took six years to come to pass. The moment this all came to a head and I really realised something had changed was when I did Jerry’s Roof earlier this month. This was a problem I’d been lightyears off whilst living in Wales, but now felt doable. When I topped out I couldn’t stop laughing to myself. I’d done Jerry’s Roof! I could have almost cried…

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The look of a man who is never, ever going to climb Jerry’s Roof

To provide further context of what Jerry’s had meant to me, it was – I’m pretty sure – the first boulder problem I’d ever heard of. I remember heading up the pass Danny O’Neill and Drew Withey in 2004 (if I recall correctly) and stood underneath it aghast at the steepness. To provide some context of shitness, I failed on Brown’s Crack and The Ramp later that day. I guess doing it felt like a moment that had been in the making for 14 years and bold a claim though this might be ranks alongside the likes of El Cap and North Face of the Eiger, in terms of the elation I felt and the amount it meant to me. It’s a moment that I could recount before falling asleep and be guaranteed some sweet dreams.

So anyway, here we are in the present moment again and the inevitable question: what’s next?. Having recently read Mark Radkte’s autobiography ‘A Canvas of Rock’ there was a poignant quote in the foreword by Andy Cave, which seemed to ring true with the current state of affairs “dreams that come true lead to other dreams”. Once you do one thing you never believed possible, it opens the door to another, and another, and another. In light of that, where next? Well, I’ve always been one for mileage so my plan isn’t for any groundbreaking numbers, it’s more to continue doing what I’m doing, slow and steady, and see where I end up in another six years. This winter I’ve been training again, although not as obsessively as before, and I may even continue bouldering into the spring (something I’ve never done before). I’m sure that as the year goes on I’ll end up sport climbing, trad climbing, and so on, because that has always been the beauty of climbing for me. Whatever I end up doing, I think the guiding light of having fun is a good one and I guess I’ll finish on that.

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Maxi-bants whilst bouldering with Penny Pen Pen Pen Pen Pen, a woman who has to put up with more than your average quantity of shit, despite the fact I’m now a fully enlightened boulderer and generally light hearted and great to know kind of guy…

 

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  1. Wait: so is this whole life-change just one massive stare down between you and Alex; with you waiting [in vain] for him to say “Scottish Winter is the Holy Grail” or walk in to find him doing chin ups on a pair of Apex’s? Did you just blink first?

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