For reasons long and convoluted that i won’t get into, i’ve been reading a bit more lately, and me being a boulderer, have been reading books and articles relating to that. The thing is, i keep reading this phrase: “Bouldering is the simplest and purest form of climbing”.

It’s true, i won’t doubt that but it does get a little more complicated than that. “All you need is shoes and the rock” people say but is that right? I mean, really? “Oh, and maybe some chalk to keep your hands dry…” And so it begins…

Let’s imagine a scenario: you’re in the pub, in Sheffield, or Llanberis, or wherever, and you bump into a bunch of boulderers. They may be easy to spot (no pun intended) with their t-shirts over their hoodies, their beanie hats and chalk plastered thighs, possibly a guidebook on the table or a pad propped up in the corner. You wander over, just to have a bit of a chat, see what they’ve been up to and on finding they fit into what i sometimes feel is seen as the “lowest form of climber”, you start asking why they enjoy it so much. Chances are that phrase will appear somewhere within the first 30 seconds. That said, it may well be followed by something like this:

“Yeah, it’s amazing! Just you and the rock!” says one enthusiastic young wad

“And your chalk bag, Steve” pipes up another

“Oh, yeah, and your chalk bag, of course. Not to mention your shoes…”

[insert long and convoluted conversation on the merits of different types of shoe rubber]

Steve brings the conversation back after something that more often than not reminds you of stereotypical men discussing having seen the 4:27 from Walmington back in 1978. “So anyway, it’s simple – just you, your shoes and your chalk!”

“And your pad, Steve, don’t forget your pad”

“Well, two really, Steve, if you’re at the Cave!”

Suddenly you’re reminded of a scene in a Monty Python film about what the Romans ever did for us.

It continues, this purest and simplest form, with guidebooks, another chalk bag known as a boulder bucket, a stickbrush, some finger tape, maybe some hand warmers and a spare hat, not to mention something to carry all of this around! Another pair of shoes, some more chalk, a larger selection of brushes of differing stiffnesses for crimps, slopers, pockets, it goes on. The use of helmets is now being advocated more and more (with good reason, too, as highballs become higher) so throw one of them in too, and for those excessively keen and willing to fly in the face of the forums, a knee pad. Actually, make that two.

For those that don’t believe me, let me tell you this: that little list of gadgets, gizmos and oddments was rattled off the top of my head by thinking about what’s in MY bag! And i’m not into photography, as if i was, i’d have to add a camera, maybe a tripod and possibly a change of clothes to accommodate for different colours in different lighting conditions…

You see, it can be simple; a pure and true test of your abilities, no doubt, but only in so much as soloing is to trad climbing. To reduce this wonderful form of climbing to a mere sentence just doesn’t do it justice, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Bouldering isn’t about minimalism for most (i’m sure i take more stuff with me to a roadside boulder as i saw Alex Honnold take up his three big wall climbs in Yosemite) it’s about what you do when you’re on the rock. It’s about the mentality of the man on the face, what he’s aspiring to and how he’s willing to go about it. A friend of mine said that a bouldering session consisted of 20% climbing and 80% sat around and i’d be tempted to agree with him, but only if i got my behind in gear and did a bit more when i was there… It’s not derogatory, it’s the way it is when you’re busting a gut to hold onto the smallest holds possible for a very short amount of time.

Occasionally i do some coaching too, every now and again, informally and for free for friends, and often say to people “if you’re not falling off, you’re not trying hard enough”. That’s what bouldering is all about, concentrating on the rock, the moves, the limit of your capabilities. I know what the phrase means, and in essence it is true, but it takes the edge away from the real purpose of pulling on pebbles till your eyes pop out. ]

So by all means, go out and climb with nothing but you and the rock; simplifying things as much as you can. Or don’t, and take five pads, three chalk bags and a dozen pairs of shoes for a ten-foot traverse, it makes no odds. Just get out, get the blinkers on and get on something hard: that’s the real essence of bouldering.

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