Let’s rewind the clock a little and make you feel a little old (or possibly confused if you’re not old); let’s go back to when i started climbing. To be more specific, we’re going to when i started to climb properly, on my own, projecting things so about 2003. Doesn’t sound like that long ago? Well, bear with me.
Let’s take a scenario, which may or may not have happened but is entirely plausible: i hear in the pub about a really nice boulder problem at the top end of my ability, over at, say, Thorn Crag that really grabs my attention. I know the crag fairly well, with it’s LONG trudge up the hill to the gritstone outcrops on the moor in the Forest of Bowland. In the pub, the slightly inebriated student waxes poetic about this little unsung gem, giving me as much beta as his mind can recollect, really getting my interest. Intrigued, i ask exactly where it is and get vague directions, which i either try to remember or write down on a napkin nicked from the bar.
A few days later, when the weather breaks, i drive myself over to Thorn Crag, park up and slog up the hill for what i vaguely remember to be about an hour and a half. Eventually, i get to the boulders and wander around for what seems like another hour and half, scrunched napkin clutched in my hand, soggy with sweat. I think i find the right boulder, have a look, and wonder how many pints my friend had managed before i got to him and how accurate the now-near-illegible napkin is.
I fail, struggling with the beta, not quite figuring it out and after a fair blast, sack it off and head back. Later that evening, i bump into my friend in the pub and tell him i wandered up there to try the Unnamed Problem. “Oh, did you start with your left hand on the arete?” A puzzled look is my response. “Oh i know what you’ve done, you want to be further to the left. You were on The Other Problem at V9.”
Now fast forward to the modern day and a similar situation. I sit at work browsing Facebook or Instagram or any other popular social media site. Suddenly a picture of a boulder problem grabs my attention – it looks good, my type of thing, my sort of grade. Chucking the name into Google, i quickly find out where it is, with an accurate GPS location on any one of a myriad of mapping apps.
A few days later, when the weather breaks, I drive myself over to this new crag, parking in exactly the right innocuous layby thanks to the satnav in my car. I make a short walk up the hill and go straight to the boulder problem of choice, matched exactly with the same photos i’d seen on social media previously.
I get started on my new project but struggle to get off the floor. Frustrated, i roll over on the pads and grab my phone. I load the Vimeo app, search for the problem and realise that my left foot is two inches out from the where it should be. While resting, i load YouTube to get a different perspective and find other videos of people doing it different ways.
I can’t quite get enough detail so i increase the quality of the video to High Definition. Still not quite sure, i look through my phone to see if i have the number of anyone who’s climbed it. No such luck but no problem: boot up Facebook Messenger, search through for the climber in the video and send a quick message. He’s replied before i even put the phone down. Soon enough, i’m sat on top.
Now, my little brain hasn’t quite caught up with all of this, and i get a bit confused as to how The Unknown Problem took me two sessions over two weeks and The Second Problem took less than one session. It’s obvious, having read the above, but easily overlooked considering the bewildering speed that this technology has developed.
I can now go and sit on a remote crag somewhere in the middle of the mountains and have better internet than i did on my University campus at the turn of the millennium. In my recent Milestones series, i did a piece on a climb at the Uni campus wall and tried, in vain, to find even one digital photo of me climbing around that time, let alone one of the problem in question. This week, i walked down the high street in my village and saw something quirky so reached into my pocket and snapped a picture. I’m not even that bothered about it, and will doubtless delete it soon enough.
If needed i could now video-call someone from Stanage, showing them how i’m climbing something and getting them to critique me. Meanwhile, i’ve got a film from 2007 and you can almost count the pixels across the screen (because i was forced to use a backup camera after the battery died on my expensive camcorder). Now, i’d just borrow someone else’s phone and e-mail myself the file.
And this is all in such a short amount of time. We get amazed when we look at pictures of computers in the 1960s and the size of the things but forget that the rate of change is still going up. in my second year, i spent an age drilling holes in ceilings to run cables from my computer to the ethernet switch that caused me nothing but trouble. Now i can get WiFi in McDonalds.
Maybe it’s because we don’t really realise how much it’s changed that we don’t realise how much it’s affected us; more over, how much it’s affected the parts of life that are less direct. Yes, it seems obvious that things have changed hugely when you get live text updates about the football match compared to years back when you’d have to boot up Ceefax to just get the score but has it really affected the more subtle things?
Technology has always been changing climbing but the foremost thought when you say that is the equipment we use: technical friends, lightweight crampons, better bouldering pads, that sort of thing. The truth is that all of the equipment pales in significance compared to that little “phone” in your pocket. And that can be a greater influence than any other sport-specific leap forward we’ve ever experienced.