Pariah

Rattling along the Pacific Coast of Canada, on the world famous Sea to Sky highway, in our blue Ford rental. The day before had been grey and murky but now it was clear and sunny, a stunning mountain vista surrounding us at every angle, and as we crested over the brow of a small rise, there it was. The magnificent Stawamus Chief.

We pulled up in the car park, in awe of the great monolith of rock beside us, craning our heads to look up at its invisible routes. We were psyched, here to climb, here to feel the famous Squamish granite take our fingerprints like a US border patrol guard, and giddy with excitement we went round to the back of the car, opened the “trunk” and pulled out our kit: three boudlering pads…

I bumped in to legendary Alpinist and Climb headliner Stu McAleese in Llanberis a few weeks before my 13 hour flight across the world, and mentioned where I was off to. “That’s awesome!” he said, “I’d love to see the photos when you get back!” Oh, I thought, I only really know Stu well enough to have a quick conversation on the High Street, he won’t know what I’m going there for, he won’t know I’m going to boulder!!! By this point it was too late; I would have had to chase him down the street, only to then explain I’m some sort of climbing equivalent to a lower form of species. And it does feel like that sometimes.

Probably the best example comes from a few months ago. Your stereotypical middle-aged trad climber came in the shop where I earn my keep, glancing through the books we have on offer. Sensing an opportunity to kill a bit of time talking to someone without doing any proper work, I wandered over and started a conversation. Within a couple of minutes, I mentioned Fontainebleau, my spiritual home. “Oh, you’re a boulderer?” he asked, and on confirmation from myself, promptly spun on his heels and walked out of the shop! You may not believe me but it really happened.

Believe it or not, things for us humble boulderers are better than they were when I started though. Nine years ago, I went to University, some would say destined for failure. In my first week I joined the climbing club and never looked back, at first juggling studies and going out, before practically sacking off my degree entirely and indulging in my passion on average six-days per week (in hindsight only continuing with Physics in order to live somewhere cool and get out in the hills on a student loan!). We had a bouldering wall on campus too: an old converted squash court once described as a “greasy sweat pit” that everyone else hated. But I loved it, and I set about creating my own problems, as hard as I could muster, creating the best gurns and power screams around.

On climbing trips with the club, I was always a bit of a fish out of water, getting scared on lead and on precarious belay ledges. Half of my ascents would end with an abrupt abseil and I always looked out of my depth. But put me on a boulder and the story changed: I was strong, confident and keen, happy to throw myself at a problem with gusto. I was a boulderer, pure and simple, just like the sport I loved and to the die hard traditionalists, this wasn’t right. Bouldering was something you did “to practice”, a comment that still sends a shiver down my spine to this day, normally when a passing child asks their parent what on earth i’m doing on such small bits of rock underneath the great Dinas Cromlech. Jeered and sneered at, I became a sort of one-man sub culture, a climbing pariah, the lowest of the low in every sense of the term.

And climbing (I say climbing here, not bouldering, as these days even I have become accustomed to making the distinction between these two forms of the same thing, much to my own dismay) has now become more mainstream; an activity that your man-in-the-street will understand when you run out of weather-speak conversation at a bus stop and he asks you where you’re going. Many will even confess to having “been climbing”, albeit at a local wall, and some may even have enjoyed the bouldering wall on offer there. But that’s not the real thing, it’s all about the ropes and the height and everyone knows it. Well, apart from the likes of me…

I took six flights on my Canadian trip, as well as negotiating London’s Tube and a couple of other trains back in Blighty. The first Air Canada stewardess (or rather woman-behind-counter at baggage check in) looked at me slightly confused as I tried to explain that the extra bag I wanted to check in wasn’t in fact a bag but instead a large foam pad or two stuffed inside one another. I wondered how many bemused Canadians would not quite understand why on earth I would want to try and transport such a behemoth piece of obscure equipment half way around the world. Thankfully, airport apathy extended to cover such intrusive questions, and I was left with one comment on collecting my bags in Vancouver from a man who looked at me and asked simply, “Going to Squamish?”

Ah, how nice it is not to have to try and explain: no, it’s not to sleep on. No, it’s not to sit on while I’m waiting to climb. No, I don’t carry it with me as I climb (strange as it may sound, I’ve actually had to try say this to someone before!). Yet at the same time, how I would love to try and express my passion, as so many other articles and books before me have done. Still, it doesn’t read as well as Harrer or Bonington does it: epics on boulder problems just don’t cut the mustard like two broken legs at the top of the Ogre in 1977, although to be honest, I’m not saying they should.

All that said, though, I’m probably either preaching to the converted or you’ll have stopped reading several paragraphs ago. Still, next time you walk past a boulderer and hear someone enquire as to what they’re up to, if you could not dismiss them, maybe offer an explanation, or even just refer to them as a climber for a change, I’d appreciate it. After all, it’s the small victories I really enjoy.

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