Bouldering isn't really a sport
I hate the drivers’ side door handle of my old car. To open it requires no small degree of effort. So when I stood beside my car unsuccessfully trying to open the door with fingers that barely functioned after my first night of bouldering, I thought I would never get home. The fight with my car door became my twice-weekly struggle as I slowly but surely became hooked on bouldering; a technical, freestyle form of rock climbing, focussed on short climbs.
“Bouldering isn’t really a sport. It’s a climbing activity with metaphysical, mystical, and philosophical overtones” — John Gill
I'd spent the better part of the last two years looking for people interested in climbing, without success. As luck would have it, I met and became great friends with some people from university who I later found out were into climbing. With a critical mass of hibernating climbers and new friends keen to give it a go, we decided, while hiking in the Blue Mountains one weekend, that we would start climbing at a gym. I was more interested in bouldering than rock climbing. Bouldering didn’t require all the expensive gear that climbing did, and as a bonus, it could be done alone; there was no need to have a climbing partner present all the time. Bouldering was also something a little different than straight up climbing with a rope, a different challenge, a new way to use my body and engage my mind. The fact that it meant not going very far off the ground was also appealing, I must admit.
The climbing gym
Caught in-between the two busy industrial Sydney suburbs, Climb Fit, and the people it attracts, seem out of place amongst the weed-infested concrete, endless car yards and warehouses. Trucks roll through the streets constantly and my tiny Volkswagen Golf feels out of place in the industrial estate. Forklifts rush around like worker ants moving products in and out of warehouses. Tucked away down a long, wide driveway and nestled in between a number of warehouses, the slower pace, mingling people and uplifting music emanating from Climb Fit provide a stark contrast to the giants of industry that surround it. Climb Fit have reclaimed the warehouse as a space for people. The walls of the old office have been removed and turned into a reception with a kiosk near the door. Plenty of tables and chairs are spread around on the old polished blue concrete floor encouraging people to sit and chat.
The cavernous opening of an old ground level loading dock on the far left of the building is covered with the same type of netting put up behind goal posts on football fields, allowing fresh air to flow in and the pungent smell of sweat, feet and chalk to escape. Ropes hang from pulleys on the ceiling like vines in a jungle and all external walls but one feature countless plastic climbing holds in all different colours to represent different degrees of difficulty. The floor is squishy light blue foam that gives a little under each step. To the right, there is an industrial looking metal staircase leading up to two different mezzanine levels, one contains the gym with its treadmills, weights and stationary bikes and at the other end of the stairs, the bouldering walls and mats.
A history of bouldering
Bouldering is a variation of rock climbing that also combines elements of gymnastics and chess. That sounds like a mistake, but strategy and problem solving play a large part in bouldering. Bouldering differs from traditional rock climbing most noticeably by its lack of use of a rope and harness for protection and by the short duration and height of its climbs; most boulder problems last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, but typically no longer. This is in contrast to the hours or days it takes to scale big cliffs. Bouldering demands specific things from a body. The ability to perform powerful but delicate moves while maintaining grip on the rock, combined with flexibility and control become extremely important.
A good history of bouldering can be found in Jon Krakauer’s collection of essays and articles titled Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains. The chapter titled, “Gill” tells the story. John Gill is credited with the creation of bouldering in the early 1950s. Mountain climbers had been climbing boulders long before the 1950s for training, but Gill is credited with turning bouldering from a training exercise into an end worth pursuing in itself. Gill is a legend of the climbing community; he has joined the ranks of famous Himalayan mountaineers and big wall climbers despite never really ascending more than 30 feet off the ground. Gill saw bouldering as a kind of free-form gymnastics. He began to apply the scientific training regime, the mental discipline and the chalk for enhanced grip, to push the boundaries of climbing. Bouldering was also somewhat of a spiritual, or meaning-centred venture for Gill. He wanted to see where climbing could take him, beyond heights (something that I would come to identify with through the process of my fieldwork and learning to boulder.) In his own words, Gill admits, “Bouldering isn’t really a sport. It’s a climbing activity with metaphysical, mystical, and philosophical overtones” (Krakauer, 2009, p. 16). I tend to agree with him.
Form versus function
According to Gill, the real pleasure of bouldering lies in the doing not so much as in attaining the goal. “The boulderer is concerned with form almost as much as with success” (Krakauer, 2009, p. 16) Style is important. This sentiment was echoed by a number of boulderers at Climb Fit. “Bouldering should be graceful,” they said, “Solving a problem with full control over your body is better than just getting to the top as quickly as possible with brute force.” I noticed group respect tended to gravitate towards those who appeared humble, quiet and withdrawn in their bouldering. Loudmouths and attention seekers found little acceptance in the bouldering community.
From my candid conversations with a number of different climbers at the gym they all had different takes on what made a successful boulderer. Some believed that successfully climbing grades above 4A and 4B (the half way point of the grade scale) was all about body positioning and control, while others emphasised grip strength and endurance as the key to solving these problems, yet others almost dismissed the body altogether in their explanations, as I overheard more than a few people exclaim after falling, “It’s all in your mind, man!”
Bouldering as problem solving
The importance of pattern recognition is one of the first things I observed about bouldering. It took me a little while to be able ‘read’ the wall and interpret the holds as a sequence of bodily movements, and it took me even longer to visualise myself on it. Gill picked up on the role of pattern recognition, when he realised a strange phenomenon amongst his climbing friends; a lot of them were research mathematicians (Krakauer, 2009, p. 17). Mathematics is all about pattern recognition. While maths uses a pen and paper to solve problems, solving bouldering problems uses the whole body in a different way to recognise patterns and make something of them. Creation happens on a rock that no one has climbed before. Creative moves, sheer will and grip strength all work together to recognise a pattern and solve a problem.
The labelling of routes as problems is a clue to the mental aspects of climbing. I found that much climbing is done in the mind before even getting on the wall. I recall climbing with Julia, Max, Mikaela and Julia’s brother one Sunday morning in September. We were struggling to solve a grade 1 problem, as one hold in particular seemed out of reach. Sitting back and taking in the whole wall while the others continued to experiment with different body positioning and sequences of moves, something suddenly clicked for me and I found that without any conscious effort I was visualising myself on the wall completing the problem with ease. From that moment I knew exactly what I needed to do to solve the problem. I waited my turn then approached the wall, sitting down with a plonk on the gym mat to start. I placed my feet in a natural hip-width stance and lifted myself off the ground with the aid of my right hand on the first big hold, my left arm shot straight up and my hand curled around the top of a smooth but large hold. I allowed all of my weight to hang off my straight left arm as I hung in a calm and relaxed position. I then swung up to my right, put my right hip into the wall and let my left leg shoot out to the left ‘flagging’ against the wall, enabling me to stretch even further with my right hand to reach the hold that had previously appeared out of reach. I felt like I was doing it in style. I was wearing a stupid grin when I dropped back down to the mat and the others were incredulous that I had done it with such fluid, controlled moves.
Gill’s passion for bouldering came out of a desire to experiment in solitude. Like Gill, I’ve always been drawn to activities with a degree of solitude. Despite this, the social side of bouldering was always waiting patiently for me. While bouldering I met some fantastic people. One couple we couldn’t get rid of; they loved helping us with information and advice. Matt and his wife stayed around for a good hour after introducing themselves to offer invaluable advice on injury prevention, the ‘2-6 month injury period’ and to share their philosophy on climbing. Matt was particularly flamboyant in his demonstrations. “That’s why South American guys and girls are good climbers,” he said while breaking into the cha-cha, “They’re not afraid to move their bodies, try different things, you know… express themselves! White people are uptight.” Matt certainly wasn’t uptight while he directly related bouldering prowess with dance. During my time at Climb Fit I heard bouldering referred to in terms of dance, gymnastics, climbing, mathematics, problem solving, meditation, mindfulness and religion. Bouldering, it seems, can be many things to many people.
Bouldering as therapy
The more we bouldered, the more bouldering became intertwined with our wellbeing. At one point, I hadn’t been climbing for two weeks due to other commitments. The skin on my hands where calluses had started to form was patchy and started to peel off now it was no longer needed. After two weeks I couldn’t take it anymore, I was fidgety and my thoughts fragmented. I called Julia and said, “I need to go climbing. Are you keen?” Without hesitation she answered, “Yes! I’m going insane without it.”
This reliance on climbing to perform a sort of therapeutic role in one’s life was not just something that existed in myself or in Julia. One Friday evening while climbing I met a girl called Mina. She was quite good and I had been watching her climb next to us for most of the night, so when she came over and sat next to us I introduced myself, Julia and Max. Mina had an American accent, but said she was from Sydney, and travels between Orange and Sydney for university where she is training to be a physiotherapist. She lamented that she doesn’t get to climb much, so she always goes hard when she has the opportunity to climb and often injures herself as a result. The strapping on her wrists and shoulders lent credibility to her story. “At least I can fix myself,” she said grinning. We connected further by exchanging details about what we were all studying at uni. Mina continued, “When I’m in Orange trying to study I end up pacing and running my hands along the brick wall to keep my calluses up.” I laughed because I thought she was joking, but she was deadly serious. For myself, the restlessness brought on by being unable to climb manifested in a cluttered mind, fragmented thoughts and clear agitation. For Mina, not being able to climb turned her into a restless, pacing, wall-scraping mess.
The more I climbed, took notes and reflected on my own experience, the more I came to see the significance bouldering played in my life and the role it played for others too. I became less interested in the mechanics of bouldering and more interested in the philosophy and mysterious pull it had on its practitioners.
When I decided to write about taking up bouldering, I expected to write something much less philosophical than this piece. I expected to be able to scientifically break down each move into its individual contribution to the feeling; to use my experience to capture the essence of bouldering in the movements, brain and body interactions and ideas of embodiment. What I found was that the essence of bouldering didn’t lie in any of these areas. I found it only when I stopped looking. Bouldering was as much the interactions it enabled, the therapy it provided and the friendships it strengthened, as it was the action of climbing and the embodiment of a particular skill set.
Bouldering, even though practiced outdoors is an inner voyage.
For further information about Bouldering, I highly recommend Jon Krakauer’s book, Eiger Dreams.