Friday, 28 December 2012

Lamp Light Bouldering

Physical geography is a wonderfully complex and interesting phenomenon! Most males would wholeheartedly agree with this statement as it will be one of their guilty pleasures. Think about it; volcanoes, tsunamis, hurricanes! However, to admit ones interest in such earthly pleasures can act as a very powerful contraceptive. This is not the only downside of constantly changing landscapes- when you live in a temperate zone with a maritime climate it can seriously meddle with your climbing.

This could now turn into the usual rant about all things meteorological. The sky has produced a multitude of precipitation types recently from heavy, to cold, to my personal favourite - horizontal. However all this rain, hail, snow, wind and general misery is to be expected when a boulderer over-winters in the UK. Best be stoic and let it go. No, the particular geographical phenomenon I'm interested in at the moment is associated to the latitudinal position of this green and quite frankly damp land, and the way this affects our seasons.

Summer is a magnificent time of year in the UK, especially when viewed through grey, frost-tinted glasses supplied by a dark January morning. The mind’s eye drifts to endless, balmy evenings of bouldering. The sun beating down, the scent of wild flowers and BBQ's in the air. Frisbees are thrown and dogs slumber untidily in the heat. The problem with the mind’s eye is it’s a hopeless romantic which tends towards the bullshit end of the truth spectrum! Summer in the UK usually means humidity, greasy holds and frustration. The one similarity between the brain’s simulated summer and our actual one is long evenings of light that allow us to adventure out like excited children.

So what of the winter? For most this is the season of training, getting strong and going to the wall. My local wall is heavily laden with temptations: it’s warm, bright, social, it has some of the best espresso for 50 miles and I can even eat like the gourmand I pretend to be there. It's easy to forget the millions of years of geological and erosional processes that sculpted our objects of desire. It's easy to be swayed by the injection- moulded plastic patterns that adorn the overhanging, smooth surfaces of the climbing wall with their perfect, soft landings. What other option is there- its dark by 4 pm in December? Most would not want to venture out on a British winter’s night as most humans are not addicted to good friction, something that is only abundant when it’s frigidly cold. And so we reach an impasse. How do you exploit good winter conditions if they only occur on a working weekday? How can we overcome the power of physical geography? How can we fight back the darkness?

Obviously people have been climbing with lamps since man first managed to compress and bottle gas. However my first glimpse of this exciting world was in Ailefroide, South Western France around 11 years ago. It was a rather glamorous activity practiced by sponsored American climbers seeking out “cool temps.” These individuals saved themselves for evening sessions, skin intact, illuminated by massive Coleman lamps, gliding gracefully up cool rock. The lumpen proletariat (i.e. us) sat around wide eyed, green with jealousy, nursing lacerated fingers from misguided mid-day sessions in the sun. Obviously this was the way forward; however it took me quite a few years to consider the possibilities of after work climbing in the winter months.

I was asked to help a friend with a film project. He had applied to be part of the Extreme Film School, an offshoot of the Kendal Film Festival, and the result was a short film about a big dyno called “Pex and the City” (I played the Sarah Jessica Parker character in this interpretation of the series). During the filming my mate thought it would be good to shoot some scenes at night. A generator was hired with some lights and the scene was set. As with all good plans- everything failed spectacularly. The blame for this expensive misadventure was laid at the door of a fuel tank with water in it. I suspect the real source of our failure was the fact that three incompetent males with no mechanical knowledge were trying to experience adventures beyond their technical means. The lights worked for precisely five minutes and then physical geography won out and re-established the natural (dark) order of things. However, during that brief spell of illumination, my mind drifted back to the glamour of Ailefroide as compared with the routinized indoor rituals of following colours as they twist sinuously up overhanging ply. I went out and bought a two hundred watt gas lamp and spent a winter with my film director friend hanging off sandstone in Merseyside after dark. A revolution had begun.

Lamplight climbing isn’t for everyone! In fact only a particular type of loon enjoys climbing under overhangs or in caves, after dark, in the depths of winter. Luckily the Liverpool Bouldering scene is mostly populated by uber-loons, so there is a demand for post work illumination for those with a Scouse disposition. So where does the merry band of Merseyside malingerers hang out after sundown in the midwinter? What mysterious method is used to push back the darkness and battle the usual certainties of the physical world?

Obviously the sandstone venues of Cheshire lend themselves well to illumination, particularly Pisa wall at Pex and some of the overhanging buttresses at Frodsham. One gas lamp and a lot of psyche was all it needed. These early forays seemed to feed a need that Merseyside alone could not quench and soon our merry band of lamplighters ventured further afield to the greater ranges of North Wales. Pant Y Mwyn became the next venue of choice. The merry band swelled in numbers, as did the number of gas lamps used. The tyranny of darkness was quite literally being banished through superior fire power. Our next move was to be our last; we found the home of lamp lighting, our perfect venue – Parisella’s!

To many, bouldering in Parisella’s cave sums up everything that is bad about Bouldering. A manufactured cave with manufactured holds, suspended above a thick carpet of goat shit, inhabited by media savvy, beany wearing types who indiscriminately wave video cameras at each other. On the other hand you can see it for what it is, a matrix of world class boulder problems no more than a minute from the car, adorned with exquisite moves, virtually weatherproof and perfect for lamplight climbing. We take deck chairs with us when we go. Instead of sitting facing the sea taking in the breathtaking vistas of the North Wales coastline, we always sit facing inwards, attempting to take in the majesty of what is in front of us; our very own nocturnal palace of bouldering.

Finding the spiritual home of lamplight bouldering has led to other changes particularly in terms of the means used to cast light on our cave-bound industry. Man used to exist in caves illuminated by nothing but firelight as sabre-toothed mammals waited for opportunities in the darkness beyond. Evolution and revolution have allowed us to burn compressed gas to light up our playground, whilst souped up, body kitted Citro├źn Saxos prowl like predators up marine drive. Today, technological advances have led us to cast expensive and unnecessarily wasteful gas lamps aside, leading to a mini revolution in our activities. Electricity and halogen bulbs have changed everything. A fully charged twelve volt leisure battery, an inverter and two 120 watt halogen lamps running off domestic three pin plugs have turned a shady night session in the cave into a near daylight experience. Two powerful lamps are all you need to banish annoying shadows from your problem of desire. Project climbing after the sun leaves our shores becomes a reality, and good conditions become the order of the day.

So I return to thoughts of the physical world and its many nuances and try to isolate what makes lamplight climbing so good. The answer isn’t that it’s better than going to the local climbing wall (even though it is). It isn’t even that you get more time on your projects and are thus are more likely to do them (even though you do and you are). The real allure of lamplight climbing is the feeling that you’ve got away with it; you are climbing outdoors as is right and proper whilst others toil with excess chalk, crowds and music you really would not choose to listen to. When you are lamp lighting you feel like you have beaten physical geography with the power of technology and determination. You stand tall having reversed the natural order, master of your environment having bent the elemental forces that govern all things to your will. With the simple flick of a switch you release a power that is almost intoxicating. It’s a shame that most won’t appreciate the significance of what you are doing; in fact such activities will make you even more unattractive to the opposite sex than an admission that you think hurricanes are ‘kind of cool’!! Anyway if you lust after friction after dark and women aren’t particularity interested in your obsession with slopers, get yourself a lamp, get out there and do battle with nature.

Cheers Owen

(All pictures - Simon Huthwaite)

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