Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Hunting Bears in the Forest.


Every climbing region has a lynch pin, a pivot around which the local scene flexes, articulates, and creates its identity. These individuals are the social glue that keep us climbing together. They stay in contact with disparate groups, working behind the scenes to keep things evolving, fresh, alive. Often the influence and efforts of such individuals are not noticed, lost in the intensity of movement and depravity of comment that so often marks a day out at the crag. However if Bouldering is a culture, they are its architects, creating and recreating the scene in their regional homes.

Fatneck (left) and Hip Hop Ben - Doing their Two Ronnies  Routine
In Liverpool, or the Scouse scene, we have Fatneck!  Its not that his neck is fat, rather his head is small; its a question of scale apparently. He makes the effort to marshal the ever-growing, morphing threads of social media that weave through modern life. He knows everyone and everyone knows him. He does not involve himself with the tittle tattle of grades and ethics- his energy is channelled elsewhere, into a deeper magic. One flex of his text and an unnatural power is released through the ether, leading to eddies of abbreviated words washing through Liverpool's streets on a Friday night. Often on Saturday mornings Scouse climbers find themselves at the same venue chatting away unaware of why they are there or who is responsible. Fatneck is good, really good but that's because he gained his skills from the master- he learned everything he knows from the Bear.

Sometimes individuals transcend a scene, they break through the barriers that geography and topography present. They unite disparate groups and become a powerful node in a network that can motivate individuals separated by whole countries, even continents. The simple beep of a text from one of these people can conjure a stack of pads and a spotting party under almost any boulder in Europe. The Bear is one of these powerful shamen. He's a shape shifter, inventing and reinventing himself in different locations, increasing his influence and powers wherever he goes.

Traditionally in their natural state Bears are solitary animals shunning the company of others.  Not this one. His phone book has created its own dimensions of space and time - it hums as the near infinite number of contacts it stores threaten to burst free causing havoc in the world. His original stomping ground was the flat wastes of the East.  He lived in a city on the Humber hunting far and wide, particularly on Pennine Grit and the soft sculpted sandstone of Northumberland, searching for his favoured form of sustenance, the sloper.  It was around this time I first met the Bear.  A tall man with big hands and his own mystical reputation introduced us.  I was instantly taken by the Bear's generosity of spirit and enthusiasm for everything bouldering related; his knowledge, advice and experiences are unparallelled, shared freely and in my own case foolishly and regularly ignored.

The Bear migrated from his lair in the East to the rich feeding grounds of the Derbyshire Peak in order to gorge himself on the rich slopers that are found in abundance there.  His new residence more often than not would be The Plantation.  He would be found siting astride an avalanche of pads in the cave under the Grand Hotel waiting for rain, mist and snow to clear so he could have careless attempts on the arete of his desire.  It was around this time I truly recognised the power the Bear possesses; his ability to motivate men from around Europe to join and partake in fearless deeds. I also glimpsed the ritual from which the Bear's power flows- this filled me with awe and dread in equal measure. 

On a lonely hillside in West Yorkshire the Bear was celebrating the day of his birth in a hut owned by a junior paramilitary organisation who swear allegiance to Tigers and Wolves. I presented him with a porcelain smoking baby and a fire breathing nun, gifts that both entertained and horrified those who witnessed them. The Bear initiated his ceremony, drinks flowed and one by one the intoxicated disciples present  began to beat out a raucous rhythm on any item they could find: drums, pots, pans, pipes, even the walls. The rhythm rolled on faster and faster until, fearful for my soul, I took myself outside to my tent and the relative safety of sleep.  In the morning I slowly and tentatively crept back into the hut, apprehensive, terrified of what I might see.  I opened the door to the kitchen and was met by a wall of sound, all signs of human existence had been extinguished from the room save for the Bear stripped to the waist, eyes closed, arms raised, declaring in unison with the Stone Roses that he was 'the resurrection and the light'. The air crackled with energy- the ritual had reached its crescendo and the Bear's powers were renewed for another year.  He looked at me spent and senseless, he slurred some words in my direction and took his leave.  I went to the boulders at Widdop to try to make sense of what I'd witnessed knowing that only a few humans are capable of such feats.  I have seen this ritual performed a few times, particularly by Fatneck as he initiates his annual connection to the ether and thus those around him on the Llyn Peninsula.  However at no time since have I seen anything to equal the Bear.

I have seen less of the Bear in recent years.  As he continued to roam the hills of Derbyshire in search of the aesthetic I was lured to the dark side, blinded by the allure of crimp and pull, chasing numbers that never end.  I have found myself in caves and under overhangs where the darker elements of bouldering live; competitive arenas where debates begin and controversy simmers, ready to boil over into forums and bile.  These areas diminish the Bear's power, the limestone burns his skin and the lack of slopers makes him yearn for open spaces and a soaring line.  My path on the never ending treadmill of training and projects has left me broken; only halfway along the scale, unable to go any further, diminished in some way.  The Bear has experienced change as well; he had taken to the rooves of the nation to earn a crust and so has cast his dwelling in the east adrift on a summer storm. As habitats, seasons and climates change so has his feeding ground.  The Bear has always loved the forests of Northern France, a place where his preferred diet can be easily sustained.  His feeding there has become more permanent of late and he is more likely to be glimpsed wandering in the dappled Gallic light rather than against the steel-grey skys of the moors.

The sloper, the main dietary requirement of the Bear.

My journey along the limestone road has taught me to appreciate the Bears wisdom once again.  I always ignored his advice about aesthetics, and jumping rather than climbing. Now that I'm broken I realise he was right all along.  I now search for a soaring line even if the limestone habit is hard to kick.  I have begun to reconnect, respond to Fatnecks texts, remove myself from weekly cave-bound pilgrimage. I have reconnected to the nodes controlled by the social shamen of the bouldering scene.  The forests of Northern France are now in my sights, sandstone slopers await.  In three weeks time Fatneck will guide me on an adventure through the ether and around the Forest; we will hunt for king lines in the playgrounds of princes.  If I'm really lucky we might hear the beep of a text or glimpse a Bear somewhere in the woods.


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