Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Alchemist

Fatneck on the hunt for quality at Parbold
We have been on a quest.  We have purged ourselves of the familiar, forsaken the bouldering fleshpots littered with test pieces that can build a reputation or crush an ego with one slip of a foot.  We have journeyed both west and east from our fair, maritime city on the Mersey, followed sedimentary seams through sand and grit in search of something, something so rare that even to speak its name would make it disappear.  Our merry band have forsaken the luxuries of guides, descriptions, cleaned lines and stars and replaced them with a twilight world. The realm we now move through was once created by the hand of man, but is no longer part of his ambition; instead it has been reclaimed by the elements, earth, air, fire and water. The chemistry of nature dominates these spaces. Holes cut deep in the ground by the desires of industry- now kingdoms of moss and mud.  Lichens keep watch over these rippled quarried walls, and keep us from what we seek.

The Heath, Runcorn
We are not alone in these forgotten spaces, we share them with spectral beings, the youth that loom large in the twilight gloom.  Disenfranchised by daylight, diminished by darkness, their rituals and rights of initiation seek to harness the elements for their own fulfilment   They leap from the quarry walls during the summer months, draw power from the air and are reborn in the watery depths below- emboldened, indestructible heroes of a generation taught not to care.  Fire is the element prized above all else, it illuminates their lives, and destroys our desires with effortless ease!  The blackened, brittle walls demonstrate that we will never be alone - soot and sorrow will always blight our adventures through this twilight world. Our inquisitive eyes scan these walls in the hope we will find that rarefied thing that we seek, more often than not lamenting what could have been.

Andy Jones demonstrating Fatneck's finest creation 
What do we seek?  What could be so precious that it leads grown men to the margins, to a dappled world filled with broken glass and beings decorated with three stripes.  Like Ancient alchemists we seek perfection amongst the elemental forces, our spiritual and physical journey is one of discovery, to unearth the impossible: new amongst the old, quality in crap, first ascents in the subtextural landscapes created by a guide just written. The Alchemists attempted to turn base metals into the perfect, precious metals of gold and silver; in the same way we have attempted to find the aesthetic amongst the ugly, sport amongst the solidified silts.  Our dialectical journey has had us tread a knife edge, teetering along the margins of good and evil.  Some say you cannot polish a turd, it will simply smear in your hands, others know that a carbon rich material subjected to the intense forces of heat and pressure can create diamonds.   The proto chemists of the past did not achieve their aim of a life everlasting, or the extraordinary transformation of mundane materials, could we, however, discover a diamond in the rough??

Alec the Alchemist climbing the Arete that now bares his name (V7 sds V8)
Parbold and Runcorn both sport quarried hills that entertain the shady and the shy, shielding them  from the the glare of society.  Both quarries have built towns, neither have built reputations that might lure the boulderer to their muddied walls and yet, magnetised by their mystery, we have been drawn like moths by their shadowy light.  We have poured scorn on what they have offered, rock has turned to dust by the action of our eager limbs, our desires have been smeared by disappointment, and yet our quest continued, redoubled and intensified until out of the sand,lichen and slime gems began to crystallise and gleam in the gloom. One amongst us has taken on the the mantle of creator he has brought to life lines of movement that transcend what surrounds them.  He has turned the base elements of nature into something that will live on in the future pages of guides and the limitless landscapes of the information age.  For now he is the alchemist.

Jay Dog crimping hard on the Heath.
So our journey seemed to have come to an end.  Some have been bruised, battered by the experience. Blood has been shed and the twilight worlds through which we tiptoed have been tamed, claimed back for now from those who seek to destroy it through ignorance.  However it is na├»ve to think that we can ever stop travelling on this journey of discovery- the achievements of The Alchemist are just a way marker in the sandstone pointing to what can be created  through the intense scrutiny of our finite local resources.  A message from the man who looked like Marx and answers to the name 'Pop' has shown us the way to what comes next.  There is still sandstone in the suburbs, there are still gems to be found, we all have the ability to turn lead into gold, we can all be Alchemists if we journey long enough along the sedimentary seam of our desires.
Portrait of a punter!!

Monday, 13 May 2013

Lists and That.

There is some bouldering in those hills.
Lists and order seem to be an integral part of the western cultural cannon. We crave order. Categories are created and the intangible is indexed in an attempt to understand the fuzzy complexity of a reality that constantly evolves around us. This process of comparmentalising the unquantifiable seems to be a necesssary action, something we do to passify ourselves so that we may get on with our lives. Many groups round the world use different devices to do this: mysticism, myth and even magic, our obsession with 'measurement' to map reality robs us of the wonder of looking at the world in different ways. There is a large part of me that feels this is a shame, but then again befuddlement is my default state.

Lists play an important role in Bouldering: tick lists in guides, lists of personal projects, lists of grades and grading systems, lists of problems completed so far this season etc etc. Lists give climbing a faint wiff of competitive conformity; grades and the aroma of quantification open the door to the influence of Sports Science, training regimes, resistance, reps and rests. It's an intoxicating scent; one that promotes motivation, knuckling down and progress. Steps up the ladder of your grading system of choice can be hastened by applying a little logic. There's no magic here, the equation is simple:

                                 Perspiration = Gratification (if grade-based progress is what you seek)

Lists have played an important role in my efforts to scratch a path up steeper and steeper sweeps of rock over the years. Lists have informed my training. Wish lists have been written and re-written in an attempt to motivate; lists of desert island climbs or boulders I would like to have in my garden have been seriously discussed, at length, deep into the early hours, thus rendering the chance of climbing a problem that features on a list in the cold morning light next to impossible.  Lists have also been used to entertain.  My favourite climbing lists were the ones that Showtime Farley would create on the twilight drives back from The Peak in autumns past.  On these long drives the excitement of the day would fade to browns, oranges and yellows as our overworked adrenal glands stemmed their flow, the car's collective blood sugar bottomed out and strange shadows were cast by Tom "Fat-hand" Sugden lolling deep in slumber, held up by the tension of his seatbelt alone.  A hush would descend despite the million decibels of bass shaking  the fatigued bones of those incarcerated in the car. At this point Ben would banish the twilight chill of early winter by demanding the 'Best' from us all: best problem, best move, best hold.  Excitment, enthusiasm, and in Tom's case basic motor functions, would return.  In the pantheon of climbing lists, "Best" lists are definitely the best.

Why does climbing seem better when there's snow on the horizon
How can we quantify 'best'?  Well that's the beauty of the concept, you can't, it's just something you like the most at a fixed point we will call 'now'. As the sands of time inevitably shift it will change to something completely different.  Just like the grading systems we use to measure our progress in climbing, 'best' is subjectively constructed around the experience of the individual.  I can't really tell what 'best' is in the same way I can't definitively define what 7b+ is. What I can do though is tell you what my 'bests' have been so far this year: best problem, best move, best venue, best area.  Yes this is a futile exercise and yes these 'bests' will probably change as soon as I experience something else, however, as proved by Showtime Farley in the car on the way back from a kaleidoscope of venues, best lists are a good game. Best gets the adrenalin flowing, Best enlivens leaden limbs and injects colour into the climbing experience washed out by seemingly endless, wet winter.  So let's play Best, get your answers ready, and be ready to shout at mine.

Best Move - above Pwllglass near Ruthin sits Butterfly Buttress.  The steep front-face of this crag is adorned with a myriad of positive holds that make this an ideal link-up venue.  One link moves from left to right through the steepness, it's called "Lead Rain" and my best move sits halfway along its sinuous path.  The move involves kicking up a high heel onto a shelf in front of you allowing you to bump from a tiny hold to a thank-god sidepull.  This slight of heel gets you through the steepest part of the problem efficiently saving energy for the brutal moves ahead.

Best Problem - I had been to Rhiw Coch before and done a circuit of easy problems.  I had a look at Poppy's Move and the other problems in that particular cluster and discounted them as being too hard for my skinny arms. I went back this year with the test pages of the new North Wales Bouldering Guide, and I noticed the problem Moria. A 7b with two stars, I gave it a go and the rewards were exponentially greater than the grade given to the problem.  The line may not be the most asthetic but the moves are stellar- you just can't quantify this quality; go try this problem it really is magic.

Moria in all of its glory
Best Venue - seriously just go with this one.  My best venue so far this year is Pex Hill!!  Yes this hole in the ground, steeped in dog muck and decorated with broken glass is my favourite venue at the moment.  Climbing here this winter, doing eliminates on Pisa Wall, writing about them and spreading the love has saved my climbing from the monotony of training and the inevitable injuries that being serious and scientific brings.  I have visited Pex a lot this year and every time I have left with a smile on my face; if we could grade enjoyment Pex for me would be cutting-edge.

Best Area - without doubt it's North Wales. Words can not capture the feeling of moving across rough, dolerite slopers with a chill in the air and a dusting of snow on the mountains. It feels such a privilege to be climbing in this environment when the conditions are good and the sky is powder blue. When you're high up on the pass, away from the sound of the traffic, looking across at Dinas Cromlech, clouds casting shadows on the valley bottom as they drift lazily by, you feel like you're sitting in an alternate reality, a simpler one, one that makes sense, one that's almost - well mystical.

Moves like these help to generate Bests for everyones lists.
Well there's my Bests, how did yours measure up?  We could negotiate our various Bests, and come  up with a consensus. We could make our Bests definitive, fix them in time and share them with others! To be honest what would be the point, we would simply kill fun.  Sometimes it is better to relax, sit back and enjoy the randomness of things.  I have no idea why I chose Moria as my favourite problem of the year, or why I think Bouldering is better when framed by snowy mountains.  I do know that in a culture obsessed with quantification, and a sport that is quickly being seduced by science, that the game of Bests doesn't really have a place.  For me though that's the point; we should stop trying to quantify fun- let the game of Bests take over, let excitement and enthusiasm flood into climbing. Have your best-ever training session, campus because it puts a smile on your face, give into the magic, get out there and experience more! I reckon that would probably be best for everyone.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Pex Problem of the Week #8

All good things come to an end and this is the last Pex Problem of the Week.  The purpose of this series was to motivate people, get them out and on rock; particularly at a time of year when most people feel that the coffee and cosy confines of the indoor wall is the only option.  I was hoping to show the utility of eliminate bouldering in terms of training and to open eyes in terms of the quality that Pisa Wall has to offer.  Pisa is dry most of the time and the motivated can use it to get stong at any time of the year.  However there are limits: the sun is shining, the birds are singing, other venues are dry and realistically speaking, those skills and strengths built up on the slopey, scalloped holds of Pisa Wall need to be exploited elsewhere.  The key to progression as a boulderer is variety; go out try every rock type, visit every venue- come back to Pisa in the winter, try the problems again and see how far you have come.

Vitalite Lighter - V7.

This problem may have less holds than it parent but, believe me, it's not lacking in flavour.  This is a robust little number that needs all its ingredients sklillfully combined for its true essence to be savoured.  This really is a case of less is more, and we're not just talking about grades here. Remember you will need the Cheshire and Merseyside Sandstone Guide- go to pages 178 and 179. Right start matched on hold three, place your right foot in a low pock mark, put your left foot high on hold 1.  Flick your left to hold 16, as you move up you will need to dip your right shoulder and this will help you transfer weight through the three finger stack that should now desperately cling to the grains on the surface of hold 16's slopeyness.- you will now need to flag left with the right foot, thus allowing 16 to be locked and the right hand moved to hold 21. So far so good, just like Vitalite, you've been here before, or have you?  At this point things change; you will need to lean back so far it almost feels like your sitting down, milk those stacks for all they are worth, when in balance swap feet on hold 1, get your left foot into hold 6, set it square to the wall. Rock over, and over and over, rock a long way, at the last moment pop to the break and match. Jump off and plan where next week's trip will be.  If you have been following "Pex Problem of the Week" you've trained effectivly for the greater ranges of Frodsham, Helsby and  Parbold! Go on, get out there and conquer them!

Vitalite Lighter from Owen McShane on Vimeo.