“What”, a fair few people have asked me this week, “the heck is bouldering?”
It was a question that occurred to me when the voice at the end of the phone, after rattling off the alarmingly high prices for introductory climbing sessions, suggested an option that was cheap, required no prior training and yet was, he reassured me, “still dangerous though”. An understatement, it transpired, as when bouldering buddy Tom and I turned up at the climbing centre we discovered that bouldering was in fact the most dangerous form of climbing one could do there.
For bouldering is climbing without ropes and without helmets; without anything in fact to protect you from serious injury other than a crash mat and your own ability to cling mountain goat-like to improbable crevices. It is a sport in which even for the tackling of only a 4-metre high wall one must first sign forms accepting the risk of death. And a sport in which the only preparation for beginners is a five minute safety briefing consisting of such pearls of wisdom as “don’t stand beneath a climber in case they fall off” and “don’t hit your head on the concrete wall if you fall off” – but no practical tips on how to avoid such a precipitous end to your evening.
Fortunate then, perhaps, that the purpose of bouldering is not to climb as high as you can, or as long as you can; the purpose apparently is short, quick climbs in bursts of concentrated energy. And bouldering is also not simply a physical challenge but a mental one, in which you work your way to the top of the wall via a series of different routes, or ‘problems’, marked out by colour-coded bolt-on holds.
We broke ourselves in on the easiest route: a series of white-coloured holds spaced comfortably apart up a welcomingly flat wall. My bouldering buddy progressed immediately onto harder routes, tackling oranges, then blues, and attempting to scramble around onto an overhang. He was not quite in the monkey-man league of the silent ‘Andy’, a veritable pro quietly draping himself across the opposite wall, but he certainly had more confidence than me. As after being rather chuffed with myself for having reached the top via the whites I decided my best chance of survival lay in freestyle, and I thereafter pulled myself up the wall using whatever combination of colours I damned-well pleased.
In cheating thus, getting up the wall was really not too difficult. It was getting down again that was the problem. Unable to see all the holds beneath me or judge whether they were reachable, I more than once allowed a touch of panic to slip into my voice as I felt my arms tiring and suffered flashes of conviction that I was destined either to stay up top forever or plummet to a painful fate. Four metres does not sound particularly high, but when you are four metres above the ground with only the strength of your fingers keeping you up there, four metres seems very high indeed.
Yet with suicidal promptness, within a few minutes of struggling down I would be ready to go up again. Quite why I know not; although there is a certain childish delight in peeping over the top of the wall, there was no view to lure us up there beyond a deserted, soulless cafeteria beyond a dirty window. Had a passing woman I waved to at the apex of one ascent responded with an encouraging smile, perhaps I would have felt my exertions validated; as it was her disapproving frown confirmed what I feared: I looked most awfully silly.
Public exposition of our amateurism was escaped part-way through the evening, as were the chalked up, stocky pros clambering for space, by my bouldering buddy’s suggestion we switch to the traversing wall. This wall was long rather than high, stretching down the length of a cold, uninspiring corridor. It’s a wall where you can practise technique and build up your strength, happy in the knowledge that in the event of a fall, the worst you may suffer is a broken ankle rather than a broken neck.
It is also, it transpired, something of a morale booster, as after we both managed to edge our way from one end of the wall to the other (admittedly after a couple of botched attempts in my case), we felt more than a little pleased with our progress.
I regret to say therefore that this most successful episode of our bouldering session is also probably the one that did me in. As looking at this unflattering photo of myself stretched across the wall like a starfish, I think I’m beginning to understand why my back – and, for that matter, my arms and legs – have not stopped aching since.
Week three therefore continued the tradition of an after-taste of pain rounding off an interesting new experience. Next week, thankfully, I am to be an onlooker rather than a participant in physical exertion. May my muscles rest while they can.