BOULDERING FOR DUMMIES
Words by Matthew Holt, Pics by Matthew Holt, Fiona McIntosh and Mandy Ramsden
Over the years I’ve tried most types of climbing – rock, ice, trad, sport – without really finding my forte. So, I decided to give bouldering a go: might this be my metier? Bouldering is rock climbing on a miniature scale. Instead of tackling routes on vertiginous peaks, climbers pit themselves against ‘problems’ on single stones, typically only a few metres high. Aside from minimising the risk of avalanches and oedemas, a beauty of bouldering is its simplicity. All you need are rock shoes, a crash pad (to fall on), some chalk (to counter sweaty fingers) and, if you reach advanced level, a toothbrush (to clean the tiny holds). Another big plus is that when the weather turns foul, you just fold up your pad and retire to the pub.
Naturally, I decided to start at the world capital of bouldering, namely Fontainebleau (or ‘Font’ to us boulderers). Just outside Paris, this historic town boasts an elegant chateau, fine restaurants and chic street-side bars. It was here – or rather on the sandstone rocks scattered within the adjacent forest - that bouldering began in the early 1900s, initially as training for alpine climbing, but soon becoming a genre unto itself.
My trip started inauspiciously. The local climber who’d agreed to lend me a crash pad and guidebook didn’t show, and – being France – all the shops were closed. Plus, the forest was much bigger than expected. (At 280 square km, it could comfortably accommodate several small European countries.) So, I spent the weekend cycling haphazardly through the oak and pine trees, stopping regularly in sleepy hamlets for refreshments and occasionally in shady clearings where local ‘bleausards’ huddled around boulder problems, discussing them as if they were philosophical hypotheses. It was a fine weekend, to be sure, but it hardly resolved whether bouldering was my forte.
On the basis ‘local is lekker’, I next went to South Africa’s top bouldering venue, Rocklands, in the Cederberg. I also went better prepared, taking a guidebook and crash pad borrowed from my friend Jeremy, one of South Africa’s top climbers.
‘You are pitting yourself against the crème-de-la-crème,’ observed Jeremy with a wince.
Dismissing his negativity as the gripe of a man left to look after two young children, I headed out to Clanwilliam full of hope. Besides, it was spring and the fields were carpeted with dazzling yellow flowers. Founded in the early 18th century, Clanwilliam’s architecture is now a striking mix of classical Cape Dutch and modern box-shaped concrete. It’s certainly not Fontainebleau and there was also little to suggest I’d arrived at the gateway to a world-renowned sporting venue. Rocklands refers to the wilderness area just beyond Clanwilliam, up the rugged Pakhuis Pass. It was ‘discovered’ for bouldering purposes in 1996, by a bunch of globetrotting, live-the-dream climbing bums led by the charismatic American Todd Skinner and the Swiss-born Fred Nicole. Having come in search of new boulder problems, they found their Shangri-La.
The R364 winds up the pass to the Kliphuis campground, where the pioneers stayed, but which is now locked and deserted. From here, I followed a trail of cairns up to a terrace with a large red and black streaked rock, the first boulder they worked on and called ‘Teapot’. They were blessed with strong imagination, or something. Standing about six metres high, Teapot hosts several famous problems and, naturally, I went straight for the hardest, which was graded 8a+.
Understanding bouldering grades is a bit like cracking algebraic equations and, just to complicate the puzzle, many climbers refuse to grade their own problems, dismissing the process as too subjective. The only yardsticks I had to go by were that the hardest problem solved in the world was an 8c+; the hardest completed at Rocklands was 8c; and a 10-year old American girl had just climbed an 8b.
As with many boulder problems, you start this one sitting down, with your feet up against the rock and your bum on the floor. I accomplished this move with panache, but found it exponentially difficult after that. It was clear what I had to do: each successive move was pasted with chalk. However, the grips were for fingernails and over an arm’s length apart. I pulled; I strained; the rough rock frayed my fingertips; my biceps burned. Eventually I had to concede I couldn’t raise myself off the ground.
Revising my ambitions progressively downwards, I failed on a few more problems, before finally managing to scale Teapot by its easiest aspect, up a grade 3 route. Even this was alarming. The boulder was high enough to be a rock climbing pitch and, as I edged up the thin rails on its face, I watched with dismay as my crash pad below shrank to the size of a postage stamp. Worse still, in order to get off, I had to climb down the same way. After that, I was inevitably drawn towards the so-called ‘Poser Boulder’, an anvil-shaped rock balanced on a plinth above a small waterfall. It was just my sort of boulder: if taken from a certain angle, photographs could make even the easiest route appear spectacular.
From the top of Pakhuis Pass, a donkey track led off into the dusty scrub, with cliffs, rock and boulders of every shape and size in all directions. I followed some cairns to one that had been specially singled out: a large, off-kilter monolith with sharp edges, jutting prows, undercut faces and a pointy top. Amongst boulders, this is an A-list celeb. Known as ‘Question of Balance’, it’s home to Rockland’s hardest problem, opened by Fred Nicole a decade ago and rarely repeated. Needless to say, I couldn’t get off the ground.
Though I’m not offering any excuses, dedicated boulderers have fingers like steel cables, sinewy arms hanging down to their knees and frequently twang muscles I don’t even have. They also speak in their own language about slopers, huecos and gastons, which they send, stick and flash. All-in-all, they might well be a completely different breed, although if you spot them shuffling between boulders with their crash pads strapped on their backs, you might think they bear some resemblance to SpongeBob SquarePants.
I stayed over the pass, in a small cottage down at Traveller’s Rest. The nights were spent huddled beside the braai, gazing up at constellations and counting shooting stars. And the days were spent exploring Rockland’s many bouldering sites: such as Riverside, opposite Louis Leipoldt’s grave, where the boulders stand like islands amidst mirror pools and crystal streams; and Eight Day Rain, with its labyrinth of canyons and grottos, and ancient San paintings. Though it may come as no surprise, in the course of this trip I discovered bouldering wasn’t my forte either. But that didn’t matter. Even if you can’t flash an 8c or dyno a sloper, Rocklands is a magical place, with its burnished boulders, blazing sunsets and big African skies.
On my last night, I ventured into De Kelder pub, sucked in by the vibration and noise. It was packed, the shots were sloshing, the singing was excruciating and the dancing was worse. The roistering mob inside might have been the crème-de-la-crème of the international bouldering scene. Or they might have been the Clanwilliam rugby team. No matter: I had found my metier.