The Boulder Ladder

by maggie

I’m attempting to post more regularly, so here’s something I knocked together earlier. With this commitment I might actual write (articulate) more stuff.

I’m sitting under the Boulder Ladder at my local wall. At a glance I can see problems 1 through 5 and 17, of 20. [Problems range in difficulty from V0- to V5.] I’m watching the boulderers and thinking as usual about skill and comprehension of tasks.

I’ve been hanging out with climbers for over 15 years. I can’t say I’m any good or even dedicated; I like to enjoy myself in my sport. After all this time one might think I know skill when I see it – it’s in the feet. Watching the boulderers is an education.

A skilled climber will place their feet with precision, they know how to read the rock, or plastic, and they are aware of their body and how it moves. A novice climber seems only to have the desire to reach the top and be prepared to battle hard to get there by any means. How one progresses from a novice to a skilled climber is much discussed, there’s even a book – ‘9 out of 10 Climbers make the same mistake’s, by Dave MacLeod – which enable the climber to question every part of their practice. One debate that is often had, is which of three elements, flexibility/strength, technique or head/bottle is most important in the development of a climber’s career.*

Over all there things are of equal importance, but each will come to prominence at different points as a novice climber gains experience, depending on their circumstances when they entered the sport. Personally, its a mixture of strength and head that’s holding me back a present. I’m not particularly motivated and I’m not very strong. If I was more confident, I would climb more and get strong and feel more competent and so it goes, round and round.

Technique is not separate from the other two elements, but it’s something you have to learn. Once you are aware of little tricks of body position and movement you can utilise your strength and confidence more efficiently. The novice climbers do not yet know about technique, they throw themselves at the wall. They see Handholds and grab them.

Handholds have names, that tell you how to hold them: jugs, slopers, crimps, monos, side pulls, underclings, pinches, cracks (that you jam). Footholds are just footholds they don’t have particular names.

This of course misses the point. While a handhold is easy to see and reach for, it is the foothold and foot work that make or break a climb. The novice does not appreciate this, they flap their feet down any old how, like a circus clown, avoiding positive ledges if they are too small, or a smear that will keep them in balance. Generally a climber has to be introduced to the power of footholds, while a handhold is always in lunging range. This gung-ho solution for getting to the top will only work for so long, as problems get harder, the holds smaller the disadvantage of technique that is not developed from the very beginning becomes apparent.

While the novice struggles to complete easy problems, the experienced, skilled climber will use them to warm up. Precise foot placement and an understanding of body positioning allow them to move confidently with minimum effort. They have benefited from many months or years of practice, repetition and exchanging ideas with fellow climbers. They have internalised the solutions to former challenges when finishing problems and under stand the importance of balance and power. Getting to the top is no longer the challenge, doing so with minimum fuss is.

While the difference between novice and skilled climber is obvious on Problems 1- 5 there is a difference when watching the climbers who are struggling with Problem 17. These climbers  move well on rock. They are climbing with half the handholds available to climbers of the easier problems and reading a sequence of holds that appears random. The intellectual stimulus here is as great as the physical. These climbers are more at home in their environment, they know the rules of the game and they embrace them. If they fail on a problem, they have a bigger tool kit of techniques to bring to bear and the mental flexibility, the knowledge that there are many ways to move on rock, to succeed on subsequent attempts.

The novice climber will always benefit from input of more skilled climbers, but they may not accept it. While they are happy with the state of their climbing; after all, it’s meant to be a past time and fun, one should not inflict unwanted advice on them. Lets just hope then that they watch their fellow climbers and find the desire to question their own practice rising within themselves.

As climbing is a sport, an enjoyable hobby, the usual demands of efficiency in effort which shapes a skill are not necessarily present. Beyond basic safety does it matter that a novice can accumulate experience, in terms of time spent, without deepening their understanding of their activities? This is an interesting dilemma to which I will no doubt return.


* Mr MacLeod would say that the most important element in advancement is over coming your fear of change.