I’m a climber. Or at least I’d like to be. Back in the day I got out on rock loads, climbing routes all over the UK. From sea cliffs to mountain crags; from deep-wooded valleys to wild moorland edges, I would revel in the light and the textures, the exposure and the fear; and the way everything seemed more vivid and alive when you’d pulled through that last hard move and the battle was won. It was ace. Like many British climbers I had a go at Scottish winter and alpine climbing but my heart wasn’t in it. As much as I liked the idea, I just wasn’t built for that level of suffering: the cold and the dread, and the battery-acid tang that fills your mouth when you realise the seriousness of the position you’ve put yourself in. It was not for me.
It was on the way back from the Alps that I first visited Fontainebleau, a vast forest south of Paris littered with boulders of every conceivable shape and size rising out of a fine sandy floor, and sheltered by the pines above. I had never seen anything like it; it was perfect. We wandered amongst the rocks, bewildered, achieving precisely nothing. Here was the world Mecca of bouldering, a form of climbing that was barely on my radar. No ropes, no hardware, no heavy loads, no planning, no suffering, no fear (well not much), this was climbing distilled to its purest form: the simple art of movement on rock. It suited my minimalist philosophy. I was transfixed. I was hooked.
After that trip, I knew the direction of travel. I sold most of my climbing gear. Ropes, climbing rack ice axes, mountaineering boots, crampons – it all went. I was left with some climbing shoes, a chalk bag, and a bouldering mat. It felt good, like when you take stuff to a charity shop, or go to the tip, or freecycle that item of furniture that was getting in the way. Once it’s gone, you can focus and breathe; and that’s what I did: focus on bouldering.
Since then, motivation has waxed and waned. Injury, opportunity, work, family, and diversions into cycling and running have all taken their toll, but bouldering is always the thing I think about when I have time to breathe. In the last couple of years, as work has demanded more and more of my time, opportunities to go to the climbing wall, let alone get out on actual rock, have been extremely limited. Faced with the possibility of giving up, I decided to install a fingerboard, a simple device that does one job and does it well: trains finger strength. Basically, it’s a piece of wood with an assortment of holes of varying widths, depths and angles machined into it. The idea is you build your finger strength by progressing through exercises of increasing difficulty, pulling up and hanging off smaller and smaller holds, two-handed and one-handed. It’s very simple, it’s very hard, and it’s extremely effective. Installing it required finding a suitable substrate in our old house. I drilled pilot holes above every door frame, hitting lath and plaster every time, refilling the holes and driving Katy mad. Eventually I settled on a beam in the hallway that would take some sleeve anchors and (hopefully) take my weight. The board was up!
Jerry Moffatt – one of the greatest climbers of all time – had a great line: “if you don’t let go, you can’t fall off”. Finger strength is the key to hard climbing and a finger board is the key to finger strength. My board means that I can train in my house, and even if I can’t get to a climbing wall for two or three weeks, I can still train and not lose strength. Without that small, simple piece of wood bolted to a beam in my hallway I’d probably have quit climbing by now; and that’s why it’s one of my most treasured possessions.
Is there a point to this post, beyond the obvious climbing-related one? I suppose it’s that, all too often, we seek complex solutions to problems. We invest in technology, in expensive hardware and software, believing that cutting-edge must be better. Our heads are turned by shiny things, eschewing the simple in favour of the elaborate. But sometimes those simple things work best: a book, a pen, a piece of paper, a game, some imagination.
And a piece of wood bolted to a beam in the hallway.
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