Thursday 3 September 2009

In praise of friction

My recent travails on the massive lump of sandstone that makes the towering St John's Head brought home an important truth about climbing for me; so many varied things are involved in the enjoyment of rock climbing, and of these, friction is an extremely important one. I spend a lot of time in my work related to climbing trying to explain in detail climbing's attractions. Yet it still seems impressively resistant to being encapsulated by any single idea or perspective. That in itself might be an appealing idea (for another day). The breadth of dimensions in which climbers find satisfaction through their activity keeps surprising me to this day. But perhaps inevitably only a few are commonly talked about.

Very fashionable again right now is the visual dimension of the 'king line'. If the climb looks amazing then it's worthwhile. The length of the climb has always been another popular measure of quality or stature in climbs, even despite bouldering and sport climbing becoming so big in the last couple of decades. But the actual interaction with the rock climbed is only often referred to in the context of the texture and shapes of different rock types and their merits. Through the medium of the activity of rock climbing, the various rocks on show around the planet can really be appreciated as quite amazing and beautiful stuff. But perhaps still in a way thats hard to put into words, a problem I'm sure geologists must surely share. Andy Kirkpatrick often laments in his lectures that even talking about the actual climbing activity is boring. True, it might not be a bountiful source of entertainment for telling climbing stories. But if the raw feeling of climbing rock brings on a magic sparked feeling of pure satisfaction even if only for elusive moments, then it's worth a more involved look. Understanding it fully might be too lofty a goal even for a whole lifetime of climbing rocks.

It was while climbing some god-awful, chossy vertical sand with the consistency of sugared pastry on Longhope that a previously subconscious appreciation of rock friction suddenly became stronger than ever. The feeling of improbable weightlessness caused when just the correct atmospheric conditions combine on pristine rock for an ethereal moment is something desperately hard to relate, but instantly recognisable to those who’ve tried climbs near enough their own limit to experience it. Two moments stand out - one was the weirdness of the ‘sticky-damp’ at Stoney Middleton on a misty, dank and humid day. Without any warning (i.e. Climbing like a potato just hours before) I flashed an apparently wet V10 without any effort, but half an hour later the weather changed and I couldn’t touch it despite it actually drying up! Another was on Rhapsody after a raging September squall had soaked and cooled the rock and rapid-dried it in a 60mph wind. I still fell off, but quite possibly I think I lost my concentration because I was trying to understand how all the holds suddenly felt so much better! Both experiences lasted only moments and neither were particularly memorable in other ways, but they obviously remained strong in the memory for a reason.

So the other day on Longhope I was cursing the complete absence of any frictional properties of this section of diabolical rock. So how then does it follow that I still enjoyed the climbing here? My second realisation in this moment was that only because the friction was so frighteningly absent, that the subtle balance required to move between the holds was so much sweeter to experience.

The message of this post? Whatever rock you always climb, think of the exact opposite, and go and climb some of that for a bit. The very aspects you might hate about it might well reveal something even stronger to enjoy.

1 comment:

  1. Dave I was at your lecture at Ratho on 4th Feb. Listening to your description of this route was just awe inspiring. I thought your description of the line of choss was just right - I can still picture it in my mind's eye. Pure balance on feet, nothing for hands.
    I wanted to see you in person before you became famous for doing the Smarshall.