Sunday 26 October 2014

Bouldering, media and Messner's castle

A damp day in Magic Wood from Dave MacLeod on Vimeo.

A wee vid of one damp day in Magic Wood (Pirhana 7C and Left hand of Darkness 8a) and a quick hour on the way home at Kyloe in Northumberland (Hitchhiker's Sit Start 7C+). I last visited Kyloe maybe 12 or 13 years ago I think. And couldn't do this problem!

After the rather down few weeks following the no vote, I was fortunate enough to have a trip to look forward to. I’m now on my way home from a Gore-Tex event at the International Mountain Summit in the Dolomites. En route, Claire, Freida and I decided to make three stops of several days each. First we took on Disneyland Paris. Quite an experience.

Then we met up with friends in Fontainbleau. Much of our days here were spent finding things to do while rain poured down. We managed to get two or three sessions in on the boulders. Conditions were awful and so nothing hard was done. The hardest thing I could get to the top of was Salle Gosse (7C). There was a brief window of wind and although conditions were still pretty bad, I almost got the 8a sit start. I’d love to come back here in decent conditions.

The most important thing I did here was climb with Freida. She learned a lot from the brief opportunities for clambering up little boulders. Claire’s face was a picture when Freida started screaming ‘boulders!!!” and sprinted off in the direction of the rocks.

Next, we moved on to Magic Wood. And again, we spent most of the days waiting for it to stop raining. I did get one good session at the start and did the moves on an excellent long problem called ‘From Shallow Water to Riverbed’ (8B+). There’s no way I could do it in bad conditions. I get a bit annoyed with myself for never learning, and accepting how badly I climb it warm/damp conditions. My goal for this trip was simply to learn to pull hard on holds again after a summer of alpine north wall action and general multipitch big hold action. So I shouldn’t be worrying myself about this. But inevitably once presented with a forest full of hard and amazing boulders, I still want to climb them just as much. Bouldering trips teach me over and over again that I’m simply not strong enough to climb hard stuff when it’s greasy. I just have to suss out the sequence, and take my opportunity when the cold breeze finally comes. Easier said than done, for my fiery head anyway.

Freida inspecting the very wet Riverbed boulder, Magic Wood.

I reminded myself of my experience here last time, after over two weeks of failing and failing on Mystic Stylez (8B+), I needed literally one try to do it easily, the one time I turned up and there was a cold breeze. Keep that in mind, MacLeod.

After playing in the sand with Freida under a still soaking Riverbed boulder, I did get two nice problems climbed in semi-dry conditions Piranha (7C) and Left Hand of Darkness (8A/8A+). They are in the wee vid above. I do really like Magic Wood and am still totally inspired to train and come back here for a long trip in good conditions. Hopefully in the spring...

And then it was on to the IMS festival in Brixen. The folks at the IMS and Gore-Tex took great care of us. I was especially impressed on the climbing day to turn up at the crag at 9am to find catering staff already set up with tables spread with cakes, sausages, potatoes, apples and even beer!

On the last day I was due to take part in a panel discussion about climbing and the media at Reinhold Messner’s castle in Bolzano. There was a panel of rather esteemed climbers, journalists from near and far, and me. Generally speaking, there was were quite a few voices feeling that mainstream journalism was going rather downhill. Messner himself seemed worried about both the direction of journalism, and alpinism itself. 

While I totally agree that the newspapers spew out daily rubbish on everything from the usual propaganda to rubbish about climbers and climbing, I’m not sure how much of a problem this is for climbers. Messner and others expressed concern that kudos would be dished out unfairly to pretender alpinists, using their bottled oxygen to rattle out tweets while being dragged up Everest. Meanwhile, the real feats of alpinism go unnoticed. For some, seeking sponsorship to achieve some ‘real’ climbing feats, this must be an issue. But it balanced out in some ways. Sometimes, I feel that it’s convenient that much of the BS in climbing is kept contained within Everest instead of infecting the whole of climbing. In other words, leave them to it. We can still achieve plenty in the media, if not far more these days with social media.

When I say ‘achieve’, I’m not thinking of maximum dissemination of our boasts about our hardcore ascents. In my mind, the primary purpose of dealing with the media at all as climbers is to inspire and inform an audience, sharing our ideas about what climbing gives us and what we learn from our escapades in the mountains. However, some playing the media at it’s own game can help us with this goal.

Just as we love to hate climbers who use things like an oxygen and guide supported ascent of Everest to launch a narcissistic career in anything from motivational speaking to politics, we can use our ascents to spread a different message.

Guys like Tim Emmett and Will Gadd are great exemplars at this. They can both be showmen when it is the right time. This takes the attention. Then once they have the attention, they use it to show their audience some really great ideas and ways of living.

Social media has made this even easier than before. In days gone by, in order to sustain any profile, you had to keep doing things that got you mainstream media attention. Now, you can use just one appearance to gain an audience for your feed and off you go.

Now, I understand that only a very few can achieve the same reach in social media as you can in mainstream media, even today. However, I don’t think that mainstream media attention is always all it’s cracked up to be. It is often consumed at a passive level, and of course, often written up badly by journalists with selling more dead trees or eyeballs in mind, instead of exerting a positive influence on people.

Coming out of the discussion at Messner’s, I was left with the conclusion that complaining about other alpinists and journalists does little to help things. However, there is a lot we can do by focusing on our own responsibilities and resources. Where we do get a chance to speak through a mainstream media outlet, let’s use the opportunity to speak clearly about the good things in climbing. Otherwise, the stories will only ever be about deaths in the mountains and Everest shenanigans. As climbers I feel we are sometimes awkward in presenting our messages to a non-climbing audience. This may be partly or largely out of fear of oversimplifying or dumbing our ideas down. I think we have to get better at communicating to this audience, as well as accepting that we have to speak a little differently to an audience that has yet to learn that climbing is not all about death, risk and who is the fastest or first. Remaining aloof, prickly, or simply opting out of the discussion isn’t a great solution.

The good news is that even if some some profit driven journalist drives our climbing down to a level of ‘world record’ this or ‘adrenaline junkie’ that, as long as he points at our blog or twitter feed, we may have a second chance to speak to that audience and tell them a different story.

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