Bouldering for real climbers

by Stephen McMullan.

Bouldering - eh? When did it start? – I’ve no idea.

First there seems to have been the Alpine exploration in the mid 1800’s and that became expeditions to the Greater Ranges culminating in the ascent of Everest in 1953. This was the golden age of mountaineering. From there it all went downhill – literally. Back it went to the Alps and then to the big walls. From there to the crags and then they put in bolts on the cliffs and we had “sports” climbing and then to the indoor climbing walls and “plastic” and then to the boulders. Some say that the natural progression from here is mountain biking, surfing, slack lining or skateboarding to which one or more cynics despairing of the emerging trend have replied that it might as well be “sitting in your dressing gown at 2pm on a sunny summer weekend, watching day time TV chat shows, eating cornflakes and scratching yer bollix”.

I heard legends of places like Fontainebleau where the local Parisians practiced climbing on boulders because they lived in a crap area of France for climbing and counted down the weeks and months to their holidays in the Haute Alpes or Provence. There was the British variation on this; exemplified by the Cromlech boulders in the Llanberis pass in Snowdonia in North Wales where climbers would mess about when it was raining too hard to try anything on Dinas Cromlech. But my mates and I didn’t bother with any of that sort of stuff. We had Dalkey Quarry and just gave up when it rained or was cold or if it was winter.

A few of us knew a lad called Andy Griffith (all boulderers are called Andy or Dave) back in the early nineties. He was the first person I heard using the word “bouldering”. But we gave him a pretty hard time and called him mean names like “Pebbles” and the like. We assumed that bouldering was like soloing except you went no higher than the height from which you could jump back down. It must have been very demoralizing for them, going from one failed ascent to the next. We couldn’t imagine how they could keep going and not jack it in completely and take up soccer. They just didn’t get what climbing was all about, we told ourselves, as we wheezed our way up the next Dalkey VS over the course of an hour or so.

Of course there was training. Training involved sitting against the tree and watching Colm O’Cofaigh and Donie O’Sullivan doing traverse laps of the Ivy Wall. Sure they were not too high off the ground and could jump down with only the odd twisted ankle but it was about STAMINA. That’s what you needed on the routes. The more laps and lactic acid induced face grimaces the better.

In and around 1992 the Irish Bouldering League started and that was all you ever needed to know about bouldering. It was something to do it the winter when the weather was cack. 21 problems with three attempts on each. That was all you needed. If you couldn’t do it in three then you couldn’t do it. Ranking in the top 66.666% percent of the Male A league, boy we were good.

The first time I went bouldering outdoors was 1995 with Alan Sarhan at the Col Des Montets in Chamonix Valley in the Haute Alpes region of France. Mind you I limited myself to those problems that had the stream flowing beneath them. There had to be some element of quasi-adventure and consequences for falling off, especially in the Alps.

The first I became aware of the bouldering “element” was in and around this time also. People who I knew were good climbers stopped turning up at the Burren and Fair Head and entering the IBL but still claimed to be “doing something”. The B-word was mentioned as were trips to Fontainebleau. Were they on the way to or from the Alps I wondered and breaking their journey on this famous lay-by on the Autoroute du Soleil? The dress code had shifted too. What was the deal with the black “The North Face” duvet jackets? Wearing down feather jackets at the UCD climbing wall? North face of me bollix more like!!! You couldn’t wear tracksuit bottoms, shorts or Ron Hills anymore. Oh no – it was praNa and Stone Monkey (we’ll just forget about 80’s lycra tights faze for, oh let’s say, the rest of my natural life).

I’m not sure when the boulders first appeared in the valley floor in Glendalough but I’d swear that they weren’t there before 2002 or thereabouts. Every now and again you’d see someone you recognised emerging from the scree. It brought it all back from the days of “Pebbles” in Dalkey. “They’re only codding themselves; they know the crags are up there waiting for them”.

Peter Owens wanted to do something for the day and nobody was around. I was keen but I dreaded the prospect. The guy was too fit. I was in for a hard day. Not enough in the arms for those 40m pitches anymore you see. Or 30m or 25m… Ah there’s someone I know lurking on the path. It’s that lad Michael O’Dwyer. Hey they’ve got mats. Thought he had given up climbing. Shame really, he’s good on the wall in UCD but I hear he can’t lead harder than HVS. They’re climbing in Portrane? I used to mess around on those cliffs as a kid. I thought Martin climbed all the routes there anyhow. Are there new routes? Crap rock anyway and smaller than Dalkey. Suppose it’s handy if you’re living in Balbriggan and can’t make it to Dalkey easy enough.

This seemed an easy escape for someone who had pretty much given up climbing, got old and put on a pound or two…and definitely compared to a days cragging with Owens. And sure seeing how you’re on a lull and all your mates have given up climbing it’s no loss to take a look at other things and see what they’re about. Not a waste of a climbing day at all being a cold winter day and sure we have the rack in the bag and can go up and do some VS off Forest Ledge if this bouldering lark is no good and we can always go back to the car park via the zigzags and up and over the boardwalk so we feel like we’ve done something for the day. No Peter, I’m not going to run it.

What’s that you’re doing, Michael? The Rails? They have names????? I can only see one Rail. Why is it called the Rails? No, I’m not starting on my arse. I’ll try it standing up like a proper climber. Bit short isn’t it? OK show us how you do it.....