Bouldering, for the uninitiated, is like wall climbing but without any of that paraphernalia of ropes and knots and harnesses that makes wall climbing so complicated. No bouldering wall is much above two stories in height, and the floor below is padded. It’s useful for those on a budget because so much less is needed. Your own pair of climbing shoes, ideally – though you can hire those. A bag of chalk for freshening up those sweaty hands for a crucial grip is also handy – but there are big family sized bags lying about anyway.
I wasn’t much into bouldering before I came to York. The Boulders climbing center in Cardiff had a sizeable bouldering area, but it always seemed like a sideshow compared to the larger climbing walls. With York, that all changed. My third week in, I took a little trip with their climbing society and discovered The Red Goat, tucked away in an industrial area behind the Morrisons.
The Red Goat does bouldering and bouldering only. The walls are a varied mix, some leaning outwards at steep angles, other with massive square overhangs to test your grip, others cluttered with lumpy ‘features’ to test your agility. A range of plastic hand and footholds are bolted sparsely to the wall, colour-coded by degree of difficulty. The yellow ones look like enormous chunky sweets, the black ones are slightly slimmer, and the whites and greens are tiny slivers of nothing that I can’t even get my head around gripping yet. I once got halfway up a white, and can do the blacks with a modicum of reliability. By the end of the session, though, when my forearms feel like bundles of birch rods and my fingers couldn’t grip a pencil, I’m lucky if I can do the most basic yellow. It’s the kind of activity where you cycle down in t-shirt and jumper and overcoat, and cycle home in t-shirt and shorts. You do lose skin off your hands, before they toughen up. After my first session, I was lifting my teacup with my left hand for days.
But there’s more to it than the physical side. It’s almost like doing a jigsaw puzzle, working out where to put your left foot, and how to hook your fingers round a hold, and how to shift your balance so the next hold is in reach. There are wonderful moments where nothing seems to exist but the wall, and the next handhold, and the one after that. The focus is total. It gets better with friends, figuring out each stretch of the wall by turns until one of you reaches the top, and the others can follow his example. I’ve never done something that’s so physical and cerebral at the same time.
None of this would mean anything if you were doing the same old routes to death, but the routes seem to be scattered and reassembled as regularly as the magnets on a fridge. And the place is full of other surprises, like a real wood stove, a well-stocked cafe and a wide range of board games. It’s become a weekly treat for me.
I’m only sorry I got into climbing so late. Back in Boulders Cardiff, I used to look at the adults sitting in the cafe with the Sunday papers while their children were scrambling up these sheer walls, and marveling at what a wonderful recipe for a quiet and stress-free afternoon it seemed to be. I’d have liked to have been one of those kids – but on the chalk downs of Hampshire, the facilities weren’t really around.
I also attach a few (rather questionable) verses I wrote many years ago, and entitled ‘Composed half-way up a climbing wall.’
Twenty feet in the air, I’m out of luck
I pause to think and swiftly find I’m stuck
And though I’m still a long way from the top
Beneath me there’s a long, unlovely drop
Down to the ground. Now I begin to tire.
My fingers ache, my palms freely perspire.
Those early holds, that felt so good to grasp
Like friendly hands, locked in the firm dry clasp
Of binding contract, now are smooth and small;
So slick with sweat, so spaced across the wall,
They offer almost nothing I can grip.
My fragile hold gives way. I flounder – slip –
And dangle there. My friend below, belaying
Shouts up advice. I can’t hear what he’s saying
But I can clearly see what must be done
The handholds and the footholds, every one
The route I must take could not be more plain
I find a hold, attempt to climb again;
But no amount of willpower can avail
To bear me up. My arms and fingers fail;
Their muscles sunk to such a sorry state
That they can scarce support my body’s weight.
With cramping fingers, to the wall I cling
And make a badly judged attempt to spring
Upwards, in desperation – though I brush
My hold, I lose it – fumble, fall, and crush
My balls (and hopes) against the harness straps
And here, my fraying patience finally snaps
(Bruised testicles are horrid handicaps
To masculine concentration and morale).
I’ll go find some more climable locale.
Though since, despite the pain, I am most loath
To own I have been beat, I swear an oath
When I have been better equipped and trained
With legs unwearied, and with arms unstrained
I shall return – this shall not be the end!
Then call down to my partner, and descend.