Elements of perfection in bouldering

Reflecting on a month of climbing

2016-08-11

The beauty of the area, the more immediate setting (vegetation, rivers, surrounding boulders), the characteristics of the base, the colours and shapes of the boulder, the solidity and friction of the rock, the shapes of the holds, the types and variety of holds, a consistent start, middle and end, the size of the boulder, the nature of the movement implied by line, the physical and mental challenge. These are the qualities I look for in a line. They were the qualitites that inspired me during the month of July while bouldering in the Western Cape.

Finding

To identify potential areas to explore one can use technologies like Google Earth in combination with local knowledge, but you never know for sure until you stand in front of the boulder. So to find boulders that conform to the aesthetic and athletic ideals explained above one has to, quite simply, walk and look for it (this obviously does not apply to areas where guides exist).

Most of the time you will look at boulders that are too easy, too difficult or fail to meet some other crucial criteria for further attention. So to find the gems, those that have enough of the elements of perfection you have to be willing to walk. In fact, given how much time and energy it takes, you have to more than just willing to walk, you have to positively enjoy the process of searching.

Engaging in the process of searching is itself intensely rewarding. By immersing yourself into the landscapes you get to know them in extraordinary detail. Each area has it own characteristic features - some are more mountainous, others have lush vegetation and mazes of rock, others combine steep slopes with intermittent plateaus, some areas are freshly burnt after forest fires and some of the best areas require non-trivial river crossings during the winter.

Returning to these areas over and over eventually allows you to create a mental map - the atmosphere, the details of the approach to the boulders, the nature of the vegetation and eventually the sequences of the boulders themselves. It provides a complete experience that goes beyond just doing a climb.

Doing

On the last day of the trip I managed to do the first ascent of Die boogskutter (The archer). We first tried it about 10 years ago when we started climbing in the area. At that time we had not yet optimised the approach so it was more than an hour’s walk. Now that we know a better way it has become much more approachable and has seen probably four sessions in total. It’s a proud and powerful line on perfect sandstone.

Die boogskutter, 7c+ - about 13 moves in total. It starts with a series of compression undercling moves which traverse into steep overhanging arete climbing on positive holds. The topout sequence is the crux: you move into a full extension lockoff from a strange position all the way up to a terrible 1/4 digit crimp; after which you make a big move with the right hand to an OK hold. And the topout is not a giveaway either.