Essay: With All Due Respect, Boulderers

I love climbing in all its incarnations. Although we pursue different avenues within the sport, we’re all united in our affection for seamless harmony with the rock and dynamic movement in nature’s most stoic context. Any day spent climbing is a good day. Sunshine, rainbows, prAna logos, etcetera.

Having said that—if we can be candid for a moment—I really hate bouldering.

Allow me to rephrase that: I have a strained relationship with bouldering. My body isn’t built for it. It’s not something I excel at. My bouldering ambitions have mostly resulted in stress fractures in my proximal phalanges and a bruised ego. It’s not that I don’t like climbing hard—I enjoy pushing grades as much as anyone. But repeatedly throwing myself at five grunting moves to get to the top of a head-high overhang does little to inspire me. Somewhere along the line, my reptile brain was miswired into thinking that hanging off of my fingers from a 100-foot crack line is the height of aestheticism (and perversity).

It’s pointless, of course, to split hairs within climbing. From the perspective of the greater populace, rock climbers as a whole are a maligned tribe pursuing arbitrary goals, and this stance is absolutely correct.

When I was in college I somehow made all the wrong decisions and fell in with a group of pebble wrestlers. We spent our rainy Oregon winters tucked away inside the pallid confines of the climbing gym, bouldering constantly to maintain strength for the spring climbing season. It might have been a deeply traumatic experience for me if we weren’t such good friends.

In 2011, during spring break of my senior year, we traveled south to chase a more arid climate in Joshua Tree. We spent most of the trip wandering amidst boulder problems, punctuated by the occasional trad climb when I could convince someone to don a harness and belay me. During the evening of our third day, we found ourselves working a problem in Hidden Valley. Most of my friends flashed it as a cool down. The crux moves didn’t relent so quickly for me.

The problem started on an undercling jug with no feet. The opening move involved a campus to a higher side pull, then finding dime-edge feet on a 45-degree overhang. From there, a series of powerful, dynamic moves on crimps led to a vertical hand crack and an easy mantle. I tried the first moves repeatedly, but fell every time after the side pull. I sat back on a spare crash pad and watched as another friend stepped up and sent it on the first try. It was late in the day and my fingers were sore. My elbows hurt from repeatedly torquing on the campus move. I wanted to stop to save my skin for a crack I wanted to climb the next day. But for some reason I couldn’t step away.

Every fall led to me analyzing the moves again from the crash pad.

It’s just a boulder problem.

It’s not even that great of a boulder problem.

I don’t even like bouldering.

What the hell is wrong with me?

Do I … do I actually care?

I found myself standing below the undercling once again. I pulled through the campus move and stuck my left foot on a nub, this time flagging with my right. I bumped up to the first crimp and fought through the remaining moves to the base of the crack with waning strength. I had nothing left. I couldn’t feel my hands. I had two solid hand jams, but I was too weak and afraid to let go and make the next move. My options were limited, my doom imminent. The end result would be a broken ankle or petrifying highball commitment.

Give me rattled pin scar fingertip jams.

Give me insecure bone-grinding fist cracks.

Give me run out slabs.

I fucking hate bouldering.

The crowd below offered unconvincing support. “Come on, Sam!” Not happening. “Yeah Sam, you got this!” Doubtful.

Dude, you’re a crack climber, you love this shit!

This time they struck a nerve. God damnit he’s right. I am a crack climber. This is the best part of the whole problem.

I nervously bumped up my right foot to a small dish. I was shaking, exhausted, terrified. But I went for it. Some form of mangled guttural roar escaped my diaphragm as I threw for a higher jam with my left hand. It stuck. General chaos and cheers erupted from below, but I was too far down the rabbit hole to notice. I couldn’t feel anything anymore. My entire psyche was committed to holding each jam and sinking the next one. It took everything I had left, but I slowly worked my way up the remaining five feet of the crack and over the mantle.

Let my cams collect rust. I stood up. I relinquish my nut tool forever. I turned to face the sun as it dipped below the desert horizon.

I am the golden God of all that is V3!

My hands were shaking from fatigue. Blood dripped from a clean crystalline puncture in the pad of my left ring finger. But in that moment, standing there 15 feet above the desert floor, I was unstoppable.

In that moment, I absolutely loved bouldering.


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