“Bouldering isn’t just about the climbing. It’s about the falls and, most importantly, how we respond to them.”
Photo: Jack Clayton
Picture the scene. I am six years old. It’s after school and me and my friend Liam are bored of sliding down the slide in his back garden and have decided, for some unknown reason, that it’s actually much more fun to run up a slide and then jump off the ladder. We’ve already done it a few times now and are getting that mad, rebel-without-a-cause, kick from it which only six year olds could get.
Standing on top of the slide, arms outstretched, I’m a boy in my element. In that moment, death is a concept outside the sphere of my understanding. I am immortal. I am the greatest man who ever lived. I am a god. And then, well then, I fall. Getting my left forearm caught in the ladder on the way down, I snap the middle of it in such a way that upon landing it sticks out at a perfect right angle. Do I cry? Just a bit.
Fast forward four years and I’m walking round Paris with my mum and dad. It’s my debut visit to the city and I’m blown away by how French everything is. Because we’re only in the famous city for a short period of time, we’ve decided to cram in as many of the iconic tourist attractions as humanly possible. First on the agenda, the Arc de Triomphe.
“I am immortal. I am the greatest man who ever lived. I am a god.”
When I first see it, I’m immediately intimidated. In the pictures, it hadn’t looked that big but up close it looks absolutely enormous; a beast of a structure towering over cars and people in the middle of a busy roundabout. My parents are keen to go over to it. They want to get a closer look, maybe go up it in fact. I immediately pull back, desperate to get away from the thing. My whole body becomes riddled with panic. Do I cry? Just a bit.
Later that day when visiting the Eiffel Tower, which is a whole six times taller than the 50m high Arc De Triomphe, my parents watch on perplexed as I cower beneath it like it’s Godzilla and I’m a monster movie extra waiting to be crushed. Turns out I really don’t like looking up at things. Turns out my dislike of heights gets going while I’m still on the ground.
January 2017. I’m clinging to the upper part of a bouldering wall in Bermondsey; painfully aware of both the drop and the numerous eyes staring up at me. It’s not quite clear what I’m doing but because I haven’t moved for a while the onlookers are currently going over the following scenarios in their heads: A) This man has died, B) This man is taking a nap, C) This man is suffering from a debilitating case of nerves like the kook he so clearly he is. The answer’s C.
A slide. Not the one that broke this writer’s arm, but a slide nevertheless. Photo via Getty Images.
I’d decided to take up bouldering as a new year’s resolution and, unlike so many new year’s resolutions before it, it was one I was evidently keeping to. On a wall in a south London industrial estate, with no idea how to get down or get higher, I was technically bouldering albeit in the most static way imaginable.
“There’s a tiger near your left knee,” says a voice from below.
“Yep. Yep. OK. I think I can get it,” I say, reassured to see for myself that the voice below is referring to the pattern on the hold rather than the big cat predator.
I clumsily shift my body weight and manage to get part of my left foot on the recommended tiger. But no sooner have I done this, my right foot slips and my hand grip loosens. With the force of gravity living up to its reputation as an occasionally cruel mistress, I’m immediately falling down towards the mat in a style best described as a “goalkeeper’s belly flop.” Imagine a fridge-freezer hurled from a bridge, and that’s basically what I look like in that moment.
Shot taken at The Arch (Biscuit Factory) in Bermondsey. Photo: Jack Clayton.
Introducing floor to body and body to floor, like they’re strangers and I’m their mutual acquaintance, a loud ‘THWACK’ echoes round the space on impact. There’s a big collective “Ooooooh” noise followed by a couple of “Mate, are you alright?”/ “Dude, u k?” lines as I get back on my feet and check that nothing’s broken. Nothing is.
It’s my first big bouldering fall and, 11 months on, I’m happy to report that it stands proudly as the first of many. My almost one full year of bouldering has been brilliant. During my time doing it, I’ve learned that there’s always a solution to something even if it might not be obvious at the get-go. I’ve learned that it’s OK to fall, and that embracing the fall and learning from the mistakes is how we progress. It’s made a positive impact on both my physical and mental health. I really can’t recommend it enough.
“Introducing floor to body and body to floor, like they’re strangers and I’m their mutual acquaintance…”
Does all this mean I’ll be jumping off playground slides perched precariously on top of the Eiffel Tower anytime soon? No. Probably not. Learning bouldering hasn’t suddenly turned me into an Alex Honnold character. I’m not planning to solo El Capitan without ropes, or do any of the other mad stuff he does, anytime soon. What I will keep doing is looking up, getting on the wall, falling off that wall from time to time, and then looking up once more to approach the problem in a new way.
Bouldering isn’t just about the climbing. It’s about the falls and, most importantly, how we respond to them. Whether you’re looking to take it up as a new year’s resolution or just generally keen to try something new, I reckon you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the ways in which it alters your thinking.
For more information about climbing at The Arch, check out their website.
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