Footloose And Fancy-Free
There’s been a lot of swinging around on the home wall this week. I've been setting boulders with very few or no footholds. These are not the kinds of boulders I normally climb and I wouldn’t seek them out in a gym. I decided to set some boulders like this for exactly this reason. I’m a big fan of the ‘working your weaknesses’ school of thought in climbing so having the home wall has been a great opportunity to make boulders that don’t suit my style of climbing. As I was up a ladder with a socket wrench, attaching big holds to the wall and hoping the three hounds zooming around my feet wouldn’t knock the ladder out from underneath me, I wondered why it was that I was put off this kind of boulder. Turns out, I’ve got some thoughts on the matter.
What Does It Mean To Campus Something?
First of all, let’s explain some climbing jargon. Climbing without feet is known in the business as campusing, from the verb to campus. If your feet come off the hold while you’re climbing (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not) this is referred to as cutting loose. You can train this kind of climbing on a piece of equipment called a campus board. According to Wikipedia, it got its name from the first one of these concoctions, which was installed in a university gym called The Campus. The thing itself is a gently overhanging section of wall with rows of wooden rungs screwed onto it. It looks sort of like ladder if the person making the ladder had received design instructions from someone bad at explaining what ladders are. The campus board can be used to improve finger strength, upper body strength, and explosive power or lock-off power depending on how you move up and down the rungs. If you want to see some of the most ridiculous displays of strength on the campus board, I recommend this video by Adam Ondra, arguably the best rock climber in the world
You don’t necessarily need a campus board to work on your campus skills though. You can just climb boulders without using your feet. One legend of the climbing community who does this with the most incredible amount of style is Louis Parkinson, also known as Captain Cutloose. Even if you’re not really into climbing, this video is a great giggle and an excellent example of climbers absolutely mastering the art of dicking about.
There are even competitions for climbing without your feet. One particularly splendid example is the Beastmaker International Footless Festival, or BIFF for short. This competition is extremely fun to watch and I’m sure, if you have the upper body strength, extremely fun to compete in. As well as climbing boulders without feet, each year the competitors face more unorthodox challenges like shimmying along rotating tubes, swinging around on gymnastics rings, climbing ropes, or clinging onto slippery perspex spheres with their forearms as well as their palms. As you can see from the highlights of the 2018 competition, it’s ridiculous and a brilliant laugh.
My Experience With Campus Climbing
So, this footless climbing certainly looks like a lot of fun. However, as I mentioned, I’ve often shied away from boulders that require the climber to cut loose and campus boards intimidate the hell out of me. When I first started climbing, I simply wasn’t strong enough for this kind of malarkey. I used to absolutely love swinging around on the monkey bars when I was at primary school. Unfortunately, my power to weight ratio has gone in completely the wrong direction since then so it took a couple of years of climbing before I felt confident enough to take my body weight on just my arms. Even now I’ve been climbing for a good few years and I know I could benefit from training my campus skills, when I think about wandering up to a campus board or trying to climb a boulder without my feet my palms get sweatier than they normally do half-way up a slab wall. And that’s pretty darn sweaty.
It just seems like something I have no business even contemplating. It's not unfair to say that when the general public thinks of rock climbers a certain image is conjured up and I’m far from the embodiment of that image.
Rock climbing often invokes images of men with their nipples out, covered in muscles, pulling obscenely hard on extremely overhanging pieces of rock.
Despite the fact I know this is not always the case and that climbers come in all shapes and sizes, these are the types of climbers I associate with the campus board. It’s the natural habitat of the dude-bro. The comfort zone of the overtly masculine show-off. The exclusive club for those fueled by raging torrents of testosterone. Stand back little lady, it’s not safe for you here.
This is also the experience I’ve had in climbing gyms and it can be quite disheartening. I’ve been to a lot of gyms with campus boards and cannot remember ever seeing a woman using one. But I’ve seen plenty of guys bouncing joyfully up and down those rungs. I’ve seen men merrily campus boulders that I’ve been trying to climb with my feet on for weeks. And I’ve seen blokes climbing barefoot because apparently using their feet just seemed unnecessary. This is not only disheartening but also horrifyingly unhygienic.
Social media and YouTube are also awash with videos of shirtless muscly specimens performing seemingly impossible party tricks on campus boards. Beasts like Magnus Midtbo, the Bouldering Bobats and the boys from the Erik Karlsson Bouldering channel regularly show their skills on the campus board or on burly boulders featuring campus moves, attracting many thousands of views in the process. And you can see why. These moves are extremely impressive and very entertaining to watch. It’s exactly the kind of thing that gets attention, views, and therefore sponsorship and delicious dinero. It looks like a fun way to make a living.
And I’m not saying that any of these men are doing anything wrong. They’re absolutely not. They’re just having fun and training for the sport they love. And they didn’t get immensely strong and extremely skillful overnight. You don’t just stumble up to a campus board and casually climb up it on your fingertips without any practice or consistent effort. And I enjoy watching them doing these incredible things. I like watching men climbing powerful boulders with their shirts off as much as the next person.
But this particular world feels very far out of my reach. With or without my feet on the wall. Whenever I stand at the bottom of a campus board, I feel like a total fraud with no idea of what I'm doing. I know that I can only get good at using this piece of equipment with practice, but I somehow feel like I’m letting the whole of womankind down because of how shit I will inevitably be when I first try it. I know I would enjoy trying to climb more boulders without my feet and it would definitely be a fun way for me to improve my use of momentum as well as my strength. But I worry. What if I come across as a show-off? That’s not ladylike. What if I’m somehow doing it wrong? Maybe there’s a trick only those with a Y chromosome know that unlocks the secret to campus powers. What if I give the game away that I’m not a real climber, or at least not one who belongs anywhere but the slab wall being dainty and flexible? It would be a shame to blow my cover after all this time.
Is It Just For Burly Men?
Luckily for me there are women out there showing the world how strong they are and that there’s room for women in all areas of climbing. Professional climbers like Molly Thompson-Smith and Alex Puccio blow my mind with the one-armed pull-up abilities and extraordinary power they regularly display on their Instagram feed. Over on YouTube, the Bouldering Dabrats are taking on boulders that your average-JoJo could also contemplate having a go at. This channel is run by two hilarious and extremely relatable climbers, Annie and Di, who are doing an excellent job of showing ladies trying hard and having a great time in the process. There’s even a video of them facing off with my nemesis, the campus board.
So far, my personal campusing exploits have been confined to my home wall. Not just because I’m a coward but also because the UK is currently in lockdown and none of the gyms are open to the public. I was actually pleasantly surprised with how easily I managed to complete the first boulder I set with campusing in mind. I managed the footless section first time and only fell off the boulder when a foothold got involved. I had to try hard, but I got it done quickly. If you could imagine the Benny Hill music or something similarly upbeat and comical while you watch the videos of me campusing that would be great.
I then upped the ante a bit by moving the holds a bit further apart and changing the direction of movement from mostly sideways to a bit more up, therefore requiring a bit more pulling. This little bit of route-setting was briefly held up by a sloppy dog poo in the exact position that I needed to place the ladder but once that obstacle was cleared, I got back to swinging around.
It turns out that I find moving up with no feet a lot harder than moving sideways. When I want to move sideways, I can get there by swinging my legs from side to side and building up momentum. Then it’s all a matter of sticking out a hand at the appropriate point in the curve and clawing at the next hold. Up is a bit harder. I can get a bit momentum going but if I swing back and forth with too much gusto I just slam into the wall. Bad wall, get out of my way. The action is more like doing a very enthusiastic pull-up and grabbing for the hold at the top of the pull-up before I fall back down again. I can do pull-ups but only a limited number, on decent holds, and definitely using both arms not just one. This is good news though. I now know that I can work on improving my explosive power and pull-ups on different types of holds. A lot can be learned from slightly adjusting two climbing holds while dodging a sloppy puddle of dog poop. I’m sure my readers come here for this type of wisdom so I’m glad I haven’t let them down this week with this gem.
Building confidence on the home wall has been a lot of fun and a great place to start with my footless antics. Assuming all continues at its current pace, our local gym will be opening again on the day this post is published so I can have a go at swinging around on even bigger and better boulders. Maybe someone will think I’m a show-off. When I think logically though, I expect most people probably won’t even notice what I’m up to. Maybe I will do something wrong and end up in a heap on the floor. But, again thinking logically, I do this every time I go climbing, whether I’m using my feet or not. Climbing, especially bouldering, is all about getting it wrong a few times then solving the puzzle of how to get to the top. Doing things wrong means you’re trying hard and putting the effort in to push your limits. And who’s to say what a real climber is anyway? One more deep breath and logical thought reminds me that if you’ve turned up and tried hard, you’re as much a real climber as anyone else in the gym regardless of how many pull-ups you can do or what grade you’re climbing.
Now we’ve got that sorted, I’m excited to swing into my first post-lockdown climbing session and re-discover my inner child who loved the monkey bars so much. She didn’t give a shit what the boys thought or if that kind of behaviour was unladylike or too brash. As I always tell my friends when I take them climbing for the first time, the best climber is the one having the most fun, and I fully intend to be the best climber in the gym when it opens again this week.