Once upon a time, there was a rock. Its name was Wild Country, and it lived in the forest of La Pedriza to the north of Madrid. I stumbled across this rock by accident, but oh what a happy accident it was.
October 14th, 2018
One of the more ridiculous things you end up doing as an outdoor boulderer is playing the game that I like to call Spot That Rock. The game involves wandering around a remote area of countryside with an expensive guidebook, featuring pictures of the rocks you’re looking for if you’re lucky, or a hand-drawn map of questionable scale hopefully showing all the rocks in the given area, if you’re less lucky. You’ll also be trying to manage a large boulder mat, a rucksack full of supplies for your adventure of indeterminate length depending on how lost you get, and, in my case, an excitable pointy dog, who thinks the whole thing is ridiculously good fun and a husband with limited patience for Spot That Rock.
The day we discovered Wild Country, we had been playing a long, frustrating, and mostly unsuccessful round of Spot That Rock and it was starting to look like we weren’t going to find anything we had a hope in hell of climbing. Sweaty, confused, and frustrated, I loudly declared to the surrounding area of the forest that I didn’t give shit what grade it was, I was going to try to climb whatever chalk covered rock we next came across. Guidebook be damned! Luckily for me, the next rock we saw that had chalk marks on it was a beauty of an overhanging boulder called Wild Country, 6b+.
The block starts on the left-hand side of the rock on a lovely big jug (climber speak for bloody good hold), a good right foot hold and flagging out with your left foot. Your right-hand bumps along a couple of crimps (climber speak for less good hold) before you pop your left heel onto the lovely start hold and pull up to another crimp just above it. You then pull with everything you’ve got to shoot your left hand over the top of the boulder and, in my case, cling on for dear life. Both feet then move onto the rail of crimps you bumped along at the start so your hands can work their way to the right-hand side of the top of the boulder. You then throw your left heel up, level with your hands, and mantle onto the top of the boulder. In short, it goes: establish, bump, bump, heel, crimp, pull, work the feet up, bump, bump, bump, heel, mantle, finish. Simple as that.
This boulder is very overhanging and does not necessarily play to my strengths, but I’d decided I was going to climb the next bloody thing I found so that’s what I did. On that first session, I was genuinely surprised at how far I got. I managed to all the moves until the big throw for the top with the left hand then, separately, managed to haul myself over the top and complete the mantle top out.
Indoor climbers like myself, don’t encounter many mantle moves. Many bouldering gyms just have blocks that finish at the top of a wall, only requiring you to match the final handhold rather than get your entire body on top of the structure. So, when you’re released into the wilderness and actually have to get onto the top of an actual boulder you don’t really know how to do it. My current technique resembles a dying fish washed up on dry land gasping for air and flailing every inch of its body in an attempt to get back to safer, more familiar surroundings. Basically, I smear as much of my body as possible on the top of the boulder and shuffle myself along it until friction eventually overcomes gravity and I’m no longer likely to slide gracelessly back down to earth with a thud. It’s a real plus if I manage not to kick my husband in the face in the process as he hovers near this wriggling chaos ready to stop my head smashing into the floor if it all goes wrong.
February 10th, 2019
Our second trip to this boulder involved different kinds of sweating, confusing and frustration to the first. I dropped yoghurt all over the kitchen floor and my climbing trousers while making breakfast. We couldn't get parked anywhere near the boulders and as we were coming up with a new plan our dog, Amber, vomited all over the backseat of the car. On our long walk up towards the boulders Amber met a couple of overly friendly dogs that she didn't like and fell over while running away from them and hacked a hole in her knee. Eventually we found the rock but I was too tired and flustered to really commit to climbing it. Finally, Amber was too freaked out to paddle through a small river so we had to negotiate her over the rickety thin bridge made of fallen trees that leads to the boulders at La Pedriza.
The course of true love between a woman and her rock never did run smooth.
February 23rd 2019
Climbing in front of other people is something I know many climbers find difficult. It's something akin to stage fright. The added bonus when climbing in front of others is that those watching, rather than sitting politely in their chairs, supping their overpriced gin and tonic and applauding, sometimes feel it’s their place to look you square in the eye and tell you how you’re doing it wrong. In the business, we call it beta spraying. I’m sure this comes from a good place and isn’t meant to make the sprayee feel like a piece of festering excrement that has no right to place their shitty fingers upon the sacred rocks. However, this is an unfortunate side effect of, in my experience, larger, muscly men telling smaller and more slender women how they would do it differently. And, you know, the patriarchy doesn’t help. For most of my early climbing life, I just assumed that these men knew better than me. I thought I shouldn’t argue with them or their suggestions because they were obviously right, and I was obviously wrong.
And this is what I thought when a hairy man stomped up to my rock on this day, while I was attempting the crux move of the boulder. This is a big dynamic move to get your left hand onto the top edge of the rock. I’d been trying this move in a few subtly different ways for some time before my “hero” arrived to share his infinite wisdom. After some polite chat, he went ahead and beasted his way up the rock first try. Bastard. He then instructed me on how to do the crux move. I dutifully went ahead and tried his method unsuccessfully as he watched on like an extremely disappointed Obi-Wan.
It felt fucking awful. My body was telling me this was not the way I was going to climb this boulder. But it felt rude to try something else with him still watching. And he’d made it look so easy. I must have been doing it wrong somehow. He clearly knew better than me. Or I just wasn’t strong enough to climb it.
Now I’ve been climbing for a bit longer I realise this was all utter bollocks. One of the absolute joys of climbing is that people of all shapes and sizes can be equally excellent while doing the same boulders in totally different ways. World class professional climbers can be 5ft nothing to 6ft 8, built like brick shithouses or prima ballerinas, and spritely teenagers to ancient legends of the game at the age of 35. Size and strength are not the limiting factor in climbing. If you learn to understand how your own body works, embrace your strengths and practice your weaknesses, use your creativity, and not be afraid to try some interesting methods, you’ll be at the top of more boulders than you ever expected.
I like to think that if the same thing happened to me today, I would have the confidence to tell my beta sprayer that I appreciated his suggestion, but it wasn’t the right method for me. That or, less politely, tell him to stick it in an uncomfortable orifice of his choosing. This would definitely have been preferable to slogging away at something that, if I’d been really honest with myself, I knew wasn’t going to work.
May 11th, 2019
This time, I managed to have enough faith in myself and my awareness of my own body to ditch my beta sprayer’s method for the crux move and do it my own way. I was both delighted and frustrated with how easy this move felt once I found the beta that worked for me. As is often the way with climbing, once you work out the details, moves that felt totally impossible suddenly feel straightforward. Move the heel a little higher, shift the right foot to a fractionally different position, and pull a bit harder on the right crimp and voilà, it’s done. Sometimes they feel so simple you have genuinely no idea how you managed to spend so long pissing about on them in the first place.
By the time we left the rock this time, I was 100% certain that the next trip would be the one. I was going to do it next time. I’d done all the moves and knew my sequence. If I tried to when I was fresh it would go down easily.
May 23rd, 2019
I’m not a patient human being. That's just a fact. I’m not good at waiting for things. We planned to return to the rock the following weekend, so the moves didn’t have time to fall out of my head. Unfortunately, I had another problem to take care of in the meantime. The contraceptive implant in my left arm needed replacing and, though rock climbing is pretty high up my priority list, not reproducing is even higher up the pecking order.
The trip to the doctors for this procedure was eventful. At this point in life, we were living in Spain and neither myself nor my husband had a great command of the language. Our health insurance cards also didn’t work, meaning we had to pay for the procedure in cold hard cash, which neither of us had brought with us. So, I found myself alone in a small and stuffy room being interrogated and then scolded by a frightening gynecologist as I failed to remember the date of my last period and bordered on having a full-blown panic attack. The doctor then moved me to the adjustable chair of terror where I lay down as she dug around in my bicep for what felt like an absolute fucking age! I was so freaked out by the whole thing that I didn’t realise she’d put a stitch in my arm, which had never been required when I’d had the procedure before, and promptly ran out of the place before correctly filling in the paperwork or uttering a single coherent Spanish sentence. Husband had acquired many euros from the nearest cash machine and paid for the exquisite service. Unfortunately, he failed to make me feel any better as he was experiencing a terrible and poorly timed bout of hay fever and was therefore too busy sneezing to give me the sympathy and attention I felt I deserved.
The previous time I’d had my implant replaced, I went climbing the very next day. It wasn’t the most comfortable experience of my life, but it was generally fine. This time, I couldn’t even lift my arm above my head the day after the procedure. Now I’m no expert and have only had this done to me three times so I don’t have a lot of data to go on. That being said, that doctor was definitely a scalpel wielding maniac, who clearly had no idea what she was doing in my arm. I strongly dislike her and her terrible bedside manner. That practice also clearly needed to update its technology, invest in a card reader that actually fucking worked, and learn to make appointments properly as they were absolutely stunned to see me again when I came back a week later for the follow up appointment I hadn’t expected to need but was probably a good call considering the mess Doctor Hack’n’Slash made of my poor bicep. They clearly did all this to spite me. There’s literally no other explanation.
Once poor Husband had stopped sneezing long enough to make words come out of his face rather than pollen and snot he pointed out that, although I was being somewhat harsh on the doctor and her colleagues (although the selfish part of my brain continues to beg to differ on that one), it was OK to be understandably upset about having to wait another week to go back to my rock. But, he pointed out, it would be all the sweeter when we did go back and I finally climbed the wretched thing.
And that’s what happened. We had no trouble getting parked. Amber obediently paddled her way through the river. We managed to find the rock easily without a single wrong turn or disaster. No dogs alarmed us. No beta-sprayers sprayed us. We arrived at a beautiful rock in a peaceful forest. I had a couple of goes at the crux move to get my eye in. Then, seven months after I first laid eyes on it, I climbed Wild Country.
It feels kind of stupid to put so much value in what is basically a pointless exercise. As Amber proved so many times while I was scrambling about under this rock, I could have
walked up the back of it with far less effort. What I was physically achieving by getting to the top of this rock was getting my body approximately ten feet off the ground. The same thing could have been very easily achieved with a step ladder or a decent trampoline. Not exactly miraculous.
But the process matters. Because I completed this project, I no longer feel like a complete fraud when I climb on real rock rather than colour coordinated plastic holds in a nice safe climbing gym. I know to avoid stern doctors with scalpels if they give you heebie-jeebies (I feel like I should have worked that one out earlier, but never mind). I believe that I know better than random blokes who have never seen me climb before. I know that I persistence pays off. And, most of all, I know I fucking love climbing.