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The Art & Science of Bouldering reviewed

Cover

The new tome on climbing by German legend Udo Neumann raises some interesting questions on training for climbing. Not so much in its content but in its delivery.

You see there are a large number of climbers out there looking for a proscriptive training book that steps them through the process of improvement in micro managed steps. In a way they are looking for somebody else to do the thinking for them, to structure their progression as a climber and possibly even to pass on the blame to if their training fails to raise them to the lofty heights of achievement they envisage.

Udo isn’t looking to give you this in a book. Instead through his new book The Art & Science Of Bouldering he is inviting you to understand the processes involved in a climbers personal evolution as an athlete. For surely having a comprehensive understanding of the principals of climbing advancement will be equip any climber to make educated choices about their own progression.

Please note this is not knocking the other style of training books, the simple truth is people learn in different fashions so as they progress in climbing and for a lot of climbers this free thinking, free flowing style of book will be a godsend!

From the first pages of this mammoth ebook Udo’s unique presentation style and personality shine through. Visually very strong the content drags you from page to page stimulating your mind though a choice selection of photos taken over the many years of Udo’s career. The photography is excellent and visually dynamic with great frame by frame breakdowns of movement and positioning taken from video stills mixed with standalone shots that reinforce the story. Indeed seeing many of today’s top climbers in their younger years gives an interesting insight into the physiological changes they have gone through on their journey to where they are today.

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For some Udo’s presentation style may come across as too “loud” with lots happening on many of the pages. The trick for me is not to try and read each page like you would a traditional book but instead to let your eyes flow over the content and allow the context to dictate the flow. Indeed in some ways, and definitely supported by its interactive format, this book is more like a super PowerPoint presentation than a traditional text. And Udo himself in the introduction advises that the book is not only designed to be read from cover to cover but can be picked up at any point to focus on specifics.

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Going back to the interactive aspects of the book, on the attached photos you can see clearly the highlighted text sections. All of these will either skip you ahead to a section directly dealing with the highlighted subject or will take you to another resource be it website or video where you can see what is discussed covered in more detail.

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Udo’s approach to The Art & Science is uniquely his own and it works fantastically in the digital medium. While some may shy from the €26 price tag it is worth noting that the content included in this ebook is the culmination of thousands of hours of work by Udo over more than 20 years as a top climbing coach and philosopher. As any of you who have read his interview in The Circuit will understand Udo pours his heart and soul into climbing and in particular bouldering. The quality of this publication reflects that dedication.

The Art & Science Of Bouldering may not make you a better climber, only you can do that, but it is an invaluable tool in your arsenal as the knowledge it imparts could and would take years and years to puzzle out if you were to go it alone.

The Art & Science Of Bouldering is available to purchase now at http://artofbouldering.com/ and remember if you want to learn more about Udo and his philosophies and to hear from some of his top athletes on the IFSC World Cup circuit there is a feature length interview with him in issue 1 of The Circuit, available now at  http://www.thecircuitclimbing.com/Buy

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Survival

So… The last few months…

How do I describe them using positive words? It all seems to have been grim never ending toil intermingled with moments of heartbreaking grief and despair.

Sure there have been highlights but for longer than I care to remember now the world has weighed heavily on my shoulders.

Starting The Circuit from scratch has been the hardest, most brutally stressful undertaking of my 39 years on the planet and to be honest I’m not sure I the potential rewards have been worth the hours, the days even of mental anguish that I have gone through. I’ve had to learn so much and quite often the act of learning can only take place when you realise what you don’t know. And needless to say this realisation never seems to come early when there’s a gap in the calendar and a few days to learn a new skill.

Starting The Circuit had been a goal of mine for some time, ever since a chat with a climber from the Blue Mountains started to give shape to an idea of creating a purely performance based, high end climbing magazine focusing on the aspirational stars of the sport.
From my work as a photographer I knew several top professionals in the sport and so I decided to go to Europe, follow the IFSC World Cups and get what I figured I’d need for the magazine.

Of course I had no idea of the complexities of the mission I was undertaking or I may well have hid under a rock and avoided the concept altogether. Fortunately for the magazine, but maybe less so for me I had no idea and so blundered around Europe, taking photos, reporting on the competitions and getting to know the athletes so I could get the interviews I needed. At that stage everything was going great and the more people I spoke to about my vision the more enthusiasm I received from the climbing scene.

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Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

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I was not to know, I could not know then how much my life was about to collapse on my return to Australia. On the day of my return I was given the news that my father had pancreatic cancer and soon it became apparent that he had only months to live. The same months I had planned to write The Circuit in. I was committed to the magazine by this time but suddenly the timeline started to slip. I had to go back to New Zealand on several occasions to spend time with my family and to be honest, even though I was working hard on The Circuit my father’s illness was a far greater priority in my life.

So it was the expected completion of the magazine slipped from late September to October, then November then finally to December. Tragically my father passed away in Mid-December and would never see the finished item, although he did get the final proof in time to read over it and get a good idea of the finishing product. And I know that through all his pain and suffering seeing the magazine come to life helped keep him going that little bit longer as he waited for every update.

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“If The Circuit was printed in December where is it?” I can hear people ask. The simple answer is that while I grieved I needed to step back and breathe, to re-centre myself and get back on my feet. And to be completely honest I’m still not there yet.

The first thing I realised was I lacked the emotionally capacity to deal with all the work I’d taken on. Freight was turning into a nightmare and as I had no idea what the processes were, things were taking much longer than they needed too. In fact freight to the US has now been delayed 3 times due to my lack of knowledge around the cryptic paperwork requirements and instead of having already landed in the US as it should have I’m still trying to sort it out. By now I’m paying storage fees in China and twice have had to step back and stop myself from telling the freight company to destroy the lot of them as I just can’t seem to make headway with it and I’m failing to deal with the bullshit bureaucracy at an emotional level.

Now finally I am (hopefully) one single form away from the US shipment getting underway on the 28th which will be a huge load off my shoulders.

I hope the magazine will sell well. Pre-orders are ok, not where I wanted them but reasonable and interest seems to be growing in the wider climbing community. I need to really push now and over the coming weeks to get things moving with stock arriving in Australia late next week and in the UK and Europe a few weeks after that. All the pre-orders worldwide will be filled from the initial shipment to Australia so at least they’ll be getting their copies soon. (pre-orders are still available at http://www.thecircuitclimbing.com/Buy until the end of January)

The simple truth is if I don’t get The Circuit selling my World Cup season this year could be very short. I’ve poured not only my heart and soul but my savings into this and currently only have budget till the Innsbruck round of the 2014 IFSC Bouldering World Cup series. I am sure the return on investment will come but needless to say, while still grieving the loss of my father, the added stress has really beaten me up and I need to lift myself up and start pushing sales, both to individuals and gyms.

The only bright spark has been that initial reaction to the first copies of the finished product has been extremely positive. Graeme Alderson from The Climbing Works in Sheffield was impressed enough by the finished product that he immediately put in a big order for the gym and the initial feedback from the reviewers I’ve gotten copies to is that they are extremely impressed with the magazine.

Of course all the pain and frustration I am enduring this time will make the next issue that much easier to produce. I don’t need to learn the same lessons twice and without the background of personal tragedy it’ll be much easier to run to schedule.

I want to finish this out with a huge thanks to everyone who has supported me over the last 6 months or so. I know I’ve been insufferable, distracted and extremely intense at times. My friends have really kept me going and helped me battle my demons. I’ve leaned on them immensely and can’t thank them enough. Life is still overwhelmingly intense at the moment with the combination of grief and stress but my friends have been helping me through it all.

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Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

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Thank you.

Through trials, tribulations and heartbreak, the end is in sight!

So sometimes you are working hard, making inroads on a huge project then you just get blindsided by life.

This blog was supposed to be a regularly updated ‘Making Of’ for the first issue of The Circuit but as life has gotten progressively more topsy turvy and intense the last few months something had to fall by the wayside and blogging was it.

I guess it stands to reason that when you are transcribing then editing down over 40,000 words of interviews, recreational writing is low on the list of priorities. Normally however I do enjoy pontificating on subjects, making people think about topical issues, and occasionally just baiting the trolls. You see this sort of fluid, off the cuff writing is so different to interviewing that it’s almost like taking a break… Almost.

So here I am again to discuss The Circuit, to talk about where we’re up to and what has caused so many of the delays that led to the blog being shunted to the periphery.

The Circuit cover

The good news is that issue 1 is printed, it is bound and it is to the best of my knowledge waiting to be freighted to the corners of the globe where I have worked hard to establish a team able to post the magazine out to purchasers. Working out postage and distribution turned out to be the single most difficult element of the whole process as I wanted to keep the magazine affordable yet living down here in Australia I was quoted $14 per copy to send it to purchasers around the world… Needless to say, that couldn’t happen! The solution has been to ship the magazine in bulk from the printers to separate hubs where orders can be mailed out at local rates. A logistical nightmare in some ways but a necessary evil to ensure worldwide retail of $20 AUD delivered. Of course now we are just waiting on the ships.

Apart from the logistics the other main factor delaying the release of the magazine was the fading health of my father. While in Europe this year following the World Cups I got the news my folks had left the secluded area they were living in and had travelled to Auckland (New Zealand). This was unusual as my parents had left the rat race years earlier to a semi-retirement looking after remote area camps in the New Zealand wilderness.

On the day of my return home from Europe I found out that my dad had pancreatic cancer and soon enough our worst fears were confirmed and we were told he had months to live. I worked my butt off to ensure that he got to see the magazine but in many ways the stress and emotion pulled me back and I had to go back and rewrite parts of the magazine several times to get them where I wanted them to be. That combined with time lost to trips to New Zealand to spend time with my father really started to put me on the back foot and there were times I questioned my ability to complete the Magazine at all.

It was during this time, indeed, the whole time I’ve been back from Europe that my friendship with the irrepressible John Ellison of Climbers Against Cancer (CAC) was cemented. In the midst of his own battle with cancer John was able to give me great insight into the battle he was facing which I could relate directly to that of my father. John was also an amazingly inspirational figure as how could I be considering giving up when someone in John’s position could do so much.

John from CAC and Natalie our European correspondent repping CAC in Innsbruck

John from CAC and Natalie our European correspondent repping CAC in Innsbruck

I talked at length with my father over the last months and we decided to donate $1 per copy sold to CAC to help in the battle against cancer. After all every little bit helps!

In late November I finally got the magazine finished and the proof back from the printers. I was able to get it to my father as soon as I had checked it for colour accuracy and he had the chance to read it in his final days.

At 6.20am on the 12th of December my father, Tony Fowke, passed from this earth. He was cremated that same day holding the magazine.

Tony Fowke 23/10/1935 - 12/12/2013

Tony Fowke 23/10/1935 – 12/12/2013

Now here we are a couple of weeks later, still deeply grieving but getting on with things, getting the word out about the magazine and getting ready for it’s release.

Pre-orders are doing well and the first customers should have it in their hands mid to late January. Unfortunately with the length of time it takes the ship to reach Europe and the UK they will be waiting for a bit longer than the rest of the world but everyone who pre-orders will get theirs well before the rest as we will be sending a few boxes by air to make sure their faith in pre-ordering is rewarded.

For all the hardship I’ve been through making this happen I still believe it’s been totally worth it. To bring a new magazine to the market based on the high performance climbers, the stars of the sport both in competition and on rock, is well overdue. 100% pure inspiration for both the aspiring superstars and the armchair supporters of the sport! (Pre-orders are still available at http://www.thecircuitclimbing.com/Buy)

Enjoy!

Grading, It’s time for change!

Grading. Why is it so important to us as climbers? And why is it the bone of so much contention? All the time you hear climbers plead that it’s not important to them or that too much emphasis is placed on grades, only to see the same climbers rushing away to update their scorecard on 8a.nu or arguing for hours about the grade of some piece of choss that no one in their right mind could be bothered repeating anyway.

After the excerpt of my interview with Daniel Woods where I quizzed him on grade compression at the upper end of grading I received a lot of emails and comments about certain problems and whether our disregard in mentioning them was a slight against the perceived difficulty of the problems in question or the credentials of those who graded them. If you go back and reread the excerpt though you will notice that Daniel only mentions one problem by name. One! And that is purely discussing its aesthetics in an anecdote about life before youtube.

Sure Courtney mentions Daniels problem ‘The Game’, but again that is as an example of a problem which has experienced grade compression after repeat ascents.

So, getting back to the original query that I raised, why are grades so important to us? Indeed why do we grade in the first place?

Daniel made a comment about just this in his interview, a comment I removed from the excerpt as I felt it was superfluous to the discussion we were having. How wrong I would prove to be. Daniels comment on grading was as follows.

Numbers are irrelevant, it’s like how do you post a number to a rock climb? It just basically shows progression, that’s all it labels. It’s more of a safety mechanism so that if you’re a V6 climber you’re not going to go and try V14 and get really hurt, like pop your tendons or eat shit onto your back and be done. I see it that way, but it is a cool way to be like “oh I’m improving” you know.

And in that one comment he pegged the two most important aspects of grading to climbers. Safety and progression.

Daniel was way to busy holding on to worry about the grade on this line.  If you're wondering he's attempting Paul Robinsons Rise Up Lights 7|12

Safety is important whether it be on a sport climb or boulder problem, and even more so on a traditional, multipitch or alpine climb. When someone makes an ascent putting a grade on it gives perspective to the objective. Much the same as giving a name can set the tone of a route. Calling a problem “Shitty razorblades of skin eating death” isn’t going to have you expecting skin friendly open hand slopers all the way to the top!

Progression on the other hand is the nightmare. Calling a problem or climb a certain difficulty is exposing your ego and there are climbers out there who by their very natures will enjoy nothing more that undermining the achievements of others.

The simple fact is we all want to improve so we can enjoy climbing as much rock and as many climbs as possible. If you go to a bouldering area like the Grampians your options are limited if you are a V3 climber. Progress your ability to V6 and the number of problems open to enjoy increases massively. Likewise if you were to move the bar again to V9 or V12 the scope of available problems increases again. So progression is important and grading gives us a measure of that progression.

Jamie Emerson working hard on yet another Hollow Mountain Cave test piece.

The simple fact is however that bouldering grades are confused and fundamentally flawed.

Ask a boulderer what the grade of a problem reflects and they’ll give you one of two answers. The grade given either reflects the difficulty of the hardest move of the problem, or it reflects the cumulative difficulty of the moves. Two very different answers with two very different outcomes.

The Grampians mega problem ‘The Wheel of Life’ is the perfect example of this conundrum. Originally the unheard of grade of V16 was thrown around, the mythical 8c+ that has been strived for over many years. However speak to the ascensionists (I’ve spoken to several), and you’ll hear them give the hardest individual move no more than V9. So if we are going by the hardest move school of thought we are left with the world’s hardest pumper V9…

Australian powerhouse James Kassay making it looking easy on the test piece The Wheel of Life 70-9

On the other hand if we give a cumulative grade based on the overall difficulty of linking the problem we see a far more difficult grade associated with the problem. But then a fit (super talented) sport climber like Germany’s Alex Megos will come along and dispatch it with little difficulty at all… So maybe it doesn’t deserve the higher grade after all…

The solution is simple. It’s time to consign V grades and Font grades to the same scrap pile that contains Gill grades (B1, B2 and B3) and other defunct systems. It’s time to replace them with a new grading system that reflects both the Safety through indicating the overall difficulty and progression through outlining the actual maximum difficulty.

So I propose the following.

Break the grade of a boulder in to several separate components that when joined give the overall difficulty of a problem. Similar to the English E grade system but tailored for boulderers.

The first component we will give is the overall length of the problem, just how many moves is it? So on a long problem like The Wheel you’ll see a huge number like 70. Whereas a problem like Fontainebleau’s Rainbow Rocket will get a far more reasonable looking 1. We will call this the Full grade

The second component will be using the symbols on any modern keyboard to indicate the predominant angle of a problem. So The Wheel, being a roof, gets a -. On the other side of the spectrum Duel would get / for being a slab and Unrepeatable in Castle Hill would get a ^ as a mantle. Nice and visual for the current generation of instagrammer’s and iphone beta video watchers.

Australian Bouldering World Cup Team Physio Claire Langmore looking strong on If The Shoe Fits 4\8

Next we will have the Ultimate grade. How hard is the single most difficult move on the problem? In isolation. So now we are looking at a grade that will resemble this in a guide book. The Wheel of Life 70-9 or Duel 7/11.
Penultimately for the guide we will have the option of giving the problem up to two letters. The first letter would be C for contended. Confirmation can only be given by repeat ascensionists, preferably climbers more fashionable and better sponsored than the first ascensionist.

Lastly, and because safety is important we have an optional D to put on the end if a problem is dangerous. So an established, reasonably safe problem like Duel getting a simple 7/11 but Eagles Nest in the Grampians as a sand bag V8 by today’s standards would end up with a grade something like 14I8CD. In itself the length of the grade should deter less experienced suitors.

Paul Robinson making the most of all the hours in the day. Here seen climbing Genesis 5\13 at Crumbly in Sydney

This I am calling the Full Ultimate (F.U) grading system. Contentious problems would get a F.U.C Grading until such time that they are confirmed and potentially dangerous problems will be known as F.U.C.D!

Brain vs Fingers… Come on Fingers!

Hitting your head against a wall is pretty much a common occurrence when writing. Or at least it is for me.

Over the weekend I’ve been writing one of the editorial pieces for the first issue of The Circuit. It starts great and goes strong for about 600 words then it just… So I’m stuck at an impasse where I know where I want the piece to go but struggling with the tone of the closing paragraphs. It was all in my head but by the time my typing caught up…

I find when I’m writing this is my biggest bugbear. My mind is in one gear, flying along, churning out dialogue while my poor fingers struggle to keep up. By the time my fingers paw their way to the end of a sentence my mind is already paragraphs ahead, a distance that becomes insurmountable as the words fade before they hit the page.

I often work around this by keeping what you could almost call a back up memory. A corner of my mind that stays on a loop and holds the concepts of what I’m writing in check while my fingers plod along at a far more pedestrian pace. I would say this works for me four times out of five. Unfortunately the piece I recently started writing was a number five. The one where my envisaged content fades as my fingers drop to the keys and I’m left frustrated and dissatisfied with the limitations of the written word and the speed with which it frees itself from my mind.

Of course it’s not just working on the magazine where the limitations placed on the written word frustrates me. We now live in a world where short bursts of communication via text, email and facebook are replacing conversation with its tonalities, nuances and inflections. The written word has enormous potential but try squeezing that potential into a 160 character tweet or a text message and its limitations become abundantly clear. Littering conversations with emoticons to convey underlying emotion is now such a common action it’s all I can do to keep them out of my blog and magazine writing. Indeed how long till you see an interview with an athlete or a news piece that is closed with a 😦 or :)?

Are we training ourselves out of writing emotively through our sound bite culture? To me it seems like this might be the case and it saddens me greatly.

I’m trying to convey an emotion, a longing, a driving passion for climbing in the piece I’m writing for the magazine at the moment but the words have escaped me… Running down the hallways of my mind they are nestled in the dark corners, taunting, whispering, just out of grasp. But I will get them. If not today then tomorrow or the day after! I will wrestle my subconscious into submission and do everything in my power not to finish the article with a 🙂

So what’s coming up for the magazine this week? Well I’ve now completed two of the four main editorial pieces and the third is 90% written (the piece described above). This weekend I’ll be heading out to the Grampians again, this time in the company of Australian World Cup boulderer James Kassay, his girlfriend Claire and her sister Amy.

James Kassay rainy day bouldering at the Kindergarten. The Grampians

Claire Langmore on the classic sandbag Palm Beach V4-7

Amy Langmore on Y2K extended at the Trenches in Sydney

Hopefully we can catch the Team America crew as I’m looking to complete at least a couple of interviews after last weekend’s rain out had me ducking back to Melbourne to wring myself out.

Brownie and Hot Chocolate at Mt Zero Olives.. The best rain day option

Brownie and Hot Chocolate at Mt Zero Olives.. The best rain day option

So lots more photos after the weekend to make up for the dearth of photographs from the weekend.
I’ve also locked in the page count and content list for the first issue which is starting to look great. Seeing how much there is still to do is like standing at the base of a mountain but when I look at how much content is completed already I know we are well on track.

Last weekend on the way to the Grampians modern technology came to my aid and I was able to watch our European correspondent Natalie’s first comp climb back from the carpark of a supermarket in the middle of nowhere basically (a wee town called Ararat, search it on google maps if you’re curious). Nat climbed great before running out of steam high on the climb. This weekend we’ll be watching again from the warmth of the Log Cabins at Mt Zero in the Grampians and again we are wishing her the best of luck!

Watching the European Champs from the comfort of my car on the other side of the world.

Watching the European Champs from the comfort of my car on the other side of the world.

This weekend’s World Cup in Briançon will also be the scene of Climbers Against Cancer’s second major donation in the fight against cancer so tune in to watch CAC founder and all round inspiration John Ellison handing over the huge novelty check right before the Men’s finals.
The World Cup will be streamed live at http://www.ifsc-climbing.org/ 🙂