Reflections & Commentary:  Page 2

A Golden Age of American Bouldering
Reactions & Ratings
Aging Boulderers
Adults & Children
Meaning of Bouldering

Whymper Drawing


Fenton's Corner 1963
Fenton's Corner, Estes Park, ca. 1963
  A Golden Age of American Bouldering . . . ?

How could you define a "Golden Age of American Bouldering"? That period in the history of the sport in which participation dramatically increased and accomplishments took the leading edge of difficulty to a relatively inaccessible plateau? If so, then I suspect we are still in it. My own interpretation of Golden Age is a bit different: A period in which there were few participants and the soul of the sport was first glimpsed. A time of  freedom and experimentation, an absence of formal structure, and an awareness of vast potential – both geological and athletic. A somewhat naive period, uncomplicated by technicalities and marked by a strong sense of adventure and exploration. A time of rapid progress by climbers having normal genetic profiles.

By these defining qualities I would identify a Golden Age of American Bouldering as approximately 1950 – 1970. Before 1950 bouldering and top-roping were largely aspects of practice climbing, one blending into the other, although there were occasional instances when the seeds of the current spirit of bouldering could be observed – such as the Steck Overhang (5.10) on the corner of Columbia Boulder in Camp 4 at Yosemite (1940s). After 1950, a number of climbers in Royal Robbin's generation began to enjoy "practice climbing" or "bouldering" for its own sake at Stoney Point and elsewhere, and I feel this is when "modern bouldering" made a first persistent, though tentative appearance in America. When I learned of bouldering in California and Wyoming, in the mid 1950s, it was a mostly light-hearted, moderately competitive climbing venue that few if any acknowledged taking very seriously. As John Sherman observes, there was more an attitude of "can we get up this thing?" rather than "how hard a thing can we get up?".

the Scab 1963
The Scab, Needles SD 1963

Bouldering takes Form . . .

uring the late 1950s through the 1960s new, hard bouldering routes were done by Ament, Robbins, Kamps, Cleveland, Goldstone, myself, and a number of others. I became fairly serious about this "new" sport, and acted as its principal advocate and promoter during this period.  Usually (but not always), problems from this era could be done by a competent boulderer on the first or second visit, although occasionally they may have taken a bit longer to initially work out. Generally, difficulty levels were such that unusual physical traits were not required - merely persistence and some degree of training and dedication. Most boulderers were also traditional climbers. I had devised a personal, three-level rating scheme that some other climbers used as well. Its simplicity frustrated controversy. This was an era of exploration and initiation, although competitive spirits were rising as climbers sought to discover their personal technical limits. The 1960s were a transitionary period when "Can I get up this section of rock?" gradually gave way to "How hard a problem can I do?"

After 1970, a new, talented generation perceived bouldering as a challenging, legitimate, and competitive form of climbing that could occupy a considerable portion of one's climbing time. Discoveries of new bouldering gardens continued, but the  focus on competitive efforts in existing areas flourished as well. In Colorado, for instance, Jim Holloway and a few others began systematically attacking potential problems on Flagstaff Mountain, Horsetooth Reservoir, and Morrison with the intention of creating extraordinarily difficult test-pieces – short climbs that few if any others could do. Sometimes these required literally weeks - even months - to accomplish. (In California's Yosemite, Midnight Lightning took two months of effort by Ron Kauk, an all-around climber and exceptional boulderer, in 1978.) I have no problem with this goal – it's part of a natural evolution - but I do feel the Golden Age, with its exhilaration, spontaneity, naivety, and unpolished charm, had ended by this time. 

Robbins at Makanda Bluff

Royal bouldering at Makanda Bluff, 1973
Photo Gary Schaecher in Vertical Heartland (2005)

Bob Kamps early 1970s

Bob Kamps bouldering in the Black Hills, early 1970s

Mark Powell

Mark Powell, 1960s

Reactions Toward My Bouldering . . .
Climbers of the Golden Age of American Climbing who Bouldered . . .

"Ever wanted to make an outrageous assertion and get away with it? Just pick
the blankest side of a boulder or the most ridiculous looking overhang and say that a few years ago you saw John Gill walk by and climb it" -  Steve Wunsch in Master of Rock

When I began to do less roped climbing and more bouldering in the late 1950s, there were those climbers who thought my choice of a specialty was odd. Normally, they weren't rude, but simply let it be known that they were going out to do a real climb.

What I found interesting was the fact that those climbers I knew who were in the very top ranks were more understanding. Yvon Chouinard, Royal Robbins, Bob Kamps, Dave Rearick, Mark Powell and others were, in fact, enthusiastic boulderers, and while they were more interested in the longer routes – this was the Golden Age after all, and there was much to be done! – they thoroughly enjoyed bouldering sessions.

Royal, whose very name positioned him accurately in the hierarchy of climbing talent, was very competitive in all areas of the sport, and was a serious and excellent boulderer.( Royal & me - 1991 ).  Bob Kamps , whose face climbing skills were unsurpassed, was a delightful and challenging bouldering companion, and took those efforts seriously, as did his frequent climbing partner, the academic mathematician and amateur gymnast, Dave Rearick. ( Here are two photos of Bob & Dave (courtesy B. Kamps) after their FA of the Diamond in 1960, and in 1992).

Dave and I used to press handstands on the cement slab of the Climbers' Campground in the Tetons. Later, in the mid 1960s, Pete Cleveland and I bouldered together and climbed together on several occasions, and this superlative climber was a tremendous and focused bouldering competitor. The Californians had polished their skills at Stoney Point, before launching a new era of bouldering in Yosemite, and Pete had done his preliminaries at Devils Lake (which, because of its topography, certainly encouraged the spirit of bouldering).

Mark Powell (courtesy B.Kamps) once told me that even though I had acquired certain physical abilities that several of the West Coasters found a a bit provocative, they were friendly towards me because they felt that by focusing on bouldering I presented no direct threat in those areas of climbing they considered most important. Some were dismissive, but others perceived that bouldering might have a sort of peculiar potential, and were energetic boulderers. So, even though there were very few dedicated boulderers, the social climate among climbers was untainted by any sort of overt collective disparagement of my specialty.

Modern Bouldering . . . My Interpretation

It seemed to me the stage was set for the decisive emergence of a new, gymnastic, more dynamic form of bouldering, a specialty that would press beyond existing roped standards - which, in America, by the end of the 1950s, were just beginning to exceed 5.9. What seemed harder than 5.9 became "5.10", and there were very few of these. (Although in Utah in 1949, Harold Goodro had done the first American 5.10, calling it 5.9 - the top of the existing scale). By using new training techniques and more dynamic motion, however, I was able to do short pitches or boulder problems - by 1958 and 1959 - that would today be rated 5.12 to hard 5.13 (V9 - V10) - but were then simply 'more difficult' than the new 5.10s. To reflect this reality a new and specialized grading structure would be helpful.

Ripper at 50

The Ripper at 50, 1987:
B1,  V5,  5.12c,  7b+,  6b,  27,  9,
 VI.4+,  Xa,  VI,  8,  8c,  E5

Bouldering Ratings . . . How fine a partition?

In 1958 I devised the first American bouldering rating system . At that time "trad" climbing was king, and had there been any forays into what we now call "sport" climbing, they would have been dismissed as unethical. Consequently, as Yvon Chouinard observed, " The hardest moves will always be done on the boulders". I envisioned three categories of technical difficulty: B1 would denote the highest level of difficulty in traditional roped-climbing, B2 would be a broad category of more difficult or "bouldering level" problems, and B3 would be an objective category signifying climbs that were unrepeated, though attempted. When a B3 was repeated it would drop to a B2 or perhaps even a B1 level. As time went by, B1 would correspond to higher levels of traditional climbing difficulty, and the system would shift accordingly. My idea was to promote this new sport by challenging climbers to improve their technical skills to the point they were capable of  "bouldering level" difficulty, but discourage the degeneration of bouldering itself into a numbers-chase. Unfortunately, my system was a bit too abstract and went against the grain of normal competitive structures, where a simple open progression of numbers or letters signifies progress. For a while, I was virtually the only climber in America who thought of bouldering as a separate, self-contained climbing activity, and so the public rating format I had conceived became more of a private convenience. And in that context it worked quite well. 

The concept of a three-tiered system has validity as a personal rating structure, but is woefully inadequate in an environment of mass competition. When Jim Holloway was at his peak, he used personal ratings referred to as JH(easy), JH(moderate), and JH(hard). Klem Loskot uses a personal system very much like mine, with B-1, B-2, and B-3 designations. In my personal interpretation of my B-system, I thought of  B-1 as being difficult, but done fairly quickly, B-2 as very difficult, requiring a number of tries, and B-3 as the limit of my ability.

Lou Lutz

Lou Lutz, who began climbing at 60, bouldering at Livezey Rock in 1977 at age 89 - photo by Chris Jones

The Aging Boulderer . . .

If achieving an exclusionary level of difficulty is the sole criterion for success in bouldering , as it seems to be in large part in formal gymnastics, then, at some point in the future, participation beyond the age of thirty may seem futile. Not a good thing. But the climbing tent is huge and much more varied than the gymnastic arena, and there are currently mature boulderers who have persisted through the fortuities of age and found comfort in an adjusted perception of their sport. They have been little influenced by an excessive focus on extreme grades and competition by a tabloid media, nor so discouraged by the feats of precocious children that they have simply stopped bouldering!

The words of Alan Hankinson in The First Tigers (1972), as he describes the motivations of the earliest true rock climbers in the Lake District of England, resonate as well for many modern and mature boulderers: "They climbed, quite simply, because they enjoyed it, and they climbed hard because it was in their nature to pursue excellence. They wanted to be 'stretched', to be totally involved".

Adults and Children . . .

ere is a photo of me bouldering at Horsetooth in May of 2003 with members of the Climbing Eagles of Adams County High School, coached by Todd Mayville.

And here are shots of the crux portion of my old 1960s practice contrivance I called the True Torture Chamber. One of me at about 58, and the other of talented young Hector, 14 or 15, of the Climbing Eagles as he works out the sequence. The entire traverse runs about 5.13, I would guess.  

Children will always have a distinct advantage in making many rock gymnastic moves.  In addition to the elfin lightness of youth, children have lymphatic systems that are superior to those of adults, allowing more continuous time on the rock surface before burning out. Tiny fingers make minute handholds seem large.

Horsetooth 2003

"Let anyone of ordinary height take a friendly small boy of an active nature for practice on such a place [high stone wall at home . . .] and he will have the pleasure of seeing him easily climb up vertical places that are much more difficult, or probably impossible, for the taller man, even though he may be an expert mountaineer." - George Abraham in The Complete Mountaineer (1907)

Shades Mountain early 1960s

Shades Mountain, Alabama early 1960s

The first bouldering & climbing in the state at modern levels of difficulty
What Does it All Mean . . .?

Many older climbers tend to view bouldering more as a personal challenge, a path of accomplishment - of enlightenment even - than as a formal competitive sport with international rankings. They are concerned with personal progress and skills and perhaps use the V-scale as a convenient (though inconsistent) measure, and experience bouldering as a life-style, not merely an athletic competition. The meaning of bouldering is a function of commitment, and can never be adequately articulated. But intensity, total involvement, and challenge premised on difficulty are usually parts of the personal equation, as is some degree of exploration . There are alternative adjustments focusing on movement and meditation - climbing easy terrain in an impeccable style, for example - but few follow these avenues.

And what is the true nature of difficulty ? Can there really be a uniform code describing it? Does it exist in some abstract, objective way? If so, can you distinguish where genetics ends and difficulty begins?   As the pool of bouldering athletes grows those at the far right end of the bell curve are more genetically appropriate for the sport and what was once perceived as very difficult simply doesn't seem all that hard for them. Climbers now warm up on 5.9 or 5.10 - top grades in the 1950s. Apart from genetics there is a phenomenon seen frequently in educational circles: the power of expectations.

Bouldering is exciting and enormously energizing, and it compels us to be the best we can be - regardless of numbers or letters or what others are capable of. It's personal and deeply rewarding . . .

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