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Defining a Boulder Problem

Posted on 14. Jul, 2010 by in News

What does it mean to climb a boulder problem? The word bouldering itself does appear at dictionary.com (which most serious boulderers would find amusing) and also at Merriam-Webster but not in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary.
It’s easy to conjure the image of Midnight Lightning, in Yosemite or The Mandala, in Bishop. A singular line up a striking section of rock on a huge free standing boulder. It seems the qualities that define a problem in these instances are obvious. This is not always the case however. The general understanding is that bouldering both occurs in very obvious ways and also very inobvious ways. Anyone who has climbed in The Black Hole at Morrison knows this well. Boulder problems do not always top-out, or climb to the top of the boulder. Sometimes they don’t occur on boulders and some would argue that they don’t even have to occur on rock. So how are we to understand our sport if we haven’t or don’t define what it is exactly that we are doing? I would argue that we have, in some sense, but this is so rarely discussed that I thought it would be interesting to do so here.
We all seem to have a general understanding of what it means to climb an obvious and classic problem, but do we? Without being able to define what a boulder problems is, it is terribly difficult to define what it means to actually climb one. I think the two go hand in hand, and I will discuss them as such.
I think there are four basic categories: the start, the problem itself, the finish, and the issue of the ground. If one is climbing outside, then the preferred medium is rock.
The start: If a climber is interested in repeating a problem, I think the most objective way to go about this is by starting where the first ascentionist started. The first ascentionist earns the right (by being first) to determine where and how the problem should begin. Starting anywhere else than where the first ascentionist started, regardless of how inobvious or awkward this is, is climbing less than what they did. Claiming to have done the same is poor form, and climbers have and will justify this in any number of ways. Do subsequent ascentionists have the right to redefine where a problem should start? I can think of several instances where the community “decided” that the first ascentionist started in the “wrong” place, but do the actions of the majority make it right? Is this somehow a slight to the effort of the first ascentionist?
The problem: Once the climber has left the ground, it should be up to them to interpret the rock and come up with a solution. While it is reasonable to think that a climber attempting to repeat a climb would know where the first ascentionist started (based on talking to other climbers, watching internet videos, or consulting a guidebook), it would be nearly impossible to document and try to repeat their exact beta. It would also be unreasonable for repeaters of so many varying body types to do what the first ascentionist accomplished. Part of the enjoyment of the sport is figuring out how to start in one place and climb through a section of rock.
The finish:The first ascentionist also defines where the problem finishes, although climbers generally seem less concerned about this. The Centaur, in RMNP, comes to mind. Dave Graham did the FA, and contrived the finish to climb straight up the wall. Anyone interested in repeating The Centaur should also be interested in knowing that it is a contrivance, and knowing what that contrivance specifically is. Several early repeaters avoided going straight up, but claimed to have climb The Centaur. Eventually this got worked out, and now people call this The Marble Sit. The community helped changed the definition of The Centaur to become more specific, and this happened because climbers didn’t follow in the lead of the first ascentionist. It is interesting to think that there is some communal governing of what is going on, but there is no real climbing government. What is the role of the climbing community to govern these “rules”?
The ground: It seems obvious that if there is one rule of bouldering, it is that the ground is off. A day spent at most bouldering areas would perhaps suggest the opposite, or at least that it is acceptable to kick a pad or step briefly on the ground, especially if your spotters claims, “You’re still good.” Where is the line drawn? Is it acceptable to reach back, while on a jug, and grab some chalk? Is it acceptable if your shirt grazes the ground? Clearly each climber makes their own choices about the way they participate in the sport, and if they didn’t have such freedom I personally would be much less interested. Finally, does it change things when these “offending” ascents are claimed as good?
It is extremely challenging to place such definitions on something as ineffable as a piece of rock and the act of climbing on that rock, however if the progression of our sport is going to be based on the achievements found on rock, then it is imperative that there are clear definitions about what it means to climb that rock.

21 Responses to “Defining a Boulder Problem”

  1. Lukas

    14. Jul, 2010

    starting on different holds may result in doing more than the first ascentionist climbed though – vincent pochons “big island” comes to mind (sorry for my bad english)

    either way – great article, your blog’s pretty good :-)

  2. B3

    14. Jul, 2010

    Lukas thanks for sharing! I think if one were to start lower than where the FAist started, then they would be adding to the original problem and they are climbing something new. Pinchot’s “Big Island” is a great example, and he should get credit for a great FA.

  3. matt

    14. Jul, 2010

    how about different beta (freshly squeezed, etc)?

  4. The Barbarian

    14. Jul, 2010

    Hope you don’t mind counter thoughts,

    If “It would also be unreasonable for repeaters of so many varying body types to do what the first ascentionist accomplished” through the The Problem section then why is it unreasonable for repeaters to determine a start appropriate to their body type?

    “What is the role of the climbing community to govern these “rules”?” Maybe the governing body should not be referred to as the climbing community but rather the Ascent Certification Board since the climbing community is anyone who rock climbs (basically), which consists of those who care and those who don’t give a hoot.

    Having climbed with specific goals and serious aspirations in my past and now being rather nonchalant about climbing I have to say that “Doing a problem” seems more about satisfying other people and buying in to history and the idea of the problem or the scene around a problem. All these rules are an affliction of acceptance by our peers and measuring ourselves against our peers, right?
    Anymore, I just want the rock to be the rock, not a boulder with a coating of imaginary circumstances.
    Like finding a boulder in the woods and believing noone else has climbed it. It is rock at that point. For most people thereafter their minds are clouded by the circumstances of history (name, first ascentionist, grade, famous people who have ascended it, what movies it was in, what magazine, is it considered cool with good moves, did you see it recreated in a gym before you climbed it, etc.). And the trick is that someone could have climbed that boulder before you but they left no sign but it doesn’t matter to people b/c the absence of any sign allows them to define their moment and make their dreams come true.
    Good post Jamie.

  5. sock hands

    14. Jul, 2010

    this stuff is easy. it’s good and valid if I say it is. not all of us “I”, just me “I”.

    all legislation is riddled with exceptions and alternatives. further, all legislation changes with the times to reflect current consensus or to attempt to correct prior inconsistencies and injustices caused by the written law. further, there are judges and juries to sort out the grey zones. and no change is ever perfect… many changes attempt to fix a perceived problem but create a surprising array of new and sometimes worse problems.

    so, i propose appointing a monarch to rule on every instance.

    if i am not appointed, i will have a coup and appoint myself anyway, so appoint me to begin with to save the trouble.

  6. Joe

    14. Jul, 2010

    Interesting topic! It’s interesting that we invest so much time and energy in a sport, but when asked to ‘define’ the sport, or explain bouldering to non-climbers, it is difficult to do (at least for me).

    I like the idea that a ‘problem’ should share a start and a finish, with the climbing in between open to interpretation, but following the same general line.

    But what about height/length? This has been much discussed before, but how would you define this for a “boulder problem”? Ambrosia? Wheel of Life?

  7. Brian

    14. Jul, 2010

    This reminds me of a time I was climbing on La Coeur in Fontainebleau. An old man with a cane walked up and sat on a tree to watch me. After a few moments he became disgusted and started yelling at me. My wife (who speaks better French) translated. He was saying that he was there when his friend did the 1st ascent, and that I was not doing it the same way…I was doing it wrong (not the start, but the sequence). He then mimicked the correct beta (which I had already tried, and did not work for me). I continued to try it my way and with a loud huff, he walked away.

    I thought it was ridiculous of him to expect all people to use the same beta, and this is somewhere where I felt French and American climbers differed. On that note, there are probably some who feel that expecting people to start the same way is equally ridiculous, although I am not one of them.

    Interesting discussion none the less.

  8. campusman

    14. Jul, 2010

    Gill used to do math problems while resting for his next climb.

    Then the climbs were called boulder problems.

  9. Sam

    14. Jul, 2010

    This is a very interesting discussion, the nature of which is not at all limited to climbing or physical pursuits. The task of categorization and definition is a fundamental philosophical or linguistic problem that dates back to Plato, if not earlier. Unfortunately, I don’t think you are going to find any apodictic truths regarding climbing rocks besides arbitrary points of consensus that are loosely based on logic; more likely, whatever the current trend has deemed to be in vogue. Fortunately, there is something transcendent to be achieved in the movement over rock, regardless of how we reflect upon it, and sometimes exploring those reflections is worthwhile. Jamie, great work with your blog, I am impressed by the efforts you put forth!

  10. Chris

    14. Jul, 2010

    Since we’re attempting to define our sport, I think it would be appropriate to look at what one of the greatest boulderers of all time, Fred Nicole, had to say on the subject: “It’s my life, and I don’t want to be restricted by ‘it should be bouldering, it should be sport climbing, it should be a traverse’… I don’t expect any judge behind me to test ‘that’s right’ or ‘that’s wrong’… What makes climbing so great is that it’s not rules given from the human being; it’s given from the nature. So, there are as many possibilities as there are rock on this planet.” 
    I think that this gives an interesting view on the issue of having some kind of governing body or rulebook concerning bouldering and also on whether or not things like the Wheel of Life should be categorized as a boulder problem, sport climb, traverse, etc. (I personally beleive it’s a boulder problem :)

  11. Ian Walters

    14. Jul, 2010

    Hey Jamie, thanks for the thoughtful and well-written post.

    First, the ability of the climbing community to “communally govern” its ethical standards strikes me as important to this discussion. Second, it seems like many people could really argue with you about this statement: “if the progression of our sport is going to be based on the achievements found on rock, then it is imperative that there are clear definitions about what it means to climb that rock”.

    The idea of a governing body, or even a dominant ideology surrounding ‘acceptable’ bouldering practices, is a pretty nebulous idea. I don’t think it’s a weak idea, and I don’t think you do either; but like you say, it’s a pretty tough one to put a finger on. This entire post does a good job fleshing out how that ideology looks from your end, and I agree with nearly all of it.

    But let’s assume that your ideas here are published as a manifesto in ‘Climbing’. Next, some rich climber bribes Jens to endorse them on 8a, they are carved into the tree next to Midnight Lightning, and set in a placard under the Mandala next to a bronze boss of Sharma’s face. After some joyful sucker-punches and nostalgic bolt-chopping and chipping, they are universally agreed upon by the majority. How then are they enforced?

    While this is a pretty unhelpful fantasy (forgive me), I do think it’s important to consider who would prefer ethical standards enforced, why, and how. Because I personally don’t want them ‘enforced’, per-say; but the locals at my boulders might–I don’t know, I haven’t asked them. They have their ways, and I have mine, of bouldering.

    But I couldn’t resist a discussion like this if I tried, and so I post, and they don’t. Am I, then, ‘enforcing’ my own ideology? I would argue that I am, as my comments after yours will in some way help construct the rest of this discussion (assuming they are read), and those who have read them will have been affected in some tiny way, besides feeling annoyed.

    Thankfully, then, yours and my comments have only contributed to the same nebulous “governing ideology” we were attempting to clarify, in no more invasive or oppressive a way than my locals kindly suggesting I start a boulder in the right place. You may have realized by now that I think ‘the discussion’ is the only real regulating force behind ethical climbing standards of any kind (except for when ‘the discussion’ wanders onto private or national park property). But I don’t mind that—in fact, I like that very much. It puts a premium on a climber’s own conscience, fostering yet another strength that climbing helps one develop.

    But you, sir, are a very strong climber. You are implicated in the 3% of climbers whose livelihood depends in part on their ‘achievements on rock’—you are in a position to see firsthand and to be thoughtful about how bouldering ‘progresses’. And with your statement, “If the progression of our sport depends…” I think you are offering the world at large a glimpse into the interests of those 3% who either care more deeply, or are paid to care more deeply, about the way they boulder. By the way, if by ‘progression’ you mean ‘carries on’ and not ‘develops in difficulty’, then my mistake. I suppose I’ve been watching too much late-night Josh Lowell. And I don’t in any way mean offense by pigeon-holing you or your climbing for the sake of this discussion—I love your blog, and am inspired by the various considerations you deem important to your own climbing. I’ll finish my point anyway.

    To whom is it imperative that there are clear definitions about what it means to climb rock? And should we develop an ethical discussion based on the ideas of the minority? Because to me, that sounds like film criticism, and my local newspaper just told me not to go see the new ‘Karate Kid’. In my opinion, if Jackie Chan doesn’t make you happy, you should consider why he does what he does.

    Thanks again for the great post. I’m sorry if my response slows down your server.

  12. cj

    14. Jul, 2010

    I think in order for bouldering to exist there needs to be exact lines that should be followed. If i do a variation of a specific problem, how am i to say that i climbed the problem if i did not do the exact line. If you go off track or start on a different hold than intended, than the movement will change and it will not be the same problem. Sure you still did a boulder problem, but you cannot add the intended problem to your tick list if you don’t follow the line. This is why guidebooks are so cool! They tell you were to start and show you where you climb. Well, I would love to cover all topics but that would take all day, but it is necessary to say that the dab is something all boulderers need to agree on. If you dab, especially on a problem that is hard for you, it is necessary to bite the bullet and try the problem again. Never have i heard of an F.A with a dab.

  13. B3

    14. Jul, 2010

    I am running off to Mt. Evans, so I have this to say quickly, thanks everyone! And I am not suggesting there should be a governing body. More on this later…

  14. slabdyno

    15. Jul, 2010

    i can’t believe you are still talking about what a boulder problem is. haven’t you been climbing for like 3 years at least?

  15. campusman

    15. Jul, 2010

    If you have silver fillings in your teeth, you are not doing boulder problems at your highest potential without the fillings.
    Silver and mercury amalgam fillings are simply poisonous and I have not improved at rock climbing ever since the dentist put this poison in my mouth. At least I finally found out why I feel the way I do.

  16. sidepull

    15. Jul, 2010

    @B3 – I’m not sure why you included “The Ground” unless you feel that ethics have slipped so much that it needs to be made explicit. I’ve never met anyone who considered a “dab” okay, unless they were just doing laps / training. As cj notes, a dab on a FA would mean the FA still hasn’t been done. At the very least, that issue is black and white.

  17. Chris

    15. Jul, 2010

    An entire post/discussion could be devoted to the idea that “the progression of our sport is going to be based on the achievements found on rock”. Integral to the conversation would be a definition of “progression”.

  18. cj

    16. Jul, 2010

    The dictionary.com definition of bouldering is the reason why i don’t like to hang out with non-climbers (especially the ones who think climbing is about heights and speed) . Its impossible to create a definition of a boulder problem that works for everyone, but all i know is the first time i looked at a problem i was psyched and hooked for good.

  19. ErikM

    28. Jul, 2010

    I think everyone that cares about this subject should ask themselves why they climb. If you climb for self fulfillment, enjoyment of the movement over the rock, the freedom, the opportunity to push yourSELF mentally and physically, then you shouldn’t give a rats ass about what a committee, “the community”, or even the first ascentionist says is the right or wrong way to climb a rock. If you climb for recognition or acceptance, then knock yourself out with your rules. I want no part of it, and the whole discussion seems petty and self involved to me. Listen to Fred.

  20. B3

    28. Jul, 2010

    @ErikM You realize that by commenting, you are part of it?
    I care greatly about what the first ascentionist does and I also care about having the opportunity to push myself mentally and physically, and movement, rock quality, being outside etc etc. i don’t find the two mutually exclusive and I think there are many climbers that feel the same.

  21. ol1arm

    29. Jul, 2010

    3.145926… and 1.618033 and e=mc2.
    you havent discussed and of the predetirmined constraints and the REAL rules. we are all programmed as humans and as climbers we are programmed even further.

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