Friday, May 28, 2010

In the Footsteps of John Gill

One of the side-affects of this blog has been publication in print including an article recently published in the Alpinist. I want to write more about this essay later but through it, I met the historian Kerwin Klein, currently teaching at UC Berkeley. A long-time boulderer, Klein was in Boulder researching material for a book on the cultural history of climbing. He writes a blog about climbing history called and his most recent entry is about the relationship between late 20th century American history and Gill, neatly tying it into an ascent of the famed Left Eliminator at Horsetooth, a problem he had been thinking of for 20 years.

He brings in a number of important themes in this short essay, themes that highlight how "unnatural" the act of climbing becomes when reviewed in the light of history. Even something like body position and aesthetics can become an end in itself as Klein notes when talking about Pat Ament's film Disciples of Gill:

"Gill’s climbing aesthetic amazed the younger climbers in the audience. That style had grown partly out of Gill’s background in formal gymnastics, especially the rope and still rings events as they were practiced in the 1950s and ’60s. By 21st century climbing standards, the approach was old-fashioned—movement initiated from the upper-body, hips square to the rock, a clean straight line from shoulder to toe, polished performances of routes well within Gill’s limits. 

The rise of climbing gyms and softer shoes in the 1990s helped to produce a different type of movement: hips turned for reaches, toes curled round holds, feet splayed to pull the body close to the rock. And the 21st century emphasis on pure objective difficulty, rather than aesthetics of performance, had made sheer desperation the standard mode of climbing videos. But with Disciples of Gill, the audience could watch Gill perform routines he had rehearsed and polished until he appeared to float."

In other words, Gill and many others of the 60s and 70s saw an aesthetic element to climbing mirroring that of gymnastics. The irony of course is that by emphasizing aesthetics, a different kind of difficulty was the focus of bouldering, one that might well have hindered progress on the actual rock, in terms of tackling harder terrain. It doesn't matter, of course; broadly speaking each generation seeks its own goals, to a certain extent.

The 21st century has a different aesthetic now, one that molds more to the rock, is more in tune with its forms and the physics of human movement. The title of Ament's book, Master of Rock, might highlight the ultimate ambiguity of climbing language. To "master" a move in one sense is potentially to limit oneself in terms of understanding .the hidden potential of the move or sequence, to be less open to the infinite possibilities the stone offers. Perhaps to be a true master, one must be ever aware of the nuances of movement and the possibilities of improvisation and imperfection and even inspiration.


chris schulte said...

Illuminating points. Such "performances" are still common in Font, where mastery and repetition of lines is a pursuit in and of itself.. There is surely something to be said for repeats in bouldering; the usual force and fight can be whittled away, the attachment to the desire for success is a memory, and one can (finally?) enjoy oneself more thoroughly , moving through, and just Climbing.

Peter Beal said...

Thanks Chris. Interesting points, well said. I do repeats all the time and the comparison with the first version is always somewhere in my mind.