A Life Upward

WordsIvana McConnell
PhotographyJody Daunton

“I see creativity as a physical experience: artists wrestle with ideas, battle with frustration, and they feel the adrenaline that comes with getting things right”

Bouldering is a discipline within rock climbing. Eight to ten powerful moves to climb a single boulder from the ground up, without the use of ropes. The climb is often called “the problem," and the sole objective is to start as low as possible, then climb over the top without a fall. It sounds simple, and at the outset it can be, but it's so much better when it isn't.

The challenge is in understanding how to use the various and unique holds on the rock face in order to make it to the top and climb over. Depending on height, style and body type, there exists a multitude of ways to use the same hand and footholds. That's where the real joy of climbing is: in figuring out the sequence that makes sense for me; the one sequence that, when executed properly, feels easy and makes me forget all of the failed attempts that have come before. This could happen the first time I try, but it could also take hundreds of attempts and hundreds of falls, each one more frustrating than the last.

Feet
Flowers
Chalk-Bag 1

Falling is an awful feeling. It brings with it the realisation that I haven't been good enough. Sometimes I don't react at all, other times I scream in frustration and the sound echoes across the valley. My foot placement wasn't right. My hands didn't have enough chalk on them. I caught the handhold just a little too far to the left, and missed the one sweet spot on the rock. Something went wrong and I have to find out what it is, make it right, and try again. I need to put it together with every other move in the sequence. It's physical and sometimes attritional, but controlled and incredibly creative.

Creativity isn't something often associated with sports of such a physical nature. But when faced with a boulder problem, I have to use my imagination to make my mind and my body strong enough to move in the right way. The movements have to be so tightly controlled, so precise, and there's just as much luck involved as there is intellect and strength.

“When I finally manage to finish a climb, I don’t have a tangible object to call the product of my efforts. Instead, I’m left with the powerful memory of that moment when every movement came together smoothly. Fluidly. Beautifully.”

Often, so much of the inspiration comes from the setting and the immersion in the vast and exposed environment of the climb. I've climbed in the mountains, in deserts, in woodlands and industrial areas, and each location holds its own unique magic. The backdrop is often what provides me with the encouragement and incentive to gather together my last drops of energy and try again, if only so I can be worthy of the landscape I'm standing in. I have to look at the problem and re-think it, use my imagination to find a different way to use my hands and feet - my only tools - and fix them if they aren't good enough.

Chalk-Slap
Landscape

I've been told that climbing is a futile exercise and that it can't be an art. At the end of a climb, they tell me, there is nothing: nothing is produced, and nothing is changed. In a way, these people are correct; all that exists are the emotions that come from sitting at the base of a boulder for hours at a time, obsessing over the smallest of foot placements and turns of movement, but there is still no physical object which exists as evidence of the hours, days, weeks of effort. After a climb is finished, I can only look back on it briefly before moving on to the next, because the next climb has become the newest obstacle, the unexplored challenge staring me in the face and daring me to be better.

Try just one more time, I always tell myself. The next attempt will be the last and then I'll leave it alone. It's always about trying just that one more time, until all willpower and means of strength have been exhausted and I have nothing left to give, at least until the next visit.

I see creativity as a physical experience: artists wrestle with ideas, battle with frustration, and they feel the adrenaline that comes with getting things right, that sudden moment of clarity when the idea suddenly falls into place and has a purpose. When I finally manage to finish a climb, I don't have a tangible object to call the product of my efforts. Instead, I'm left with the powerful memory of that moment when every movement came together smoothly. Fluidly. Beautifully. It's as stunning and fulfilling as any piece of art can be. That elusive achievement is the reason I go back to uncompleted climbs over and over again with the hope that one day, when my body and the moment aligns, I'll get it right.•