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Scrawl of the Wild

The Boulder at the End of the World

(published in "Stone Play - The Art of Bouldering" March 2007 ~ details here)

It’s all about physics, really. If it is not punctuated with frequent frosty bouldering sessions at over-hyped, over-crowded, over-familiar venues, the long, wet Lake District winter creates inertia. Big trips to faraway, little-explored places, on the other hand, generate their own momentum. And the promises and dreams that come packaged as a long-haul airline ticket provide the power source that allows you to view that tedious winter training regime in a wholly different light.

 

"Sailing down the Beagle Channel on the Mago del Sur".

Also, when it’s winter in the Lakes it’s summer down south.

Way down south! Tierra del Fuego, or “el fin del mundo” – the End of the World. Tierra del Fuego is a place of extremes: the world's southernmost national park accessible from the world's southernmost city. Separated from the mainland of South America by the Straits of Magellan, the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego contains a wilderness landscape unlike any other in the world. Both the western (Chilean) and eastern (Argentine) parts of Tierra del Fuego are home to large stands of old-growth deciduous lenga forests, alpine meadows, peat bogs, river systems, fjords and spectacular snow-capped mountains.

“The End of the World”. Les Eclaireures lighthouse with the Isla de Navarino behind, 54° 49' S, Beagle Channel

 

And the geological map is very encouraging.

Much of Tierra del Fuego is sparsely inhabited, composed primarily of remote ranches, or estancias. Ushuaia, the island’s major port, and our first port of call, is located on the south-eastern coast. With the right paperwork and a no-rush attitude, it is possible to cross over to the Chilean side by boat. That was our aim: to find a boat, sail down the Beagle Channel and explore the remote mountains of these Fuegian islands…

That was our aim, to sail down the Beagle Channel and explore the remote mountains of the Isla de Navarino, while our friend and fellow Lake District resident, Simon Yates, guided a party of clients in the Cordillera Darwin.

Passo Australia, Dientes de Navarino, Chile, Feb 2006

 

…and maybe find the perfect boulder.

A chance meeting with a friend in Ushuaia solved the problem of finding a boat with a compliant skipper and after friendly negotiations accompanied by the ritual drinking of yerba mate, we found ourselves with a one-way ticket to Chile. Cruising out of Ushuaia on the Mago del Sur, a beautiful fifty foot ocean-going yacht, in the company of steamer ducks, giant petrels, elephant seals, sea lions and that enduring symbol of maritime exploration and human insensitivity, a lone albatross, I couldn’t help wondering where it had all gone right.

 

“Four days out from the road-head." Isla de Navarino, Chile, Feb 2006

Next day, we packed carefully and headed into the mountains. The pristine, pathless landscape at the “Uttermost Part of the Earth” supports a rich variety of wildlife symbolic of the wild, open ecosystems of southern South America, including the guanaco, the culpeo fox, the huemul deer, condors, Magellanic woodpeckers and firecrown hummingbirds. The climate is unpredictable in this Land of Fire and violent winds, rain and snowfall are not uncommon, even in summer. We were soon several days walk from the nearest settlement, with no means of communication, so reliable equipment and clothing was a matter of survival, not fashion, and carrying pads was out of the question. Also, since there were only two of us, the margin for error was non-existent. Snap an ankle out here and you are in pain for a week – it’s as simple as that. We were mightily impressed by our commitment, and proud of our recklessness.

“Back country bouldering, Patagonia style”. Laguna Esmerelda, Feb 2006

 

It was out there, in the remote back country of Southern Patagonia, that we found the Boulder at the End of the World.

Tectonics, time and glacial dynamics had shaped her and her satellites. Technique, time and dynamics produced a rich haul of new problems. We climbed on razor schist, giggling like children as the pristine stacked shards cracked like bubble wrap beneath our feet. We laid down highball sedimentary challenges, mined rich quartzite veins, micromanaged the micro-granite. We exerted intense directional pressure on the metamorphic boulders, then cranked up the heat and burnt out on the igneous blocks.

Back at the tent, throats dry and fingers trashed and bleeding – the gift of the gabbro – we burned some lenga and replayed the day, miming the moves, naming and grading, reliving and refining the process of discovery until, minds mired in the minutiae, we fell into an exhausted sleep. During the night, the rain blew in on a savage wind, washing away the matrix of chalk traces, erasing all the problems, leaving nothing but a random web of memories. It was the perfect conclusion. I lifted my fingers to my nose and breathed the lingering aroma of sweat, chalk, rock and lichen. I noticed that he did, too. We smiled as we packed and left.

I have a problem with newly discovered bouldering venues, wherever they might be. It is a fundamental dichotomy of emotions, a win/lose dynamic, one for the karma mechanic to ponder. The doubts kick in after completing a new problem that I deem to be hard, or good, and thus worthy of attention. The mental turmoil is born of insecurity, compounded by my childish desire for recognition and approval and yet modified by my inherent selfishness. Inevitably, the ego comes stabbing through, and I accord my ‘discovery’ more importance than it actually merits. It is me that requires the attention, not the boulder problem. Sometimes I am so arrogant and deluded that I use my bouldering as a metaphor for all that is pure and real and true in life, when in fact it is merely the act of doing small things in big places.

Published in "Stone Play - The Art of Bouldering" March 2007 ~ details here

 

“Farewell to Navarino”

A River Runs Through It

(published in "Stone Country - Bouldering in Scotland " March 2005 ~ details here)

You have spent a week accumulating aggression, tension, intolerance and selfishness, feeding on the negativity of those petty-minded people you sometimes have to spend time with. On your good days you can detach and view their antics with amused scepticism, equanimity even. This is not one of those days. Something has curdled your karma. Your head is in bad shape. You register the tautness in your back and neck. Your nerves snag like cracked fingernails drawn across brushed nylon.

So...you go for a walk with your woman and your dog in the wild country and after an hour's serious uphill trudge you stumble across what appears to be a prime bouldering spot: a cluster of craglets and big free-standing boulders, with a heartbreakingly beautiful view. Great rock, problems from V-easy to V-hard, with the boulders identifiable by the tree each of them has growing at the bottom – a rowan, a yew, a banyan tree and a coconut palm (ok, ok, that was just to see if you were still with me). It's one of the nicest spots you've ever been to. You’re in love. A river runs through it. The river was spawned by the great Ocean and runs over rocks that cooled in the cradle of Pre-Cambrian time.

You spend an age carving your dreams on the stone. In your sleep, you mime the moves of the problems you can't yet do. You vow to train for them, individually if necessary. All good things – fine boulder problems as well as spiritual enlightenment – come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.

After a few solitary visits you are ready to share. A close friend and confidante of many years is let into the secret. He is familiar with the concept of auto-destructive art. You both agree you'd kind of like to keep the place the way it is for a while, keep it in the family, keep it – special.

Two weeks, and you’ve been getting obsessive again, training, getting it wired, getting strong. You feel your fingers tingling with the rock’s imprint, synapses still sizzling from the physics of the moves. Up in Glen X, your highball project is waiting, a fine line slicing the Highland sky like a scalpel; a fine line between success and injury. You take a two day city break for the rest and then go to three for the psyche, keeping your weather eye open. You can when you live close.

Back at the big boulder, washed and blown dry by a brisk cold wind, you visualise those moves that were so totally, so absolutely out of the question on your first visit. The grain of the rock, its curve and colour become your whole focus as you build your dreams around the magnificent obsession that by some miracle of soul control you can choreograph the sequence and get it right this time.

Rehearsals are over; it’s Showtime, time to suspend disbelief, time to mobilise, focus, reach out past what is normal and perform. Even the chill glen plays along, gleaming improbably phosphorescent and silent as a concert hall as you breathe and concentrate, eyes closing, zoning in, processing ki energy and power. Eyes closed now, breathing in and out through the nose, memory mimes the moves as you generate symbiosis of stillness and movement before the big release

Chalk, blow and go…

And it is hard but today it is controlled and you are good and sharp and strong and the moves build fast as you hook the arête and pop for the intermediate to kill the swing and stretch on through for the ridiculous pinch. Glancing down – bad move – you see the cruel, chaotic jumble of rocks framing the sloping mortuary slab below. Up and to the right, you view in a split second the crucial non-hold, the one you have invested with a gruesome personality all of its own. Crunch time. Foot on the high smear, other leg flagged out, you slap rightwards, catch the hold and nearly corkscrew off before tensing and holding the body position to make the second slap accurately enough to share on the hold from hell. Cutting loose now, you pull so hard on that hold that your teeth bleed, howling your delight across the glen as you foot-hunt the dish by the pinch, nail it and grab the top.

Back at the car and proud of your recklessness, you sigh into the driver’s seat as the first drops of rain patter on the roof like hairpins dropping into a plastic cup. As you watch the rain, the cleansing process has begun. The bile and vitriol have gone. You feel unreal again.

On the drive home you wind down the windows to give your smile room.

Published in "Stone Country - Bouldering in Scotland" March 2005 ~ details here

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