One of my first climbing trips was to Falcons Lookout, a slick patch of rock carved out of the hillside overlooking Werribee Gorge and Victoria’s Western Freeway. Here, one of the first routes I ever climbed (on top-rope) was Persecution, an old-school grade 12 – jamming 101 followed by, from memory, a bridgey sort of exit. Having wasted myself on the first half of the climb, I pulled into its chimney feature with my back pressing on one side and one foot smearing against the other.
‘You’re chimneying! You’re chimneying!’ Someone yelled.
With my helmet cocked to one side and the taut top-rope in my face, I managed to cry back, something along the lines of, ‘Is that bad?
Climbing is full of lingo that, at first, can seem rather alien – or at worst, obscene (‘Go for those jugs!’). In my first year of climbing, I was fortunate to have met people who painstakingly explained the vernacular of climbing to me, and who happily explained techniques. But, not everyone is so lucky.
That’s where instructional books come in. Clearly, there is a niche for these.
Thumbing through David Flanagan’s Bouldering Essentials, it looks promising. The high-quality photographs are inspiring and are carefully sourced from a variety of locations. The layout is clean. And the ‘Destinations’ chapter at the back made me eager to read the rest of the book. At 192 pages, it was clearly a mammoth undertaking, and this always warrants praise.
But I was curious about what information the book would offer. Bouldering, you could say, is rather simple. I like to think of it as snorkelling is to scuba diving – same activity, less equipment, less fuss. As American climber and boulderer John Sherman once said, ‘I can tell you how to boulder in one sentence: find some boulders and climb them.
Bouldering Essentials is an instructional book aimed at beginner and intermediate boulderers. A large chunk of the book dissects the topic of ‘Movement’, and there are also chapters on equipment, training and staying safe. All of these are topics handy for beginners.
My main criticism is to do with the way information is presented. Let me explain: Bouldering Essentials is divided into 11 chapters, (e.g. ‘Movement’). These are divided into mini-chapters (e.g. ‘Rock Features’), which are divided into even smaller chunks (e.g. ‘Crack’). Sometimes, these smallest chunks are as little as one paragraph long. While, in theory, this structure breaks down complex topics like ‘Movement’ into manageable chunks, I feel that many things in climbing need to be described within a larger context to make sense. For example, in Glenn Tempest’s book Rockclimbing Getting Started, he explains these same concepts in a chapter called ‘Crack Climbing’, which describes rock features and explains how climbers can use them to move upwards. This consolidation helps beginners ‘connect the dots’ – after all, when we’re just starting out, we can quickly figure out what a crack is, but not what to do with it. This is touched on in Bouldering Essentials, but the explanations really need more room to breathe.
One positive to these mini-chunks of text is that in parts, Bouldering Essentials serves as a kind of super glossary.* Which is ideal for beginners struggling to pick up the lingo. The only problem is, the words you’re looking for might be tricky to find. Information in the book is delivered in a somewhat jumbled order (should ‘Rock Features’ fall under ‘Movement’?). And, a lot of headings appear more than once (‘Highballs’ and ‘Failure’), which is a little confusing. But, in fairness, breaking down a fluid sport like climbing isn’t an easy task.
While the whole book strives to simplify, the language itself isn’t always clear for a layman. Maybe I’m spoilt on the library of climbing books I have at home, but I’ve found that authors and editors of really successful how-to books have a real knack for being able to speak to beginners. Even so, many use non-written tools to help explain concepts. Drawings, for example, serve better than photographs for instruction, in some cases. Bouldering Essentials doesn’t include drawings, and these may have helped explain concepts that you really need to see to understand. In the gym it’s easy for someone to narrate while another person climbs, but in a photograph, often you need a trained eye to see what’s going on – one that you won’t likely have as a beginner. That said, there are a bunch of photos in Bouldering Essentials that do illustrate points well, and some of the sequential photos (e.g. showing mantelling, traversing, and climbing roofs) are as good a guide as you’ll get from a book.
One section that goal-driven beginners might enjoy is the ‘Training’ chapter. I found books like Dale Goddard and Udo Neumann’s Performance Rock Climbing more comprehensive, but Bouldering Essentials has a few gems that I – as too-lazy-to-train boulderer – didn’t know about, for example, a good drill for putting an end to overgripping.
But the book’s greatest asset is that it’s a modern publication (the other books I’ve mentioned in this review were published before 1999) that speaks to the modern boulderer. And it contains crucial information on safety, ethics and etiquette, which I hope beginners picking up this book will take the time to read. (Let’s face it, the biggest hurdle for modern boulderers is learning how not to be a dick, right?)
In summary, Bouldering Essentials is a generalist instructional book for novices. Don’t expect flavour, like that of Sherman’s book, Better Bouldering (he opens with, ‘In 1975 I was a pudgy high school junior who couldn’t do a single pull up’ – hilarious). Instead, you’ll get a neatly presented book with plain descriptions of the simplest components to climbing.
I don’t think anyone can learn to climb from reading a book, but I don’t believe author David Flanagan believes that either. And, as I said before, not everyone has the fortune of being taught by others, so when you find yourself alone at your local bouldering wall, with no one to show you what a pinch is, perhaps a book like Bouldering Essentials might be appealing.
*Bouldering Essentials does have an actual glossary, which is presented well and would be handy for novices.
Bouldering Essentials retails for $40 and is available from www.pulseclimbing.com.