This is the modified version of a personal essay Robin van den Brule wrote a bit more than a year ago for the Creative Writing course at Utrecht University.
The beauty of bouldering lies in the extraordinary control one must have over their body – a consciousness of placement, weight, strength, and tension, combined in a focus that can ultimately lead to an adrenaline-infused satisfaction when the boulder problem has been solved, best described as a trembling triumph.
This level of consciousness is not cultivated by everyone, however. While teaching dance classes, I have encountered people whose body is as foreign to them as a small town in the country, such as Veenendaal. They have heard of the name, they are vaguely aware of its existence and its constitutive function in the geography of their country, but they will never pay a visit or really get a sense of the place. At most, they pass it on their way to other destinations, like the recovery of a hurt knee or the compulsory mindfulness session that is part of the yearly team building day at work.
Many people consciously use their body on a daily or weekly basis, as part of their job or sport routines. Even then, their experience of it might be purely physical, focused on their muscles or the tension in them. Others experience the body in terms of emotion, or the erotic, or in direct response to the world around them. These are not exhaustive nor mutually exclusive, and combined they form as many bodily experiences as there are patterns on our fingertips, birthmark constellations, and kinds of scars accumulated during a life. We are not only shaped by our unique bodies, but also by what they have been through; the wounds we have suffered, or not, and the way we treated them. In the end, some forms of this awareness are more useful than others when you want to climb up a wall.
I started climbing some months ago. The boulder gym I frequent is located next to one of the roads leaving Utrecht’s city centre. The building served some industrial purpose once, with an atmosphere complementary to the grey concrete so close to it. Inside, however, the colours of the different holds that constitute a multitude of boulder problems create endless patterns of confetti hanging still in the air. Each colour – among them bright pink, greens, and a yellow clouded by magnesium dust – corresponds with a difficulty level, exponentially increasing from 3 to 7c. Let me give you a walkthrough on how it’s done:
- Start with your hands on the blue holds that are marked with green tape. You need to be stable, with all limbs on the wall.
- Ascension is the goal, all the way towards the hold that is marked bright orange. You want to get there so badly. It’s on your left, but the first grips are to the right. Step your left foot up.
- Shift rightwards, right arm reaches for the first pocket, a big round hold with a hole in the middle, like a big doughnut stuck to the wall.
- Left hand grabs the next hold. Find stability. The pattern of blue on the wall coaxes you into finishing the problem. After this weekend, the route will be gone forever.
- Ascend further. You are now 2.5 meters above the mat, on the far right edge of the wall. Your friend stands behind you and shouts that you are doing great.
- The pocket your right hand rested in now needs to serve as foothold. You need to go back to the left. Slowly, shift your weight until it rests on your left foot, but to reach the next grip, even further left, you need to free it again.
- Your arms shake but you do not let go. Slowly move your right leg from its hold until it rests on top of your left foot. In a five-centimetre trust fall, you pull your left foot from the pocket, and land on your right foot. Breathe. Stabilise.
- You have made it this far before. Now comes the bottleneck: to reach the penultimate final grip, you first need to find the next hold with your left foot. It’s more than a metre to the side, and your fingers are squeezing the grips as firm as they can. You move your hips along the wall and your toes strain until they feel the hard plastic underneath. Your point of gravity has shifted leftward so your right foot must be released from its pocket and you need to move your hands, quickly.
- Desperate to finish the route, you reach up to the last boulder, four metres above ground. Your left hand finds the hold, and so does your right, but your fingers are tired and so is the rest of your body and you forget to stabilise so you swing to the left like a flag in the wind but there is no flagpole, no grip –
(This is not how it’s done)
And so I fell, rotating leftwards around my own axis, with my lower leg between my torso and the floor. Before I felt the pain, maybe even mid-air, I knew this would be bad, and upon hitting the mat my joint softly cracked in confirmation.
There I laid, in the boulder gym, with my first ever sports injury. After years of avoiding it, pain had become bearable; I even welcomed it. This wound served as one of initiation to the sport and mark of endurance. At the same time, the sense of shame about falling so foolishly was equally big, especially in the first days when the hurt was the worst. I could only cry when stubbornly trying to walk to the station, in need of a break after every fifty metres – it took me three times as long to reach the train to my parents’ house.
On Thursday, five days after my fall, I attended a pub lecture about ‘The Literary Moment.’ We were sitting in a brown side-room of the local Irish pub with round couches and dark wooden chairs and the waiters crossed our line of vision every time the lamp of the kitchen elevator situated in the wall across the space lit up. Cathelein Aaftink spoke about phenomenology and rapture and the body of the reader that connects the physical world with the textual, and I was listening with silent lips and an open heart. I limped around afterwards, and upon arriving at home, my blue ankle became a medium for addressing the ever-present boundary I felt between the body-me and that outside of it. And just as the literary makes its way into the world through the reader, the text I wrote for my ankle served as a bridge between my skin and the world.