31 January 2006

Head games

These are a few hastily written impressions from last Saturday, when I drove to Baring Head, the south-western tip of Wellington Harbour, for the National Bouldering Series event. It's hastily written because it's now late at night and I need to get organised to go climbing tomorrow. Don't expect much from me over the next three weeks; much of my time will be spent on the road or climbing. I might manage to post something small and nondescript, but do come back! [click on the photos for a larger view]

The interior of the car’s like an oven and turning the fan on does nothing but turn it into a fan oven. I’m close to expiring, or at least melting into a grease puddle, but I console myself with two thoughts: that the lack of air conditioning means I’m saving fuel and thereby the planet; and heat and humidity like this is good preparation for India later in the year.

Two and a half hours after leaving Pohangina I’m approaching the coast South of Wainuiomata and looking with delight at a large bank of hazy cloud. Baring Head will be under that cloud; the light for photos will be softer, less harsh and contrasty, and the Rock Hop competitors are more likely to be still climbing hard rather than retiring to the shade or slipping off sweat-greased holds. The stream, often a deep wade near the road or a scary dash between booming breakers where it enters the sea, is completely closed off from the ocean, so it’s a straightforward, 20 minute trudge along the shingle and coarse sand beach. Two young people amble past, returning to the car; the guy’s picking up stones and batting them landwards with a bleached stick of driftwood.

“How’s it going?” he says, grinning a big cheery smile.

I grin back, enjoying the sight of someone so obviously happy and untroubled—someone just having fun, just playing. A little further on an old guy sitting on a folding stool takes a swig from a canteen, rinses his hands and nods at me. He’s just set a big fishing rod in its holder, closer to the surf; the tip vibrates very slightly as the sea pulls at it. I wish him luck and get another smile. Close to the boulders, two big women arrange picnic gear while a man sets up a rod, flinging the tackle far out into the slow-heaving sea. Everyone’s friendly and happy today. I see the silhouettes of small figures hopping along the top of the Long Wall, dark forms against the salt-hazy sky and wonder if any of the fishers have any idea what all the crazy people are doing scrambling over those rocks.

I’ve arrived late, but because the event started behind schedule, I have about an hour and a half to scramble around looking for photos. I recognise a few people but none I know well, so I wander towards the Split Apple and the Only the Good Die Young area. Someone calls out, laughing. It’s Fionn, sunburnt, happy, with trashed and taped fingers—he and Matt have been going hard out but still think they have a few climbs left in the tank. We yarn for a while, but I’m conscious of how little time I have to work on photos, so eventually I excuse myself and carry on, looking for good angles for photos. Photographing climbers can be difficult. Looking up from the ground is seldom a good choice—a wideangle lens foreshortens the climb, reducing its apparent height and steepness; and wideangle shots of climbers’ bums are, well, ... I suppose you could use them to poke fun at your mates—or, perhaps, to make lifelong enemies.

I’m sprawled on top of the Split Apple rock, leaning over as far as I dare, looking directly down.

“Hey Neil,” I yell, “less talk and more action!”

He looks up, startled; eventually recognises me and laughs. Later he obliges, and I get a shot of him crimping hard, reaching up, totally focused. Absolute concentration; years of experience being called into play. He created some of the famous boulder problems here—explored the rock, found a series of holds that looked possibly climbable, and worked out the sequence of moves enabling him to make the first ascent. I’m watching one of the Baring Head legends.

He falls off and goes to find something else.

Vic, lean, strong, and colourful in her knitted beanie, crouches low on the face, ready to spring.

“Er, you might want to move a bit,” she says.

I realise I’m lying on the hold she’s aiming for. I mumble an apology and hastily wriggle sideways, not wishing to have her dangling from my eyebrows. When you’re peering through a wideangle lens it’s easy to forget where you are. I notice it again when I’m photographing John, Peter, and Dan taking turns working hard on Chris and Cosey, one of the hardest problems at the Head—I’m dangling from one hand, Tevas on tenuous footholds, photographing with the other hand; I lower the camera and realise I’m mere inches away from John as he’s heading for the next hold. I hope I haven’t distracted him, so console myself by believing he’s putting in an extra-special effort just to look heroic for the camera.

Switching lenses, I switch photographic modes, focusing on details, closeups—particularly on expressions. When you’ve watched climbers enough, you begin to sense when the action’s about to happen; you see them pause, shake an arm, pinch the hold again, shake the other arm, grasp the hold... a pause, then the tension—and that’s the moment; here comes the move. Each moment has its expression; each expression reveals the focus, that single-minded attention to just one thing.

That’s one of the things—possibly the most important—that draws me to climbing, particularly to bouldering. That intensity. For that brief period, sometimes as little as a few seconds, you forget everything else. All thoughts disappear except those few you need to make this move, to complete this sequence. Perhaps, in that respect it’s a form of meditation—a clearing of the mind by intense focus; but meditation is usually associated with being still. Bouldering is anything but still—unless it’s the stillness of Zeno’s arrow. Maybe, without realising it, what we’re doing when we’re bouldering, or climbing in most forms, is really a kind of dynamic meditation.

Or maybe it’s just fun—pure and simple play.

Photo 1: Vic works Split Apple.
Photo 2: Tomasz putting the effort in.

Photo 3: Pete starting out on Chris and Cosey.

Photo 4: Matt meditating.
Photo 5: Bye...

Photos and words © 2006 Pete McGregor


Anita Daher said...

These are amazing photos, Pete! Thanks so much for sharing the experience :-)

Pamela said...

Beautiful photos!

Pictures of people doing is one of my favourite kinds of photography--to do or to see. And these have so much presence to them they're making my palms sweat, as if I were there, being asked to try it.

Brenda Schmidt said...

Yes, the photos are incredible, Pete! I shivered when I saw them, partly because of their intensity and partly because it's snowing here. You have heat and humidity. Here it's cold and dry. I can't pet the cat without causing sparks.

Tracy Hamon said...

The pics are wonderful. I like how you see the physical strength in each climber, in every muscle--the sureness of the rock extended into the body--thanks.

pohanginapete said...

Thanks everyone... we've just stopped in at Christchurch after five days at Arthurs Pass National Park. We climbed Mt Rolleston by two different routes, the second time being lucky to get a wonderful day with spectacular views (which you will get to share eventually... :^)) A very different environment from Baring Head, but every bit as brilliant.

Thanks again for your comments and insights: much appreciated.

isabelita said...

Just came here today after seeing your comment on the Dharma Bums about the climbing raccoon. Fantastic photos and landscapes! We live in Seattle, Washington, not too far from the Dharma Bums, relatively speaking. Our son, who's 24, is a climber. He got me climbing when I was 49, several years ago. He's done some alpine; I've only done one guided trip, up the complete Exum Ridge route of the Grand Teton. He wants to do more mountaineering; I am content to learn how to climb on gear. He likes bouldering; I'm of any age where unless it's pretty easy, I don't want to fall off too many times so won't go for harder problems. But it's wonderful to ahve a rope gun. He took his dad and me around Joshua Tree National Park's climbing areas in mid January. Unbelivable landscape.
Thanks for your fabulous artistic views. I'll return.

pohanginapete said...

Glad you enjoyed the look at this part of the world, Isabelita. I was over in the USA in '02 but despite good intentions, I didn't make it down to Joshua Tree; I was having too good a time in Yosemite and the Buttermilks :D

I like the challenge of climbs that push me hard, but I'm just as happy (possibly more so) climbing easier routes: climbs where I can revel in the movement itself.

isabelita said...

The friend who was our Exum guide three years ago in the Tetons is a big advocate of moderate routes. She wants us to come climb in the Wind Rivers Range...many pitches of what she calls moderate, anyway.
I just heard from some friends who will be in Indian Creek, Utah, a big crack climbing area, in April. Lots of long cracks in red sandstone.
Time to get out before I get too much older!
My brother was in NZ hiking and fly fishing not too long ago. He was enchanted with what he saw,sent a postcard from Gisborne. Is that on the south island?
Yes, I definitely have a different viewpoint on climbing from my young son, who by virtue of his youth and strength should of course be aiming at more difficult routes. I have to get vicarious thrills from listening to his accounts of doing the long hard routes in various places.
What an amazing activity climbing is. I do wish I'd found it earlier in my life, but what the hell.

pohanginapete said...

Isabelita: Gisborne's in the North Island. North and East of the Pohangina Valley and the Ruahine Range. Here's a map of Aotearoa.

I've heard of the Wind River Range, particularly the wonderfully named Cirque of the Towers. Great to hear about your love of climbing, Isabelita. Make the most of those opportunities!

(Here are some more photos from the Baring Head Bouldering Competition.)

isabelita said...

Very nice! Are there any women who do this as well?

pohanginapete said...

Absolutely! For example, that's Vic in the first photo; she came 3rd in the women's section on the day and 5th overall in the series. Judy Reid is the current president of the NZ Alpine Club; and you only have to go to Whanganui Bay on a holiday weekend, or to any local climbing gym, to realise women are climbing just as enthusiastically as men.