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