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Modern Pentathlon

Modern Pentathlon

Ernest Runaway
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Our favourite cynic Ernest Runaway ponders the true meaning of climbing, and whether the Olympics will ever manage to reflect the magic of the sport.

I recently found myself in the kind of small woodland that you find on the edge of most small to mid-sized towns. Woodland is perhaps too grand a word but it was definitely big enough to hide a body in for at least long enough to catch the next ferry.

It had a forgotten feel to it.

It’s where locals take their dogs for their twice daily dumps (the dogs’) and where bored youths go to build tree swings, snog each other and, in the case of this particular wood, start a small fire, burn the tree swing and generally piss about.

This particular wood was home to some esoteric boulders that on any other day wouldn’t have received a second glance but with only a spare hour or two and little better to do, I dragged my mat, flask, dog and girlfriend (in that order) along to take a look.

I think it is fair to designate this particular venue as “of local interest only”, which is longhand for “shit”. The sort of place you might go once, when you first move to the area. Having found it on UKC, lured by overly enthusiastic logbook entries, all by the same user who is also the moderator for the crag. One desultory evening spent brushing muck off a four foot high eliminate persuades you that spending an extra £6 on fuel to go to an actual proper crag far outweighs the novelty of being able to walk to this one from your front door.

Plus you suspect local yoofs have weed on the start holds of the venue’s “stand out problem, possible contender for best f4c in the South East”.

And it was here, at this third or possibly fourth rate venue that I found myself fully convinced that I was about to break my spine.

Exactly the sort of optimistic photo that gets you into this kind of mess.

One desultory evening spent brushing muck off a four foot high eliminate persuades you that spending an extra £6 on fuel to go to an actual proper crag far outweighs the novelty of being able to walk to this one from your front door.

I had, in fact, come to terms with this and was planning how I was going to try and land, to avoid the worst of the rocks below. Perhaps use a sapling as a rudimentary shock absorber before dashing myself on the ground below.

One hand was wrapped around the base of a bramble; thankful for each and every thorn that sank into my palm and fingers, each one offering a degree of traction. My other slowly dug into some moss, hoping to find something positive underneath but instead finding only, somehow, more moss.

I regretted not bothering to move my mat along, instead presuming there would be hidden holds at the top and I began to regret not cleaning my shoes more thoroughly after stepping off the mulchy ground. I was waiting for that inevitable slip as the skim of humus coating each shoe finally gave way.

Above me the rock eased away to a mossy bank. Loose masonry was piled here and there where a wall had once stood, and the entirety was overgrown with brambles. There was nowhere to reach, nothing to pull on and no way of reversing the moves that had got me here.

In hindsight, I was only about three or four metres off the ground and the footholds weren’t actually bad at all, nor were my shoes that dirty.

But I was stuck and it was a bad landing and with each passing moment of being stuck, I got more scared. Not that I was going to die but that this was going to really, really hurt. Definitely a hospital job, possibly an ambulance job and it was definitely, definitely going to be embarrassing.

Not only was I going to hurt myself bouldering, I was going to hurt myself bouldering at possibly the shittest venue in Britain on the shittest problem there.

And my girlfriend was going to kill me.

Eventually, I gave up.

I didn’t let go but I did (and this is perhaps worse) call for help.

Inevitably, the Olympicification of climbing will seek to iron out the little wrinkles that make climbing what it is.

My long suffering partner (she opted not to climb as she doesn’t like climbing and even she recognised it was a shit venue) had got bored and wandered off. I called her name quite a few times before I got a rather sharp reply. I asked her to walk round to the top. She asked me to repeat myself. I did, quicker this time. She told me she couldn’t hear me and muttered to hang on a second. She shortly thereafter appeared at the bottom of the crag. I explained that that was the exact opposite of what I had asked her to do. She muttered again, possibly huffed and set off round the back. Several long seconds passed before she reappeared at the top. In what I believed to be, a calm and collected manner, I asked her to tie off the dog’s lead (dog unattached) to a sapling I could see over the top and lower the other end down to me. After asking me to repeat myself a couple more times and tutting with such force I swear I felt the rock tremble, she obliged. The lead did not reach. Finding a smaller but crucially, closer, stem of some unknown shrub, she lowered the end of the dog’s lead (strength rating: unknown) to me.

Reluctantly giving up my moss digging for the (hopefully) safer shores of the dog lead; it then gave me the (possibly false) confidence to mantle onto the sloping top and grovel my way through the undergrowth.

Now, what’s the meaning of this indulgent and overly in-depth description of a rather mundane instance of a dickhead getting stuck on some shit problem all for, you may ask.

Well, dear reader, my point is that at no point will anything like this happen during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, when “Sport Climbing” makes its debut in the Olympic roster, alongside Skateboarding, Surfing and Freestyle BMX.

There is something profoundly odd about trying to conform these sports to fit the Olympic mould.

Athletics are the pinnacle of human effort stripped to their essence. Fundamental human activities, once used in the very act of survival. Running and sprinting, throwing spears and leaping. These ancient acts come to us via a lineage of making what was once the everyday norm into an entertainment, an end in itself. They seek to take out the variance, standardise the medium and so make every effort comparable. A track does not have the vagaries of a road let alone a trail. A swimming pool doesn’t have the chop and swell of the ocean. And inevitably, the Olympicification of climbing will seek to iron out the little wrinkles that make climbing what it is.

And I worry what impression it will give those who do not know the sport.

Those that enthusiastically take it up in the wake of that long summer of sport will be in for a shock when they begin taking their first tentative steps out of the climbing wall and into the drizzle.

I have run out of words here but I would encourage you to just take a moment to imagine a scenario where the BBC commentator is forced to describe one of the competitors taking a dump into a paper bag and stuffing it into a length of PVC pipe while their rival awkwardly tries to fiddle in an offset as their leg begins doing a virtuoso can-can on a fulmar-puke-sodden foothold; because that’s what climbing really is. It’s not just the clipping of bolts or swinging about on plastic; its all the other stuff that goes with it.

Ernest Runaway is a regular contributor to Legend, entertaining us with his inimitable sideways look at the world of climbing. If you so choose, you can find him on Twitter here for more pearls of wisdom. Probably.

Written By
Ernest Runaway

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