Park Front - Font 9A - The First Ascentby Al Siddons (Astral Highway) Apr/2009
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Creagan Beaulay was with Rad Butts when he completed the first ascent of 'Park Font', Font 9A/V17. Here Creagan describes the story behind this internationally significant achievement.
When Rad told me he'd found a 'very special' bouldering venue he'd been secretly checking out, I was more than excited. There were loads of bouldering areas where I wanted to see Rad in action – Utah, Hampi, for starters – but I imagined Rad would have crushed these places years ago. He said he was looking for the 'biggest waddage points out there.'
That sounded pretty extreme to me. Rad obviously had big things lined up, but he just wouldn't tell me where he had in mind. The deal was, he'd send me Sat-nav coordinates, but I wasn't allowed to look until I was about to leave.
I didn't even know which country I was aiming for, but Rad hadn't mentioned visas. So I grabbed my passport, my crash pad and two haul bags of essentials, and then I was off.
After an hour in the car, I drove past signs to one of the construction sites for the 2012 Olympics, thinking how I didn't recognise this as a route to any of the airports. 'After 100 metres, stop,' said the Sat-nav. I was stumped, but I pulled up and got out of the car. Rad burst out of nowhere. 'Hey!' he shouted, pointing straight ahead, 'what do you think?'
I took it all in. Plumb in the middle of a recreation ground, at the confluence of nothing with nothing, was a stone block, dwarfed by the acres of untidy grass around it. 'Know what we're looking at there?' he said. I shook my head. 'Well, that is the Mabley Green boulder.' As we walked over to take a closer look, Rad said we were in Hackney Wick, in east London.
It was humbling to think I'd never heard of the Mabley Green boulder before, and I quickly realised just how lucky I was to know Rad. Without this inside track to what's cool and what's not, I simply wouldn't be here now. I'd be in Castle Hill, or doing the Cresciano thing.
Rad explained how conspiracy theorists were 'attempting to trash the credentials of this incredible stone.' He told me they were saying it had been blasted out of a quarry in Cornwall, carried here by road and mobile crane, and cemented into place just the previous summer as part of an artistic installation. 'That's just not true,' said Rad, 'this boulder was here long before dinosaurs roamed the earth. You'll see, dude, you'll see.'
Big things in surprising places
Behind the recreation ground, traffic pounded along one of the M11 approach roads, but I tuned out of the background noise and focussed on the boulder. It was about four metres high and a couple of gigantic shot-holes pierced the rock from one face to the top.
I asked Rad how the shot-holes squared with his glacier theory. 'Oh, those.' He shrugged his shoulders. 'Did you never find stones with holes in them at the sea-side when you were a kid?' I nodded. 'Same principle, just a larger species of burrowing mollusc,' said Rad.
As we walked round the boulder, I saw how the grass had been dug up and re-laid around it recently. A glass bottle-neck poked out of a gap between two turves. But my attention was in the wrong place, as I was about to discover.
Rad stopped and pointed out a desperately smooth, overhanging face, the least-weathered of the four. I couldn't see a single foothold and I couldn't see anything that you could sensibly pull on.
But Rad was used to 'seeing deeply'. And what Rad saw was a line of tenuous under-clings, a few playing-cards thick, around four to six feet off the deck. Way up higher was a crimpy side-pull, he told me, and that was about it. Rad told me this was the hardest boulder problem in the world, and he was going to be the first to climb it.
Nobody except Rad could generate a big enough force to stay on this face without using the arêtes, let alone move between the holds. But of course, Rad wasn't just anybody. And he had his own ideas about how to get into the vibe of the rock.
Rad's plan was to jump and slap at the smooth features in the style of various mammals. Just as fast as I called out a new mammal or its young, he'd complete a jump at maximum power: 'Lamb! lion! wildebeest! dog!', I shouted. He was doing really well until I lost concentration and called out 'salmon' which is obviously not a mammal, even though it does jump pretty well. But my mistake pissed him off and shut him right down.
After that, we sat silently on the grass in front of Rad's project until dusk, before the local teen gangs moved in to take possession of their 'endz.'
One evening in early spring, as a light mist began to settle just a few centimetres above the grass, Rad announced that he wanted to spend the night on top of the boulder. He wanted to 'find out its resonant frequency.' This wasn't the kind of information you could get just by sniffing the air.
I put up a collapsible ladder for Rad to gain the top with the least possible effort. He got into his sleeping bag and fell quiet for a minute, but then called out: 'I'm sliding, man, I'm sliding!' So I quickly threw a couple of ropes over the top of the boulder and over Rad. I whacked some rebar into the grass and tied-off the tensioned ropes, strapping Rad down. It worked. Rad stayed in place.
Rad called out from above. 'Look, man, the moon's in perigee.' He explained what that meant, but I didn't understand a word of it. Still, it looked unusually large and striking, and that was good enough for me.
So there we were, with the mist and the moon and the raw ingredients of mystery. It was a bit like Fontainebleau, but without the forest, and with just one boulder instead of many.
We were still in Hackney, as far as I knew. But I don't think Rad experienced it the way I did, especially as by now he was smoking a huge reefer on top of his bizarre perch. I listened to the traffic from the nearby dual carriageway.
Action: the hardest boulder problem in the world
The next morning, Rad told me he was ready to do the problem. 'I've linked the moves' he said, adding 'in my sleep.'
Rad ran around the boulder a few times to raise his pulse, then went up the ladder and brushed the top-out. 'I'm going for it in fifteen,' he said.
I could see him getting to this very intense place internally, squeaking his three pairs of shoes, jiggling about on the spot and doing little shoulder movements.
'Hey, could you heat up some water, dude?' He asked. Without asking why, I did just that. Rad poured the water into a bowl and washed his arms a few times. 'Blood flow, yeah?' he said.
With time still on my side, I went over to the car to get some clean flash cards to capture the ascent on video. This turned out to be one of the worst decisions of my life: just as I was coming back, I saw that Rad had grabbed his moment. He'd already topped out and was standing in a celebratory posture, his arms spread out wide. I was devastated. I'd let down somebody who'd just done an extraordinary thing, something I could never do. 'Rad... I'm sorry man, I...'
'Oh, don't beat yourself up about it. The moment comes. The moment goes. You know, V17 is just a number. There'll be other times,' said Rad.
I felt like a complete idiot: V17! That meant an equivalent technical grade of English 7c or Font 9A. I'd probably never get the chance to see that again in my lifetime.
'We all find our level', said Rad, enigmatically. And then he wandered off, leaving me to tidy up the site while he did some recovery exercises. Straight after, Rad came over and said, 'Look, you missed it. No-body witnessed my ascent, but that doesn't bother me.'
'Really?' I said, amazed at his ability to forgive me. 'Yes, and here's why,' he said. 'Just the day before I sent this V17, I suddenly noticed a white mark on my thumb-nail. If you'd asked me a few seconds earlier: is there was a white mark on your thumb nail? I'd have said no. But it was there all the time. It was the same with my ascent. Exactly the same.'
Rad hates it when people can't see the way things are.
© Al Siddons, all rights reserved.