The perfect boulder problem is many things to many people. But there is no doubt that the Mandala, a ship's prow of mirror-smooth granite, found in the Peabody Boulders in California's Buttermilk Country would rate highly in anyone's list of world class boulder problems. First climbed by Chris Sharma in the winter of 2000, it has been heralded as the new Midnight Lightning of the USA. It features widely spaced small and sharpish holds that weave their way up a 30 degree overhanging prow. Initially thought to be V14 or harder the difficulty rating has settled down at V12, although not its reputation or its height. This didn't stop Tim Clifford of Leeds (one of the Yorkshire Dark Horses mentioned who normally shies from publicity) from virtually flashing the thing. Most ascents, including that of first ascensionist Chris Sharma, are multi-day efforts. On Clifford's second attempt he was a reach away from the finishing hold, but through a mixture of surprise and shock at getting so far, so soon, he peeled off onto his pad. However, within an hour of grasping the problem's first hold for the first time and on his eighth attempt he had it in the bag and to quote said that the Mandala was, "probably the best problem I've ever done, regardless of hype and grade, and definitely my most memorable". Not surprisingly, the USA's climbing community was stunned.
This was the seventh ascent overall: Ian Vickers of Darwen got the first English ascent a few weeks previously, and soon after Clifford did it, another of Yorkshire's Dark Horses, Matt Birch of Leeds (the third Dark Horse, since you ask, is Andy Swan) also joined them on the Mandala podium. Both Clifford and Birch enjoyed the Mandala so much they repeated it several times.
Vickers and Clifford have both made their mark before in the bouldering mecca of Bishop. Back in 1996 Vickers established Second Toughest In The Infants - an unrepeated V9 (high steps, steel tendons, weird body contortions, and Lancashire nous required) near the Happy Boulders. At the same time in the Happy Boulders themselves Clifford put up the classic and very dynamic Disco Diva V8 and the very hard ceiling crack Slowdance V10 - all three the hardest in the area at the time. As well as the Mandala, Clifford made quick work of Sharma's Plain High Drifter, a confirmed V11 in the Buttermilk and many other area testpieces of V9 and higher.
In 2001, with longtime partner Anne Murray, Clifford travelled the length of the Western USA in an RV (Recreational Vehicle) visiting as many bouldering areas as possible. Next stop was Yosemite Valley, and at the foot of the giants Clifford soon cracked off Jerry Moffatt's notorious Dominator V12/13. "Probably the only time I've arrived in a place and just got straight onto a problem that I was psyched to do," said Clifford. This much-written-about and photographed overhang in the heart of Camp 4 had only seen two ascent after Moffatt's: one by Moffatt's dreadlocked (at the time) pal, Ben Moon, and the other by fuzzy-haired Fred Nicole who inadvertently hit his spotter swinging from decent holds at the lip, arguably invalidating his ascent. This didn't stop Nicole from creating a further storm by down-rating the problem to V12. No American has yet repeated it, but not through lack of trying. The evergreen Ron Kauk has been insitu on it for nearly 10 years. Tim wasn't happy with just a straightforward repeat, the problem has a very obvious sit down start that was too powerful for the Sheffield duo of Moffatt and Moon. Unfortunately in late May conditions were starting to get hot and wet, and Clifford fell at the lip (a V2 move if that) eight times from the sit down start before he disapointedly decided to call it a day. "It was hard not to do the sit down. Maybe it won't make a difference to the difficulty but I think the sit-start climbs really well and it seemed to me at least to be the obvious start to the problem". Local beta defines the best time to boulder in the Valley as dry and cold days between December and February, not late May when the mercury is high and the wet bulb won't go dry.
Next stop, Southern California's Black Mountain, another area made famous by the Sharma video Rampage, here Clifford made quick work of Ben Moon's Bang On V11 and Chris Savage's Dark Horse V11 (these Brits get everywhere!) and established a new V10, Control Freak. Then it was north to the granite of the Tahoe basin, the sandstone of Castle Rock near San Fransisco where Clifford ascended most of the local testpieces. He then changed country and headed over the Canadian border to the cooler climbs of Squamish, near Vancouver. Here below cliffs of towering granite are gardens of rocks that have, like most North American bouldering areas, been recently revitalised by an invasion of beanie-clad baggy-trousered pad people. Here Clifford repeated another of Sharma's testpieces, The Egg V11, established Lucky Charms V11, and repeated Encore Une Fois V11.
By this time the scrawny stickman from Otley was running out of steam and motivation. America's bouldering areas had worn Clifford down and his attempts on perhaps the hardest boulder problem in the USA, Dave Graham's Nothin' But Sunshine V14 in Rocky Mountain National Park, and Sharma's No Additives V13 at Joe's Valley, Utah, were lacklustre and resulted in failure. Clifford claimed that he was losing power and needed time on his woody back home to rejuvenate. By September, with a successful seven-month trip (nearly 40 problems of V9 and above) behind them, they had to leave for the stone walls and gray skys of their beloved Yorkshire Gritstone; but they vowed to return for another rampage next year.