When our vaccine-charged immune systems finally kick in and we can gradually take stock, it will be interesting to see how the pandemic has affected climbing. Of course, it will be somewhere near the bottom of a very long list of things that have been irrevocably changed; way below the death toll, far behind the power of a clap or the belief in competent government. But the changes in our little climbing world during lockdown were still significant. Robbed of the outdoor experience many of us turned inwards. Dusted off our Beastmaker 3000s, bought our 12-week training plans and measured our 7 seconds on, 3 seconds off. Inexorably it seemed our madcap adventurous hobby became defined by numbers, our dreams by algorithms…
10mm + 20kg x 12 seconds = 8a.
Or more realistically
20mm – 30kg x 3 seconds = MVS.
As the months have dragged on, I've wondered is this just an enforced hibernation of the climbing spirit or is 2020 the year climbing's soul finally died?
It was a relief therefore to be asked to review A Feeling for Rock, Sarah-Jane Dobner's first book and recognise all the little unquantifiable wonders that make up the climbing life.
The author should be familiar to UKC readers. Dobner has contributed a variety of pieces to this website. Most infamously The Perfect Line, an exploration of the links between new routing and the colonial mindset and Cyborg Climbers – Come to your Senses, a critique of climbing training culture. At the time those pieces created quite a frisson in the forums. One poster even went so far as to question whether Dobner was a real person, rather than an invention to bait our more conservative brethren. Contributors to that thread may, or may not, be pleased to hear that alongside the aforementioned polemics, their own postings now appear in this book under a feature titled Biliousness: Threads. The title follows an emblematic theme used throughout the book. Feelings and emotions are very much at the fore. Thankfulness: Art of the Rest, Fear: Beauty and the Beast, or Confusion: Better than Sex give a hint of the range of subjects covered.
For those of you still trapped by data, A Feeling for Rock has 37 "essays", ranging from the expansive to single paragraph musings, 26 poems, 21 photos, 14 cartoon strips, seven interviews, four collections of climbing/life tips and a miscellany of another four un-pigeon-holeable bits. That latter description would make a good sub-title for the book and could actually cover all 113 pieces of writing in A Feeling for Rock.
One of the pleasures of reading this book is you rarely know what Dobner is going to come up with next. While climbing has produced an undeniably impressive body of literature for such a niche activity, a lot of it does follow well worn paths - partly, I suspect, because many of the authors are coming from very similar backgrounds.
When Dobner looks beyond the numbers, she finds so much to explore: the tactile wonder of rock, post climb scars, the way different people rack their gear, or the casual sexism of crag chat. Divine Law, for example, is a short poem about the humble nut key, which entwines the growth of a climbing novice with the intensity, devotion and darker side of the Catholic church.
Dobner is a confident writer, wading into the swirling waters of identity politics devoid of fear. Without embarrassment, she embraces the sensuality of the climbing experience, at times with an unashamedly raunchy edge. Within the first few pages Dobner is daring herself and the reader to touch a venus-like Pentire cliff face, rising "out of the unfurling waters". The following piece muses on which is best, sex or climbing. A sensual lexicon of climbing phrases follows, culminating in a proposal to uncover climbing's hidden links with transgression.
Some of this subject matter might be a little alien to the traditional reader, but don't be put off. Dobner might be direct at times but there's a light hearted joy running through this book. Even her more polemical pieces have a mischievousness to them. The overwhelming feeling I had was of a writer in love with the climbing experience.
Perhaps inevitably with so many diverse pieces in the book, not all of them completely hit the mark. Whilst a couple of the pieces make sense within the larger structure of the book, standing alone they feel a little flimsy. But these are few and far between.
Reading this book as the end of the third lockdown comes into sight reminded me of all the little things, and the big emotions I've missed from climbing. It gave me optimism, when revisiting my question about what Covid has done to the soul of climbing. Perhaps when we finally stagger out into the daylight again the colours of the crag, the texture of the rock, the thrill of ascent and the banter of our partners will seem even brighter than before. If that time still feels too far away and you too have been wondering where the joy of climbing has gone, I recommend you get yourself a copy of A Feeling for Rock.
A Feeling for Rock is a visceral exploration of rock climbing as a passion and lifestyle. Through a mix of poetry, cartoons, essays, interviews, weavings, photographs and technical tips, it conveys the experience of being bamboozled by a route, connecting with the landscape or flicking through a guidebook. In addition, the book ventures into ethical regions of gender bias and privilege and questions our relations with each other and the rock. Chapters are headed by different feelings - Love, Curiosity, Astonishment, Pain, Lust, Fear, Wonder and so on - which lie at the core of a climbing life.