The right person for the job is a rare thing indeed, especially in the climbing world. Simon Panton's credentials for researching and writing North Wales Bouldering hardly needs examining, with one caveat, he isn't Welsh, but more on that later. Simon has been an activist and a documenter of the North Wales bouldering scene since its revival in 1996. He was born in Gateshead and is a Geordie, but for the last eight years he has lived in Llanberis. He documented the feverish Welsh bouldering revival initially in his garage-style bouldering fanzine, Northern Soul, and in his role as an observer and pundit of the UK bouldering scene in his Climber magazine column. Authenticity is important in the climbing world and Simon is the real thing. You only need to witness his throng of admirers on the ghetto message board at ukbouldering.com to realise that he is a man of the pad people. He has his feet firmly planted in the grass and his toes entwined by roots, when his arse is not falling onto his bouldering pad.
Out of his passion for bouldering exploration and his organic documentation of the Welsh bouldering scene has emerged an important guidebook which the climbing community have been waiting for, a few of them sitting on the edge of their mattresses like expectant fathers.
And rightly so. Everyone, but especially the passionate pebble wrestlers, the true playaz of the bouldering world, have a vast appetite and constant craving for local climbing knowledge passed on by a genuine 'local' who is one of them. For the bouldering mafia this is more than a guidebook, it is a validation of their chosen ethos, or as Jim Perrin would say their raison d'etre. But it is also important for another reason: it is one of several self-published climbing books that have been made possible by the ease of use and affordability of the publishing software now available. This is enabling individuals with specialist climbing knowledge, and a capacity to work damn hard, to have full control over the expression of their work and importantly fuller payback for their efforts. The result, when combined with the works of the traditional climbing publishers, is, I believe, a far richer climbing literature for us all.
This guidebook is bi-lingual, split betwixt Welsh and English, from the photo-captions to the introductions, to the well-researched history and all the problem information. Simon has set deep roots in North Wales and this is one part of his contribution to sustaining the Welsh language, a noble cause indeed. However as so much effort and ink have been put into sustaining the Welsh language it would have been illuminating to read Simon's personal reasons for producing this bi-lingual guidebook. Such an explanation is missing. I asked Simon why the guide is in Welsh. Initially he said he that he didn't want to put an explanation in the book: "it just is, it's hard to explain if you don't live here".
There are political reasons. The translation was paid for by Snowdonia Active - which Simon works for. This organisation promotes the outdoor experience in North Wales; their sub-agenda is to put a Welsh slant on outdoor recreation that is predominantly anglicised. "Politically it is very important," Simon says, "and eighty per cent of the people in North Wales speak Welsh. It is just natural for the area". He expands, "There is a tendency by some language pressure groups and loud-mouthed individuals to use the language in Wales as a divisive tool. Yet equally there are many progressive-thinking Welsh speakers who view the integration of newcomers, and with it the positive development of Wales' culture and language, as a good thing. My book is just a small, but hopefully important bridge between the outdoor community and the indigenous community. At least that was the plan - I guess time will tell."
The tipping point for Simon came one evening at a local climbing wall climbing with his friends, a few years after Simon had made Llanberis his home. All of them, apart from Simon, were speaking Welsh: "That clinched it". Iwan Irfon Jones did the translation and it provided many challenges, not least because many climbing and bouldering terms did not exist in Welsh, at least written Welsh. Iwan and Simon had to adapt Welsh climbing slang as well as inventing some totally new words. "Originally Iwan suggested 'Clogfaenu' for 'bouldering' - as a derivative of 'Clogfaen' which means boulder, or literally 'small rock face'. But we quickly changed to a more friendly bastardised word, because we were worried that no-one would use it. Iwan suggested 'Bowldero', partly because it had the same number of syllables as 'Bouldering', But I thought this sounded too Spanish/Italian. We then settled on 'Bowldro'. This is a much better word; it sounds very Welsh and it seems to have been accepted by Welsh speaking climbers. The only downside is that its literal meaning is 'turning bowl'.
"Most of the other creative decisions taken by Iwan were typically the amalgamation of two existing words, for example, deadpoint. For this he took 'marw' meaning 'dead', and 'nod' meaning 'mark', to make: 'marnod'. Obviously this type of development of a modern language is happening all the time, all over the world. Just look how France steadfastly refuses to use US style nomenclature for computers and IT related things."
The question is, will other publishers follow Simon's lead? The Climbers Club (CC) which is the main publisher of climbing guides in Wales and which describes Llanberis as the 'CC's heartland' has two new volumes in preparation: North Wales Limestone and Ogwen and Carneddau. Will they at the very least have the introductory section of these books in Welsh, or go for a full-blown translation?
I put this question to John Willson, the secretary of the CC publications sub-commitee. "We don't currently have any plans to include or publish separately, Welsh-language versions of the text of our Welsh guides. We are, however, taking great care now with the correct spellings and formats of all Welsh names,and providing translations of them wherever appropriate."
This guidebook is black. Ragged black bleeds frame each page, the homoerotic cover and inside cover flap photographs of Malcom Smith are dark and grainy, close-up and tight, and then there is a gothic-looking font. All combined it oozes a sombre and serious mood, secretive and at times self-flagellating and slightly oppressive. It's not a hip and cool black. As Al Alvarez said in Feeding The Rat, his small but poignant biography of Mo Anthoine, Llanberis is a "a small, dank town" where the weather "is generally dreadful" and the houses are "mournful, tear-stained" the pubs "bleak and stripped down for action" Simon's guide, with the artistic flair of local designer Mark Lynden reflects this perfectly. But come on! The sun does shine sometimes in the Lanberis Pass, its neighbouring valleys, and by the briny Irish Sea and this is reflected well in a smattering of excellent colour photographs by Ray Wood - well almost - two pictures show blue sky and I'm sure I can just see the reflection of the sun on George Smith's bald pate on page 272.
There may be other reasons for this look; at times Simon sees bouldering as a underground movement. His Northern Soul pamphlets were his samizdat in response to the "poorly-received bouldering section in the North Wales Limestone Rockfax" of 1997. Bouldering activity is "revolutionary" - practised by the "cognoscenti" and a self-proclaimed "mafia". At other times Simon fully accepts that bouldering has hit the mainstream, and he modified his original, more elitist text, to reflect this change.
Is this dichotomy a Blair-like attempt to appeal to all, an attempt to keep Simon's credibility with the "the true playaz", the rebellious young climbers who like to think that they are separate from the so-called mainstream, whilst at the same time appealling to a broader audience who should be allowed to join the tribe. One indication of this change from sub-culture to mainstream is the eight pages Simon directs at the non-elite where he gives how-to-advice for the uninitiated on falling, safety, toothbrushes and the definition of a boulder problem.
But whilst talking about the sit-down start Simon does berate, albeit mildly, the ignorant mainstream when he says that "this modern concept has a degree of ridicule from the uninformed masses" and there are references to people who are "fat" and "weak". I do understand his frustration; as anyone who is passionate about bouldering will tell you, there is a dislike of and negatitivity toward bouldering and 'boulderers' by some climbers - sometimes lightheartedly, sometimes transparent open ridicule - and this does tend to reinforce the notion that you are going against the grain. This is of course indicative of how climbing has subdivided into various fighting sub-cultures the last twenty years (recently amplified by the internet), when previously to this we were all just climbers and one big happy family - well, nearly.
But the sit-down start a 'modern concept'? Hardly. Gained widespread adoption, yes. In the USA John "Yabo" Yablonski, the Yosemite boulderer who spied the line of Camp 4's Midnight Lightning through a LSD haze, was well known for doing sit starts in the 1970's when they were commonly referred to as Yabo Starts. There are many earlier examples pre-1970's all over the States when you talk to the older climbers. But as always the origins are far closer to the pestered isles of Britain. I asked John Gill, the father of modern bouldering, what he thought: "In my informal research on the history of bouldering I've concluded that contrivances like eliminates and sit starts were done by the British during the late Victorian Period.", he replied. Gill himself was doing sit starts in the 1950's.
Back to the guidebook. The layout is clear and uncluttered, the information is well presented and generally easy to navigate once you get acquainted with the guide. Simon was influenced by the Rockfax guide to Yorkshire Bouldering and in a review he said that "one day all guidebooks will look like this". Well, God forbid that all guidebooks will look the same, but it is important not to try to re-invent the wheel.
The layout and organisation of the information in guidebooks is becoming fairly standardized. Once you have learnt and understood that, as Simon did in his initial efforts at laying out the information, it is then up to the author and layout artist to add their own personal touches, without whimsical self-centered flourishes, and Simon in my opinion has got the balance just about right. He said that he tried hard not to have the look of a Rockfax guidebook, but at the same time have the same ease of use. His maps are clear but have a very unique look and the fills used on the boulder plan maps have a beautiful bitmapped texture. The photodiagrams of the boulder faces grab your attention by having a motion blur on the non-relevent background. One boulderer is at this moment wandering around convinced that to get this effect Simon took the photos from a moving car. Apart from that being impossible to get this effect, this might have been a tad difficult for boulders such as the Wavelength (Tonfedo) which sit on the hillside below Diffwys Ddwr quite a distance from the road.
The answer? It is of course an Adobe Photoshop effect > select the boulder > invert the selection > add motion blur.
I would haved liked to have seen a double-page map of North Wales with all the bouldering areas marked, and some description of the number of problems, grade range and the nature of the bouldering at each area. Such a condensed graphic overview at the start of a guide is incredibly useful for orientation and for making that all-important choice of where to boulder today, especially if you have travelled far; more so when time is short and weather is threatening. One sore point is that you do on occasion have to do some flipping about to find maps and relevant topos associated with the text.
Getting all the associated information on a double-page spread, or near as dammit, is sometimes difficult without too much repetition, and doubly so in this guide as it uses two languages. If you can pull it off, it does seriously help navigation. Better use of tabs along the right-page edge to include not just the region, but each area and sector would also have made the book easier to navigate.
One of the unique aspects of British climbing is its obsession with grades, or more specifically arguing about grades, whether it be at the crag, down the pub or when being a mouse potato whilst keyboard climbing on the interweb. Simon spends a few pages worth of words discussing bouldering grades, explaining why the Hueco V - system is better than the Font system and most notably justifying his infamous V8+ rating. His reasoning that the V system is better than the Font system is that the V system is "much clearer and reliable throughout the grades", I'm afraid that isn't my experience. Just like the Font system, wherever the V system is applied it is usually area-specific (varies between areas) and within an area the difficulty of problems given the same grade will vary wildly.That fact is as reliable as gravity; I dare you to prove me wrong. Do five V3's in North Wales, five V3's in the Lakes and five V3's in the Peaks and you'll understand exactly what I'm talking about.
What confused me was that after saying that the Font system isn't suitable, he then attempts to par the Font linear numerical system with the V linear numerical system. I've tried working out why we should strive for this parity of grades. I have a few explanations but I won't bore you with them here. Better perhaps to explain how V8+ evolved. In his role as bouldering correspondent for Climber magazine, Simon was inundated with reports of new boulder problems often using three different grading systems: the Hueco V, the Peak B and the Font system. His column was beginning to look like a maths equation; Bernard Newman, Climber's editor, asked Simon if he could simplify the notation and just use one system.
The problem was that the V and Font Scales on some comparison charts align and on others they don't. Simon's contribution to aligning the V and Font scales was to add a V8+, to make parity with Font 7b+, where before on some tables V8 was spread from Font 7b to 7c. But he then ignores the lower grades where there is a similar non-alignment of grades between the V and Font systems. Do those lower grades not count?But V8+ is, despite its inconsistancy, gaining ground in the UK; the new FRCC Lakes guide uses it, as does Greg Chapman's Lakesbloc website and Dave Henderson's guide to bouldering on Devonshire granite.
It's all baloney and incredibly complicated. At their simplest, grades are a "rough guide to problems you might consider doing", as Dave Pegg once put it. Of course it just wouldn't be the UK without all this grade play and as sure as Three Pebble Slab is E1, this debate will just run and run.
Simon is a strong writer and this shows in his illustrated historical essay, researched with Mark Katz. It would also have been interesting to read about the battle to save the Cromlech boulders and how possibly, Jerry's Roof and the Pool Of Bethesda, the hardest problems in the area, may have been man-made. (You can read all about those here).
There is a comprehensive graded list with first ascents. Wales is probably one of the only places in the UK where there is now a written first ascent record of boulder problems and this is to be applauded, loudly. Not everything was done in the black and white days, and the tigers of old get recognition along with the current crop of boulder ratz. Hopefully the bouldering guides in preparation to the Peak and the Lakes will take note here and give it their best effort at including some history and first ascent information.
The proof is in the pudding of course, actually using the guide in the field, and being 4,000+ miles away from North Wales I'm going to go hungry. But I talked to several climbers who have used the guide, and they found it excellent as regards directions to the boulder problems. I asked the ethicist a Mr.Fiend of Leeds, England who has used North Wales Bouldering if the maps get you to the place you want to go?
"Yes. A few areas have what seem like pretty basic maps (e.g. The Meadow, Orion Boulder), but actually finding the boulders is fine - they are all quite obvious once you're in the general area. This is as much a testament to the distinctiveness of the boulders in the area, but of course kudos to Panto for capturing that well. The boulders' layouts are described well and the problems are distinctive. The only very slight issue is that the terms used for some of the larger features can be open to different interpretations e.g. groove vs. scoop, flake vs. overlap. But when you're at the boulder it's pretty obvious."
I like this guidebook a lot. I like its look, its feel and how it reads. Importantly, it opens up a lot of new places for people to discover, mountain bouldering in the summer and coastal bouldering in the winter. This the major strength of this first edition of North Wales Bouldering. Simon freely admits that he has let out some of the closely guarded bouldering secrets of those dark Welsh hills to all and sundry, and rightly so. Locally it has been very well received; some have said that is exceeds expectations. The only criticism I have heard is about the cover: and that it would have been more appropriate to feature a local boulderer rather than a climbing celebrity, especially a Peak raider. The commercial reality is that celebrity sells.
Amazingly even girls are bouldering in Wales now, I spotted photos of at least three different women cranking on small rocks, unroped. This has got to be a good thing for the male and macho-dominated world of UK climbing.
In conclusion, only in the UK could something so wonderful and unique be created, and it takes pride of place on my bookshelf next to November, Hard Grit and The Owl and the Cragrat. Simon complained to me that some reviewers of his guide didn't really explain why they liked it or where it stands compared to other guidebooks. It isn't revolutionary - as some reviewers have suggested - although its treatment of the Welsh culture is exemplary for all guidebook authors and Simon's acceleration up the steep publishing learning curve will no doubt be an inspiration to other authors going down the rocky road of self-publishing. It is an excellent guidebook, one of the best in the UK. Where does it stand in the evolution of guidebooks? It has soul.
Simon Panton's website - www.northwalesbouldering.com
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