Rocklands Bouldering Trip
I’m writing this on the plane somewhere between Cape Town and Singapore in a rare moment of peace while my daughter sleeps, spread across my lap. I’m squished into the side of the already cramped economy seat and my back aches, but I don’t know if it’s from the transit, the toddler wrangling or the heavy four-days-on of bouldering that we squeezed in at the end. There hasn’t been much down time, but since I have the chance, it feels right to reflect and share some of the experiences of my very first bouldering trip.
Despite being a ‘climber’ for 23 years, and more recently feeling as if I’m a reasonably well-rounded one with experience in a variety of styles and rock types, I have always kind of sucked at bouldering. My body is built for endurance and with barely a type 2 muscle fibre to my name, I struggle to get psyched about moves that feel utterly impossible when you first pull on. Let’s face it, it’s logical to avoid something that you’re not terribly good at.
I did dabble and enjoy the social aspect of bouldering in my late teens, but that came to an end after a bad knee dislocation and reconstruction when I was 20. Landing on pads was out of the question for at least a year, and even then I had some legitimate fear that a bad landing could re-injure the joint that was now chronically unstable. I probably would never have signed up for an international bouldering trip if I hadn’t had a highly mobile and energetic one year old who is simply not compatible with belaying right now.
With all that said, I knew that doing some bouldering would likely provide benefits for my strength and power that would translate well to difficult crux sequences that I encounter on routes. Plus it’s actually really fun to see my daughter Ella playing in the sand and dirt, chalking up, and brushing foot holds. She even has her own little power scream that she uses when she scrambles - I guess she’s been watching me closer than I thought!
Preparation was very basic and limited: climb on the moonboard 1-2 times per week, do some hang boarding when you find the time (nope), and get some days of Grampians bouldering in before we leave (3 days all up I think). I guess I really needed to MAKE the time, because it just wasn’t lying around waiting to be found. Oh well, no problem because there were no real performance goals in mind. The mission was simply to 1) have fun, and 2) not get injured. Coming home a bit stronger would be a nice bonus, but as our first overseas family holiday I knew not to set my expectations too high.
After a diabolical transit from Natimuk to Cape Town, we hired a car and made the final leg of our trip to Travellers Rest in the Cederberg. Despite the total exhaustion, we were in awe of the beauty and beyond psyched, so as soon as we had checked in to our cute little African stone cottage, we grabbed the pads and went to check out a nearby crag called Sassies. The walk was gentle uphill and stunning bright wildflowers were dotted along path. We arrived to find gorgeous orange and black sandstone, perfect flat landings, and highly concentrated classic problems in all directions. Bliss!
I took things easy the first few days since I was completely sleep deprived, jet lagged and being conservative about injury risk. We opted for volume over difficulty, and probably pulled on 4x more than anyone else we came across. It also took at least a week for my skin to adjust and harden, as the rock at most crags was generally a lot coarser than Arapiles quartzite. When I decided to ramp things up a little, I found myself struggling. Classic route-climber error, I just couldn’t fathom the reduction in volume needed to put in decent maximal attempts on hard problems at my limit.
Every day I made the same mistakes, wasting energy and skin on bungled half-ass attempts, failing to ‘choose my battles’, all while trying to wrangle a teething toddler and coordinate crag naps, snacks, toys and breastfeeding. I was very content but exhausted!
The weather was warm and most of the crowds were going out at night, not an option for us with bedtime to consider. But the mornings were often cool enough and with a dry breeze, I started to find my groove somewhere about halfway through the second week. I wasn’t exactly crushing but we were having a blast and I was seeing some progress not just in my physical strength, but in my strategy. Most importantly, I was psyched and had found a project that felt hard but possible.
Pinotage (V8) felt difficult for the grade, but I couldn’t dream up a more perfect boulder if I tried. It’s a high bloc with a couple of powerful crimp moves off a right heel hook, followed by a smallish dyno (deadpoint if you’re lucky) and a couple of chilled moves on the high top out. By my second session on it, I was consistently making it through the lower moves and attempting the dyno, but not quite getting the power or coordination to latch it.
Rather than letting myself get too caught up in one project, we continued to sample as many crags as possible (visiting a total of 16 different areas by the end of our trip!) and ticking off some classics and some hidden gems in the V6-V8 range that felt hard enough to be real bouldering, but not epic projects requiring tons of skin, energy and time. The days were fun, and Ella absolutely loved being a part of it. It was perhaps the first time since her birth that I felt my climbing was limited by factors other than parenting (skin, strength, recovery, skill).
It became obvious to me that the real reason I suck at bouldering is not as simple as lack of power or strength. It’s because I don’t do it. I’m a total beginner, and bouldering is a different game. I started timing my rests, breaking down the movements (and micro movements), making every attempt count, accepting power spots, and discovering how much less is in fact, more. I still don’t have a battery operated fan in my crag bag, or a brush on a stick, but I actually learned how to stack pads properly, and got better at selecting problems that I would enjoy rather than throwing myself at everything in sight.
A couple of my favourite lines included:
- Vanity (V7)
- Short and Stout (V7)
- The Girlfriend problem (V6)
- Ramskopp (V7)
- Minki (V8)
- Shark Attack (my first V8 flash)
- Great Escape (V5/6)
- Perfect (V5)
- En petit Heuco dans Rocklands (V8)
Unfortunately, I never did make that dyno stick on Pinotage. But despite my failure to send, I feel satisfied with my progress and efforts, and wouldn’t have spent my time elsewhere. Plus it’s always nice to have something to come back for! I didn’t try many harder problems, but was happy with my first ever efforts on a V10, Eye of Sauron, that also felt possible.
I’m excited to see if my new found strategy and psych for boulders will transfer on to some harder blocs closer to home, and importantly, on to the cruxes of my local sport and trad projects. You can follow my adventures on Instagram @ashleehendy to find out!