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The Esoteric Bouldering Lottery

I started writing this article with the intention of highlighting some of the esoteric gems hidden within the Lake District, to attempt to coax the great unwashed away from the honeypots and into hills in search of gold. I created a masterpiece, truth be told, a rich tapestry of inspirational pictures interwoven with euphoric prose, dripping with superlatives, and laced with comprehensive beta. Oh! The beta! Flashes of some of the counties finest and hardest hidden test-pieces were nigh on guaranteed. But it occurred to me that this wasn’t really in the spirit of esoterica. So I deleted all that and decided to have a little rant instead. Now, I’ll begin with stating the obvious. From a UK perspective, Lake District bouldering in it’s entirety could be considered fairly esoteric. Even the best known areas such as Carrock Fell and St. Bees Head see relatively few visitors compared to the peak or Yorkshire. Which leads me to my first pondering; what exactly is esoterica? Can it be defined by the length of the walk in? A day at Sampson’s Stones is an epic undertaking, but surely it is a well enough known venue to remove the proverbial tar and feathers of esoterica. By the amount of traffic that it receives? Bloodsucker at the Bowderstone never gets done, but it’s at the Lakes premier venue. Is that esoteric then? By it’s quality? The aretes at Gillercombe are widely regarded as some of the finest of the grade in the area, yet see relatively little attention due to their location. Is everything currently unknown to us esoteric until proven otherwise? In fact, is ‘esoteric’ even an objective term that can be applied unanimously, or is it actually a rather meaningless meta-concept that has no solidity outside of our individual experiences?
Of course, what constitutes esoteric is constantly in flux. Often all it takes is someone with a goldfinger, the Midas touch, to visit somewhere and it suddenly becomes in vogue. Take the Lad Stones for example, once a quiet backwater, it is now marginally less quiet and a major Lakes venue following a spate of interest and development. Rightly so too. With the number of climbers ever growing, and their utilisation of media and technology increasing exponentially, more information is available about obscure venues and problems. It is not uncommon to find videos of unrepeated problems adorning blogs and even dedicated bouldering websites. LakesBloc, for example, chronicles the exploits of the Lake District scene and provides a wealth of information of superb and obscure venues (as well as the more mainstream). The fact that many of these free guides lie dormant, awaiting the attention of enthusiastic suitors, is testament to the lazy culture that seems so prolific amongst the bouldering fraternity. Those obsessed with chasing the biggest numbers with the shortest walk in. Even after a beta-rich video of perhaps the best 7B+ in the Lakes was released recently, I am not aware of anyone having braved the 10 mile round trip to tackle the challenge. I can hardly consider myself an authority on Lakeland esoterica, considering some of the company I keep. Nevertheless, I suspect I have travelled wider than most and I would argue that one common theme across the more obscure, dare I say esoteric, boulders that I have visited is an element of the unknown. You can never quite be sure what to expect, some times you will find a genuinely fantastic, remote venue or boulder problem that is relatively unspoilt by the masses, and provides the perfect tonic to your grinding mind. Or an even better prize, an unclimbed nugget awaiting your prowess that proved elusive to earlier, weary pilgrims suffering the effects of sundowning after a long day. Other times, the only reward you will find is the satisfaction of curiosity and a nice walk. Hence the name of this article; it can be a bit of a lottery. Now, intrepid explorer, it is important to embrace this latter point when embarking on a quest, to find merit in any endeavour and not be disheartened to find something that is not what one had hoped. I will, however, concede that such epiphanies may be retrospective. It is rare, though not unheard of, that I have basked in the euphoria of disappointment in the heat of the moment. Diamond Reign (7B)So why step outside of the safety of more established venues I hear you cry? Why forego the possibility of an extra session on your latest project and risk coming away empty handed? To me, it is a grand unification of what is great about bouldering; visiting amazing places, getting away from the crowds and just enjoying climbing for the sake of it. Right: Greg Chapman on the fabulous 'Diamond Reign' (7B), Eskdale Granite. Don’t get me wrong, I have spent plenty of time at places like the Bowderstone, sat under the latest object of my desire and enjoyed every minute of it. But sometimes I need a break from this, to rest my lowly guns and exercise my soul in a secret garden. To let time pass me by; where Tau = zero. It is also an excellent way to spend a few days when you have an injury that prevents you from pulling as hard as you might like. Burn some energy on a long walk in and just scope out somewhere new. And, to implement Occam’s Razor, it’s just cool to do something different that not many people have done. Esoteric (in it’s more literal definition) means “for the initiated”. That suggests elitism, and elitism is ace when you’re on the right side of it. If people ask you why, you can perpetuate this and simply, aloofly quote J Mascis - “it seemed like the thing to do”. Jungle Hobo (7B+)How do I find these mythical masterpieces I hear you cry? How can I remove the beast of burden and separate the wheat from the chaff? Well in the Lake District, the aforementioned LakesBloc website is your first port of call. An omniscient repository cataloguing the wanderings of so many that have gone before you. Find out who the local heroes are, and stalk them. Binoculars are an expensive initial investment, really nothing less than a pair of Swarovski’s are sufficient for tracking a lesser spotted Freeman roaming the fells, but will pay dividends in the long run. An easier option is to keep an eye on their UKC/8A.nu/Vimeo accounts and see what they’ve been up to. Chat to people at the crag, the more random a venue you’re at, the more likely they are to a.) have useful information, and b.) divulge their hard earned secrets. Right: Greg Chapman climbing 'Jungle Hobo' (7B+), the Rolling Rock, Patterdale. To add some credibility to what is basically a thinly veiled rambling and attempt to amuse myself on a wet Sunday, I have compiled some ‘top tips’ to guide your aspirant adventurers on those initial forays into the unknown.
  • Choose something below your grade initially; getting spanked after walking for an hour and a half is an acquired taste.
  • Go on a Sunday; get on your project Saturday for a work out, then remind yourself how cool climbing is by nourishing your soul the next day (This assumes you have a job, if not you really have no excuse for not having been everywhere already).
  • Get yourself a stout brush. And a stick. And a means of combining the two. Proper esoterica will need a bit of TLC.
  • When brushing vigorously, avert your eyes. Or take safety goggles. I always forget this.
  • Take some cake. It’s never a bad day when you’ve earned a bit of cake.
  • Look at where you are. I bet it’s well nice there. Who cares if you can’t get off the ground, you made the effort. I respect you for that.
  • When regaling others with your tales of exploration, exaggerate when it’s naff so they go as well. Tell them they can’t consider themselves a real boulderer unless they’ve been.
  • Be liberal with your beta giving. But obviously not the right beta. In fact, tell them a completely made up sequence.
Don’t actually do the last two. So why not take a leap of faith this summer and go somewhere different. Assuming there is no afterlife, you need to make the good days count. There’s plenty of information out there if you know where to look, often hidden in plain sight.