Sunday, February 15, 2009

Thoughts on the Geography of Bouldering Subculture.

Melting snow kept us off the boulders this weekend, but that doesn't keep my mind off of climbing. Lately I've enjoyed thinking about bouldering as a subculture, how the subculture developed, and where it currently resides. John Gill got the ball rolling in the Grand Tetons and Colorado. Hueco Tanks, with help from crashpads and John Sherman, made it grow. And then restrictions at Hueco caused a diaspora, possibly quickening the growth in numbers of bouldering problems and participants worldwide. The story is complicated by the fact that bouldering is part of and influenced by climbing subculture and it's history. Based on Ken Gelder's definition below I feel subculture is an accurate term for the pursuit.

"Subcultures are social, with their own shared conventions, values and rituals, but they can also seem 'immersed' or self-absorbed—another feature that distinguishes them from countercultures.

He goes on to identify six key ways in which subcultures can be understood:

through their often negative relations to work (as 'idle', 'parasitic', at play or at leisure, etc.); Many climbers and boulderers work, some don't, but there's a certain tension between our work and climbing.

through their negative or ambivalent relation to class (since subcultures are not 'class-conscious' and don't conform to traditional class definitions); This is spot on.

through their association with territory (the 'street', the 'hood, the club, etc.), rather than property; We definitely have our territories. Ken goes on to say "Subcultures inhabit places in particular ways, their investment in them being as much imaginary as real and, in some cases, strikingly utopian." Bouldering at a good area feels very utopian.

through their movement out of the home and into non-domestic forms of belonging (i.e. social groups other than the family); Yeah.

through their stylistic ties to excess and exaggeration (with some exceptions); Is bouldering subculture an exception here? Could go either way.

through their refusal of the banalities of ordinary life and massification. Definitely.

So I feel pretty comfortable that bouldering exists as a subculture, but does bouldering subculture have a center? If it does, could it be northern Colorado? Other areas have higher quality rock in higher concentrations. Other areas might have tighter knit bouldering communities. But culture is more focused on people, the artifacts they create, and the spread of ideas. A quick perusal of had more high ranking boulderers from northern Colorado than any other definable area. The majority of climbing magazines, organizations, photographers, and film producers have strong ties to the area. In the intro to his book Climb! Jeff Achey says "Writers go to New York. Actors go to Hollywood. Climbers go to Colorado." It's a book about the history of climbing in Colorado, but he might be right. Colorado's combination of quality climbing areas, good weather, and varied job opportunities makes it a great place for the bouldering subculture to develop. Many other parts of the world beat northern Colorado in one or two of these criteria, but I can't think of anywhere that beats this place in all three. Bouldering culture is very diverse and circles the planet. Maybe the bouldering subculture has no center. Every bouldering area and boulderer has an influence, but if you feel another geographic area is more central and influential to the culture of the sport than northern Colorado I'd like to hear your point of view.


Seth said...

In 1999-2000 I was living in Baltimore MD. and working at a climbing gym, and guiding service, called Earth Treks. One day Jason Kehl came in (he was the head route setter at the time) and handed me a copy of some climbing video called Solutions.

Long story short, Jay was out visiting Francis, Doug and Pete and was given the vid by some punk name Bennett after they had had a great day of climbing up some 'new' area called the Poudre Canyon.

I watched the vid and my mind was made up, I was moving to Fort Collins.

It's the center of my climbing world, and has been for 6 years. (thanks Bennett)

Peter Beal said...

This is a great post! The Jeff Achey quote was spot on. The advantage of Northern CO is that you have at least a chance of a normal life as well as hundreds of quality climbing areas nearby. My wife and I have been residents of CO for 15 years now and can't think of any other place in the world that compares.