Alastair Lee has filmed some of the biggest adventures on the planet. But this year he's focused his lens on the hardcore world of British bouldering. Sarah Stirling caught up with him to find out just what excited him about bouldering and where you can see the film.
This year Alastair Lee has been digging out the secret history of a dirty little sport called bouldering (the British version). A rebel within a rebel society, it wasn't even recognised as 'a thing' until the mid-90s, so how did bouldering emerge to become arguably the most mainstream branch of climbing? From 130-year-old bouldering photos to footage of today's pioneers making FA's of 8a+, 8m highballs, it's a great story.
"Meeting Dan Varian changed everything. He blew my mind. I realised that the Golden Age in bouldering is right now."
AL: Who’d have thought you could make an hour film about bouldering? A film like Hard Grit or Valley Uprising in its depth of narrative? I certainly didn’t. Then, while making a two-minute bouldering short, I started to find out some really interesting stuff. I ended up going on this journey and finding this great story.
Bouldering was a rebel within a rebel society. It’s arguably the oldest form of climbing, but it wasn’t accepted for a long time. Whatever type of climbing you look at, the pioneers are usually outsiders and anarchists looking to escape the normal world. Climbing is an anti-establishment sport at heart, and climbers didn’t accept bouldering! They thought: we can’t put those little boulders in a guidebook; we can’t have people thinking that’s what climbers do!
There aren’t many photos of bouldering before the mid-90s because it wasn’t really ‘a thing’ until then. I dug out some great history people won’t have seen before, including bouldering photos taken by the Abraham brothers 130 years ago, who documented absolutely everything in climbing back then, and footage of Jerry Moffat bouldering in the 80s.
Back in the 70s, a Yorkshire scene including Jerry Peel and Al Manson were the first to take bouldering on and embrace it. They didn’t just label it ‘preparation’, or something to do when it was raining. They’d go bouldering at Almscliffe and Bridestones after work and at weekends, drink beer and have a great time. They were technical masters at the cutting edge who represented their era.
There were no famous boulder problems back then, apart from Midnight Lightning in Yosemite. From the late 90s to early 2000s we had the Joker, the Ace and Monk Life in Britain. But even as late as ’89 there was nothing like that. The only things known in the UK then were some of John Allen's lines, like Pebble Mill and Technical Master.
Then Jerry Moffat went out to America, was influenced by Bachar, and came back with the news that people were training for bouldering now. Training for bouldering? Until then, bouldering was training. That’s when things really started to shift.
I started climbing in the mid to late 90s and was very much of that Hard Grit spell, when On The Edge was the bible, and Ben Moon and Jerry Moffat were so inspirational you couldn’t see beyond them. I don’t think anyone has been as big in British climbing since them. Bouldering was just becoming a ‘thing’ then. Lycra was going out and beanies and baggy pants were coming in.
Now bouldering has come full circle. It’s arguably the most mainstream branch of climbing. There are way more bouldering walls than climbing walls, and young people think it’s cool. It’s arguably the most popular, the easiest to get into and the easiest to make safe.
Meeting Dan Varian changed everything. I realised that the Golden Age in bouldering is right now. He’s one of the biggest stories in British climbing. He’s in his absolute peak right now, and no-one has really noticed. He’s put up over 120 routes of Font 8a or above, including 8b+s that no-one repeats.
Dan Varian on on a new highball at Callaly Crag in Northumberland
Dan blew my mind. He’s so good, so interesting, and so grounded in all his opinions. His experience is broad and deep. It’s so hard to argue with him. I’d go and film other people bouldering and it would just reconfirm that Dan was on a different level. I’d think, “What am I doing here?”
Dan is the opposite of Moffat and Moon. They are both brilliant on camera, whereas Dan isn’t a natural fit for the media or one for selling himself. It took me a year to get a good interview out of him.
8a+ climbing, 8m up, and willing to fall off. Those at the forefront of British bouldering are pushing the cutting edge of climbing in terms of boldness. It’s harder than what’s in Hard Grit. If you think about grades in trad, at the end of the 90s, E9s were already well-established. Since then it’s largely just been a case of improving the style — trying to onsight these routes.
Trad shouldn’t be able to touch a good boulder problem for purity of movement. Dan’s discovered things like these big, beautiful prows offering diverse movements from mantling to run-and-jump stuff. Aesthetic lines that offer interesting movement. These bouldering developers are true pioneers, studying Google Maps, walking for hours in search of incredible lines, and spending all day brushing them.
Bonehill Rocks, Devon
These hardcore boulderers got some attention when they started doing routes like The Promise [the 8m route graded E10 by James Pearson] with pads at the bottom. They were trying to prove the point that this was where climbing was going, but not many people really wanted to do that!
Filming someone’s first ascent of something hard, dangerous or unusual is gold in terms of emotional impact. But it’s really hard to be there at that moment. Only a handful of key people made the final cut. There's a load more — Ned Feehally, Dave Macleod — on the cutting room floor.
Sometimes I’d get home, put my head on the steering wheel and think: “What am I doing? Don’t question it. Just carry on.” I’ve driven all over the country for this film; driven long distances for nothing, or four seconds of useful footage. I’ve been to North Wales, Northumberland, the South-west, Cornwall, Devon, the Peak District, the Lake District, and Murlough Bay in Ireland, which is one of two or three places that could become world-class British bouldering destinations.
The key to true creativity is that you have to let things unfold, but it’s nerve-racking. I never have any idea what I’m doing. I don’t start with any plan besides discovering something. Those who know my work will recognise certain elements from my older films — experimental stuff and comedy — but this film also feels like a step forward onto new ground.
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