Everything you need to know to better understand bloc culture

Everything you need to know to better understand bloc culture

One of the nicest first climbs I have done in the Laurentiens. Photo credit : Mathieu Elie

In the last two years, I worked passionately on the documentary Origine: Laurentides Bouldering that I finally presented last spring. Through this film, I attempted to retrace and tell the history of bouldering in the Laurentian region, a rather arduous task because of its secret nature. Thus, in a context where tangible historical sources were scarce (and I mean, almost non-existent), the use of interviews with different developers was necessary. After meeting these climbers, young and old alike, a striking observation appeared through the different stories: the culture of bouldering, although different for everyone, had lost its landmarks of yesteryear. What the community represented a quarter of a century ago, with a sharp ethic and a deeply rooted culture of secrecy (whether we admit it or not), characteristics that were clearly linked to climbers and developers in the 90’s, struggled to fight a modernity that was shaping the sport without any restraint. Social media, the rise of great climbing facilities, and the infatuation caused by the 2020 Olympic games, among others, mean that the culture of bouldering, or those who fashioned it, are not in the driver’s seat anymore. We are thus in a situation where bouldering culture is directed, in large part, by agents who would, at that time, have been considered as foreign or alien.

The following question naturally arises: how can we define this culture of bouldering today, and how can we participate in it by contributing positively to the development of the sport?

Before we get to the heart of the matter, we must start by establishing certain bases to define what I mean by “culture of bouldering”. Obviously, such a subject is controversial, and it is difficult to discuss it without historical distance: we are living in this exact moment! On the other hand, an effort can be made to better understand it, even if it is difficult to agree on a universal vision or definition. By bouldering culture, I mean a set of practical and ideological phenomena that characterizes a particular group. Thus, a large majority of those who practice and develop bouldering in the region would be united by these characteristics governing the evolution of sport. So then, what seems logical  is to trace some of these characteristics over time to understand how and why they have changed so much. Let’s be clear: this is not a question of identifying a winner between generations of climbers, but of discussing it in order to account for a rich culture that never ceases to impress with its lightning fast expansion.

Speaking with the older boulderers such as Paul Laperrière, who practiced the sport in the 1970s, it is easy to notice that bouldering was, for them, a practice for the long routes. If we had been able to talk to even older climbers like Fritz Weissner or Claude Lavallée, who were bouldering in Val-David during the late 1950s, we would probably have gotten a similar point of view. It seems that it was not until the early 1990s that the sport was taken seriously for what it really is: difficult movements to reach the top of a boulder. It is a simple, perhaps even simplistic definition, that finally found its meaning with climbers like Guillaume Carat. He was the first to have a crashpad in the region, and he practiced bouldering, often alone, in a forest filled with virgin boulders. As he said so well: “Y’avait juste… personne” (There was just…no one else). Serious climbers were found on routes, and we had nothing to do with marginal people climbing small chunks of insignificant rock. But, for Carat and his friends, it was much more than that. They were seeking a singular beauty, the purest problems, with audacious and peculiar movements. For the first time, we went beyond what seemed self-evident: bouldering was born through these pioneers who paid tribute to the boulders like no one had done before. It was no longer a question of practicing for the long routes because, for these climbers, these routes didn’t mean anything. They were bouldering the the sake of it, for its aestheticism, for its intensity, for its singularity. Also, because they were trying to avoid the crowds… but that is another story.

Interview with Paul Lapperière for the film Origine. Photo credit Mathieu Elie

At that time, however, the quest for performance was not what it is today. Yes, boulderers tried to piece together the most difficult moves, but usually not to the detriment of the logical lines. In other words, they tried to climb the line of least resistance. They used obvious starting holds and followed the most natural line to the top. They did not try to force less obvious or aesthetic lines, they’d rather climb something else. Obviously, everything was awaiting a first ascent at that point, why would they waste time on less than stellar lines? Some low starts or contrived problems put up a decade later would not even have made sense at that time. This is why I argue that the quest for performance was relegated to the backburner : other aspects such as aestheticism took precedence over it.

 

Obviously, this mentality has changed a lot since the early 2000s. Climbers quickly realized that the Laurentian region was filled with many granite jewels. A particular attention was given to Val-David in order to climb the most beautiful lines. Over the years, more and more difficult lines were added, which were considered too difficult before. Equally important, the pioneers of the new school bouldering ventured off the beaten path to find THE line that would make others salivate. In a somewhat paradoxical way, when one found it, one tended to keep the secret well guarded; it would usually be transmitted between a few friends, no more. Thus, rumors of the existence of these majestic problems (and areas) were circulating, but very few climbers had access to it. You had to work hard to be part of this Laurentian V.I.P. group. On the other hand, we cannot blame these developers who had worked hard to find the boulders and, maybe more importantly, clean them! In a world where the existence of Google Maps was utopian, the continuous search for new boulders was not what it is today. Only a few motivated had the ambition and the tenacity to do the job, so they could very well do what they wanted with the fruit of their hard labor.

Guillaume Carat brushing a line in Val-David. Photo credit François Parent

How to keep the secret spots… secret

 

When I first became interested in the development of bouldering in the region, I found myself at the apex of this situation. I knew the existence of secret spots, I had seen the photos, viewed the videos and heard the stories, but nobody wanted to give me directions to get there. I decided that I, too, was going to do the job. With a few friends, we have, year after year, found these places known as secrets. At the same time, we found new areas with untouched rocks. I did not steal anything from anyone, I just did the job. It is this precise detail that changes everything. When you are brought to a said secret area, you remain tributary to those climbers who shared their most valuable secrets with you. In the opposite case, where discoveries come from your own time and work, you owe nothing to anyone. You do what you like with this valuable information. It is pretty much in this context, in my opinion, that the bouldering scene in the Laurentians took off. The culture of secrecy had pushed the most curious climbers to do the job. There was no other option, really. Naturally, within a few years, the region was thoroughly searched. With the growth of social networks, climbing facilities and climbing in general, the information was circulating more organically. The secrets were now in the hands of several climbers, so it was no longer possible to keep them from spreading, to the dismay of the precursors. I cannot speak for others, but I have to admit that it was hard for me to be quiet after finding some areas that I had dreamed about for years. I wanted share it, so that others could feel the same excitement that kept my passion as lively as it could be.

 

If the rather conservative description I made of the bouldering scene at its embryonic moment appears negative, I think we have to see it from a different perspective. Those who participated actively in information sharing, if they had found themselves in the shoes of the pioneers, would probably have acted in the same way. Everything is a matter of context. Moreover, these same climbers who were reluctant to share information more than ten years ago, are still active in the field. And most of them, as I still climb witht them, now appear very open-minded about the development of bouldering and the various more underground areas. This goes to show how mentalities change over time and adapt to the historical context.

 

It is also important to mention that one of the main reasons for secrecy was the precarious access in these private areas. It could be discussed at length, but simply put, the privatization of land in the Laurentians (at a frantic pace!) makes things much more difficult for climbers nowadays. Thus, it may be important to mention that this (in)famous culture of secrecy did not necessarily arise from selfish intentions. I often kept secret information when I thought it was necessary myself.

 

Social media : Changing the climbing game 

 

All this leads me to a final point as to the state of affairs at this moment in history. Taking into account the very precarious accesses, the crazy popularity of the sport and the impressive role of social networks, whether it is Facebook, Instagram or others, this sharing of information that has occurred in the last decade seems to cause problem now. When new climbers go to these formerly secret sites, and act as if they were in the gym, yelling, listening to loud music and acting with dubious ethic, one can question their understanding of the situation (and the history of the bouldering in the region). Lately, in an Instagram story, I saw this specific phenomenon right in front of my eyes. The authors did not hide from it. In fact, they shared it with everyone, while simultaneoulsy trivializing their actions. Maybe the culture of secrecy, which was transformed into a culture of sharing and almost universal access, might have been right from the get go. Perhaps the pioneers were right, after all, to restrict this access now made so easy. We can ask ourselves these questions. At the same time, I should ask myself : maybe I was part of the problem, wanting to share this information ? Otherwise, we can also question each other’s behavior and their consequences on the history of bouldering in the Laurentians. In twenty years, will we be able to partake in our passion and, from time to time, find new pebbles that will inspire others? Being trained in history, I know the dangers of analyzing a situation so close to us in time. But, still, I hope I will be able to enjoy my passion for a long time, to share it with the next generation, and to return to boulders I opened two decades ago.

Interview with David Lacasse, one of the greatest developer in the region. Photo credit Mathieu Elie

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Mathieu Elie

Mathieu Elie

Historien et grimpeur passionné