The Tale that Wags the Log
Updated: 4 days ago
It's been a while.
After a phase of publishing some climbing related writing around the time of the first lockdown, I haven't been feeling motivated to hold forth. I said some things I wanted to say. How much is there to be said about climbing anyway? All those years of books and magazines and online articles and blogs, a tide of words fizzing and jostling over each other until the meanings that held them together are froth. With the volume and immediacy of media now, you can be permanently saturated if you want to be, and it's all blown through by the next thing. Longform hardly seems worth the effort. I started a a blog once last year (pretty much this one in fact), but got bored of myself by the end of the second paragraph. Besides, sometimes the fragment of an Instagram caption is quite a fun throwaway format.
But here we are. I've squeezed one out.
I may have said some of it before. You get a bit forgetful in middle age. Ferdia and I sometimes dispute an occurrence, each of us adamant that the other has misremembered exactly what happened. Both of us can't be right, though it is possible that we're both wrong. In particular the memory struggles with familiar or similar experiences - novel or surprising ones tend to stick. I remember the woman who worked on the checkout at 8 o'clock a Monday morning during lockdown (and her appreciation of the view of trees beyond the petrol station, and admiration of Donald Trump) because that was my only shopping interaction of the week, whereas to her I've probably long since dissolved into a sea of faces.
I used to remember everything I'd climbed quite well, but at some point in the last few years, the dam burst, and the floodplains are awash with rocky fragments. Maybe it's the volume of similar experiences (let's be honest, different in flavour as they may be, they're all still variations on going up a piece of rock), maybe it's something to do with caring less. When I look at the guidebook for a crag now, unless I've ticked it, I'm often not sure whether I've done something before. The name rings a bell - did I climb it, or just look at it? I know I tried that one, but did I succeed? This raises the question: if I don't remember doing it, does it matter? I recently belayed Ian Burton on a route at Mowingword, and even after he'd got to the top he didn't remember he'd done it a few years ago until Ferdia told him he had. The experience was on-sight. So in a sense it doesn't matter, and yet... I quite like to know. Having a record is way of holding on to the past as it slides away, and sometimes of bringing it back to life. I like the teasing dissociation of finding forgotten moments in old diary entries or photos, the feeling of being ambushed by your own life.
Before I give the impression I've got serious amnesia, there is plenty I do remember as well. But the doubt has brought to prominence a totally unsurprising benefit of keeping a logbook: it's a record of what I've done. Indeed, I state the obvious. But I didn't always keep a logbook primarily because I might forget. This was like an arranged marriage, where a couple who have been together for years by familial contract realise they actually like each other too. I think I started keeping one, during my fearful first forays as a student, because other people said I should. Then I quickly got hooked on the satisfaction of ticking things, of being able to view them in a neat list. Claim laid, experience ordered: a kind of colonisation. A less harmful version of the impulse to collect bird eggs. I've always been reluctant to own that tendency, because I dislike so many of the behaviours that represent it, and because it doesn't fit with a self-image that I prefer, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a streak of it.
Log-keeping quickly became something else as well. This was around the same time that Facebook was expanding beyond universities and morphing into the all-consuming monster of 'social media'. It's interesting to speculate how much being at a transitional age when that paradigm shift of the social landscape took place affects our relationship with it compared to other generations. UKClimbing's well-designed database of crags and climbs for public logging was growing, and an increasing number of climbers were getting on board. Keeping your logbook wasn't just a personal record, just like Facebook wasn't just a way of keeping in touch with friends: whether you meant it to be or not, it was a performance.
I'd better unpack that. I imagine a lot of people don't regard their public content as performative at all - it's just a personal record that other people can view if they want to, right? That's probably close enough to being true for some. People's relationships with their digital presences clearly differ. However, I am clearly not alone in experiencing heightened self-awareness around anything shared online that is visible to public scrutiny. In some ways, it's probably just as well - look what happens when people fail to moderate themselves on the internet. But if you have even a vague awareness of a potential audience, there can't fail to be an element of performance in how you present yourself. Even for the person who genuinely doesn't care, they're still producing content for display - and from the point of view of the anonymous observer who hasn't enough information to tell how much affect is taking place, there is no difference. Even if you're not acting, you're up there under the lights. It is a performative space.
Even what you don't say can be prey to interpretation. I remember someone accusing me of leaving things out of my logbook that I'd fallen off in order to make it look better. I hadn't been thinking about it that way at all - I just wasn't logging stuff that I considered I hadn't climbed properly. The fact that someone, and therefore perhaps other people, saw it that way couldn't fail to pique the awareness that my choices could be interpreted as manipulation of image, ironically making me more inclined to do just that. Quite the hall of mirrors. More straightforwardly, I've seen people ribbing mates - "your logbook is looking a bit shit". This is probably why many people obey the convention of leaving comments that justify or excuse failures - I certainly once did.
Like any form of social media, overuse brings a risk of things crossing the threshold from distracting to dysfunctional. You've probably got bored of paragraphs already, so here in bullet format are my TOP FOUR (you will not believe No. 3!!!) types of logbook-related malaise:
The Unhealthy Comparison. The over-stimulation of competitive or FOMO tendencies that harm people's self esteem. Duncan Campbell's confessions of a logbook addict brought out some admirably honest admissions around this, and some differences in attitude. I've certainly let such comparison get to me at times when I've not been getting out as much myself. Ironically it's often during such times that one is most likely to drive deeper into a self-punishing scrollhole. When you're getting out and having fun, what other people elsewhere are doing is usually of less concern.
Style Fretting. The preoccupation with arbitrary standards as determined by a drop-down menu of options for style of ascent. There is a reliable trickle of threads on the UKC forum asking "does it count as on-sight if...[insert edge case shenanigans]", as though 'on-sight' is some kind of shining circle whose boundaries are enshrined by committee, and not just a vague term for having a go without previous knowledge. Agonising over the definition afterwards is only worthwhile if you're hung up on how your ascent appears - call it what you like, the facts of what happened don't change. I have some sympathy: as a young climber, I internalised those definitions as far more important than they really are. It's telling that half the posts on the (often entertaining) best of UKC Instagram page are call-outs of contradictory style claims. The most egregious expression of an over-concern with style is people gaming the definitions, as brought to fame by the 'Pearson flash' - doing absolutely everything you can to make a route easier while still being 'technically' able to claim a given style. My favourite is the 'para-sight', where you carefully stalk which routes have been recently climbed, to ensure a blaze of chalk shows the way for your glorious on-sight.
The Data Obsessive. I recently overheard a guy saying that he prefers to fall off easier routes than hard ones because it messes up his logbook graphs less. This one scores high as a bizarre instance of tail wagging dog, but to be fair to him, at least he's being honest. I used to check on my logbook graphs sometimes until I realised it's crap data anyway, because grades are often wrong and lots of other information in the database is incomplete.
The Truth Economists. Blurriness around style boundaries notwithstanding, some things are not ambiguous. I've witnessed people top-rope a route and then log it as ground-up, and heard of people claiming on-sights when they've had detailed knowledge beforehand. Now this might be accountable to confusion over the definitions, and sometimes simple error, but some of these people live and breathe climbing and really care about this sort of thing, and about putting their activities in the public eye, so it's reasonable to doubt it. I'm not going to go full Bullock here - it's tempting to slag people off but a lot of this stuff must come from insecurity, and is better treated with sympathy than contempt (I talk a good game here, I do enjoy a bit of slagging now and then). Bullshit is nothing new, but the opportunities that social media provides to present an airbrushed version of your life and deeds for public consumption can only encourage it.
What all these things have in common is that they're not what got anyone into climbing in the first place. They are secondary behaviours that complicate and detract from one's relationship with the activity. They are based on bad narratives and extrinsic motivations. For me, there were two main steps to making my relationship with the logbooks healthier.
Tom Livingstone wrote a doctrinal article a while back titled 'Style Matters', as if climbers weren't concerned enough about it already. It was a fish-barrel massacre. For me, it was a small breakthough some years ago to realise that actually, style doesn't matter, and therefore to stop recording it in my logbook. Easy on - there are of course some ways in which the style you climb matters. I'm not proposing a free-for-all, vacuum cups and helicopter rides to the summit. But it matters in a small way. Health matters. Relationships matter. Honesty matters. Style is a luxury.
But more importantly, giving it precedence was for me a source of mild but frequent distress. I'd climb badly and enjoy it less because I was worried about 'blowing it'. Not recording style was liberating. Duncan admitted to me that when he'd been at his most logbook obsessed, he'd found my omission of it annoying - which effectively proved the point, that it serves as a stick for people to beat themselves. Choosing not to concern myself too much with style as it will be recorded in the future means I focus better on the present - which tends to help with having a better time.
The second, and bigger, step was to make my logbook private. This was always, as far as I recall, an option, but most of my peers didn't take it, and neither did I. I'd toyed with it but felt the opportunity to leave useful information in the comment was too much of a loss. As soon as UKC introduced the feedback section as a way of doing that, it was a no brainer. For me, privacy has no downsides (unless you count the minor grievance to friends such as James Oswald, who complains that he can no longer stalk me). I get full use of the logbook system, without any of the weirdness that comes from sensitivity to what other people might make of what I've done.
I'm wary of this coming across as one of those 'my way is better' pieces. I wouldn't presume to tell other people what they should do, and I wouldn't bother writing any of this if I didn't recognise some of the behaviours in other people that I've experienced myself, and feel that I've learned from. I also realise that to some breezy souls and beginners, all this might come across as massively overthought. Chill, man. It's only climbing. Well indeed, and that's the point - this is a long-winded version of my closing advice to people who I've just bombarded with information about the traditions and conventions of climbing culture on courses: remember, it's supposed to be fun! People will find all kinds of ways to lose sight of that, to import mindsets born of a capitalist work ethic to a realm which offers at its best total anathema to that: climbing is a joyously unproductive act of freedom. In fairness 'fun' is an inadequate descriptor for those deeper forms of play that make for the most memorable experiences, but it's good to check back on the fact that it is a game. It's one code or another for messing about on rocks.
The hiatus between blogs represents a change in my attitude to writing that is not unrelated to the attitude I've developed to climbing. When I was a wee boy, people told me I was good at it. On some level, I always felt I needed to prove that was true, even if that sometimes manifested with an element of breaking it on purpose. Anyway, that's introspection for another ramble. Now I don't even try to write unless I'm up for it: the challenge of crafting from the maelstrom of conscious experience something that is honest and meaningful. Chances are, no one is going to care, at least not for long. I am sharing it because communication is part of the incentive, but it's mostly for me. Take what you will.
* With credit to The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy