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Of Skin & Rock

I grew up climbing the Welsh Snowdonian mountains with my dad and uncle; I can remember the mix of intense fear and exhilaration on that cold and dark day where a ten-year-old Fin scaled a 150ft cliff face without ropes alongside my farther – wanting to make him proud. The motivation driving me all those years ago is experienced by every climber and boulderer when on the rock – it is the ecstasy that draws us junkies back whenever we can afford the time. 

 

In an age where so many hobbies and sports are incredibly accessible, why do we choose to climb? Why travel so far along rugged terrain with heavy bags to scale cliff-tops or mammoth boulders, destroying our hands in the process and, eventually, injuring ourselves. In fact, during the project there were two injuries among my subjects – one requiring surgery. But this question of why is one that I kept finding myself coming back to. As a climber and a photographer, I was in a unique position to explore this through the lens, and so I spent close to a year walking out onto the boulder-fields with my kit, sleeping under boulders or in pillboxes, and climbing as much as I possibly could. Bouldering has always been a big part of my life, but it feels as though I have uncovered a far deeper and intimate side to it over the past year and during the production of this book, and this experience has been utterly amazing. 

 

It was important to me that I approach such a personal project with my own individual style, and so I took B1 flash heads and large format black & white film. This meant carrying a bouldering pad backpack stuffed with (at its peak) 45kg of climbing, camping, and photography equipment on a 40-minute walk to the train station, an hour train, a 20-minute drive, and a 30-minute approach on foot. And then again on the way back – which often wasn’t until 12 or 1 in the morning. 

"Ross was another one of those amazing people that came to me through climbing. Selfless, kind, and with an absolute passion for the sport. 

 

This was our third climb together along with Fraser; it was a cold, dark winters night and we were out to climb something HARD. Distant walkers would have spotted three small figures huddled under Terrace boulder - head-torches illuminating the condensation of our breath. 

 

These trips form strong bonds, perhaps it’s the vulnerability? – The bare-chests and physical limits pushed. Or maybe it’s just the time you spend with often likeminded people. 

 

A couple weeks after that night, Ross fell during a session and tore his bicep away from his shoulder, resulting in surgery and a long journey of recovery. Weeks later I could see that Portland was still calling him, a hole had been created."

 

-Fin MacMillan

"When you combine sport, adventure, and problem solving, you get bouldering. One can not compare bouldering and climbing, as one does not compare oranges and apples. Bouldering demands the absolute physical limits of the persons involved, with the addition of perfect coordination and raw strength. This is what attracts me to bouldering, and keeps me returning to Portland at the weekends despite the shredded hands, numb feet and treacherous approaches. It takes a certain type of someone to actually want to put themselves through pain and suffering on their only days off each week. There is this undeniable sense of satisfaction when you finally unlock the beta for a boulder problem, and even more so when those intricate moves on the rock are achieved and you finally top out the boulder. Friends for life are born when you explore the boulder fields, and stand next to a boulder in the blistering wind, where you and fellow dirtbags encourage each other to send that project! The bouldering, and even climbing community is like no other. There is no prejudice, judgement or competition, but more of a bunch if like minded individuals who share a love for…well…rocks!  Bouldering isn’t a sport, it’s a lifestyle. A lifestyle I have been completely engrossed in since I first grasped those plastics holds nearly 3 years ago. That is why I choose to boulder.

-Fraser Long

 

 As I made more and more of these trips, I found myself coming back to the same question: Why do these people spend their precious time off work driving out to remote and rugged places to tear their hands apart in the cold? Of all the hobbies they could do, why boulder? This question quickly became the subject of the project – I didn’t just want to document the act, but instead uncover their motivations. 

The images directly above and below were from a particularly cold December night, climbing until midnight in -1 degrees before dragging our pads under Vandal Boulder to sleep. Other times we stayed in old pill boxes or just under the stars. There was a beauty in this lifestyle once it had been fully embraced and I would frequently long to be carrying the weight on my back while walking to the train with a mind full of the adventure I was going on. 

 

I felt that as a photographer and a climber, I had a unique perspective from which to shoot. The 5x4 camera and flash heads were always an alien object within the boulderfields. Even when I was with people I had climbed with for years, my camera’s presence left every shoot as a conflict between the insider and the outsider. While at my locations I would climb myself, consider different shots while on the rock, and take turns working on projects while setting up my frame. The slow process dictated by large format systems allowed my subjects to quickly see this strange object as another element within the rugged landscape we found ourselves in - by the time I was ready to take their picture, the camera was no longer alien.