A Feeling for Rock – book review
- Friday 4th November 2022
By Sarah-Jane Dobner – Dob Dob Dob £12.99
Review by Andy Clarke
How do you feel peering for ripples in the middle of a gearless slab? Topping out a multi-pitch mountain route and suddenly seeing the view? Latching the chains on that nothing-to-lose last go?
A day's climbing – let alone a lifetime's – takes us through an ever-changing spectrum of intense feelings and this fascinating book by Sarah-Jane Dobner tackles pretty much every one of them. Dobner is a Bristol-based climber, writer, musician and filmmaker. A number of her articles and poems have appeared over the years in climbing magazines and – to some controversy – on the UKC website. Some of them are reprinted here in a collection which runs the gamut from ‘Fear and Bewilderment’ through ‘Commitment and Comedy’ to ‘Spirituality and Joy’. But en route it takes in many other expressions of our multi-faceted hobby-sport-lifestyle-obsession. How many? Well, I counted and there are 57 different sections, each tying onto a different emotional partner. Fifty seven varieties of mood – 57 feelings for rock.
But, of course, the resonant title doesn't only suggest the emotional rainbow all climbers ride – it also suggests an affinity for. And for how many of us has that surprisingly discovered affinity shaped our lives? The opening piece in this collection is Devotion: A Sensational Passion and it gives powerful expression to such a transformative affinity:
‘Rock climbing has shaped my body, my bookshelves, my boyfriends, my community, my employment, my home, my holidays, the clothes I wear, the vehicle I drive, how I spend my money and what happens when I die. I am a product of the rock’.
The collection takes us through that biographical arc from first love (the rocky object of desire long outlasts the human lover who introduces them) into the all-consuming passion of the climbing life, the desolation of injury and lay-off, the joy of reunion.
And another key meaning echoes in the title; climbing is the most tactile of activities – apart perhaps from making love (of which more later). We're always ‘feeling for’ the positive edge to crimp, the point of balance to work the smear, the sweet spot of foot or hand to jam.
Particularly distinctive compared to a lot of climbing writing is Dobner's celebration of the nurturing feelings of tenderness and compassion, which extend beyond the human of partner for partner to the rock itself:
‘We routinely treat the rock like a passive, dead, inanimate resource which can be exploited and divvied up. But what if the rock is alive, sensitive, vibrant? Maybe it trembles when you approach with glue and a drill. Perhaps it has its own name’.
Dobner draws on a wide variety of genres and styles to communicate this huge diversity of feeling. There are prose stories, meditations, polemics, interviews, how-to manuals, lexicons and lists. There are sequences of poems. There are even (very funny) cartoons. This multiplicity of writing styles is illustrated by a number of fine black and white photos, which pan in and out from nose-to-the-rock detail of features and holds to exhilarating panoramas and big, big skies.
This is an unusual mix and there's been very little else like it in climbing literature. The two main books I think of are David Craig's too little-known reflections and reminiscences in Native Stones and the glittering iconoclasm of Ed Drummond's A Dream of White Horses.
All sports are constantly generating stories, but in climbing they come with an edge. They may not be 'real life,' but they may be life and death. For Dobner, risk and fear are key elements in the revelatory intensity of the climbing experience, which she memorably describes as granting us ‘cauterising moments of sanctity’. Such moments grace a moving story of climbing the epic and remote Pembroke 10-pitch traverse in ‘Awe: Underneath the Arches’, which shimmers with religious imagery throughout, the roofs of the rocky caves they traverse ‘lit with glints from the golden spokes of the sun god's chariot’.
Dobner has whipped up on-line forum storms before with diversity polemics, for instance on the gendered imperialism of route-claiming and naming in ‘Exclusion: The Perfect Line’, which is collected here. It's a challenging analysis that should continue to provoke controversy and discussion. This has been a very important live debate which has had practical consequences – e.g. the changing of racist route names on the UKC database. It needs to continue. I wonder if Aris now regrets calling his easy route in Kalymnos's Grande Grotta Happy Girlfriend?
‘Pride: Climb Like A Girl’ tackles the sport's sometime glorification of machismo more directly, using a discussion about coaching with Trevor Massiah to emphasise how technique and footwork are as important as power and finger strength and that climbing like a girl should be heard as a compliment. I remember, back in the day, my mate telling me I lassoed “like a girl” when I repeatedly failed to get the rope over the spike to protect the famous traverse on Cloggy's White Slab, I laughed. Thanks to the awareness-raising of writing like this – first published in 2015 – neither of us would do that now. Things move on for the better. (My mate took over. He got it, but didn't realise the rope had got stacked behind the spike. It rapidly snaked out when he weighted it to swing across and he took a massive pendulum with a scream that echoed round the crag. Karma.)
The poetry in this collection showcases Dobner's gift for metaphorical language to great effect. Take this striking description of a pair of red and blue ropes dropping down from leader to belayer:
‘They pulse, as if they really might be
The leader's vena cava and aorta’
This is not just a clever and apt visual comparison, it's also a powerful image of trusting your life to another.
I'll end with love, but as promised earlier, let's have sex first. Dobner deals with many difficult issues in this intriguing collection, not least ‘Is Climbing Better Than Sex?’ in the mini-essay ‘Confusion’. Not sure how to answer? Buy the book!
And so to the lovely poem ‘Hands’, from the sequence ‘Comfort: The Chronicles’. This is a metaphorical tour de force, which traces the steady transformation of a climber's hands through decades of the sport. Everything in it is connected and alive. I can't quote the whole thing, but these three images will give a feel for its quality:
‘My hands a landscape eroded
By the forces of granite and plastic...
The open palm a savanna where
Quartzite and gneiss trample and graze...
Knuckles grubbed up and gouged
By wild boar grit...’
Slowly, hold by hold, route by route, crag by crag and year by year our hands become more and more like the rock we love and our lives are shaped forever.