In Praise of Grovelling

Dave James on/in/outside Smoked Banana, Frog Buttress (Photo by Simon Carter)

In his book, 9 out of 10 climbers make the same mistakes, Dave MacLeod argues that the best climbers are those who have developed a high level of mastery across the broad spectrum of climbing skills. This is a guy who knows his shit. He has made it his business to climb well ‘ard chunks of rock and ice, performing at the highest levels in sport, trad, bouldering and alpine climbing – a goddamn Renaissance Man.

And yet, the idea of being an all-rounder is very much out of vogue. Modern climbing tends to focus exclusively on what John Ewbank described as the “sheer technical difficulty of a single move”. Thus, the community tends to lionise the few genetic anomalies who can perform in the upper echelons of hard sport and bouldering, all while desperately trying to emulate their gifts – finger strength, power-endurance, superior latissimus dorsi and abdominal definition.

So while the majority of climbers rehearse the moves on a single pitch and perform weighted mono hangs in their downtime, several important climbing techniques are being slowly lost to the sands of time. Approaches are, like, totally lame, offwidth is basically a swearword, and most modern climbers would greatly prefer an enema over a pitch of friction slab. But perhaps the most undervalued skill in the entire climbing wheelhouse is the humble art of grovelling.

Grovelling, closely related to Thrutching, is a technique as old as climbing itself. In its essence, it is the technique of climbing something which is horrific and unavoidably awkward. It’s a bit like art – hard to define, but you certainly know what it is when you see it or experience it.  To help clarify, here are a few tell-tale characteristics:

  • Pain
  • Loss of skin
  • General despair
  • Physical depletion
  • Prolific obscenities
  • Ample perspiration
  • Frequent and extensive haematoma
  • Contortion of limbs and general physical discomfort
  • Claustrophobia
  • Straining of joints and sockets
  • Often found in chimneys or wide cracks
  • May contain choss or vegetation

All of these characteristics have directly contributed to the unpopularity of said style. Why would anyone subject themselves to this depraved form of mental and physical abuse? The answer can be found a couple of paragraphs earlier in the word “unavoidable”.

The distinction between grovelling and thrutching might appear to be nothing more than semantic, but it is important. The difference between the two is that the former is dictated by terrain, whereas the latter can be experienced on the cleanest of lines whilst using poor technique. Thrutching is optional, grovelling is mandatory, so know this – if you want to climb long, adventurous routes, you better know how to grovel and you better be able to do it quickly and efficiently. Encountering awkward terrain is only a matter of time.

If you’ve seen me climb, you’ll know that I’m not very good at it. I don’t have tendons of steel, my power-endurance is poor and I’m too climber-fat for high performance. But, by god, I am a Class A Groveller. In my time, I have dispatched some of Australia’s most classic grovels including Arapiles’ Lamplighter, Tibrogargan’s Carborundum Chimney and a host of Frog Buttress’ exfoliating horrorshows such as Macraderma, Lape, Christian, Rhyolite Fruit and the all-time grovel testpiece, Blood Sweat and Tears.

And here’s the thing… when you grovel enough, you get pretty good at it. Like any other skill, it can be honed and crafted. The more you grovel, the less you thrutch. At some point, you might even take a genuinely perverse form of enjoyment in it, I shit you not, but the one thing you should never expect is praise.

Sorry, folks. Some aspects of climbing just aren’t sexy, and grovelling is right down there with shitting in a tube on a portaledge while your partner cooks dinner (lentils, by the way). You might get some kudos if you can take your shirt off while locking in a difficult kneebar, but you will literally never hear someone say, “Oh man, way to worm through that crevice! Your total disregard for your knees and elbows is righteous!”

Who needs praise anyway? As I learned in the 2014 film Whiplash, there are no two words in the English language more harmful than ‘good job’, so to hell with that malarkey. An honest day’s grovelling is its own reward, so long as it is followed by beer. Go forth and suffer.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
March 2018

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?