Bouldering: There and Back

posted by dpm on 06/29/2012

I got a late jump on the day and by the time I got to my computer, news had exploded online of a guy in Fontainebleau, France climbing a 9a traverse. Of course the first thing I thought was, "How hard is a 9a traverse?" I've already trained my brain to be bilingual in Font boulder grades and V-grades but I've never really understood traverse grades. I did some searching online and found this nifty conversion chart that sums up about how difficult a Font 9a traverse is.


The answer is that a 9a traverse is the same as a Font 8b+ boulder which is the same as a V14. Why don't they just give it 8b+ then? It also could be said that a Font 9a traverse incorporates more endurance, which makes it equate to about a French route grade of...well...9a. The senselessness of the traverse grade's existence perfectly illustrated what I was about to find out next.

The boulder problem this legend of French climbing had done was called Fou Rire aller/retour. The aller/retour part roughly translates to 'there and back.' So I looked up a picture of this magnificent boulder that had been climbed and the true realization of what he'd done made me laugh out loud. This guy traversed the lip of the boulder in one direction, then he stopped without touching the ground and traversed the lip back to where he started. This is ridiculous!

Fou Rire aller/retour (9a trav) in Fontainebleau, France. Photo: Bleauinfo

You might think I'm laughing at Jean-Pierre Bouvier but you couldn't be further from the truth. It's likely that I'm laughing with him as he laughs at us. I'm joining him in his laughter at the futility and pointlessness of bouldering and how in a single day, just about every climber in the world with internet access heard about him going 'there and back,' a few feet above the ground.

Again, I can't express enough how I am in no way making fun of Jean-Pierre. This guy absolutely rules. I'd never heard of him before but the more I read about him, the more I believe that he is the quintessential climber and totally deserving of his legend status. He's lived and climbed in the forest of Fontainebleau, France for over 40 years. Picture this 55-year-old dude with shaggy gray hair just waltzing his circuit of boulders. He might stop to hike your project before moving on to the next problem. It's likely that he did the first ascent before the days of sticky rubber and before you were born.

JP Bouvier on Fou Rire. Photo: Bleauinfo

J.P. Bouvier has probably climbed just about every boulder in the forest. In fact, he's climbed them going left, he's climbed them going right, and some of them he's climbed 'there and back.' He just established one of the hardest problems in Font and I doubt he's going to slow down, even at the age of 55. This guy is going to scramble around in the woods until the day he dies. What a boss!

It was this same day though, that I came across another video on Jamie Emerson's B3bouldering blog. The original video was posted last fall but Jamie gave it a revival and the subject matter quickly garnered over 50 heated comments. The video discusses the 'rules' of bouldering and, in the second half, very honestly addresses some local dispute with the legitimacy of Dave Graham's ascent of the Island (V14 or 15) back in 2008. When Dave began to work on the Font testpiece, he was apparently shown the 'legitimate' start to the line but chose to start two moves higher. Local Bleausard Vincent Pochon later added those two moves to the start and named the full line the Big Island. He suggested that it was a grade harder.

The video is well done and does a fair job of assessing the situation and explaining both sides of the argument. Someone brings up the fact that had Vincent done the low start first, Dave's ascent would not have been considered valid. But since the problem hadn't been done, someone else offers, Dave had full freedom to start where he chose and to create his own problem.

Vincent Pochon on the Big Island in Font. Click the image for video.

I thought about Dai Koyomada's revoked send of The Story of Two Worlds (V15). Dai had started with his hands in the wrong spot and his ascent didn't count. He came back two years later and started upside down with his face in the back of the cave and his feet on the starting hold. This image brought me back full circle to laughing at the silliness of bouldering, especially the rules we apply to it.

For so many of us, climbing is a game of destinations. We want to get to the summit of the mountain or the top of the wall or boulder. We want to climb our first V4 or V14 or 5.14. We strive to meet a training goal like doing a one-arm pull-up or campusing 1-5-9. Those that are driven to progress certainly understand the destination mentality.

I'm not pretending to know this French legend of bouldering. I've just seen that same picture that you probably have. He's not going up or falling down. He's headed sideways and his long gray hair frames a face that's full of age, determination, and playfulness. It's that act of moving laterally that portrays contentment to me.

J.P. Bouvier going 'there and back.' Photo: Grimporama/J. Chabert

I hope J.P. Bouvier keeps climbing in circles. In the game of climbing most of us are chasing our goals and never getting 'there' but JP is different. He got 'there' and realized he'd just passed what he was looking for. So he turned around and went back for it.