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John Gill and the Zen of Bouldering

John Gill on a low boulder problem at Little Owl Canyon, Colorado. Photo @ Stewart M. Green

Here's a photo I took in late April, 2005 of John Gill, former mathematics professor at the University of Southern Colorado and one of the first pure boulderers. Actually John basically developed the discipline of bouldering back in the 1950s, bringing his gymnastic strength, skills and mindset to climbing. These days John is called "the father of modern bouldering."

Bouldering, the art of climbing small rocks, used to be an esoteric discipline. When I was younger, most climbers treated bouldering as "practice climbing," a way of training and increasing strength for longer climbing routes. And it was a good way to train., but bouldering was also much more. Like John Gill, I viewed bouldering as more of a moving meditation on rock than mere training. Bouldering was spiritual, a way of moving through the world on stone.

A good boulder problem was never flashed or done on the first try. Instead the problem slowly unfolded over time. First, I would look at the rock and think, maybe I could climb that arete or that blank face. And then hands were put to holds and feet found the right balance. I would work on the movements on boulders, especially at the Ute Pass Boulders west of Colorado Springs, until my body learned how to climb the rock.

Then came practice, climbing a good problem over and over again until it was wired, until I could climb it without thinking, until my body knew the moves and instinctually moved up the boulder. Wiring the problem, what is called "habit formation," was essential for bouldering to be a spiritual discipline. It freed the mind and body from the mundane task of figuring out what to do when confronted with a piece of vertical rock. I just stepped up and climbed, hand to that hold, foot stemmed over there, fingers crimping a crystal above, two-handed mantle onto the sloping summit.

There's freedom in those unthinking movements. It's also a way to practice nonattachment. It always seemed so ego-driven to name and rate a problem that ascended only ten or twelve feet of stone, to want to leave your marker there, to pee at the base or paint a red dot to show "I was here, I did this." No, bouldering is about the movement, about busting hard moves close to the ground, about climbing without ropes and carabiners and all the other accoutrements and gear, and about freedom from ego and achievement.

On this spring day, John Gill, Eric Hörst, Colin Lantz, and myself went out to Little Owl Canyon, one of John's secret bouldering spots west of Pueblo. Even then, in his late 60s, Mister Gill could crank some of his old problems. Amazing man and amazing climber. John, thanks for the inspiration.

John Gill points out one of his boulder problems at Little Owl Canyon, Colorado. Photo @ Stewart M. Green

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