The British Invasion

Like many of you, I receive a lot of penis enlargement spam—lately, even more the usual. Unlike many of you, I don’t need it.

Ha, ha! That’s only a “little” joke to get me started after a hiatus spent building pyramids, writing symphonies and having three-legged races with myself.

Where I meant to take the penis-spam remark is to compare it to other mail that I’ve received lately, also in vaster quantities than usual. That is, British climbing propaganda, especially DVDs.

You may not have noticed this trend since you are not the world’s premier critic of climbing films, but I routinely get DVDs from desperate filmmakers who need the five-star review in Rock and Ice to earn them that house in Mallorca. In the last 18 months, the number of British films has outpaced American production by a rough and clean estimate of 2:1.

Some recent British films include On Sight, Call It What You Want, Committed, Committed II, Hard XS, Upside Down Wales, Psyche, Set in Stone, Echo Wall, Underdeveloped, and E11. Compare those 11 flicks to the five recent American ones produced during roughly the same period: Spray, King Lines, Dosage V, First Ascent, and The Sharp End.

I can’t help but feel skeptical when such a big deal is made out of such small rocks. It begins to feel like penis enlargement spam, only in reverse. It’s simply amazing that we are paying so much attention to areas in Wales that we can’t even pronounce, let alone will ever visit. We all know who Dave Birkett is, yet we’ve never understood a single thing he has spoken. And, perhaps the biggest farce of all is that Americans are being forced to give a shit about the vertical boulder problems called Grit routes. Now, most regard Gritstone as the pinnacle of global trad climbing.

By comparison, no one knows or cares about the badass ascents by equally strong and talented climbers taking place in South America, Eastern Europe and Asia because no one is making films about the climbing in those areas.

What’s so unbelievable is that the propaganda actually works. It’s utterly fascinating that simply saying something enough—or, in this case, showing it repeatedly—Makes It True. This manifests itself not just through the sheer number of films touting the British scene, but also due to one trait that all British climbers possess: these Garrulous Garys talk to themselves incessantly while they climb (a conceit that narrates an experience that will not be true for everyone on that one particular route).

“I’m quite rather gripped here. Oh, this hold is a bit dodgy. I’m going to attempt to put my right foot up on this shite smear. Oh, no, I’m off, Gary! I’m off!”

Brits love—(and I mean LOVE)—to shoot footage of heinous-looking falls that rip out sideways nuts everyone knows never had a chance anyway (but give a climb the façade of being more dangerous than it actually is for the camera). We forget that the gear was often figured out first on rappel and the moves rehearsed on toprope (this, children, is actually called “sport climbing”). Even the wall-slamming falls are somewhat forced because Brits don’t know how to give a soft catch.

The idea of a belayer releasing a perfectly timed loop of slack to dampen a climber’s fall has always seemed too crazy an idea in an area of 25-foot routes (the average height of a Bishop boulder problem). Think of the different experiences Dave MacLeod and Sonnie Trotter had on Rhapsody—one sprained his ankles countless times, while the other, with a sport-climbing belay in place, thought falling was “fun.”

And surely MacLeod’s harrowing experience factored into rating Rhapsody E11—a grade on a scale that, along with waiting for bad conditions to go mixed climbing in Scotland, is a strange and contrived British invention that makes little sense to freedom lovers like Us. E grades combine the danger of a route (a commutable experience based on personal temperament) with its technical difficulty, all into one mega-vague mega-number.

It’s like having one word for food. Imagine going to a restaurant, and the only items on the menu are Food 1, Food 2, Food 3 … all the way up to Food 11, which combines the highest price with the “best taste” (nutrition doesn’t get factored in).

Ratings are inherently dumb for many reasons, but the one thing they are meant to provide climbers is useful information about what they are getting into. By this criteria, the E-scale fails because, as I understand it (and I don’t), an E8 could mean anything from 5.12c to 5.13c. Also, in the grade-conversion scales often found in guidebooks, E10’s are listed as being equivalent to 5.14d, yet I’ve never seen a 5.14d sport climb that’s dead vertical … and I have a hard time believing that the holds are that bad.

Now, now. I don’t want to be too harsh. All British climbers are surely stronger, braver, better and bolder than I will ever care to be (though I do know how to keep a falling leader from slamming into a wall). Further, I’ve truly enjoyed watching this recent invasion of British propaganda … I mean, climbing films.

The real point of this eBlast is that, with so much horn tooting coming from the land of bad food and Harry Potter, I simply wanted to take the piss out of the Brits—it’s surely a sentiment I believe their humorous sensibilities will appreciate.

Lastly, it would be nice to see more homegrown visual psyche compete in the DVD market. Step it up, you renegade mavericks! Even a Nikon D90 now shoots in high def. Especially with the recent Presidential election, it’s time to start feeling good about America again. We have bigger, sunnier rocks and drunker, fatter climbers than anywhere else. Fuck yeah!