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rocks view, Paul Cézanne


Recently I had a extraordinary conversation with Antoine Le Menestrel about the art of rock climbing, here is an extract of it:

Antoine: I like your vision of rock climbing free from the weight of the competition.
Ivo: For me it was very natural to approach rock climbing as a game rather than a sport, I have never been an athlete, so I never felt climbing like a competition with others or with myself.

Antoine: The competition is an original value of our civilization. Climbing is socially integrated practice. Today, climbing is an activity which is strongly influenced by the culture of the competition. The competition values the winner and the others do not exist, competition is developing a very strong feeling of exclusion. In competition, climbing is strongly normalized and these rules congeal climbing in its evolution. If we abandon this competitive spirit we can invent our style of climbing.

Ivo: My vision is that climbing should not be taken as a competition, it should be a joy, the pleasure of climbing with a smile. Of course, if you climb with pleasure you'll also improve your rock climbing and you'll climb better, but this is just a consequence. My thought is also a simple practical observation: I'm saying that the very will of achieving something is stopping you from achieving it.
Antoine: The competitive spirit gave me the energy to become better than others. Facing extreme situations makes me creative. I pushed my limits, and this attitude allowed me to know better myself. I experienced intense moments with my climbing partners. But now I prefer the spirit of union, this attitude gives me the energy to improve my self. I was able to rediscover my desire to climb is the source of my climbing. The top is not my goal, pleasure is my top. Achieving a challenge still brings me pleasure, but if my desire to make a difficult -route, prevents me from seeing the world, I lost the pleasure of climbing, and I risk the injury, the fall. This is what just happened to me, I've hurt my finger because I haven't listened to myself, I didn't want to relinquish my challenge. The challenge is like the hold. "Tchao Chalenge" and "Finger Liquor" are the name of my last new routes in Buoux.

Ivo: You are one of the persons, with Patrick Edlinger and Patrick Berault, who have shaped the game of rock climbing. I imagine this was a very creative and playfully process.

Antoine: Yes, I lived this period in which we invented a ethic, a way of climbing, we invented new shoes, ropes; we discovered new cliffs, new non conventional styles ; I invented route setter's job for the climbing competitions... I kept this creative energy, to put it in the service of my vertical art. This energy always walk with me. Of course there were the stars, they brought notoriety to rock climbing and creative way in climbing. But rock climbing history had many other less known climbers; JC Droyer, Laurent Jacob who also invented the free climbing. We forget that a star arises from a community. And then the star is developing a strength of attraction. Now, we are in a less creative period. Today we consume rock climbing.
Ivo: In rock climbing there are still so many territories waiting to be explored.

Antoine: Free climbing left the rock summit to focus on how to climb. Free climbing is looking for a creative state of adaptation to the rock. Free climbing has very strict rules that has standardized the rock climbing practice. A climber do not need to be bound to these rules, he have to invent his climber signature.
I think climbers and route setter's in urban areas  can bring a new freshness to climbing. I love the diversity of ethics in rock climbing.

Ivo: Creativity, imagination, beauty are qualities that can be grown with Zen like practices, rather than with training.
Antoine: I've often wondered on how to progress in climbing without using strenght. I'm inspired by other disciplines that I practiced: martial arts, Zen, dance. I never liked the training, I prefer to climb here and now. I got better in concentration, breathing, stretching, balance, poetical gestures. The most important thing was to become aware of my breathing. My breathing is my fifth point of support. The expiration embrace all my movements. This is a turbo. Expiration is inspiring. I'm preparing myself before an act that requires commitment like climbing,. I suggest a C.R.E.M: Concentration Breathing Stretching Massage. This preparation allows me to gain fluency, pleasure, freedom and also success.

Ivo: These disciplines are strongly connected with harmony, quietness. The quietness in climbing comes from being in harmony with the rock, with the environment, with the people. Than rock climbing becomes a pleasure.
Antoine: How to have fun in climbing? I'll set up all the conditions for maximum pleasure. I'll go rock climbing when i have a lot of desire to do it. I'm climbing better when I am in harmony with my desire, when I agree with the desire of my climbing partner. My belayer becomes an accomplice, he embrace the climber with his concentration. We build a roped party, we share a moment. I'm taking the day of climbing as it comes. I climb without goals. It is the success, that comes to me, I'm not searching it. I climb on a route, I do not climb a level. There are also the commercial grades, a nourishment for the ego.

Ivo: If you look to rock climbing through the eyes of an artist, or of a poet or a of a dancer, it can be beautiful. How are you looking at rock climbing, since you are a vertical dancer with your company Lézards Bleus?

Antoine: Yes climbing can become poetic when the success of the movement is not the only goal. I put images in my climbing: Climbing like a smoke that rises along the wall. Fondling the rock rather than taking a hold; Making love with the rock; It is the hold that comes to you. The way I've just climbed, is telling me a story about myself. Stay joyful and let go.

Ivo: What does it mean for you to be in tune with the rock?

Antoine: I like to be in intimate relationship with the rock. Unless there is human intervention, voluntary act and creating holds on the rock, climbing for me is more being in communion with the spirit of the rock. I have little time to climb, so I take each climbing moment as a gift that life gives me life. While climbing, I try to follow the flow of my energy. I'm in every movement. I forget the top. The summit comes to me. If the thoughts cling to me, like the fear, I hesitate, I fatigue, I fall. I climb when I'm, I fall when I think. In my life I'm not seeking for the state of grace in rock climbing moments, because I count them on the fingers of one hand. I'm looking for pleasure in sharing a more sober, daily way of climbing. I'm roped with the world.

Ivo: I often say that to climb well, you need to shift from quantity to quality. I think the quality is closely linked to passion.

Antoine: To climb well is not in quantity that matters, but the intensity of our presence in the movements. To climb well, a climber do not need strength, he need to have pleasure in his moves. An joyful climber, climbs with his heart, he does not climb with his muscles.

Ivo: When I'm watching someone climbing I can guess the music he is usually listening. Sometimes someone is climbing with earphones, and when is possible, I'll ask him: what are you listening? I'm almost never wrong. I think that some good climbers have some music in them, you can almost hear it when you watch them climb.

Antoine: The wall is a choreographic score. It is essential to read this partition and have a feeling with the rock. It connects me with the rhythm of rock, I adapt my climbing to this rhythm, from fluid to explosive movements and pauses. Breathing is our song.

Ivo: We are the musicians who interpret the musical score of nature! I've always loved the artistic approach, that involves all senses, that is deeply sensitive. The artistic approach is the only approach worth to have. Did you wrote something regarding holds?

Antoine: In 1999 , FLORILEGE ON THE HOLDS:
The hold is the fulcrum on which our practice is based. The climbing was born with the first hold and died on the last hold. Without holds, climbers would not exist.
Each hold is unique and is part of the mineral heritage and climbing gestures
The hold is the weak point of our practice, we can voluntarily break, enlarge, butcher A hold is fragile and depends on will of the route setter and climbers.
The hold is alive, it breaks with the passages, sometimes breaks under repeated apprehensions. After a rain it becomes more fragile.
The tendency of a climbing route is always to become more and more difficult.
The hold is still subject to its success
The hold have a shape, size, orientation, color is a note on the mineral partition and we are dancers who perform the choreography. Each hold have its neighbor. The climber is like a stone ricocheting holds.
A hold connects all climbers, it is our point of contact where we leave sweat and blood, gum and earth, chalk and resin.
It's between holds we live climbing.
The hold carries the unknown, it creates movement, the hold carries a surprise.

Read the second part of the conversation with Antoine Le Menestrel