By Amie Lalonde, Registrar & Assistant Curator
A Feeling for Rock is not your typical climbing book. There are no death-defying ascents of remote peaks, no glossy full-colour photographs of magnificent vistas. Instead, Sarah-Jane Dobner has created an intimate collection of essays, poems, comics, and simple black and white images. They come together, in part, as a love letter to climbing and as an investigation into people’s relationships with the natural world, each other, and themselves — all through the act of climbing rock.
At less than 250 pages interspersed with images, comics, and short poems, I did not expect this book to take very long to read. However, I found myself savouring its pages for over a week. Dobner challenges sexism, colonialism, and the constant need to perform at the highest level of athleticism. There was a lot that really resonated with me, even though I consider myself a fairly new climber.
Dobner’s honesty and rawness throughout the book were refreshing. Her advice on training ranged from simple to immersive, from “do less” to eloquent tips for "slopers" — a climbing term for large rounded holds. Of the latter, Dobner advises to "climb from the heart…approach slower…be expansive… widen the breadth of your palm, soften your skin, relax into the resin so your pores meld with the grain. Emanate all the love in your being to this rounded moulded dome". This type of advice was so foreign to every training tip I have read before, telling you how to train harder, better, and longer so that you can climb increasingly harder grades.
Her notes on the healing power of sunshine are likely extremely familiar to anyone who devotes their free time to outdoor activities. “Before climbing, I never used to be so weather-dependent. But before climbing, I had very few mechanisms for emotional regulation. Now the weather is my Big Pharma, my physician," she writes.
Her words mirror the childlike giddiness of a skier or snowboarder waking to a foot of fresh snow. Or the bliss a cyclist feels when, after a workday of rain, the clouds miraculously part at 5 p.m. allowing for an unexpected ride before dinner with the day’s rain splashing your face and legs as it sprays up from your wheels.
It's not all beautiful prose about the joys of climbing. Dobner tackles sexism in the climbing world —including the naming of routes, route setting, and even the very construction of climbing walls, and how they skew towards the typical power and strength of male climbers over the technique and balance that female climbers more often have. She talks about her direct experiences with sexism at crags in one essay. In others, she calls out the sexism and racism that runs rampant in the names of routes. She writes that when she originally posted these essays online they sparked a lot of backlash and comments — a reminder that the climbing community still has a lot of work to do to make the sport more inclusive.
Dobner’s main climbing area is in Great Britain. Because of this, certain names, areas, and experiences (like sea cliff climbing) were confusing to me as someone who has never climbed, nor even considered, climbing there. Her penchant for referring to people by nicknames was similarly confusing the first couple of times but became quaint as the book progressed. At times the writing got a tad wordy, but that is to be expected from a self-published book of poetry.
Overall, I really liked this book and think it is a must-read for anyone who considers themselves a climber. However, I think non-climbers can find relatable aspects of this book, even just for the beauty of poems and prose. The glossary at the back will provide helpful translations of climbing lingo, making this book accessible for everyone.
You can buy this book at the Whyte Museum Book Shop both online or in-person at 111 Bear Street, Banff.
Image 1: Book Cover courtesy of Sarah-Jane Dobner.