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Twenty-five years ago, in 1996, we were still somewhat in the Dark Ages of bouldering. It was a thing people did, sure, but it was still mainly seen as training for “real climbing,” not as an end unto itself. That began to shift in the mid-1990s, as crashpads became more common, training tools and techniques advanced, and the climbing media began paying more attention to the freakish feats of strength taking place out at the pebbles.
A huge driver of the bouldering boom was Simon Tucker’s 53-minute film “The Real Thing,” the first feature-length bouldering film ever made. It features a young Ben Moon (then 30) and a young Jerry Moffatt (then 33), the UK’s top climbers at the time, getting fit on the local boulders at Stanage Edge near Sheffield and in the gym for a road trip to Fontainebleau with friends. The film is a classic, full of antics (crazy driving on country lanes and forest tracks in souped-up BMWs, snowball fights, etc.), hard sending (culminating in Moon’s repeat of Karma, 8A/V11, then one of the hardest problems in the world), and lots of shirtless, self-consciously goofy but nonetheless impressive training feats (Moon’s 1-5-9 on the campus board; Moffatt sending the V12 Feel the Pinch on the 50-degree board) at the School Room in Sheffield. It’s all set to a hard-driving, full-1990s techno soundtrack that lodges in the brain like the earworm that it is. Most notably, the climbers don’t have crashpads but instead boulder above little mats, used to clean their shoes, a sure sign of a bygone, knee-hammering, spine-compressing era.
Twenty-five years later, MoonClimbing has released a short documentary about the making of the film and its lasting impact on the climbing and bouldering scene. You can watch it below, and read on for a statement from Ben Moon about the new documentary, as well as an exclusive Q & A with Moon about the original film.
From Ben Moon
Twenty-five years ago, in 1996, I teamed up with my friend and climbing partner Jerry Moffatt and filmmaker Simon Tucker to make the first feature-length bouldering movie The Real Thing. At the time, I was 30 years old and a professional climber, and had been climbing full-time since leaving school at 16. The sport of rock climbing had seen massive changes in that time, and the changes weren’t about to stop any time soon. One of the biggest changes that was about to happen was that bouldering would become an end in itself and that 100s of 1000s of people would only boulder, and that a large majority of these would only boulder indoors in huge, purpose-built bouldering gyms all over the world.
At the time that we made The Real Thing, both Jerry and I had been bouldering extensively both indoors and outdoors, home and away, for many years, but it was mainly as a form of training for sport climbing. We both loved climbing and had pretty much dedicated our lives to it, and we wanted to make a film that conveyed what made climbing so special to us. Climbing, for me, is far more than just a sport, and we both felt that bouldering was climbing distilled. We felt that a film about a road trip to Fontainebleau, the Mecca of bouldering, would be the perfect vehicle to convey what we felt was so special about climbing.
The Real Thing 25 Years Later is a short documentary that looks back at the making of the original bouldering movie. I hope you enjoy both films.
Q & A with Ben Moon
Climbing: Fast cars were a big part of The Real Thing, racing to Stanage in your BMWs, roaring down the forest tracks in Fontainebleau. Are you still into having a “fast whip,” and if so, what is your car of choice these days?
Ben Moon: I do still love fast cars, but I am now much more aware of the environmental impact they have both locally and globally. I currently have a BMW M140, which is a lovely car to drive fast, but I am almost completely disillusioned with driving it. There is so much traffic on the roads these day, and the huge number of speed cameras really takes the fun out of driving. It’s hard to see a world without cars, but I believe the future is in driverless electric cars and that fast driving will be reserved for the track.
Climbing: The film shows you and Jerry hitting some personal bests when training for your return to Font after the snow drove you out. For instance, you nail 1-5-9 on the campus board and also do Stuey Five Bellies on the School Room wall. Are these still part of your repertoire, or what would training for a trip to Font look like now, 25 years on?
Moon: Nearly all my training these days is done on a board, either on a MoonBoard, of which we have three at the School Room, or the original 50-degree board, which is featured in The Real Thing. I still think that the best strength training tool for climbing is a board. I also think campus-board training is good, but I don’t do as much as I used to do. I think this is mainly due to the fact that I have limited time for training so tend to focus on that which I believe will be most beneficial in slowing the decline in strength that comes with old age!
Climbing: I remember The Real Thing having a big influence on bouldering culture, coming out as it did in the mid-1990s when standards really began to advance, the V-Scale was taking root in America, and so on. What, in your opinion, have been the film’s most lasting effects on the climbing community, in terms of technique, training, attitude, or any other aspect of the sport that feels relevant?
Moon: I think The Real Thing had two big impacts on climbing. Firstly, it helped legitimise bouldering as a form of climbing that was worth doing in its own right. Although in the mid-90s there were climbers out there who were only bouldering, they were the exception, not the norm. Most people at that time just used bouldering as a form of training for climbing. But after The Real Thing was released that all changed, and these days probably more people boulder than do routes.
Secondly, I think The Real Thing showcased the type of training that Jerry and I had been doing in places like the School Room in Sheffield for a number of years and helped introduce training boards to the wider climbing community. You can see from the interviews with Molly Thompson-Smith, Buster Martin, and David Mason in the documentary the influence that these training scenes had. Bouldering, training, and climbing coaching are all massive these days, and it’s easy to think it was always like this. But in the mid-90s, it was the preserve of a few. Bouldering is a hell of a lot of fun, and most people would probably agree that it’s also the best form of training for climbing—hence its current popularity.
Climbing: The original Ninja slippers were a big part of the film too—do you still have any pairs, either to climb in for for nostalgia’s sake?
Moon: Unfortunately not, although I am sure Jerry might still have a pair. They were revolutionary when they came out, but it’s hard to believe that we bouldered and trained in them so much. I think we must have been more concerned with comfort and easy of use than performance!
Climbing: If you could take a time machine back to meet younger you from a quarter-century ago, what piece of advice would you impart about having a lifelong, sustainable career as a climber?
Moon: I think my main bit of advice would be to “seize the moment,” but what young person listens to the advice of an older person? When you are young, it seems like you have all the time in the world, but you don’t. And when you are older you don’t want to be looking back at your life regretting that you didn’t give it your all. If you find something that you love and which you are good at, then go for it.