Chatting all things climbing and photography with Grit Blocs author Dave Parry
July 03, 20225 min read
Dave Parry is a photographer, climber, and author. He began his climbing career on the gritstone crags of the Peak District, and after a quarter of a century of dedication and hard work is convinced he will get the hang of it any day now. Dave finds breezy spring evenings climbing on Sheffield’s local gritstone crags hard to beat. Grit Blocsis his first book.
This is a tough one to nail down. I’m definitely drawn more to the aesthetic side of things – the scene, the topography of the venue, the rock, the land, and the lighting – in the same way that a straight landscape photographer might be. Rather than trying to just convey the raw emotion of the climber, of the moment, for example – although I’m not totally blind to this.
As climbers we get to experience some amazing places and sometimes some incredible fleeting moments. Photography is really a sort of party trick of time, to be able to apparently freeze a moment in perpetuity. This in itself has tremendous value from a documentary perspective, but even for the pure aesthete it’s sort of the only way we can experience the world without the relentless tide of time steamrollering over us. You can inspect, you can take a breather and consider what’s there and take it all in. You can’t do this with music – if you freeze a sound in time it’s no longer music. But you can appear to freeze a moment in time in a photo and it still works. Out of context it’s still recognisable, your mind can still make that leap of faith and be tricked into being back there in the moment, even if you were never there in the first place.
Also somewhere deep down there’s a creative itch that I need to scratch. Part of it is maybe the satisfaction of composing something pleasing no matter where you are, making sense of a scene, the problem solving aspect, crafting something, the workmanship of it; undeniably I find that aspect hugely rewarding.
As a climber yourself do you have a favourite anecdote about being out on the rock?
Climbing has an amazing capacity for generating incidents, anecdotes and ridiculous occurrences, so there’s a lot to choose from. One of my most memorable was onThe Joker at Stanage in 2014. This is a classic Jerry Moffatt problem that I’d tried once or twice previously but never with any consistency because, well, it was too hard for me. On this December day it was great overcast winter conditions. We went up for a look at it, and I surprised myself by doing it with the footless method in half a dozen attempts. I was made up, and on paper it was already my best day bouldering ever.
Admittedly this sounds like the worst look-at-me answer possible but that’s not really why it was that notable; the bizarre thing was by pure coincidence I was trying it on the same day as visiting German wunderkind Alex Megos. One of the best young climbers in the world, he’d already onsighted 9a the previous year aged nineteen. Anyway, despite trying it all afternoon he wasn’t getting anywhere. We hung around to watch him and offer useful beta (as if he needed it?). For something to do I started trying the left-hand-first original sequence, like Jerry onHard Grit, and after lots of attempts to my complete surprise I held the top and that was that. Twice in one session, via completely different sequences; meanwhile the world’s best came away empty handed, probably wondering if this entire situation was some kind of elaborate wind-up.
And this is what I love about climbing, and grit in particular; it can still be random and non-linear. It can still surprise you. So on any given day any normal father-of-two having a good day could get up a problem that the best in the world might not manage. If the stars align, it can happen. I don’t know if there’s many other activities or sports where this is the case, and climbing’s all the better for it.
How did you first get into a) photography and b) climbing?
Climbing happened first for me, which I sort of got into by accident while I was doing A-levels. I’d always liked walking and hiking and being outdoors, and at my sixth form college a bunch of us all from different schools who didn’t know each other ended up in the same classes, found we had a similar outlook, and started just going walking in the Peak, then North Wales, then drifting into scrambling. Then someone turns up with a rope, and the next thing you know you’re leaving the Foundry for the first time pumped so badly you can’t operate a car door handle. The rest is history.
Photography first came in as a way of documenting these days out with friends – this is all pre-smartphones and indeed pre-digital cameras. It sort of spiralled out of control from there once DSLRs became affordable around 2005. Looking back, I was always exposed to photography (pun intended) as a kid; my dad used to shoot 35mm slides and have the projector out all the time. Him and my grandad used to have a makeshift black-and-white bathroom darkroom set up when my dad was a youth. My mum also used to work as an assistant to a local pro, Barry Payling – it was at a slideshow run by Barry, probably in the early 1990s, of his photos of Scotland that I first remember being blown away by landscape photography. So one way or another it’s always been around.
What's your favourite piece of kit or gadget when it comes to either photography or climbing, and why?
For climbing gear, I still haven’t used all my stash of US-made FiveTen Anasazi Velcros, which I put into cryogenic storage before they moved production (and the build quality went to pot) – these are still my all-time favourite climbing shoes for gritstone. It’ll be a sad day when these are gone entirely.
Photography wise you can achieve a hell of a lot with just one prime lens somewhere in the slightly-wide-to-normal range. So for Fuji medium format it’s the 50mm, that’s the sort of Anasazi Velcro of the lens world.
Do you have a favourite fuel for your climbing escapades?
For winter grit days it’s easy to underestimate how many calories you can burn just staying warm and lugging bouldering pads around. So you can’t really go wrong with a heavily filled sandwich and a huge piece of home-made flapjack. Or Christmas cake is even better, subject to availability. I could honestly eat that stuff all year. All washed down with a flask of coffee obviously.
For Dave's compilation of the 100 finest problems on Pennine gritstone, you need to get your (chalky) hands on his new book Grit Blocs. You can follow his photography over on @thedaveparry. Dave has also written a blog about his best spots to climb gritstone in the summer; check it out here.