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From this sense-laden and textured narrative, a deeper story is revealed about aspects of my personality and character. Establishing that my feet are connected to my head! A short prologue introduces the main story; Boots-and-me, followed by an epilogue of theoretical analysis and discussion from respondents to the story. It is concluded that physically and emotionally rich auto-accounts about how people come to rely on items of equipment may be a window to some of their life-management strategies. Introduction to Boots-and-me Boots-and-me is an attempt to explore in rich detail, a minutia of my overall being of the world — an expansion of detail on a relatively low priority issue for me now, seemingly just for the sake of it.

It started out as a writing exercise with no higher motives other than to enjoy exploring a concept; that of the forming and the deforming of my feet and my climbing boots reciprocally, this being one aspect of my sporting experience as a rock climber. A generous act perhaps, I was pleased to be asked. Consequently, there seemed little reason to hide anything about this ostensibly innocuous and harmless subject, the guards were down, there was no apparent ethical crisis, I was just explaining stuff about my smelly feet ISSN: All I had to do was articulate it.

This paper is structured following the chronological order of my actions - I wrote the story, shared it, tentatively, and I got some responses. These responses caused me to think more deeply about what I had created, discussed in the epilogue to this article, as they added new detail to a tapestry of my social existence, given the limitations of what may be reported in text. Reciprocally, Boots-and-me had caused those respondents to reflect profoundly on their accounts of being too, and therefore seems to be a tale worth sharing publically… NB: The term climbing boots refers to slim fitting, leather climbing shoes with a smooth rubber sole used for friction to climb rock faces, they are not large, heavy mountaineering boots.

As I write my climbing boots are right in front of me on the desk, under my nose, ever present. They are smelly and dirty but in good repair. The black rubber sole is cold and hard, the blue leather upper that once had the velvet touch of suede is now faded, creased and shiny-smooth.

The long, bright green laces show signs of being tied constantly in the same position.

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I am writing about them in the present tense, but they have a long history… my Boots-and-me. From hands to feet — a message through my body about how to move efficiently Over a period of applied training and development in rock climbing, a number of weeks to months perhaps, my physical competency to become a climber improves. This improved competency signals an important shift in the balance of effort made between my upper and lower body when a critical relationship between my feet and my climbing shoes emerges. In my climbing life I have had many phases of improvement and decline, going up and down the difficulty grades as other factors in life limit the degree of time and effort that can be made to sustain practice and improvement.

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These fluctuations in climbing competency mirror the varying relationship struggles between my feet and my boots. Rather like having old arguments with a loved one which you thought were behind you in better times, forgotten, the same sensations keep reoccurring when the climbing pressures are back onto my feet. The interest in climbing has always been there for me, if at times latent whilst I have been distracted.

Good climbers use their feet efficiently and effectively. In my climbing history I have felt several times this gravitational shift or downward transference of growing efficiency from my inefficient arms and hands through my body towards my more efficient legs and feet. However, when climbing in the zone the Geiger-counter of collateral damage begins to tick as my feet are sacrificed for the greater good, along with other aspects of daily life, as the fix, the thrill of the climb, provides momentary relief and permanent hunger.

The rat is feeding. When I am out of practice I climb with poor technique, grunting and groaning with the exertion, there is something manly, but stupid, about the upper body work- out. But I tire quickly and this is not a good sign for endurance in rock climbing. My background in gymnastics permits a reasonable attempt at some ostensibly difficult moves but they are a short cut, a cheat, and no substitute for regular practice on a wall or crag.

Upper body strength once again bailing me out but it is short-lived; my arms are like logs, muscles clogged with lactic acid after just twenty minutes. Good climbers exert about eighty percent effort through their feet, maybe more depending on the verticality of the climb. When I am climbing badly, eighty percent is on my arms, my shoes are there just to stop the skin on my feet getting scraped and possibly to make me look like I know what I am doing. As my legs exert more pressure through my feet a renewed relationship with my boots emerges — new uses; twists and jams for friction, new positions to crush my toes and stretch my ligaments, new demands and expectations to cope in the vertical realm.

Until then my legs were not tuned for climbing, they were fairly useless appendages of weighty flesh and bone that were of marginal use on a climb for anything other than remedial balance. Off the climbs and whilst not climbing well, my legs and feet feel clumsy in my rock-shoes requiring me to walk in a tortured style around the climbing area. If I did more walking than climbing it was again a sign of my flagging ability and being in a period of decline climbing-wise. I should put my walking shoes on for that bit, much more comfortable but no suggested kudos about my potential to onlookers, as might be indicated by the donning of my climbing boots for a possible engagement with the vertical.

Thus, I went to a climbing shop and invested in some good quality climbing boots that I thought would work well for me. I was in it for the long term, I wanted commitment. They helped me to decide what I wanted in a long term relationship. Essentially these desirable qualities in boots were: Clive Palmer Proposes his feet in marriage to a pair of: In I can report that my boots have performed well on all these counts and I love my old boots after our long marriage.

Although, I have to admit there have been the wilderness years where my attentions to my boots and rock climbing in general have not been all they could be. However, I would like to declare that I have been faithful throughout, never placing my foot in another climbing shoe since we first met in Oxford in the s. Whilst manufacturers may claim on the box or in an advert that their products will provide some of these things or qualities above, it is an unknown at the time of purchase as to whether they will actually deliver on all their promises.

I have kept my vow of caring for my boots into their old age and they have certainly not failed me yet. Their longevity may also be due to my long periods as an armchair-rock climber combined with phases of very poor climbing technique where my hands and arms bore the brunt of wear and tear, not my legs and feet. The actual amount of time when I have climbed well enough to exert some destructive forces on the boots is probably minimal and has not been sufficient to wear them out and be replaced, although they were resoled in — good for another 20 years or so now?

At the time of purchase in it was a risky business, I had to judge carefully, as, unlike a partner sourced from the dating agency I could not return my boots after the first trial outing, they would be soiled! My virginal boots would need a period of breaking in! If things did not work out there would be no trial separation, the best I might hope for by way of salvage for my outlay would be to sell them on as used seconds, hoping they might be faithful to someone else.

My boots shape my feet and my feet shape my boots… My feet shape my boots - it is a reciprocal arrangement, with give-and-take on both sides, a compromise to accommodate my wishes to climb on them. The leather uppers have shaped to my feet over the years causing them to crease in a way that is unique to my feet. The boots have grown with me and around me. For example, where my heels sit, the rubber backs bulge out like distended tummies of malnourished children at refugee camp.

The leather is worn, particularly on the insteps and the ankles, giving signs of their protective duties for my feet whilst descending steep, gravelly footpaths down crag sides. The boot has a thin leather inner sole which has become as hard as wood but is perfectly shaped to cup the sole of my foot. When I put the boots on they feel like worn-in, well-fitting gloves if you get my meaning? I get a feeling that my foot is being held by a firm and friendly hand-grip which is reassuring. My feet shape my boots - In the early days of Boots-and-me, the late s, I was still in the Royal Air Force and spent most free weekends driving around the country to crags.

I did a lot of climbing. Part of my tender loving care for the boots in the following week was to wash them in hot water and scrub them clean with washing-up liquid. But too much of the wrong kind of love can be damaging in a relationship, however well intentioned. The rubber was becoming so soft that I was leaving more and more of it on the rock face. They were wasting away, so I treated my boots and therefore my feet, to this kind of tenderness more judiciously in the future.

My boots shape my feet and my feet shape my boots; reciprocal exertions and damage - I have long thin feet, size 11 now although size 10 at the time of purchase. My feet are a strange pair of shapes which I generally have difficulty in housing footwear-wise.


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Long shoes are usually wide shoes and I invariably need lace ups to suck in all the excess material of the shoe, hoping there is enough room left for my foot inside. Another tactic of mine to fill up cavernous shoes is to wear two innersoles in each shoe but this is not possible, or even desirable, in my Boreal Classics. The rock boots lace up from my toenails to above the ankles, a corset for my feet. There is no new-fangled Velcro on these, that fitting style did not exist as a design feature at the time of purchase and would be too flappy on my slender feet anyway.

My boots shape my feet — my feet show signs of wear after every climbing session, be it indoors or outdoors. Without taping, these toes will be rubbed raw within one hour of wearing the boots even to this day. Once this has occurred I am reduced to a pathetic hobble looking like I have just stepped on a drawing pin. After a multi-day climbing trip to Fontainebleau near Paris in my toes were so painfully rubbished I nearly lost my big toe nail left foot.

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It took about 8 months for that toe nail to recover. I went to Font again in April and the same thing happened. Throughout the following year and as a constant reminder of my mission to France, about half of my left big toe nail seemed attached only by a wish and a prayer, but it is recovering, slowly. I may go again in the Spring. However, this foot-damage is not sufficient grounds for me to divorce my boots, there is still time for them to improve on this count, especially in the hot climate of France.

I have resolved to be patient and to give them another chance, … and to give them as many chances as they feel they need, if they want to keep trying for me. Ultimately I trust them and they help me to climb quite well when I need them to perform. I have come to rely on them with certain compromises to comfort.

My boots are reshaped and deformed to suit me alone. The shape of my feet and my body-weight and my clumsiness of foot placement and my smells as well as the grubby marks and detritus as evidence of where I may have been climbing all add to their character. The leather upper is constructed with a canvas inner-lining which prevents the boot from stretching too much, helping to hold its shape.

At this late stage in our long relationship I would not mind if the boots did stretch a little more but there is not much I can do about that, another compromise for the sake of getting on. My whole climbing life in these boots has been barefooted. That is, I have never worn socks with them in 28 years. Once again I resolve to compromise, tape up my toes and get on with it knowing I can trust them when I really need them. Arriving at a perch decorated with bird poo I feel like an alien visitor, sweating, gripped, constantly in and out of danger, seeking asylum on the level ground much higher above.

But it is no game. There is only fractional movement but stretching the heels of the boots relieves my toes from their immediate tour of duty. It is not long before they are back in action on the front line again. The only way is up. No socks just skin. Over the years, I have been climbing in these boots on high mountain crags in UK and abroad, sport climbing and bouldering, sea cliff climbing - becoming totally soaked in rain, completely immersed in mud and bog, stuffed full of fine grit, sand and powdery dust from messy descents, all in bare skin. These earthy elements have then become engrained into the leather innersole under the pads of my feet, and also into the canvas lining of the boots.

This filthy mess is then combined with the sweat from my feet every time I wear them which produces a kind of hardened slime around my heel, in the instep of the boot and under my toes. Over the years I have scraped this slime out with my fingernails when it builds up and becomes noticeable.

In hot climates, degrees or so, this scraping becomes a regular task when the hardened slime turns to a kind of black glue or tar. Again compromise comes to the fore because tolerating the hot-foot-slurry means the boots stretch a little more, becoming more forgiving on the rock, shaping to my feet better and gripping more effectively for smears and other small foot placements. This is a particularly important compromise in these hot conditions as a difficult route may not tolerate poor climbing technique from me i. Poor climbing technique means that the skin of my hands; the pads on my fingers will be worn to sensitive, pink, raw, sweaty stumps very quickly on rough, dry rock.

So trusting my feet is all the more important at such times.


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  • They have not failed me yet. The boots are in front of me as I write. The smell prompts the memories recalled above, of the journeys that Boots- and-me have enjoyed and endured and also of the routes, times, and challenges I have shared with other people over the years. I have infected my boots with a smell that is me, of my feet engaging with the old and dirty materials that constitute my momentary world, and now, as I write, my boots infect me again. They are now able to impart a sensual message that they could not do from new, other than that of fresh leather typical of new shoes.

    It is a private exchange that perhaps no-one else cares for, like lovers whispering in their own shared language, their messages are constant and consistent, always reliable between them, and totally personal. My boots are privately stimulating but may be abhorrent to others. An interloper who might perchance to get a whiff of my boots will not be equipped to appreciate their expression as anything else but repulsive. Setting the boots on a rock close to my side I will reach for a reel of Micropore tape to wrap around my problematic toes.

    The act of taping is a phase of physical care and mental preparation for the discomfort I will experience during the session. Pulling the boots on is a signal that something is going to happen to my feet, like a pupil awaiting punishment they are prepared and committed for the trial and pains ahead. Usually when I put the boots on I may wear them for up to four hours straight through, especially if climbing on crags outside. The foot is compressed and will be locked in, ready for business. The act of placing the boots on my feet is memorable.

    As my foot slides into the boot my toes grip down on the inner sole and help to pull and creep my foot further into the boot, seating it down, finding its ridges of hardened slime to rest on.

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    The cold sensation of the boot is welcoming to my warm skin. If I have sat with bare feet for a while, whilst taping up, my skin is cool and there is no resistance to my foot as it enters the boot. There is a whiff of pungency as the air is pushed out of the boot by its rightful occupant. Then comes the lacing up. I pull the laces as tight as is comfortable and it pulls my heel back into the bulbs of rubber that I have formed over the years of wearing. This relieves my toes initially. As my feet are so skinny there are almost no gaps in the lacing on the front of my foot resulting in masses of lace to tie up in a knot.

    I always tie up in double bows to reduce the chance of tripping. Then, pain, pinching and rubbing can be irritable during the climbing but is made worse by grit or stones entering the boot flicked up from paths or ledges. The airborne grit then often finds its way straight into the opening of the other boot which is placed on the ground. To prevent this I have evolved a strange walking action which I have observed many climbers do also. It is not normal walking. It is a hopping from stone to stone, teetering on pinnacles and edges, taking big steps and little steps, jumps slow and fast, balancing, avoiding pools of grit or water or wet grass wherever possible.

    Passages of dry, smooth rock of varying angles become stepping stones and just getting along a normal path can be like an assault course to get off a climb and back to my gear. This strategy to negotiate the lie of the land which is not a rock climb is performed from as soon as the boots are placed on my feet and trying to get to the base of the climb — and then down from it. The aim of all this is to limit the discomfort for my feet during approach in order to cope and perform on the rock climbs to come. I trust my shoes on the rock. When I am climbing well I feel I can trust my feet in these boots.

    On the rock face things are generally good. However, extra awareness is needed before and after the climbs during descents or abseils or at the top of sea cliffs. My boots were not bred for this kind of activity but I force them through it. Again compromise is needed to cope with these rugged underfoot conditions and a workable understanding is often achieved between my Boots-and-me.

    They seem to forgive my unreasonable demands which are tough episodes to get through. Silently, they seem to put up with it. My foot placements are deliberate and careful at all times in approach to a route, during the climb and after the climb. This takes its toll on my feet with their muscles in tension and bones creaking all compressed by the boot casing. As a normal mode of existence my feet expect to be forced into awkward positions under great forces of weight and movement, however, from slipping unexpectedly there is an added danger that my feet or toes can be bashed accidentally.

    Like occupants in a calamitous car crash, BAM! In a slip new levels of pain are experienced that was perhaps avoidable had concentration not lapsed, a costly mistake with immediate symptoms of short-breathed wincing but also frustration at my error. During a climb my feet; toes, balls of my feet, heels and instep all expect to become part of my climbing gear and are sacrificed as such.

    They become crushed or torqued into a slot for grip, jamming and compressing to the point where they want to explode almost, which can bring extreme discomfort and sometimes damage to my boots and or feet. Apologies to my Boots-and-me, but it had to be done. I have done a little soloing in my time but not that much to be honest climbing without ropes.

    It focuses the mind and magnifies the cerebral connection with my feet. Realisation of my height above the ground and the envisaged consequences of a fall are the clouds of doubt that blur my thinking and halt my progress as a soloing climber. However, what soloing I have done has enhanced the relationship between Boots-and-me. As a soloing climber my feet become extremely positive, well placed and delicately positioned. There is a sense of weight transfer and propulsion - entering into a foot placement, weighting it, committing my body over it, and then extending away from the placement.

    A bit like stepping in to and away from an Arabesque, an elegant balance performed on one leg in gymnastics. The entry and exit is careful and deliberate. A positive experience may mean the rat is well-fed from this adrenaline-rich supplement. The advent of bouldering mats small crash mats came after my early forays into soloing.

    On my recent trips to Fontainebleau in France I have had a mat but the same relationships and realisations occur between Boots-and-me when a committing move is called for. Also, I hated walking in the hot, deep, sand around the outcrops there. There were some stretches of sand maybe meters wide that we had to walk across. Every stride squished a hump of soft, dry sand into my instep which for the moment of my weight passing over it went solid, stretching my boot and foot to curve abnormally over the temporary obstacle, rasping my toes against the sewn canvas inside my rock boots.

    Every heel strike and push-off was an exemplar of inefficient walking. With each stride my heel would sink and skid, stretching my Achilles tendon whilst the ball of foot would just push backwards in loose sand. Was I moving at all? I was leaning forward and moving my legs, swinging my arms in an encouraging way, hobbling, but not finding any grip.

    So annoying, I nearly fell flat on my face. My toes were pointing down into grains of sand with the determination of a sprinter bursting out of the blocks, but getting no purchase from the material that was collapsing at the same rate I wished to move away from it.

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    Without propulsion I was stranded in a dehydrated quagmire. The amount of pain I endured for the lack of forward progress was frustrating, especially when the car park and stable ground was in sight. They give up too early, or they dip for the line too soon, shoot their bolt and scream for escape. My feet are trapped, like Tokyo commuters squashed into trains all eager to discover the freedom and comfort of their homes.

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    My feet are now being held in dreadful conditions. I have to act quickly as the contractual arrangements for their detention have changed. In the light of a decision they are free, lest this might now be interpreted as torture. The release of my feet signals the end of the climbing day, sending messages to my stomach for what may follow in a pub.

    Extracting my feet from their boots is also a ritual but carried out with nonchalant fuss. It is quick and executed as if it is of no consequence. But it is hugely important. But to whinge about the pain too much is asking for pity, could be a sign of weakness, or even discourteous in the face of such glorious achievements on the rock. Actually removing the boots can take about 30 seconds. This is my exit routine… the laces are untied and loosened generously with dirty, fatigued fingers, which brings initial relief and a sense of escape for my toes. I know it's probably on a cable channel which I don't subscribe.

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