Rock climbing. It conjures up images of dazzling feats at altitude, reaching out and grabbing overhangs towering above the landscape, incredible pulls up the face of a mountain, or reaching the summit of a snow-swept peak. Climbing is a sport that traditionally involves expensive gear, careful preparation, and years of training, right? Enter rock climbing’s fun, inexpensive, and casual offshoot, bouldering. Bouldering involves scaling large rocks, low enough to the ground that a rope isn’t needed, and requires nothing but the proper footwear, a bag of chalk, a friend, and or a crash pad. Bouldering is extremely popular in places that might not have the geographic advantage of being near a mountain range or cliff side. Even low states such as Florida have spots where climbers can take their skills onto real rock.

Bouldering in a Florida cave

Bouldering has exploded in popularity as of late. So much so that it is being considered as an Olympic sport for the 2020 games. Many climbers see bouldering as a great place to learn and perfect the same skills that they practice on larger faces, however others have mastered bouldering as a sport in its own right. Beginner climbers who practice this way learn crucial skills, such as distributing weight with their fingers, leaning back and using less energy and muscle on their arms, and placing feet in a position where the climbers can lift themselves with a carefully placed heel or stretched out leg.

A bouldering route is typically known as a problem. Boulder problems might start with an immediate overhang, forcing the climbers to immediately place their feet and secure themselves to the rock so that they have the ability to stretch their arms and have full mobility in going upwards.

Stabilizing feet to move upwards

Unlike sport or traditional climbing, where the climber may potentially endure hours on the rock executing moves, bouldering works on fine tuning technique, often building the climbers body strength; strengthening the fingers and forcing the engagement of the midsection.

Equipment for bouldering is minimal. The faces are low enough that it doesn’t require the use of a helmet or harness. Many climbers utilize the use of a crash pad for protection. The crash pad is a large foam mattress that can be placed wherever the climber moves and cushions them in the event of a fall. Climbing chalk aids the climber and assists with keeping sweaty hands dry helping to put added grip onto a hold. Climbers should also carry a small metal brush to clean the holds of any left over chalk and maintain the natural aesthetic of the rock. Although bouldering can be practiced alone, it is not without risk outside of a gym environment and the climber’s best judgment should be used. Climbers should have the aid of a second spotter, a partner who will catch the climber with outstretched hands (thumbs tucked under) in case of a fall.

A spotter holds their arms to catch the climber in the event of a fall

Climbing shoes can vary in intensity and purpose. An extremely simple boulder problem can be accomplished in flat shoes or in some cases a pair of sneakers would suffice. More complicated routes involving heel hooks, stretching, and stability, require a move aggressive downturned climbing shoe with a pointed end. The shoe should typically be fitted with a tough rubber sole that helps to stick the foot on the face.

Boulder problems have their own rating system, diverse from the ratings of the Yosemite Scale that defines many sport climbing routes. In the US, the rating system, called the V-Grade system, classifies problems from V0, which is considered extremely easy, to V16. The number gradually increases with the difficulty and technicality of the moves.

Bouldering has also moved into the indoor competitive round and competitions have become extremely popular. A bouldering competition could involve a speed competition to race to the top of the problem, or assign points for the least number of faults, such as falling off the route or placing the foot or hands on an unmarked hold. Boulder climbers also come up with games such as “Add On”, played much the same way that HORSE is played in basketball, in which a climber will complete a series of moves, increasing the complexity and the following climbers must replicate the sequence, adding on their own move at the end. In an indoor setting or at the crag, climbers might also practice “traversing.” Traversing is where climbers, instead of climbing upwards, will climb horizontally across the wall, pulling themselves onto every kind of hold while making a circuit of the wall. Traversing has applications on sport or traditional climbs where a route might not go up the face but across to reach the next vertical sequence. Traversing helps to practice stretching out to reach a move and creativity in pulling the body backwards to pull up the surface.

Bouldering is a sport enjoyed by many climbers; some boulder to train for the outdoor sport and traditional routes and others prefer to forgo the technical aspects of rock climbing and focus on simple technique in a low but physically demanding environment. It requires very little equipment and can even be practiced alone. Bouldering has become a sport in and of itself, spawning individual athletes and competitions dedicated to promoting its popularity. Next time the crag is crowded, grab a crash pad or a friend and hit the boulders!

Editor’s Note: For a comprehensive introduction to bouldering check out Bouldering: Movement, Tactics, and Problem Solving by Peter Beal from The Mountaineers Books

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