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Bouldering: Why Climb on Rocks?

“Bouldering isn't really a sport. It's a climbing activity with metaphysical, mystical, and philosophical overtones." -John Gill

What is it?

Now we’re finally getting into my favorite part about climbing, bouldering. According to Peter Beal’s Movement, Tactics, and Problem Solving, “bouldering is a form of climbing that focuses on relatively short routes, typically unroped and often, with the pursuit of difficulty as its primary goal.” However, the difficulty of the climb is not a necessary requirement for it.

The center of bouldering is “searching for solutions to difficult sections of rock.” That’s where the bouldering term “problem” comes from. In other words, one is trying to solve a problem for their climb. Hence this term is used instead of route.

Where Can I Boulder?

Bouldering wall inside Climb Up

Bouldering can be done just about anywhere as long as there’s something to climb. Such as an actual boulder, the base of a cliff, or an indoor climbing wall designed for it. In climbing gyms, the boulders or bouldering walls range from 7 to 15 feet tall in accordance to Falcon Guide’s Learning to Climb Indoors author Eric J. Hörst. Thankfully if one falls, it’s not from too high of a height.

What’s The Appeal?

Something that I’ve noticed as I’ve climbed either by myself or with friends is that I prefer to bouldering to toproping. I like bouldering better because it’s just me and the boulder. I feel stronger when I climb problems. It’s not that I don’t when I toprope because I do. Knowing that I’m using my own body strength to move and stay on makes me feel more confident. Plus, if someone falls, it’s me who’s falling off.

I do enjoy toproping and won’t say no if someone asks me to belay them. But then I have someone else to keep my eyes on. Granted, some days toproping comes easier to me than bouldering in terms of climbing but it’s my go-to.

Me in a sitting position on an orange-colored problem.

Another thing I like about bouldering is one doesn’t need a whole lot of equipment to partake in the activity. If one is bouldering indoors, all he/she needs is a pair of good shoes and climbing chalk. However, if bouldering outdoors, there are a few additional things needed to make the experience fun and safe. Such as a crash pad (something to land on) and a bristle brush to brush away excess chalk from the rock according to Beal.

Got to Come Down Somehow

“You should fall because you fail to do the move, not because you fail to try the move.”      Andy Kirkpatrick, 1000+ Climbing Tips

Like the old saying goes, “what goes up, must come down.” This is very true in bouldering. One can come down from a boulder or wall by downclimbing or jumping off. Depending on the person’s comfort level, either method works. For me, I do both. However, if I’m on a higher spot on a bouldering wall, I do have the occasional tendency to freeze up. I have to tell myself “I’m not that high above the mat” then jump off after down climbing a bit.

Falling off of the boulder.

When jumping or falling off, there is a way to land so that one can avoid injury. Beal states that “the first principle is protecting the important parts of the body.” Those important parts are the head and the neck. The second is “safe absorption of energy by finding ways to deflect the impact and disperse the force of the fall.” In other words, the lesser the impact on the body, the better to minimize pain.

How to Fall

To safely fall: try hitting the mat or pad barely with feet flat, bend the knees immediately, then roll onto the side. Let the side take most of the impact. Beal mentions that this is the safest way to fall.

Do not resist rolling. This could injure feet and ankles. Also don’t lead the fall with the hands, elbows, or shoulders. It may be an instinct to do so but it could lead to serious injury. Along with that, they take a long time to heal.

Safety First

Even though bouldering is a solo activity, it does help to have another person “spot” to help the climber come safely down. When climbing in or outdoors, Beal provides a few basic rules to follow for good SPOTting:

Bouldering might seem a little daunting at first because one is depending solely on herself/himself to move upward or across problems. Like with any other activity though, it’s something to practice. So I might fall a lot but that doesn’t mean I should give up on a problem that’s hard. It’s a challenge to solve. That’s why climbers try to solve problems so they can get better at it.

Knowing the Grade

Speaking about difficulty, next time I’ll cover how boulder problems are rated for climbing. I’ll go back in time and share the history of how the rating system was created and where it is now. Also, compare it to toproping ratings to give you an idea how hard or easy they seem to be.