…has long been considered an extreme sport—remember the famous quotation often (and perhaps wrongly) attributed to Ernest Hemingway?
“There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.”
And there’s plenty of campy movies like Cliffhanger, Mission Impossible II, and Vertical Limit.
The truth is that rock climbing is a misunderstood activity—an activity that is often lifestyle-defining to those who participate in it and an activity that is, contrary to popular belief, much less dangerous than more common pastimes like skiing, jumping on a trampoline, or driving a car.
But what is bouldering?
The sport of bouldering is a relatively recent subset of the sport of rock climbing. To boulder is to climb paths (called boulder problems) on small rocks (i.e. boulders, usually between 6-15 feet in height) with little protective equipment (no ropes). Bouldering is growing in popularity because it is a very social sport (yet can easily be done alone) that is easy to begin, requires little equipment, can be done indoors or out, and can be practiced in almost any amount of time.
At the bare minimum, a boulderer should acquire a pair of rock climbing shoes and a chalkbag with some chalk. Bouldering is possible without rock shoes, but having technical shoes that are made to help you stand on your toes on small holds will provide considerable advantage over loose tennis shoes or clunky hiking boots. Similarly, some boulderers prefer to climb without chalk, but most climbers find chalk helpful to dry out their fingertips and palms so the rock (or plastic) holds are easier to hold onto. If one’s hands are too sweaty it will be difficult to hold onto the holds.
When bouldering outside a useful piece of equipment to have is a bouldering pad. A bouldering pad is a large square of fabric filled with several inches of medium and high density foam. The pad is placed on the ground under the boulder problem so when the climber falls off he or she will land on a flat, cushioned surface. When used properly, pads can be very effective at protecting the climber from ground hazards like rocks, roots, or uneven landings. Unfortunately, the edge of the pad can create an edge that is a hazard in itself, so if the boulder problem does not go straight up it is often wise to have several bouldering pads placed next to each other closely so there are no seams or uneven edges. If the boulder problem being attempted is very high it is nice to have a double or triple layer of bouldering pads to land on. Multiple layers of pads will help prevent bottoming out (i.e. compressing the foam so much that your feet feel like they hit the hard ground underneath). Multiple layers of pads will also prevent a larger objective hazard at their edges, as each pad adds another 3-5 inches of height to the pile, making a higher edge to fall off. Because of this, in cases of multiple pad layers it is often nice to have a spotter.
A spotter is a person who stands behind you as you’re climbing up a boulder problem. The spotter’s job is to help you land on your feet on the pads should you fall off the climb. The spotter does not catch the boulderer, but does his or her best to keep the boulderer from hitting the ground or hitting the pads at a weird angle. The spotter does not actually touch the boulderer as she climbs, but often keeps his arms outstretched toward the boulderer so he is ready should the boulderer fall. It is important to note that the spotter isn’t solely responsible for the boulderer’s safety—a boulderer must always be aware of how she is feeling while climbing and be prepared to land properly should she fall.
Traversing means going sideways—in this case bouldering sideways. Traversing on easy terrain can be a fun way to warm-up for harder climbs because it allows you to do a bunch of movements in a row and get your fingers and muscles ready to do harder moves without taking you far off the ground. Because traversing climbers can stay relatively close to the ground, they don’t usually require a spotter or a crashpad, meaning traverses are a good option for those afraid of heights and those climbing alone. If the traverse is more difficult, a crashpad may be placed under the difficult section (i.e. the crux) to protect the climber should she fall there.
Bouldering can also be practiced indoors, at rock climbing gyms. Rock climbing gyms will have boulder problems of various heights set above their padded or impact resistant flooring. If one is interested in bouldering it is very easy to go to a rock climbing gym and try it out. Most gyms will let you boulder without a lesson, but it is wise to ask questions and take a lesson in bouldering safety if you are intimidated or interested in learning how to fall and spot properly. Advanced lessons, including technique, footwork, and outdoor bouldering safety, should also be available.
A Final Note
Bouldering is an enjoyable activity, but it is still important to take safety precautions and use good judgment before starting any climb. Loose rock, uneven landings, inclement weather, and other unforeseeable hazards can exist. Please be sure you understand the activity and it’s hazards and don’t hesitate to employ a guide or instructor if you have any questions or concerns.
Jackie Hueftle works at one of the biggest indoor bouldering gyms in the world—The Spot Gym in Boulder, Colorado—and runs their blog. She also writes for climbing magazines, is working on several books for children and adults, and spends as much time as possible out-of-doors.