When it comes to bouldering, people tend to get it wrong.
While they technically fall under the same overarching category of rock climbing and might seem like the same thing to the untrained eye, both are actually rather different.
If you just pick a random rock climbing gym in your home city, you will start to realise that what you see is predominantly bouldering gyms, and then followed by hybrid bouldering and high wall gyms. As much as I love high wall and lead climbing a lot more, given I love the thrill of heights and the sense of achievement completing a long route, bouldering can also bring a lot of reward and sharpen your technical skills.
So for those who are looking to explore the world of bouldering and decide between bouldering and high wall, here’s putting together some of the key things that set bouldering apart from the other forms of climbing. The article will cover some of the best aspects of bouldering, and how bouldering can also transit to outdoor bouldering in some of the most stunning places in the world.
1. What is Bouldering
Origins of Bouldering (History)
One of the starting grounds of bouldering is speculated to be from Fountainebleau in France and Lake District in Great Britain, where you can find thousands of sandstone boulders sitting amidst the lush forests. This was the grounds where we first heard of the term bleausards (or now popularly known as “boulderers”).
When it got to the 1980s, there was the introduction of 2 new forms of training tools. The 1st is indoor bouldering and climbing gyms, which helped grow the sport in man-made surroundings and allows for one to train all year round regardless of outdoor conditions or changing seasons/ climate. The 2nd tool is called bouldering mats, or also known as ‘crash pads’. These hard shock absorbent mats help protect the climber against injuries from falling badly and injuring themselves, but with it, boulderers can now attempt new climbing areas and routes that were previously too high risk of injury.
Till date, bouldering has continued to grow in popularity and you can see it emerging all around Europe and all over the United States. The grading system which first started out by John Gill, an American mathematician who categorize them by B1, B2 and B3 ( with B3 as the most challenging), is now replaced with Verm Sherman’s V Scale, ranging from V1 to V17. With the proliferation of the online web, you can easily find information on climbing sites and blogs on climbing areas and crags in United States, Europe, Asia and more. There are also bouldering competitions sprouting up around the world that attracts international athletes to compete in them.
2. Benefits of Bouldering
Its like math, just that it is way more fun. Bouldering trains you to do physical problem solving where you need to figure out a solution to complete the problem, in this case – the route.
There might be 1 approach to completing it or many, so depending on one’s body type, agility and skills, it varies from person to person how they tackle it. The key aspect of bouldering is learning how to position your body weight, so as you get better at bouldering, you sharpen your techniques and little details like footwork and finger grips.
Bouldering is a community sport. You have a group of boulderers gathered in the small climbing space trying to work out a route together, even if some of them might have only met that day.
Unlike top-rope climbing where everyone is spread out across different lanes, bouldering routes require a lot of mutual give and take as some of the routes overlap with others. What usually happens is boulders end up watching other boulders attempt certain routes before long, they start to exchange tips and ideas.
Bouldering helps break down boundaries as you can strike a nice conversation without feeling awkward and having to make too much small talk and eye contact. Everyone fundamentally just want to enjoy the sport and at the same time some great company is a bonus!
Good Physical and Mental Workout
Bouldering is probably a sport that guarantees a full-body workout. It’s not just your arms. You need to mobilize your entire body to complete the route.
One of the key things that bouldering helps improve is core strength, flexibility and balance. You might not feel the effects of climbing on that same day, but usually you will get the ache when you wake up the day after, which can be any part of your body from your back to abs to thighs to shoulders.
The brain and mind also get sharpened from climbing. Bouldering trains you to focus intently at a route in order to complete it, and there is no space for other thoughts and distractions. This enables one to destress after a long day of work or if there are multiple things that one is worried about.
When attempting a route, as much as fear might kick in, what your brain is forced to do is be alert and clear off other worries. You can end the day of bouldering feeling refreshed and recharged.
Bouldering Grading (V Scale and Font Scale)
There are 2 main times of grading for bouldering, the Font Scale and the V Scale.
Lets talk about the Font Scale first. Like the name suggest, it is actually the Fontainebleau system, where the grading comes with a number and letter like a, b and c, to indicate the difficulty of the climb.
For instance, a 6C is difficult as compared to a 6A or 5C. The Font system runs from 1 all the way to 9. The font scale is use mostly in UK, Europe and Asia.
The V Scale is commonly known and used in North America region. It starts at V0 and goes all the way up to, the last we heard, a V17 called Burden of Dreams done by Nalle Hukkataival. However, you might have heard of a VB Grade before which is an introductory route even easier than a V0.
Bouldering Grades Chart
Don’t be discouraged if you start of bouldering and find it difficult to even do a basic V0. Some V0 routes can be as hard as a 5.10 route on top rope. Keep improving and climbing regularly and you will get better and move up the scale!
3. Basics of Bouldering
Lets run through a bit of the fundamentals of bouldering if you are a beginner or new to bouldering.
While bouldering is not as high up the ground as top rope climbing, falling and getting injured can be if a higher probability of you do not know how to do it properly. Your ankles and wrists are the most prone to injury so one need to learn how to keep your body relaxed and land well.
The main technique is to spread the landing impact and force across the entire body to avoid fractures. The most common would be to land on your feet with your knees slightly bend and not locked, and then falling onto your back or side.
It is not advisable to land with your hands or arms stretched out, so keep it close to your body when you are falling. Ultimately bouldering will have you bend in various strange positions at times, but, keep your body relaxed and not tense up when you are falling, and you will be fine.
Bouldering sometimes requires spotters, especially so outdoors. The role of a spotter is to guide a fall and prevent the climber from landing in a position that can cause them injury.
In the case of outdoor climbing, it is more vital as a crash pad might sometimes not be big enough to cover enough ground or close all the gaps, so a spotter can assist by guiding the fall to make sure the boulderer does not fall out of the padded zone or land incorrectly on their head or neck.
Bouldering Safety and Injury Prevention
Given we are on the topic of learning how to land and spot properly, these guidelines are there to help a climber stay safe and injury free.
Amongst the different forms of climbing, bouldering might contribute to higher injuries than others. Given boulder problems tend to consist or more difficult moves and there is no rope to catch you when you land on the ground, falling is a given and hence measure to protect against bad landings is important.
Some tips to better ensure safety also consist of more warm up, use of finger tape and chalk to protect your fingers. Lastly, never go bouldering outdoors without crash pads and spotters present. We will talk more about outdoor bouldering later.
4. Indoor and Outdoor Bouldering
So what’s the difference between indoors and outdoors bouldering, gym bouldering or natural outdoor bouldering?
Natural and Outdoor Bouldering
When doing outdoor bouldering in a natural environment, you will see that there are various types of rock surfaces like granite,sandstone, limestone and volcanic rock. Coming prepared with your own equipment like crash pads, brushes and more are recommended as you may need to clean off the debris like soil, dust and leaves that have collected on the rocks.
High Ball Bouldering
Highball bouldering is basically bouldering that goes at a much higher level that can involve climbing tall boulders as high as 20 feet off the ground. It is definitely more dangerous that the normal bouldering and can involve greater risks and injury to a beginner to an experienced climber. The highest accomplishment one has ever done is by Dan Beal in 2017 where he attempted a route called The Process- a 55-foot V16 in Bishop, California.
Indoor Gym Bouldering
The aim of bouldering gyms is to imitate and take on the same key aspects and elements of outdoor bouldering and make them accessible all day and all year round regardless of rain and shine. Artificial climbing holds of different surfaces, shapes and sizes are colour coded and used to create different routes.
These varying difficulty levels and types of holds like crimps, slopers, jugs and pinches are to challenge you to improve your grip and technique.
5. Bouldering Gear and Equipment
Unlike lead climber and trad climbing, bouldering requires a lot less range of equipment. If you are looking at only doing indoor bouldering at a gym, all you need to invest in is a pair of good climbing shoes and climbing chalk.
However, if you are going outdoor natural bouldering, you and your fellow bouldering friends should be bringing along some crash pads and headlamps. There are also other useful or necessary tools like climbing tape, brushes of various sizes to clean off the dust or debris on the rock and loose/ liquid chalk for your hands. But the fundamental – bouldering mats are a must have.
6. Type of Boulders
There are all types of boulders. The more universal ones across all forms of climbing would be things like Overhangs, traverse and roofs, However, have you heard of things like Circus Tricks and Vertical?
Here’s a few simple definitions for you:
- Slabs – A flat angled surface that involves a lot of crimps and balancing.
- Vertical – Located between slabs and overhangs, vertical terrain requires great footwork and strong fingers to master.
- Aretes and Compression – It involves a lof of hugging the rock or slapping it while going up. Definitely not a pretty sight for photos, so keep the cameras away unless you want some funny shots.
- Topping out: This is the final set of moves that gets you to the final point of the boulder route where you end up standing on top of the rock. The sheer joy of triumph!
7. Bouldering Competitions
One of the biggest and milestones of the climbing world is that we have qualified for the 2020 Olympics in Japan. However, before this, the biggest known climbing competition is called the International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC), where athletes around the world compete on different categories like Speed climbing, lead climbing and bouldering.
8. Bouldering Etiquette/ Environmental Consideration
Bouldering and climbing has some unspoken etiquette to adhere to to make the climbing experience enjoyable for everyone – both indoors and outdoors.
Leave the Place Cleaner than you Arrive
It might be hard to do this all the time, but do not feel ashamed about having to clear off the trash of the previous climber or ‘picnic-er’. These nature grounds/ crags we are at are so precious and you don’t want to make it a hazardous and smelly place that attracts pests and affects the environment.
Some of the places we climbed in, like Kalymnos, had goats coming over to say hi, and you shoud not be leaving your plastic bags around for them to feast on.
Don’t give away the secrets. There are many climbers out there who want to complete it their first time without too much hints. As helpful and well meaning you are, don’t tell them unless they are stuck and reach out to you for advice.
Climbing and bouldering is all about building community. We share the wall, the routes and even gear. Have an open spirit and willingness to chat when people approach you or start a conversation. They might be just interested in the current route you are doing and want to discuss it, without any ill intention or being creepy. So don’t let the suspicious or introverted side of
Sharing is Caring
Do not lane hog. It is important to be considerate to those around who are also hoping to attempt the route. When the gym or outdoor space has crowds, be mindful of who is ‘queuing’ or requesting for the next turn, and don’t take too much time by occupying the lane for hours with all your friends.
Watch your Gear for Monkeys
I am talking about literal and non-literal monkeys here. Keep your things tidy and organized and within sight, to avoid drawing unneccessary temptation from people deciding to pick something up. There will be occassions where someone mistaken your bouldering shoes for theirs unintentionally, so don’t get too upset about it.
9. Guide to all Bouldering Lingo
When it comes to climbing and bouldering lingo, the list goes on forever.
- Highball: It means a boulder problem that is high up enough that it can lead to serious injury if the climber falls
- Spot: The act of guiding another boulder’s fall such that he/ she lands safely
- Traverse: Moving sideways on a route instead of going upwards. More commonly known as lateral climbing
- Crux: The hardest point in the climb that requires the most physical and mental commitment from the climber
- Top Out: The act of completing the full route that you can stand at the top of the formation
- Campus: To climb and complete the moves without the use of footwork
- Dyno: A common aspect of bouldering indoors, but for outdoors, doing a dyno move, which is a long jump/ thrust to the next hold requiring both hands or both feet momentum to complete the move
- Deadpoint: Making a long dynamic move with one hand to complete the move. Something like the dyno but in this case, with one hand. Be careful for shoulder injuries while doing this!
- Beta: Giving your fellow climber tips/ advice on the best way to complete the route
So here concludes some of the best things about bouldering to kickstart your love for this sport. I hope you are convinced now to spur your love for climbing.