I think you haven’t truly made it as a boulderer until you have been at least a tiny bit frustrated. This frustration has many sources of course, but I’m talking mainly about the slight annoyance of being asked the same questions over and over by your friends and family. “What do you mean, there’s no rope?”,“why don’t you wear a helmet?”, “is it a race to the top?”; or, my personal favourite: “when are you going to climb Mt. Everest?”. Roll your eyes, smile, answer, and feel happy in knowing that one more person now knows what you do with all your spare time.
Though the sport has grown in popularity over recent years, all of these questions are justified; not many people understand what rock climbing is, let alone bouldering. I remember going to a climbing birthday party when I was younger and ascending in my sneakers. At the time, climbing as a workout or even as a competitive sport didn’t even cross my mind. The whole idea was just to get to the top, or so it seemed.
Surprisingly, there’s a lot more to it than you might think (you can read about the jargon here). I’d like to shed some light on this confusion, for both my sake and my friends and loved ones who really do want to understand.
So, what is bouldering?
Bouldering is essentially what comes to mind when you think of climbing, but on a smaller scale. Most walls range between 10-15ft feet high. Our particular gym consists of two side by side converted squash courts, so if you’ve ever seen or been in one of those, you’ll know that it’s still quite high but not incredibly so.
With all climbs, we work on what we call routes, which is a set path of holds that go up the wall. We do not use every single hold on a wall, only those that are marked with specific tape, same coloured holds, or if we’re outside, the natural features that we can find on rock. When in a climbing gym, we have people called setters who screw holds on the wall and try to make routes as fun and interesting as possible. Outside, we can clean a route by taking wire brushes to brush away any foliage or loose rock on a boulder to expose the natural holds and features. Cleaning a route makes the rock easier to grip, and without removing the moss, lichen and other plant life, it can be impossible to climb. Once a route is clean, usually whoever put in the work will send it, grade it, and give it a name (route names are both hilarious and random most of the time). Routes vary in difficulty, and are identified using a “V” scale/grade:
V0-V1: Beginner. These routes usually use holds that you can hold on to quite easily, and don’t require much knowledge of technique.
V2-V4: Novice/Intermediate. These routes use easier holds as well as some harder holds requiring more finger strength. Some technique is necessary for these grades.
V5-V7: Experienced. Most people plateau here, unless they train specifically for climbing. These routes use all kinds of holds, but require technique as well as the ability to read a route and figure out the movements necessary for completion.
V8-V10: Expert. Same as before, but routes are more difficult. Requires a lot of training and climbing experience.
V11+: Elite. Professional climbers climb in this range. Dedicated climbers will climb these grades if they put in the effort to train.
(Side note: this scale can be quite subjective)
In bouldering, we often refer to routes as problems. Routes are problems in the sense that you must figure out the right moves to get to the top and it is very common and unavoidable to fall off a route while trying to figure it out. The problems are meant to be tricky, and sometimes it takes a lot of playing around with balance, feet placement, power, etc to figure out the right sequence of moves to get to the top. A route is only sent (another word for completed) when a climber makes it from the beginning of the route to the end and touches the last hold with both hands without falling (in a gym setting). Outside, a route is only sent when the climber tops out the boulder, meaning they climb until they’re standing above the route. Sometimes we can work on one problem for weeks or even a month before we get it!
Because we are only 10 ft or so in the air, we don’t use ropes, harnesses, or quick draws. Climbing that uses this equipment is called rope climbing and has many variations, but I won’t dive into that subject now since we are only discussion bouldering. The walls we climb are typically not very high, but bouldering gyms are still equipped with thick pads at the base of all climbs to protect us when we do inevitably fall. Falling off of a route is not painful unless you land awkwardly. Injuries like sprained ankles do occur, but they’re not common.
The only equipment required for indoor bouldering is climbing shoes and chalk, but most gyms can supply you with these things for a fee. Bouldering shoes can range in price, but the most popular ones range between 110$-170$. They are special shoes with rubber soles to help grip the wall without sliding off too easily. Chalk is fairly cheep and so are chalk bags. When we boulder outside, we bring our own portable lightweight climbing pads which are made specifically to break falls.
And that’s basically all there is to it. Keep in mind that this is a basic overview of bouldering, and I purposely left out some details so as to not overwhelm you with new information. If you have any questions about something I mentioned or did not mention, feel free to comment! I am by no means an expert, but I like to think I know a thing or two.
Now get out and give it a try yourself!!
climb on xx