Gear Up! Bouldering
Rock climbing's newest genreby Josh Rhea
Spontaneity. Unfortunately, it’s a word that rarely describes outdoor sports. From investing in high-tech gear to paying dues in travel time and cost, there’s a lot of planning that goes into activities like backpacking, kayaking, or climbing.
A rare exception to the rule, and one that is growing at a remarkable pace,
is bouldering. Virtually unknown as recently as five years ago, the sport has
exploded across climbing communities worldwide. The reasons are clear: cost
and accessibility. Any kid can scrape together a few bucks for a chalk bag and
an inexpensive pair of shoes, wander out the front door, and spend a couple
hours goofing around on some rock.
Tackling a bouldering problem, at a minimum, requires only a basic pair of climbing shoes and a chalk bag. No harness, no carabiners, no rope; just you and a chunk of granite. Suitable boulders aren’t found in everyone’s backyard, but famous areas range from the flatlands of West Texas (Hueco Tanks) to the Owens River Valley in central California (the Buttermilks). Urban areas from Atlanta to Denver have excellent sites within an hour’s drive.
It’s this convenience and affordability that has really helped the sport to grow over the past several years. And while danger is involved—‘highball’ routes can place a climber 20-25 feet off the ground—you’re never dealing with the intense exposure of a multi-pitch rock climbing route.
What is bouldering?
Bouldering is simply a form of rock climbing on short but very difficult pitches. Usually 10-20 feet tall, bouldering ‘problems’, or routes, involve a particular sequence of moves to gain the top—thereby solving the problem.
Problem difficulty is measured on the V rating system, ranging from V0 to V14. V0 should be difficult, but not impossible, for a beginner. Anything over V10 is well beyond the skill of most mortals.
Before heading out in the field, you’ll want to pick up a few essential pieces of gear:
The Franklin/Metolius Bouldering Package provides everything you need minus the shoes.
Most important is a pair of climbing shoes. You can boulder in any climbing shoe. Veteran boulderers typically opt for soft, extremely tight-fitting slippers like the Five Ten Moccasym for optimal grip and sensitivity on the wall.
Five Ten Moccasym
If you’re just getting started, however, your feet won’t have the strength, feel, or dexterity to take advantage of such shoes. Instead, look for a shoe with a stiffer, more supportive sole and a bit more room for comfort. Such versatile shoes include the Scarpa Eclipse, Five Ten Anasazi Velcro, and La Sportiva Mythos.
(L to R) Scarpa Eclipse, Five Ten Anasazi Velcro, La Sportiva Mythos (women's shown)
Many popular bouldering spots are relatively flat, with soft, earthy landings. More often, sharp rocks, roots, and cacti litter the ground beneath the rock. To solve this problem, climbers once tossed down old mattresses and couch cushions in case of a fall. Fortunately, modern crash pads provide a huge leap in protection over thrown-out couch cushions—not to mention better hygiene. Backpack straps make toting them on longer approaches easy and comfortable. Franklin and Metolius both make excellent bouldering crash pads.
Metolius Crash Pad
You’ll never flash (solve a problem in one attempt) a difficult problem without chalk. If a hold feels greasy or your hands are sweaty, getting a solid grip on a smooth sloper will be next to impossible. Chalk bags are inexpensive and well worth the small investment.
Black Diamond Chalkbags
Never use a wire brush to clean a bouldering hold of excess chalk. Either go to your local pharmacy and pick up a toothbrush, or buy a climbing-specific brush. A toothbrush can remove excess gunk from dime edges and crimpers, allowing your fingers to get a better hold directly on the rock. Be sure to scrub holds clean after you’re done out of courtesy for the next climber.
It doesn’t really matter what you wear, but climbing-specific clothing is designed to accommodate the body-contorting moves required in the sport. Gusseted crotches in pants and shorts, and comfortable sport tops for women all make the experience that much more enjoyable. Check out clothing from prAna, The North Face’s A5 Series, and Horny Toad.
(L to R) prAna Sonora Short, prAna Athena Top, TNF Vortex Tee
Never underestimate the value of bringing along your very own brain. Study a problem before attempting it, visualizing the moves you’re about to make. Make sure your crash pad is positioned below the spot you’re most likely to fall from.
While bouldering can certainly be a solo sport, having a friend along is always great insurance and a lot more fun. Aside from the bonus of social interaction, friends are an important safety aspect of climbing. Spotting is key. Spotters don’t have to catch a falling climber, and shouldn’t; both people will then get hurt. Instead, simply guide the ‘victim’ onto the crash pad with your hands (tuck in your thumbs to prevent injury). In case you are injured in a crash, a friend is also invaluable for helping you back to the car or calling for help.
You can’t boulder without good rocks to climb. Below are a few websites with excellent information about various locales nationwide.