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Bouldering: How to Get Involved

9/7/16 by Dylan Jones

So you want to go climb some rocks, but you don’t have a rope and … what the heck is all that metal stuff about? Fortunately for you, there’s an entire sport devoted to the hardest of climbing moves without the need for all that clanky gear. Enter the world of bouldering—the rowdy, free-spirited subgenre of rock climbing where all you need to get high are some shoes and some bravery. Due to the ease of entry, bouldering has quickly become the major focus of the exponentially growing climbing community.

Bouldering 101

Mark Donoher

Bouldering is a style of ropeless rock climbing that takes place, naturally, on boulders typically under 20 feet in height. Bouldering got its start in the early 1900s in the Fontainebleau region of France—the first ascensionists were referred to as a bleausards (boulderers).

The rate of difficulty in bouldering is graded in America using the V-scale as devised by Texas boulderer John “Vermin” Shermin, and runs from V0 to V16. The most difficult move of a bouldering “problem” is called the crux, which denotes a route’s grade. The V-scale solely takes into account physical difficulty, eschewing the variables of danger and need for gear often seen in traditional climbing grades.

A "project" is a route that takes a considerable amount of time and effort to ascend. When climbers work a route, or diligently ascend, they are projecting the route. As you follow in footsteps of more experienced boulderers, you will also want to determine the fall zone safety areas and down-climb routes before hopping on a route graded within your abilities.

Minimal Gear

Unlike gear-intensive pursuits, such as traditional and alpine climbing, bouldering requires minimal investment in equipment. All you’ll need to start crushing it is a pair of climbing shoes and a crash pad. Different climbing shoes are designed to handle a variety of disciplines. You’ll want a tight-fitting shoe with an aggressive, down-turned toe to handle heel hooks and tiny edges. Many boulderers prefer a Velcro or slip-on shoe over lace-ups for ease of removal between burns.

Because bouldering involves linking sequences of difficult, low-percentage moves, you can assume you’ll do your fair share of falling. Having a thick pad that covers ground hazards in your fall zone is an absolute must. While one pad will do, sometimes it’s necessary to have several pads if a route wanders or overhangs other rocks, trees or uneven ground. A crew in the midst of a bouldering session can often be seen with enough pads to cover the floor of a small climbing gym. When your crux is 15 feet up, you’ll be glad they’re there. While it’s not necessary, it’s highly recommended to bring climbing chalk to maintain friction. Also, a horse-hair brush can be used to scrub the grime of the boulders (but not the grains of rock, which would essential polish and make your approach more difficult) off those credit card crimps that you cling to with little more than your fingertips.

Spot Your Safety

Mark Doliner

An important and often overlooked aspect of bouldering is spotting—a safety practice where climbers on the ground help break the fall of a climber by directing him/her toward the crash pads. Spotting becomes crucial when climbing overhanging routes, using heel hooks or trying crux moves high off the deck. The job of the spotter is not to directly catch a falling climber, but rather to make sure he/she lands upright and centered on the pads. Spotters are also responsible for moving crash pads along the base of the route as the climber moves laterally or out a steep overhang.

Mark Doliner

Taller boulder problems, called high balls, can be as high as a climber is willing to go. At some point though, bouldering becomes free soloing and pads won’t be effective, so use your discretion when attempting taller routes and be considerate of your spotters.

Supportive Community

Mark Doliner

What makes bouldering so great is the collective level of psych that surrounds its participants. Go to any well trafficked bouldering area and, odds are, you can sidle up to a group and work a new route or get beta on your next project. The bouldering community is highly supportive and encouraging, and the base of a route can be just as much a social event as a physical challenge. Who knows? You may find your next road-trip partner chalking up for that roof (rock overhang) problem you’ve been eyeing, too.

An Eventful Discipline

Rock climbing has no shortage of competitions, and bouldering is right at the top of the list. Bouldering lends itself well to competition due to ease of access and variability of route difficulty. Comps are a great place to meet other climbers and get inspired to keep climbing.

The king of bouldering comps is the Triple Crown, an autumnal series of events on the sandstone boulders of Hound Ears in Boone, NC; Stone Fort in Chattanooga, TN; and Horse Pens-40 in Steele, AL. Everything’s bigger in Texas, including the climbing comps. So head to the Hueco Rock Rodeo on the hallowed grounds of Hueco Tanks to see some of climbing’s biggest names and grab the signature scoops Hueco's signature scoops—weathered portions of rock (igneous rock called porphyritic syenite) that resemble dishes or bowls, but are technically referred to as heucos.

Bouldering is hard, so don’t be discouraged if you can’t, when it's unavoidable, start from a sitting position (called a sit-start) on that particular V3 right away. It takes a fair amount of training and finger strength to find your way up many routes. Find climbers who you vibe with and ride the wave of their support as you push your mental and physical limits. With enough dedication, you may be vying for the leader board in the Triple Crown one day.

Originally written by RootsRated for Marmot.