Are you interested in bouldering? Have you seen those crazy bouldering gyms springing up in random warehouses, full of brightly colored and oddly shaped mounds sticking out of the walls? Have you watched climbers make their way up a cliff while you hiked by?
Bouldering is a great sport, one you can do indoors or outdoors, and it helps to cultivate stronger bodies, especially the fingers, wrists, arms, and back.
First off, bouldering is not to be confused with top rope climbing or rock climbing. While both take place on a rock, bouldering does not involve any ropes or harnesses or carabiners. It just involves you (and maybe some chalk).
If you are brand new to bouldering, try to find an indoor gym (or better yet, one with an indoor/outdoor facility) so that you can practice.
*Note* Your hands will become very dry after bouldering, because the chalk dries them out. Use lotion to combat this. Also be aware that you will probably get blisters on the insides of your hands after about one hour. Most people do not last much longer than this their first time because it is a sport that takes all of your energy, and with blistered hands, you can’t really use your hands painlessly to keep climbing. Give it time, practice regularly, and the blisters will stop in their severity once you form calluses.
This video is well worth watching, as it explains different aspects of finger holds, runs, how to use your body, and how to climb using different holds. All of this is important because in nature, different types of rock will present different challenges for you, different holds. Rocks and cliff faces in Italy, for example, are more porous, easier to hold on to while the red rock you find in Germany and France is very slippery.
Find climbing boards so that you can feel out the holds with 5, 4 or even 2 fingers. Practice as much as you can with different holds, different projects (the term for a single route for which you are trying to find a solution).
Think of climbing as a geometric pattern. Your body needs to make its way up in the smoothest way, spreading yourself against the wall and hoisting yourself up with the perfect geometric solution. When you go outdoors, you won’t find color coordinated runs, holds that meet only your level of climbing, or any of the other things that you do at an indoor gym (unless you start climbing in an outdoor facility rather than somewhere in nature). That does not mean you cannot apply the same lessons you learn indoors, outdoors.
1. Before You Climb
Get the right shoes.
When you start out, the one thing you will need are climbing shoes. If you go to indoor/outdoor facilities they will usually rent these to you for a nominal fee. Different brands offer different levels of support, different degrees of bends for the arch. You will need to physically try them on before you buy. This is not something you can easily do on the internet. Here is a link that might help you out.
The biggest things to remember is that you want them tight. The shoes should be tight when you put them on, and only get tighter when you keep climbing. They are really meant to be a lean extension of your feet so tight shoes help your actual feet grasp the rock on which you are climbing. More importantly, you should not wear socks with the shoes. If you are renting or borrowing shoes, you might simply want to wear socks for the hygienic purposes though, some more advanced climbers are picky about this. Do what makes you comfortable with rentals. Once you own a pair of shoes, you might want to get some sort of spray to use after a climb because you will spend all day sweating in them while you climb.
Grab some chalk.
Chalk is handy because it keeps your hands from slipping when they start to sweat. And you are going to need it the longer you are bouldering. Liquid chalk is a small bottle that you can easily carry with you and squeeze onto your hands. This liquid, as the name suggests, turns into a coating of chalk over your hands. The appeal here, compared to a traditional bag of chalk, is just that it won’t explode dust into the wind each time you get more chalk.
2. When You Climb
Use your whole body.
A lot of newcomers are tentative, and they try to just monkey climb their way up a route using their arm strength. This will wear out your arms quickly, and you never know when you need to conjure up the last of your arm strength. So, just like lifting something heavy: use your legs. Bring your whole body into things. Make use of your legs to push you to the next hold rather than trying to pull your body upwards. Use your hands to brace yourself against the rock so that you have more leverage. These are all things you start to get the-literal-feel for the more you boulder.
The reason you want to use your legs, keep your body pressed against the wall as much as possible, is because this changes your center of gravity. Such a simple change (and yes, a difficult one to make a habit because we instinctively want to lean away from the wall to look up and around us) can alleviate the pressure in your arms and make it easier for all of your weight to be moved upward with your legs. Watch this video for more information and some visual examples of this change and how effective your body position can be.
Bring a mat.
If you are not at a facility where mats are provided, bring one. You don’t want to fall and hit the ground.
Take breaks in between runs. It can seem appealing to get right back up and try a run after you have fallen, or successfully made it to the top, but your body needs a few minutes to recuperate.
Know the local rules.
There are famous bouldering sites all over the world, but different states and countries have different rules.
For example: In parts of America, you cannot use just any old chalk. You need a special chalk that will not erode the rocks. In parts of Europe, you cannot use chalk at all outdoors. Germany, for example, requires that if you go bouldering outdoors, you bring a mat to place at the base of the rocks in case you fall. Sure, there might not be officials around who stop you to check that you are lugging a mat around with you, but it is always better to be on the safe side.
There is a lot more to learn if you want to become a professional climber, but for those who just want to start out, you really just need some shoes and a positive attitude. If you fall, that’s what the mat is there for. Get back up and try it again!
Once you start, outdoor hikes can quickly turn into impromptu bouldering sessions as you start to eyeball the rock formations around you and visualize everything in nature as a project. In these cases, you probably won’t have your shoes or your chalk, but you can still have a run at the wall and see how far you get!