Bouldering is a style of climbing which usually takes place on large natural boulders, low level rock faces and indoors at climbing walls. It is essentially free climbing, at a reasonably low level without any ropes or hardware for protection. A crash pad known as a bouldering mat is generally placed below the climber for protection in the event of a fall.

The routes on a boulder are commonly referred to as “problems”. These are usually short sequences which require either a powerful dynamic move, a certain degree of problem solving to complete or in many cases both. Problems are graded in the same way as regular climbing routes, according to difficulty, with several different grading systems being used around the world. Because boulders are generally roundish in shape, a number of traverses can also be found and graded on boulders, with the aim to climb around the boulder side, rather than up to the top. Traversing can be an excellent way for new climbers to learn correct foot placement and how body position affects balance.  It can also help to improve technique and is great for building confidence.

Bouldering is rapidly increasing in popularity. There are now indoor climbing walls which are devoted just to bouldering. Indoor bouldering centres have shorter walls than their climbing wall cousins, with each wall surrounded by a thick layer of padding at it’s base. It’s a great way for anyone who is new to climbing to give bouldering a go. All that’s required is a pair of rock shoes and some chalk (both of which can be hired or purchased from the wall).

Doing it in the woods
Photo Credit Sonnie Trotter.

Bouldering can be undertaken either on a solo basis (as there is no requirement for a belayer), or with a group of people. The climbing is relatively short, so it can be a great way to spend time with friends and improve your climbing, whilst keeping fit and strong. It is an excellent way to train for climbing longer routes but is great fun in its own right.

Boulder problems which tend to be higher than 4 to 5 meters high are known as “High Ball” problems. These can sometimes be as high as some small climbing routes so extra caution is required to prevent injury in the event of a fall. Often if a problem has a bad landing area, or requires a particularly committing move, anyone available may “spot” the climber. Spotting involves standing near the climber, just out of falling range, usually holding your hands up high (this is a common sight in bouldering areas). The aim is not to catch the falling climber, but to assist in guiding them to the bouldering mat, as steadily as possible. Spotters can often also help by advising of foot holds that can’t be seen by the climber as well moving the crash pad underneath the climber and shouting words of “encouragement”.

Doing it in the desert

There are many areas renowned for bouldering, however one area which is synonymous is Fontainebleau in France. Fontainebleau has a large number of boulders with a variety of different high quality problems set in a forest. People travel from far and wide to climb there and with good reason. Fontainebleau has its own difficulty grading scale, known as Font. This grading is now used widely used throughout many countries.

If you are thinking about getting into bouldering a great way to start is to visit an indoor bouldering or climbing wall. Indoor walls offer the ability to hire rock shoes and offer introduction courses with a trained instructor. The instructor will teach you all the basics and the safety information you will require to get started. If you know a climber who’s a member though, and who are happy to show you around and help you get started, most walls will allow them to sign you in as a guest. Alternatively, if you already own a pair of rock boots, why not head outside with a friend who has a bouldering mat and most importantly the knowledge of how and where you can boulder safely. A guide book can also be extremely useful in this case as it lists the various problems for each boulder and their grade, not to mention the actual location of the boulder (as finding them can sometimes be tricky).

Bouldering is an excellent way to keep fit, tone and build muscle. It can be a fun social activity, or a Zen like solo activity. It’s a great way to train for regular climbing routes or can be enjoyed in its own right. It’s also an excellent way to develop and improve your climbing skills and requires very little outlay of cash to get you going. So what are you waiting for? Give it a go, you’ll never look back!