"Get down from there at once!" We all heard that as children, because we’re all natural-born tree- and rock-climbers. Somewhere on the way to adulthood, though, most of us get grounded.
“Bouldering” allows kids of all ages to rediscover the compulsion to clamber, but without having to fork out on fancy climbing equipment or scale vertiginous heights. All you really need is yourself, fresh air, and a big old lump of rock daring you to get the better of it.
Sketches in stone
Bouldering is rock-climbing, but practised on rock and boulder formations low enough not to warrant ropes for protection.
It’s often the first taste future climbers have of the world of Rock, and many established climbers use bouldering to hone their skills in between multi-pitch long-haul climbs.
Cape Town-based mountaineer Rachel Colenso, with whom I went bouldering at Silvermine Nature Reserve, puts it thus: “What drawing or sketching is to fine art, bouldering is to rock climbing and mountaineering: it’s a core skill from which the other climbing skills can be developed.”
But bouldering is also considered a challenging sport in its own right by aficionados. For some climbers, this is the obsession of choice, not big wall climbing or peak-bagging.
And if you’re a novice trying to decide if the big scary world of climbing is really for you, bouldering is an excellent place to spend a few relatively safe, angst-free hours before setting your sights on K2. Not least because if your arms need a rest (as mine did after a very few minutes), you can park off on your picnic blanket, idly watch the action and throw out the odd annoying suggestion as to how fellow boulderers can improve their form.
Although bouldering may seem less intimidating in some respects than rock climbing, the problems humble boulders pose can be just as tough as the crux moves on the hardest cliff-face climbs in the world – and sometimes tougher.
Boulderers don’t have to contend with the risk factors of height, inclement weather, and exhaustion posed by long climbs, but it is precisely because they are free of these distractions that they can focus all their attention on a wickedly difficult sequence of moves just a few metres above the ground.
The focus of bouldering is to succesfully execute tough technical moves: using body and mind to "solve" three-dimensional geometry problems. The aim is to use the natural surface of the rock in a specific way to gain a sequence of moves, either vertical or horizontal. The more difficult the sequence to perform, or “solve”, the better. At its highest level, bouldering is similar to other forms of climbing in one important respect: it is fiercely competitive, with top boulderers striving to outperform each other by gaining ever-harder sequences.
Finding your Ape Index
Anyone can become a decent boulderer with dedication, but a strong upper body and long arms are a definite advantage. Boulderers like to measure their “ape index”, which is the relation between height and horizontal reach ability (your outstreched armspan). The greater your reach differential over your height, the more likely you are to have an unfair advantage at the boulder-face.
Having a genetic make-up which is potentially powerful, and the ability to sustain repeated high-level demands without injury is also helpful, as bouldering is a power sport, making use of short bursts of activity. In this it differs from climbing longer routes which rely on both anaerobic and aerobic fitness. If you want to incorporate an aerobic element into your workout, though, it’s usually a simple matter to include a hike or trail run in the vicinity of the boulder or boulders you're focusing on.
Good kinaesthetic awareness (i.e. awareness of your body's position and movement in space) is also important because the physical sequences are complex, requiring you to be able to link varieties of sequences to form new patterns, not unlike dancing.
Even if you aren't naturally blessed with orangutan genes, however, bouldering will certainly help improve your strength and agility. Boulderers come in a variety of body types, and this makes the sport all the more interesting: individual dimensions and mindsets result in the same sequence being performed in a range of idiosyncratic ways.
Dedicated boulderers tend to be detail-orientated people who enjoy problem-solving and have the ability to focus intensely on a problem, because this sport is also a mentally challenging pastime.
While the body is contorting itself into physical shapes to achieve the sequence, the mind is doing its own flick-flacks, exercising its problem-solving and memorizing ability on a number of levels.
The problem-solving aspect involves working out how your body can climb through a series of moves without falling off, and using basic mechanics such as tension to accomplish this.
Your memory gets a workout in that you have to remember a sequence of holds visually, and then also remember the muscle tensions and body moves which enable you to reinact the sequence.
Part of the competitive component of bouldering is finding a choice boulder that other fanatics may have overlooked. The discoverer may then choose to boast about it, or keep the location secret - at least until he or she has mastered some of the best sequences their rock has to offer!
But some bouldering areas offer such obvious delights to boulderhounds that they’ve become world-renowned. In fact, as there is climbing and ski-ing tourism, there is now also “bouldering tourism”.
Probably the most famous bouldering spot is in the forest of Fontainebleau near Paris, a sort of natural boulder garden which has been specially developed for the sport, with marked circuits and a route grading system. In the United States, boulderers flock to Hueco Tanks in the desert in Texas, or Yosemite Valley. At Yosemite, rock climbers “play” on the boulder problems around camp to get themselves psyched up for the epic “big wall” climbs.
There are many bouldering opportunities in South Africa too, and the advantage is that they have not been “climbed out” i.e. many boulders and bouldering problems are relatively undiscovered. The is most notable local example is the Cederberg, which is becoming so popular for bouldering that there are concerns it will risk becoming environmentally degraded in future.
Although it may seem a very low-impact activity, popular bouldering spots in other parts of the world have had to deal with problems like litter, and potential damage to rock paintings.
What you'll need:
Climbing shoes (although this is not essential), a chalkbag with carbon magnesium chalk or resin to improve friction between fingers and rock surface, a bouldering mat, enthusiasm, a sense of humour and a healthy degree humility – there’ll always be someone who’s better than you!
- Olivia Rose-Innes, EnviroHealth Editor, and Rachel Colenso, Health24, updated May 2011