Basic Bouldering and Beyond

Posted July 1st, 2000

Josh is sitting, with his hands and feet on the rock. Suddenly, he leaps into the air and grabs the rock above him with his right hand. His swinging feet find their own holds on the rock. From there he moves quickly and precisely, appearing to float up the rock’s surface. A few seconds later he reaches the top, pulls himself up, and jumps back down to the ground. Only when I examine the rock more closely do I realize the miniscule size of the flakes he was holding on to.
Josh is bouldering, the sport of unroped climbing on large rocks and small walls. Though boulderers have been hiding under (and around) rocks since the late 1950s, they are just now being recognized as legitimate climbers and also as a major force pushing climbing to new technical levels.
But it is bouldering’s broad appeal that has caused the sport’s explosive growth in the United States and internationally. Bouldering requires more strength and technique than traditional rock climbing, but it can be practiced anywhere by anyone, regardless of ability. And, the risks are minimal compared to rock climbing.
John Gill, founder and father of American bouldering, took his gymnastic strength and skills to the rock. The little rock, that is. He was criticized for many years as a rock climber who was wasting his time barely getting off the ground, but he was clear about his pursuits.
In the foreword to Stone Crusade: A Historical Guide to Bouldering in America, Gill writes, “Our sport is the most analytical and perhaps the most physically demanding of all climbing activities, focusing almost exclusively on the underlying essence of modern climbing: technical difficulty. Boulderers assail the envelope of the possible, in the process occasionally developing new techniques that may be applied to longer climbs.”
For the new climber, bouldering is a great way to get started on rock, and for the penniless (or cheap) climber, it’s affordable. Aspiring climbers with little training and gear can experience what it feels like to pinch tiny holds, trust slopers (sloping rock where friction is used to hold), or jam (the fine art of sticking fingers, hands, arms, feet, body or anything else available into cracks to ascend). Where traditional climbers need rope, shoes, harness, helmet, and countless highly engineered little pieces of metal to jam into cracks, boulderers use shoes, chalk and a crash pad. Where a rock climb may take you 200-2000 feet up a rock wall, bouldering seldom brings you more than 20 feet above ground.
Bouldering can literally be practiced in your backyard. If you live in the country, go out your back door, walk through the woods until you come to a big rock. Try to climb up it or all the way around it. You’re bouldering!
If you live in an urban area, the local park may have something you can climb on. Many rock gyms have bouldering walls and caves where you can try your hands (and feet) on overhanging walls.
Boulderers are the only people I know who wish they had more problems. “Problems” are the boulderers’ version of routes. They are rated on a variety of independent systems, with all ratings relative to an area. Problem ratings start from what would be a 5.10 climb (hard) and increase. Some ratings change over time. Purist boulderers, those in it for the beauty of the sport, don’t care. They find a problem that looks interesting and work it until they dance with the rock.
A boulderer needs to be powerful, precise and flexible. Bouldering is about pushing your physical limits. There are usually few moves in a problem, but they tend to be intense. The “dyno,” a classic move, involves jumping for a hold more than an arm’s length away, sometimes coming completely off the rock. More common are backsteps, heel hooks, and using balance to move smoothly and efficiently over the rock.
Bouldering can be solitary or social. Encouragement from friends can be motivating, and boulderers can help each other solve problems. Friends can also spot for each other. A casual passerby might wonder at several people with their arms overhead, while another climbs up a rock. Those people are not practicing a strange form of worship, but are prepared to direct their friend towards the pile of crash pads, should he or she fall.
One of the biggest challenges for Vermont boulderers is finding a concentration of problems. The Smugglers’ Notch Guide refers repeatedly to the “vast, untapped potential (in the Notch) for at least double the amount of existing problems,” as detailed by the guidebook. But besides Smugglers’ Notch, publicly accessible “boulder gardens” have yet to be found and/or made public. Sometimes climbers keep a boulder to themselves until they can do its first ascents, and often, boulders on private lands are off limits to climbers. One additional “problem” with bouldering in Vermont is that much of our rock is green schist, and tends to be soft and to break off.
With exploration, you can find boulders scattered throughout backyards and backwoods. A little initiative can lead to new bouldering challenges. Climbing gyms are introducing bouldering walls and caves where the novice, expert, and everyone in between can fall on their backs on padded mats instead of rocky ground.
There’s no sure sign that bouldering will become mainstream, but it’s being tried by many, pursued by some, and mastered by few. Bouldering has traditionally been the arena for climbers not concerned with fame or fortune, but who are in it for the enjoyment of being outdoors and the chance to push the body to its physical limits.
Those who go bouldering should proceed with caution. It’s proven to be addictive. When I last saw Josh, he had quit his job and was headed for Boulder, Colorado to live out of his car and spend his days on the rock. He left no forwarding address.

More bouldering info:—the lowdown on bouldering from Maine to Maryland.

Stone Crusade by John Sherman, American Alpine Club Press, 1999. A state-by-state guide to bouldering with a history of the sport and a forward by John Gill. Sherman’s rating of area sizes: Size 1: Bring a six pack; Size 2: Arrange to have the dog fed and the plants watered; Size 3: Quit your job; Size 4: Sell the house and move. Vermont is Size 1. Thanks, John, for helping keep Vermont population growth under control, and microbrew sales up.

John Gill: Master of Rock by Pat Ament, Stackpole Books, 1992. The biography of John Gill with good coverage of historic boulder problems.

Select Bouldering Problems in Smugglers’ Notch, Vermont, by the Duke of Jeffersonville, 1997. Available in Vermont climbing shops.