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All About Bouldering

Defining the Art of Bouldering


Brian Shelton and Buster Jesik spot Ian above a crash pad.

Ian Green cranks a hard problem on Bullethole Boulder near Grand Junction, Colorado.

Photograph © Stewart M. Green

Bouldering, the discipline of ropeless climbing on small cliffs and boulders, celebrates the joy of movement over stone. Bouldering is all about movement, of climbing with purity and simplicity and usually without a rope and other protective gear. Bouldering is simply you and the rock. Nothing else gets in the way of the climbing and the movements of your hands and feet.

Bouldering is Challenging

Bouldering is about challenge, of busting hard moves just off the ground with minimal risk of injury. When you’re bouldering you often work on difficult boulder problems, a series of extreme moves, which you can seldom do on your first or even your fifth try, or you can climb easier problems, teaching your body and mind to work together as one. Bouldering makes you a smarter and more confident climber and better at analyzing sequences of moves and how to do them.

Bouldering Makes You Strong

Bouldering makes you stronger on the rock. While a climbing pursuit in itself, bouldering is also a way to practice new techniques, skills, and moves as well as to make you stronger for climbing roped routes. Bouldering, when used as a training tool, helps you build power which translates to more success on longer routes.

Bouldering is Done Everywhere

Bouldering can be done anywhere there is rock. Climbers in rock-hungry places like the Midwest often find boulder problems on exposed rock in road cuts. Climber find problems on small exposed cliffs and blocks in big cities like the famous Rat Rock in New York City’s Central Park or on laid-stone walls and bridge trestles in cities like Boston and Philadelphia. Bouldering can also be done indoors in climbing gyms, which often have bouldering walls or caves that are usually overhanging.

Bouldering is Safe

Bouldering is usually safe. Most boulder problems ascend blocks of rock that are usually less than 15 feet high. Sometimes boulderers will do problems, usually called highballs, on taller boulders. A fall off these problems could result in a broken leg or other injuries but good boulderers will assume this risk and then mitigate it by stacking a couple crash pads below the problem or making sure they have a clear landing zone. Others will use a top-rope to protect themselves if they do fall off to avoid injury. In bouldering, as in other climbing disciplines, the risks are the ones you choose to take.

Bouldering is Playful and Fun

Bouldering is also about play. It’s fun to go bouldering with a bunch of pals and push each other on the boulders. You can be competitive with each other and also get stronger and better by eliminating which holds you use; by using a sitting-down start rather than a standing-up one; by seeing who can do a problem the fastest way; by doing circuits of various problems; or by doing problems one-handed. There are lots of ways to play when you’re bouldering and keep the fun in climbing—which is what it’s all about.

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