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Tips for Bouldering

For many, the idea of rock climbing conjures up images of burly mountain men scaling thousand-foot rock faces or handsome secret agents free soloing Devil's Tower. For some reason, popular culture often seems to exclude the exhilarating and, for some climbers, the most enjoyable aspect of the sport: bouldering.

With no climbing ropes, harnesses, or heavy racks of gear to weigh you down, bouldering is arguably one of the most liberating forms of rock climbing available.

Strengthen Your Fingers

As every climber can tell you, there will come a time when all that stands between falling and getting past a seemingly impassable crux is a tiny crimp that looks more like something nature put there as a joke than something actually useful. When you grab that crimp—your muscles strained, your body weak, your hands exhausted—there are three likely outcomes: you move on to the next hold in the sequence and finish the problem; you fall off and have to start all over again; or you overexert your fingers and injure yourself, probably in the form of a tendon popping.

To avoid hand- and spirit-crushing injuries, climbers of all levels can incorporate simple hand strength exercises into their routine. (Luckily, bouldering is already an excellent workout for increasing finger strength.) Eastern Mountain Sports carries a good selection of hand exercisers that help improve not only finger strength, but also range of motion and flexibility throughout your arm, from wrist to elbow to shoulder.

A typical bouldering session at the gym can also be turned into a strength-building workout. To start, climbers should identify a bouldering problem that is strenuous, but not technically difficult—an overhanging problem with a fair amount of positive holds would be perfect. Once you selected your route, climb it two to three times allowing for sufficient rest time in between each climb. After completing the set, move on to a problem of similar difficulty, but with a slightly different proportion of holds (maybe the first features mostly crimps while the next utilizes pinches) and climb it two to three times. Repeat this routine up to 90 minutes.

Wear the Right Shoes

Part of the appeal of bouldering is the absence of traditional climbing gear. All you need is some chalk, a crash pad (unless you’re at the gym), and a pair of climbing shoes. But which shoe should you choose?

While there is no one climbing shoe that’s better for bouldering than another, there are a few features to look for in a shoe that will be used mostly for climbing sans ropes. The best shoes for bouldering will have a softer—and perhaps thinner—sticky rubber outsole, which will provide greater sensitivity and superior grip, especially on overhanging problems.

Climbing shoes with a Velcro closure are typically preferred by boulderers since it makes them much easier to take off for a quick break between sets of problems. Slippers are also a great choice. (However, this is not to say that you can’t boulder in lace-up shoes...they’ll still certainly get the job done.) For more advice on choosing a rock climbing shoe, click here.

Be a Good Spotter

One of the most important parts of climbing is safety. While bouldering, climbers are exposed to the very real and very scary possibility of falling. Even though boulder problems don't typically go higher than 30 feet, without the right equipment and a trained spotter, you could still land yourself in the hospital.

Crash pads absorb the fall of a climber, but it's the spotter's responsibility to make sure the climber lands on those pads. To be an effective spotter, remember to pay attention at all times and keep your hands at the ready with your thumbs tucked in. When a climber falls, especially while making a move, it's difficult to predict what motion their body will take. Attempt to visualize where the climber will fall and then direct them onto the pads below. Make their head, neck, and back your top priority, as injuries to those body parts are often the most severe. Also remember to never attempt to catch your partner—it will only injure both of you.

Know How to Rest Mid-Climb

If you're mid-climb and you find yourself wanting to chalk up or just take a break, inexperienced climbers are likely to try and hold themselves as close to the boulder as possible. This is a mistake. Keeping your arms at an angle can put an extraordinary amount of pressure on your muscles, wearing them down quickly and effectively cutting your trip short.

To extend the life of your muscles and your climbing excursion, instead find the most positive hold you can, make sure you have solid footing, and extend your arm completely. By keeping your arm straight, the weight of your dangling body shifts from your muscles, which are probably already sore, to your more durable skeleton.

Keep Confidence During a Highball (or Any Climb)

Highball boulders are problems that are exceptionally high—another way of putting it would be to say: if you fall, you're likely going to get hurt. If you're climbing a highball, you're probably a pretty experienced climber, but even so, such a dangerous climb can be nerve-wracking...and climbing without confidence is never a good idea.

To keep your cool while you're conquering that V11 you've been projecting for months, there are two simple steps you can take to minimize risk. First, examine your route before you take it on, especially the top (assuming you have another means of getting there). Make sure the holds are solid, brushed off, and that you can visualize the sequence required for moving through them.


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