A beginner’s guide to bouldering

When John Sherman first took up rock climbing, he wasn’t a daredevil looking for mountains to conquer. He was a bored teenager wandering the neighborhood a few blocks from his home in Berkeley, California.

It was 1974 and he stumbled across a small town park, Indian Rock, where local climbers were practicing without ropes on house-sized rhyolite boulders.

“When I started, I couldn’t do a single pull-up,” he said. “In the beginning I really struggled.”

A self-described chubby, unsportsmanlike kid, he was drawn to the balance and challenge of bouldering. No ropes or axes or even partners – just skill and stone. He spent the next 50 years creating new bouldering routes – called “problems” in the sport – and helping popularize bouldering Booksarticle and outrageous stunts.

Today, indoor bouldering is an Olympic event and one of the world’s most popular adventure sports, even during the pandemic. In 2021, more new climbing gyms opened in the US than ever before, most of them went bouldering.

“It’s a collaborative group activity, people come together, they mingle,” said David Sacher, founder of Vital Climbing Gyms.

It’s also the easiest way to get into the wide world of mountaineering, especially in urban areas. But it can be intimidating to wander into a musty camp full of people hanging upside down by chalky fingers.

If you want to try bouldering, here’s what you need to know.

One of the first things beginners notice when bouldering is that the next day they feel pain in very strange places. That’s because rock climbing works muscles large and small, including some that you rarely use. It is both anaerobic and aerobic and works the upper body, lower body and core.

“It’s a whole-body commitment to understanding your relationship between your whole body and the surface you’re trying to scale,” said Lanae Joubert, an assistant professor at Northern Michigan University who has studied rock climbing for decades. “Every muscle, I think, except maybe your tongue. Unless you climb tongue out.”

dr Joubert, herself an experienced climber, said there is no one size or type that predicts a good climber. Men have no advantage over women, she said, and what really matters is how much time you practice.

As a skinny, clumsy high school kid, I quickly learned that good climbing technique comes from your legs, not your arms. It’s about balance, strong legs and a solid core.

The best climbers learn to relax their arms, focus on their hips, and look for good kicks instead of holds. Good climbers don’t stagger up the rock, they ooze.

Going to a climbing gym alone can be daunting. There’s the odd lingo, the annoying bragging, and the occasional bloodthirsty scream. Not to mention the lack of shirting and not-so-subtle flexing.

But rock climbing was founded by affable misfits lurking in the woods, and that culture largely lives on to this day. It’s not like surfing where people get mad if you stumble on their wave. The wall goes nowhere, and many climbers enjoy chatting about strategy.

“The climbing community loves to see first-time climbers and loves when first-time climbers ask questions,” said Kareemah Batts, founder of the Adaptive Climbing Group, a nonprofit organization that brings people with disabilities to rock climbing.

Climbing, she said, has always been taught through mentoring with other climbers, and today there is many climbing communities to the women, people of color and LGBTQ people. Ms Batts, an amputee and a black woman, also said many gyms have focused on access to equity and are now offering discount days.

Mr. Sherman said the worst mistake a beginner boulderer can make has nothing to do with falls or fitness. It’s too attached to the climbing grades, the so-called V scale, which range from V0 to V16 and serve as a guide for people looking for their next challenge. Because bouldering is meant to be more technical than regular rock climbing, V1 can feel pretty tough.

“Some of the best bouldering problems in America are V0s,” said Mr. Sherman, 62, who still puts out dozens of new problems every year. The obsession with notes ruins the fun, he added (despite the fact that he created the V scale, so called because of his nickname “bugs”).

Although there are no published numbers on indoor bouldering injuries, “every climbing gym in the country is going to have a couple of sprained ankles every year,” said Scott Rennak, editor of the Climbing Business Journal. But with modern wall-to-wall pads, there are ways to protect yourself.

If you’re afraid of heights, start with traverses or routes that go side-to-side instead of up. When it’s time to fall, stumble and roll backwards when you hit the mat. Better to land on your butt than your ankle. Practice a little: Just climb up a few holds, drop, and practice rolling onto your back.

“Bend your knees, and then when you hit your feet, immediately roll back to take the weight off your legs,” Ms Batts said.

If you’re still worried, you can ask a more experienced climber for a “spot” in case you fall off the wall. It’s not about catching you, it’s about guiding you to a safer case, Mr. Sherman said. Spotting takes time to learn and is less common indoors where problems are designed for safe falls. Don’t sully anyone who hasn’t asked for it. Many gyms offer classes in basic rock climbing and spotting.

Bouldering is at least as mental as it is physical. People often call it chess with your body. By pivoting one knee in or shifting your hips a little higher, an impossible problem can become doable, even easy. Should you have grabbed that hold with your right hand instead of your left? What if you put your other foot on that little blue handle? These are the questions that plague a boulderer.

If you fall off a problem, don’t just jump back on it. Take a moment, shake your arms out and think of other ways to get to the top. watch someone else

Many beginners may be surprised by the price tags: fancy $200 shoes, gyms that cost $130 a month (though most places have day passes), $1,500 Louis Vuitton designer chalk bags.

But you don’t have to climb the hippest gyms in the best shoes. You don’t even have to climb at a gym—I started out on the same rock as Mr. Sherman with a pair of cheap shoes and ill-fitting jeans. Beginner shoes should cost between €70 and €100 (gyms often sell used shoes even cheaper).

Then buy some chalk and you’re good to go. The world is full of stones. Mountainproject.com has a tool for that Find bouldering areas nearbyand it’s relatively easy to show up and make friends.

If you’re bouldering outdoors, you’ll eventually need a crashpad — a portable pad to land on — but people are usually happy to share it with beginners. There are also many online forums for people looking for bouldering partners.

If you ever go outside to climb, even if it’s a random boulder of granite in the middle of a suburb, never forget that you’re in nature. Treat the rock like the visitor you are, tread lightly, keep it clean and leave portable speakers at home. Just enjoy the fresh air, the stone under your fingers and the movement of your body.

“I hope to do this for another two decades,” said Mr. Sherman. “I love it, there is nothing I would rather do, nothing else that fulfills me like bouldering.”

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