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Climb On! The Brain & Brawn of Bouldering

Oct 11, 2017 02:00PM ● By Becca Newell
By Becca Newell

Bouldering is known as the most social form of climbing. Unlike roped climbing, or top roping, that can be relatively isolating during the climb, bouldering encourages group participation. This doesn’t mean several people maneuvering the same problem at once, but groups working together to navigate the problem after one or all of the individuals have attempted—and failed—the climb.

A few months ago, Alex Honnold became the first person to ever free solo—or climb without the use of any ropes or other safety equipment—Yosemite’s El Capitan. Many who read about his daring feat were inspired by his determination, perseverance, and dedication to this death-defying sport. And if that left you with the urge to scale a rock-face sans harness, you might want to think again. Free soloing is incredibly dangerous, as falls are almost always fatal. It’s certainly not something for the untrained, unexperienced climber, despite the thrill factor. There is, however, a way to incorporate the general excitement of free soloing in a less lethal activity: bouldering.

What Is It?

Similar to free soloing, bouldering consists of climbing without any ropes or harnesses and with minimal safety hardware. As its name suggests, climbs are limited to smaller boulders, often involving difficult “problems,” or routes—the solutions to which vary from climber to climber. While strength is important, bouldering also encourages climbers to incorporate technical maneuvers that require more brain than brawn. That said, bouldering offers an incredibly intense full-body workout, targeting core strength and flexibility. And it’s not just an outdoor activity, there are indoor bouldering facilities that offer a more controlled environment, perfect for those with little experience.

The Equipment

Another alluring aspect of bouldering is the lack of equipment needed. It’s essentially a get-up-and-go activity. Safety equipment is minimal—as previously mentioned, ropes, harnesses, and other hardware aren’t necessary—however, there are a few must-haves.

Climbing Shoes

There are a variety of shoes available for every category of climbing, but for bouldering, opt for thinner rubber soles, often referred to as “sticky rubber.” The thinner soles are more sensitive, allowing climbers to get a better feel of the rock. As for the fit, shoes should be snug, but not painful.


A necessity for any climber, chalk eliminates any moisture on the hands to increase friction and improve grip. Made out of Magnesium Carbonate, chalk is available as a loose powder, a liquid, or a solid block—all of which work exactly the same way; it’s just a matter of preference. Use as desired, although the recommended amount is a fine layer of chalk covering fingers.

Crash Pad

The only piece of safety equipment used when bouldering, the crash pad is a thick foam mat that helps to protect a climber’s fall. These compact, durable mats are placed on the ground in the “fall area” and more than one mat may be used. At most indoor bouldering facilities, the floor is cushioned, so individual mats aren’t needed.


Another reason bouldering is considered a social activity is that it requires spotters, meaning two or more people observing you as you boulder for accident prevention. Spotters aren’t there to catch or break your fall—that’s the job of your crash pad—but to guide and support you while climbing, and to continually move the crash pad, so it’s always underneath the climber. In reference to spotters, the idiom “the more, the merrier” is applicable.

The Bouldering Vocab


The order of a climber’s hand and foot movements. Also called a “sequence.”


A common term for a boulder that’s suitable for climbing.


A short problem (or route).


A tall problem (or route) where the climber is 20-plus feet off the ground.


A rock that is almost parallel to the ground. Often referred to as an “overhang.”


An angled rockface.

Top Out

Completing the route by climbing over the top of the boulder.


A problem (or route) that requires sideways, not vertical, maneuvers.

V Grade

A grading system that dictates a problem’s difficulty. In each grade, the letter V is followed by a number—the higher the number, the tougher the course.

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