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An Introduction to the Fine Sport of Bouldering

bouldering climbing gym
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For a good answer to the question “What is bouldering?” we asked Tom Adams, the Director of Outdoor Recreation for the entire state of Utah:

“Bouldering is rock climbing without the use of ropes or harnesses. In bouldering, climbers scale natural small rock formations or artificial rock walls, usually less than 20 feet tall. It doesn’t require tall rock walls or obscure knots. Most climbers use climbing shoes to secure footholds and chalk to keep their hands dry and provide a firm grip … there’s also a protective pad on the ground to help protect the climber in case they fall down.

“Bouldering ‘problems’ are relatively short sequences that prioritize climbing power and technique over the long-term endurance often required for routes. Bouldering includes various levels of difficulty based on either the Hueco system, commonly known as the ‘V-Scale,’ and the Fontainebleau system, aka the ‘Font Scale.'”

The V-Scale, so called for the nickname of its developer, famed boulder climber John “Vermin” Sherman, is an open-ended scale. The grading commences at V0 with easy climbs most amateurs could tackle and ascends from there; at present, a rank of V17 is the highest applied, and it marks some of the hardest bouldering problems yet identified. (There is also a grading of VB, in which the B refers to “basic” — these are the easiest rock formations out there).

bouldering climbing gym problems
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The Font Scale gets its name from the Fontainebleau region of France, an area where Alpinists used to practice for mountain ascents on the many large boulders. Technically, the Font Scale starts at 1 and goes to 6, with an alphanumerical combination thereafter representing difficulty — 6A is easier than 6C, e.g. In practice, you will rarely see a Font grade lower than 3. And watch for plus symbols when a problem is just a bit more challenging than a comparable route, but not so much as to be a new number or letter, so 6B+ just under 6C, for example.

Bouldering Essentials

  • Climbing shoes, which can be rented at a gym
  • Chalk, which can also be rented
  • Crash pad, if you’re bouldering outside
  • Comfortable clothing

Today, you can find indoor climbing gyms with bouldering setups in almost every city of decent size, and you can practice the sport anywhere there are decent rock formations. The minimal gear required for bouldering coupled with the relatively low risk of serious injury remove two of the common barriers to rock climbing. The sport may well serve as a gateway to true mountain climbing for many.

As Adams explains: “Bouldering doesn’t require much equipment. All you need is a pair of beginner-friendly climbing shoes, which you can buy or rent from your local climbing gym. You can add a chalk bag or chalk bucket and climbing chalk to keep your hands dry and able to grip securely. Inside a gym, that’s all you’ll need. Just throw on your shoes, chalk up your hands, and start climbing — no knots, no belays, no fuss. Bouldering is the cheapest and most accessible form of climbing. Once you’re ready to head outside, you might consider investing in your own bouldering crash pad.”

A Brief History of Bouldering

“Originally, bouldering was a method of training for roped climbs and mountaineering, so climbers could practice specific moves at a safe distance from the ground. In the latter half of the 20th century, John ‘Verm’ Sherman would develop the V-Scale in the bouldering hotspot of Hueco Tanks, Texas. By that point, bouldering was catching on: guidebooks were printed, climbing shoes and crash pads were mass-produced, and bouldering became a recognized sport. Today, you will see climbing gyms across the globe, which has been a catalyst in getting bouldering into the 2020 Olympic Games,” explains Adams.

bouldering outdoors climbing essentials
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If you’re looking to try your hand at this low-altitude, high-adrenaline sport in one of the finest spots in America, you need to drive about 150 miles south of Salt Lake City to the county seat of Emery County, the town of Castle Dale, Utah. Population 1,630 at the time of the last census, Castle Dale was known for the Hunter Coal Power Plant and not much else. Then came the climbers. Surrounded by hundreds of miles of Bureau of Land Management country, much of which consists of the short cliffs and rock formations perfect for bouldering, the small city of Castle Dale is a boomtown for bouldering.

Further Reading

  • The Essential List of Gear for the Climbing Gym
  • The Best Rock Climbing Places around the World

In fact, the sport has taken off there to such a degree that one of the most celebrated annual events centered on the sport takes place there every autumn. This year, September 26 -29, the Joe’s Valley Bouldering Festival will see hundreds of climbers (and fans) descent on Emery County to enjoy music, food and drink, beef jerky making, rodeo, and, of course, dozens of perfect short climbing pitches.

“It’s not just a bouldering festival, it’s a community celebration that brings the locals and folks from around the world together,” explains the mayor of Castle Dale, Danny Van Wagoner. “No matter who you are or where you’re from, the Joe’s Valley Fest is an event you will feel welcome at and will absolutely love.”

bouldering climbing outdoors crash pad
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“The Fest,” as it’s known among the devotees, started back in 2015 and in less than a half decade, has brought climbers from across the country to rocks that, just a generation ago, were essentially unknown.

Then again, the sport as a whole was all but unknown just a generation or two ago. While professional climbers used short pitches for practice, bouldering as a separate discipline wasn’t popular until the middle decades of the 20th century. The first indoor climbing gym opened in the late 1980s, and beyond the cadre of mountain climbers, the sport didn’t take off, indoors or out, until the 21st century.

Popular outdoor bouldering spots are plentiful in the U.S. Some of the finest include:

  • Horse Pens 40, Alabama
  • Yosemite Valley, California
  • Carter Lake, Colorado
  • Rocktown, Georgia
  • Rumney, New Hampshire
  • The Gunks (Shawangunk Ridge), New York
  • Hueco Tanks State Park, Texas
  • Big Bend Bouldering Area, Utah
  • Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah
  • Wind Rivers, Wyoming

Interview With an Expert

How should you start your own bouldering adventure? Maybe take it from noted American athlete and climber Isaac Caldiero, bouldering enthusiast and one of the first two Americans to secure a coveted Total Victory in the American Ninja Warrior competition.

The Manual: What is the best training regimen someone can follow for a sport like bouldering?

Isaac Caldiero: Spend as much time as possible out climbing on the rocks with other climbers who have more experience than yourself. After a few months of building a more solid base to avoid injuries, you can then begin more rigorous training in an indoor facility.

TM: What drew you to the sport yourself?

IC: From a young age I was extremely adventurous and always had to be climbing or jumping on my surroundings. When my best friend introduced me to climbing, I knew right in that moment that is was the perfect match.

TM: What are your favorite spots to get on the rocks?

IC: I’ve traveled and lived in numerous locations all over the world for climbing. I remember my first outdoor climbing adventure was in 1997 at Joe’s Valley. I instantly fell in love with the style and colors of the rock Joe’s had to offer, and eventually wrote a guidebook to the area to commemorate its inspiring beauty and uniqueness to the climbing world. It does it for me still to this day. One other area that is on my top list is called Fontainebleau in France.

Editors' Recommendations

Steven John
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Steven John is a writer and journalist living just outside New York City, by way of 12 years in Los Angeles, by way of…
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