Intro to bouldering

Bouldering is a form of rock climbing where the routes, or “problems” are usually within 3-4m of the ground. As such, it does not require a rope and harness, and climbers are protected by mats on the ground below. It doesn’t just require strength to boulder: technique, co-ordination and creativity of movement are just as important, and it is accessible to almost anyone!

Equipment

Initially all you need is a pair of climbing shoes and some chalk. These are easy to rent at Bloc 11, but if you decide to climb regularly you may want to buy your own.

Shoes: Climbing shoes differ from regular shoes in their shape and materials. They are designed to be tight fitting, forcing power through your big toe which should fit snugly into the front of the shoe. They are also soled with sticky rubber, giving excellent friction in the gym or on rock. Your first pair of climbing shoes should be durable, and fit tightly with no dead space in the heel or toe, but shouldn’t be painful. Leather shoes usually stretch a bit with time, while synthetic shoes won’t stretch as much. You will notice many climbers take off their shoes periodically between problems to give their feet a break!

Chalk: Climbing chalk (magnesium carbonate) is available in various forms and brands from climbing gear shops. It helps dry the sweat on your hands so you can grip the holds or the rock better. Put it in a chalk bag, tied around your waist, or a larger chalk pot (specifically for bouldering) that you can leave at the bottom of the climb.

Chalk Brush: You can buy specialised climbing brushes, but any brush with firm plastic bristles will do. Useful to brush excess caked chalk off holds to increase friction.

Boulder Pad: If you start to climb regularly outdoors, you will need you own pad. These are foam mats that fold up and can be carried on your back. While they are cumbersome to carry around, they are invaluable in protecting you from injury in a ground fall. Think of a witty reply to the passing hikers who ask you where you’re going “with your mattress”.

Safety

Bouldering is relatively safe form of climbing, and serious injuries are rare. Use these tips to prevent injuring yourself and others:

Be aware: In the gym, there will be people climbing on the walls all around you. Look out for climbers above you, or climbers who may swing out on a route, and stay out of their fall zone.

Keep the pads clear: Put your bags and water bottles in the lockers provided. Water bottles roll around on the mats and can injure a falling climber.

Learn how to fall: Falling is an inevitable part of bouldering. Practise falling from low down on the wall and landing in a controlled manner, and slowly build your fall technique. Downclimbing a problem is a great way to prevent injury and build strength.

Ditch the metal: Remove jewellery such as rings and bracelets, or baggy clothing that could hook on a hold.

Etiquette

Wait your turn: When the gym is busy, there may be a few people all waiting to climb on the same section of wall. When it’s your turn, be assertive and go for it, but don’t jump the queue or hog the wall.

Know your route: Look at where your problem goes before starting to climb. If there is already a climber on a problem that intersects with, or comes close to yours, they have right of way.

Don’t spray beta: In other words, don’t give unsolicited advice. Problem solving is part of the fun of bouldering, and many climbers who look like they are struggling may still wish to figure out the sequence of moves themselves. Don’t shout instructions to people while they are on the wall. Wait until they are back on the ground, and ask them if they’d like some help.

Those who brush it, crush it: If you see someone brushing holds on a climb, they generally have dibs on the next go. Try not to use too much chalk when you are climbing, as it builds up on holds and becomes a cakey, greasy mess. It is good practise to brush the start holds after you have climbed a problem.

Technique

A good climber can make the most difficult moves look smooth and effortless. “I can do that”, you think, until you try the first move and can’t get off the ground. The truth is, with the correct technique, your climbing can improve dramatically, and you too will soon be making bouldering look effortless.

Use your feet: The muscle groups in your legs are much stronger than the ones in your arms, so keep your weight on your feet, and use your legs to push you up the wall by standing up on foot holds. Try to stand on your toes, rather than placing your foot sideways on a hold, as this allows you to pivot your body and balance more easily. Look at your feet and be precise with your foot movements and placements.

Keep your arms straight: Following on from the point above, you will quickly become fatigued if you try to pull your body weight up from hold to hold with your arms. Let your legs do the work and try and keep your arms straight to conserve energy.

Centre of gravity: Keeping your centre of gravity close to the wall will help you balance better, reach further, and be energy efficient in your climbing. An easy way to achieve this is to keep your hips close to the wall as you make a move to the next hold. If you are reaching up with your right hand, stand up with your weight on your right foot, and turn your right hip towards the wall as you move.

Relax: Climbing is fun! Remember to breathe, be confident and enjoy yourself.

Progression

When you start bouldering, you will notice you improve pretty quickly from session to session. Here are some easy tips to keep up the progression:

Practice technique: Try and repeat easy climbs with perfect technique, precisely placed footwork and smooth body movements. This builds good habits and muscle memory.

Mix it up: Don’t get stuck on one colour or style of climb. Try climbs on all the walls and use as many different kinds of holds as possible.

Learn from the best: Watching other people climb is a great way to learn. Don’t be shy to ask for advice, climbers are generally friendly and happy to help.

Join a course: Bloc 11 offers progression and technique courses for climbers of all levels. Enquire at the front desk!

Get outdoors: Climbing on real rock will speed up your progression - see the section below!

Getting outdoors

Climbing indoors is a worthwhile activity on it’s own, but many climbers use the gym to train in order to reach their goals outdoors. We are fortunate in Cape Town to have world class bouldering areas close by. Rocklands in the Cederberg is a climbing mecca, and local and international climbers flock there every winter to tick off their bucket-list projects.

Bouldering on rock takes some getting used to, and the easiest way to get outdoors is with other experienced climbers. Bloc 11 has regular outdoor days, so keep an eye on the notice board or ask at reception.

Find easy climbs initially with good landing zones, and learn how to place boulder pads safely and spot your fellow climbers. It is also worth checking out the way down from the top of the boulder before starting with your climb.

Climbers are generally nature lovers who enjoy being outdoors, however bouldering can have a negative impact on the surrounding environment. Stick to established paths, and don’t damage the rock or surrounding vegetation in pursuit of a climb. Be responsible when it comes to fires and litter. It is considered good practise to attend to the call of nature well away from the climbs, and bury human waste and toilet paper.

Guidebooks or “topos” are often available for well frequented areas, and will give you a map and an idea of the different routes available and their grades. South Africa uses the Font grading system, while bouldering in the US is graded with the V or Heuco system.

V Grading Font Grading
V0 2+
3
3+
V1 4
4+
V2 5
5+
V3 6a
6a+
V4 6b
6b+
V5 6c
6c+
V6 7a
V7 7a+
V8 7b
7b+
V9 7c
V10 7c+
V11 8a
V12 8a+
V13 8b
V14 8b+
V15 8c
V16 8c+

The difficulty of a climb is subjective; depending on your preferred style, the weather conditions, the height of the boulder and a host of other factors. Don’t take grades too seriously, and climb whatever looks fun to you!

Jargon

Arete A protruding rock feature that is formed by the meeting of two planes. The opposite to a corner.
Barndoor An unintentional, uncontrolled rotation away from the rock.
Beta A description of how to climb a specific problem, the sequence of moves and body position.
Bouldering Pad A rectangular crash mat that consists of multiple layers of foam covered in a heavy duty material. The pad is placed where the climber is expected to fall to cushion their landing.
Bump Making two consecutive hand moves with the same hand.
Campus Board A training device that consists of a small overhanging board crossed by wooden rungs at regular intervals. The idea is to climb it without using the feet so as to develop arm and finger strength.
Campusing Climbing without using the feet.
Compression A technique for climbing symmetrical features by placing a hand (or foot) on either side and pulling hard to hold the body in place.
Crag A generic term for a climbing or bouldering area. May also refer specifically to an outcrop of rock.
Crimp A small edge. Also a powerful grip in which the second finger joint is bent sharply and the thumb presses onto the index finger.
Cross Through A traversing move in which one hand reaches past (over or under) the other to reach the next hold.
Crux A problem’s hardest move.
Cutting Loose When both feet swing off the rock and all the climber’s weight is taken by the hands.
Dab When, mid ascent, a climber brushes off or hits into something that is “off-route”, ie their spotter, a tree, the ground, another boulder or a pad.
Deadhang To hang with straight arms without any assistance from the feet.
Dropknee When one foot inside edges while the other outside edges, the knee of the outside edging leg is lowered so that the feet are pushing away from each other rather than down.
Dynamic Any move that uses momentum.
Dyno An all out leap during which the whole body is airborne and has, very briefly, no contact with the rock.
Edge A flat horizontal hold.
Flagging To dangle one leg in the air for balance, usually done on steep rock.
Flash To climb a problem on the first try from start to finish.
Gaston Gripping a vertical hold with the arm bent at the elbow and the hand, thumb down, pulling the hold away from the body.
Heel Hooking Placing the heel of the foot on a hold and using it like an extra hand.
Jug A large incut hold.
Lock Off A static reach done with the holding arm bent sharply.
Mantel A method of getting from hanging the lip of a boulder or ledge to standing on it. Think of getting out of a swimming pool.
Matching Placing both hands side by side on a hold.
Pinch A hand hold that is squeezed between the fingers and thumb.
Pocket A hole in the rock that can be used as a hand or foot hold.
Problem A bouldering route.
Prow A narrow overhanging arete.
Pumped When the forearms become filled with lactic acid after a bout of hard or sustained climbing.
Roof An approximately horizontal piece of rock.
Sandbag A problem that is given a significantly lower grade than it deserves. Also a verb, to sandbag, which is to underplay the difficulty of a problem.
Screw On A very small artificial hold, that is screwed rather than bolted to the surface of a climbing wall. Usually used as a foot hold.
Send To successfully climb a problem.
Sidepull A vertical hold that faces away from the body.
Sit Start To start a problem from a sitting position, sometimes abbreviated as SS or SDS (sit down start).
Slap A quick reach or lunge during which there is a minimum of two points of contact at all times.
Sloper A rounded or sloping hand hold.
Slot A narrow horizontal pocket.
Smear A sloping foot hold. Used as a verb it means to place a foot flat against the rock.
Spotting Guiding a falling climber safely to the ground.
Static To do a move slowly and in total control.
Toe Hooking Using the top of the toe to pull on a hold.
Top Out The process of getting stood up on the top of a problem. Indoors you usually jump down from the finishing hold rather than top out.
Traverse A problem that travels predominantly sideways.
Undercling A downward facing hold.
Volume A large, hollow plywood or resin hold (usually triangular or rounded), upon which other holds can be mounted.

Reference: Flanagan, D. Bouldering for Beginners eBook (2013)