What is bouldering? Bouldering is a sport where participants climb short, challenging routes without the use of ropes or harnesses on small walls that are climbed in what feels like an acrobatic dance. The goal for climbers is to get from one end of the wall to another as quickly as possible without falling off.
This sport can be done indoors or outdoors and doesn’t require much equipment – the climber relies on nothing but their strength and agility to reach the top.
The name “bouldering” is believed to come from what the sport often used for training back in the 1800s: “boulders“, which were large stones that climbers would use for climbing over and around.
What is Bouldering: A Brief History
Bouldering has been around for a long time, with origins dating back to the late-1800s.
Early climbers adapted bouldering as a form of training for larger ascents, not recognizing that it could be its own discipline. It was during this time that the words “bouldering” and “problem” first appeared in British climbing literature.
In the early 20th century, the Fontainebleau area of France established itself as a prominent climbing area, where some of the first dedicated bleausards (or “boulderers”) emerged. One of those athletes, Pierre Allain, invented the specialized climbing shoes used for rock climbing.
In the late 1950s through the 1960s, American mathematician John Gill pushed the sport further and contributed several important innovations, distinguishing bouldering as a separate discipline in the process. Gill shifted the focus of bouldering from reaching the summit to navigating a set of holds, and he developed the first rating systems for bouldering. Later more on those rating/grading systems.
Gill also introduced chalk as a method of keeping the climber’s hands dry, promoted a dynamic climbing style, and emphasized the importance of strength training to complement skill. As Gill improved in ability and influence, his ideas became the norm.
From the late 1980s, bouldering mats (or “crash pads”) and indoor climbing walls were invented, to make the sport both safer and more accessible.
Since those early years, bouldering has become a popular form of indoor and outdoor climbing in Europe and America. Throughout the 2000s, more athletes began to compete in bouldering competitions as it gained more visibility online.
Let’s look at those competitions a little more in-depth.
As bouldering gained in popularity, competitions have started to become more common, as we explained above.
A bouldering competition consists of climbing on short walls without belay ropes. The climber can attempt a route more than once, and they cannot see other climbers on the boulder. In IFSC and Olympic competitions, climbers get as many attempts as they want in a timeframe of 4 minutes.
Each competitor is scored based on how many routes he or she completes and how many attempts it takes them. A boulderer’s ranking is then further subdivided by either:
- A lead-style scoring system: climbers get a certain number of points for each hold they reach, with the highest point values given to those that finish the route.
- or with the use of bonus holds: used by the IFSC and Olympic competitions and called the “Zone”; The number of attempts to reach the Zone (if reached) further stratifies the competitors.
The International Federation of Sport Climbing administers some of the most widely known international competitions, such as the Climbing World Championship, the Climbing World Cup, and the European Championships.
In the United States, the American Bouldering Series organizes regional, divisional and national events.
What is the Difference Between Bouldering and Free/Rock Climbing?
Bouldering is a form of free climbing where one does not use any ropes or harnesses. It is performed on small rock formations or artificial rock walls.
Unlike free solo climbing, which is also performed without ropes, bouldering problems (the sequence of moves that a climber performs to complete the climb) are usually less than 20 feet (6 meters) tall. Traverses, which are a form of bouldering problem, require the climber to climb horizontally from one end to another. Artificial climbing walls allow boulderers to climb indoors in areas without natural boulders.
Bouldering Rating/Grading Systems
Bouldering problems are assigned numerical ratings by route-setters and climbers. The two most commonly used rating systems are the V-scale and the Fontainbleau system.
The first common rating system is the V-scale, which originated in the United States. This is an open-ended rating system with higher numbers indicating a higher degree of difficulty: V1 indicates that a problem can be completed by a novice climber in good physical condition after several attempts. The scale begins at V0, and as of 2013, the highest V rating that has been assigned to a bouldering problem is V17.
The Fontainebleau scale rating system is very similar to the V-scale. For example, the Fontainebleau 7A scale roughly corresponds with V6, and The Fontainebleau 7C+ scale roughly corresponds with V10+.
In addition to the letter/number system, grades are in both systems further differentiated by appending a “+” sign to indicate a small increase in difficulty.
The ratings of individual boulders are often controversial, as ability level is not the only factor that affects how difficult a problem may be for a particular climber. Height, arm length, flexibility, and other body characteristics can also play a role in perceived difficulty.
Bouldering Gear: What you Need to Get Started
While bouldering can be done without any equipment, most climbers do use some specific gear:
- Climbing shoes, designed to grip footholds and prevent your feet from slipping as you climb.
- Chalk + chalk bag to keep palms dry and to provide a firm grip.
- Bouldering mats (crash pad) to prevent injuries from falls.
We have created some separate guides about the best climbing/bouldering gear, you can check them out here.
Bouldering Safety Tips
To conclude this article, we’d like to share some final bouldering safety tips to keep in mind.
- Wear appropriate footwear for the surface you’re bouldering on. This will help prevent injuries from occurring and protect your feet if they do get injured.
- Stay away from loose rocks or other potential hazards that can cause injury such as sharp edges or unstable surfaces.
- Keep your head up to maintain balance and avoid damaging the back of your neck.
- Handle boulders with care, as they can be heavy and may have sharp edges or protrusions that could cause injury if handled improperly.
- Don’t forget to stretch your muscles before and after bouldering.
- Hydrate. Boulderers may experience cramping or muscle soreness in the arms, legs, hands and/or feet. Proper hydration before and after bouldering is essential to prevent this from happening.
- Proper clothing is important to wear when bouldering, as it helps you stay warm in cold temperatures, or fresh in hot temperatures.
- Never be in the path of where a climber could fall.
- Store your unused stuff in lockers or cubbies.
- Use enough chalk to make sure your hands and the handholds are dry and ready to grip.
- Keep an eye on the timer – bouldering takes physical strength so it’s important not to over-train or overexert yourself, otherwise injuries could occur.
Bouldering is a great sport, dating back to the late-1800s. Since then, it has become a popular sport throughout Europe and America, mostly thanks to increased visibility online.
It’s a sport that challenges both your physical strength and mental agility. The goal for climbers is to get from one end of the wall to another as quickly as possible without falling off, using nothing but their own body weight and balance. It’s an exciting way to stay active while also getting in touch with nature (if you climb outdoors).
If you’re looking for something new or need some fresh air after three months inside working on your latest project, grab your climbing shoes and head out!
Have fun, and keep it safe!