I discovered bouldering – a type of rock climbing where ropes or harnesses are not used – quite by accident a year ago and despite being afraid of heights, I quickly became obsessed by the sport for four reasons.
1: Mental fitness
At the time, I was dealing with the aftermath of a miscarriage and was grappling with feelings of bereavement and loss. The beauty of bouldering is it leaves you with little time to think about anything other than scaling a wall without falling. It became my therapy and as you know, exercise releases happy hormones which helped me better deal with my emotions.
Bouldering is not just about scaling walls, there’s strategy, problem-solving and technique at play too. Unlike rock climbing, (which I’ve also tried) bouldering walls are no higher than 20 feet (approx 6 metres); participants use chalk – to keep hands dry – and special shoes are used. And if you fall, there is ample floor padding on the crash mat to break a fall…believe me, I know. Boulders are colour coded, created with different types of surfaces (from ample grip to virtually none) and are spaced at different distances, depending on the climber’s proficiency.
As an unashamed novice I am on the bottom rung – the orange level but I have dabbled in yellow (the second) and even tried blue. There are green, pink white and black colours too – depending on the centre (all out of my league for now). The aim is to stick to one colour when climbing to the top and this is where problem-solving and strategy come in. The spacing of each colour-coded boulder determines how you position your legs, arrange your footwork and ensure a smooth transition from one boulder to another.
On the descent, any colour is acceptable to ferry you back to the ground. I sometimes stand and plot my ascent in my head before climbing. Or when I climb with a partner, it’s always handy to get their feedback if you’re struggling to move from one boulder to another. But the best is watching the experts at work. I still lumber, pause and wobble when I climb so it’s a joy to see climbers invoke the skills of Spider-Man when they move. I swear in some cases, it looks like they are geckos magically hanging off the wall with ease and abandon.
3: Physical fitness
I’ve grown up participating in one sport or another: rounders, netball, hockey, tennis, athletics, and yoga (to name but a few) and yet – for me – nothing beats bouldering. I call it ‘my full body work out’ because every part of my body and brain are exercised and I leave the centre with a rush of endorphins which keeps me boosted for the week. I am also developing some serious callouses on my hands, which may disqualify me in the ‘softest hands’ contest but mean I will have more grip as I graduate to other harder boulders in the future.
Warming up before and after a climb is essential to prevent lactic acid build up. When you attend an induction, you’re normally instructed on what exercises to do. I tend to do lots of stretches, yoga-type poses and other activities that get my heart pacing. From there, it’s the climb.
I start with the easy ones first – like you’re climbing up a ladder – before attempting the walls with oddly-shaped curves that require me to have more upper body strength. I made the mistake of not doing that on one session and ended up missing my final grip and landed with my foot under my body on the crash mat.
Needless to say, by the end of the day, that foot was swollen and painful to walk on. I’ve got to be honest…. I did go off climbing for a few weeks after that but my obsession with the sport kicked back in and I was back scaling those walls again.
I have a few aches and pains that I believe bouldering has ‘cured’ . I have tendonitis in my right wrist from typing too much. As a result, that wrist is weaker than the left and the slightest exertion leaves it tender. Despite physio and pain creams, the pain soon returns. But after bouldering once a week for a month, I was pain-free for seven months. Even when the pain returned, it was never at the same magnitude as before.
I have hip dysplasia which makes activities like yoga and long-distance walking so painful I can’t move. I thought bouldering would aggravate this condition but it’s been quite the opposite. It has helped to strength the muscles around my hips and resulted in more pain-free days for me. The same can be said for my knee issues. My left knee has been bashed more times than I can remember, leaving it really sore and painful to bend. But again, this seems to have cleared up with bouldering and I even had my GP recommend it to strengthen the tendons and muscles around there.
4: Friends and networks
It was through a friend that I started bouldering and even though that friend didn’t continue, I’ve found many friends that do it regularly as a hobby. I’ve also introduced others to it including my 60+ aunty, and my friend’s children who were aged four and seven at the time (they were so fearless!).
There’s also a bit of a community too so you’ll find experts imparting advice to novices during the session. What’s even better is the different social events centres put on. I attend the Stronghold Climbing and Bouldering Centre in Tottenham Hale, London which has a ‘ladies only’ session; a free session on Friday evenings and regularly stages competitions for the keen ones among us. It’s good to know when you consider that by 2020, climbing will be included as an Olympic sport – so I still have time to improve!!!
Want to know more?
Well, the sport emerged in the late 1800s and was a ‘safer’ method of training for roped climbs and mountaineering for climbers to practise specific moves at a safe distance from the ground. The Fontainebleau area in Paris, France became a prominent climbing area in the early 20th century, and it was athlete Pierre Allain who invented the specialised shoe used for rock climbing.
What to wear….
Some people boulder in what they walk to the centre in while others go all out and buy all the climbing garms (leggings, crop tops, shorts etc). I wear sports leggings and a T-shirt, socks and my brothers climbing shoes. Loose-fitting and comfortable-wear is the key. If that is jeans – then so be it. There are climbing shoes you can rent or buy; a chalk bag to hold your chalk and ensure your hands remain sweat-free. Make sure you bring a padlock for the lockers to keep your valuables and in some venues, you can shower after a session. Some people buy the brushes that are used to clean the boulders while climbing but I’m saving that purchase for when I’m almost a pro and can hang off a wall brushing away at the extra chalk and dirt that someone’s left behind from a previous climb!!
Mmmh, yes….the dirt. if you are a clean freak, then bouldering may not be for you. Afterall, you are sharing your space with a load of sweaty people that have gripped and climbed walls that you are also about to do. But it’s a small negative in my opinion and the gains I’ve had from it outweigh a bit of ponginess for a few hours.
What’s the fee?
Prices vary depending on the centre but most places offer bulk sessions when you buy for the month or become a member. Bulk buys work out slightly cheaper than single sessions and is what I ended up using when I first joined. If you’re local, it means you can make greater use the centre. At some venues, there are special activities rolled out for novices, just for women, competitive events and even free evening sessions.
Speaking their language
If you want to learn how to frog, jam and kip like a pro and talk like one too, then check these bouldering terms below:
- Frogging – Getting the hips parallel and close as possible to the wall with the knees pointing out to the sides.
- Jamming – Wedging a body part into a crack.
- Kipping – Kicking the legs to generate momentum when hanging from the arms.