Try Something New: Bouldering

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Climbing was always fun when we were kids, so why shouldn’t it still be fun when we call ourselves adults?  After walking and running, it feels like another motor skill that should come naturally to us, but we’re often restricted from being able to do it and it’s a shame because climbing – when carried out safely – can provide a tremendous amount of enjoyment for a wide range of people.  Many of us may not get involved in climbing for a number of reasons but I’d wager that a couple of predominant reasons are our fundamental need for assurance of safety and our desire for an accessible activity that is quick and easy to get into. This is where bouldering comes in.

For those of you who are unaware, bouldering is basically climbing without any ropes or safety equipment.  Whilst this might sound dangerous, the climbing involved is of low heights and is usually in a controlled indoor environment with a huge surrounding of soft safety mats to break any kind of fall that may take place.  Bouldering is much liked for the fact that it removes some of the obstacles and processes that many people feel intimidated by in the first place; for example, you need very little equipment to be able to do it. The essential items are some comfortable sports clothing and a good fitting pair of climbing shoes.  Most centres will hire out climbing shoes at a low cost so don’t feel like you have to rush out and buy a pair, particularly if you are only trialling the activity. Most boulderers will also have their own chalk bag to help with their grip as they climb, but if you are a beginner then you should get by fine without it for your first session(s).  Apart from this very short list, there really isn’t anything else that is essential to you in your climbing, therefore highlighting a relatively easy entry point into starting. It is for these reasons that bouldering is a highly accessible activity and one that is perfect for our Try Something New series.  

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Although I’ve personally undertaken a very limited amount of rock climbing dotted throughout the years, bouldering is a relatively new thing for me and something that I’ve tried to become more connected with in recent months.  There are a series of climbing centres across the country (more on this at the bottom of the article) and many specialise in bouldering alone. It is usually a simple registration process and the safety points, though not unnecessarily long, will give you a few important points of the site.  The process will likely inform you of the colour gradients of difficulty – each coloured hand / foot hold will signify a different level of difficulty for the climber – in addition to items of which you should inform the staff, the awareness that the mats will not save you from every possible eventuality, and common sense points regarding you making progression gradual and climbing down once (if) you have reached the top as opposed to jumping down (which will greatly improve the safety mats’ effectiveness in keeping you safe!).  With this out of the way, you are free to climb!

Keeping Things Simple

With bouldering, we have the very simple objective of trying to climb to the top of any designated piece of wall.  Of course, the process of actually getting to the top is the tricky part, but it is also the fun part. The ease of climbing where you want and when you want in bouldering is a massively attractive proposition, particularly for those of you whom grow impatient at the relatively lengthy process of securing yourself to ropes for higher climbs.  In many ways it feels like we are learning through play much akin to how we did when we were younger. The added sense of reward comes from finally succeeding in climbing a challenging route by trying out various pathways and methods in order to achieve different results.  

Many beginners will completely forego the colour system to start with and just attempt to get to the top of the wall they are facing using whichever foot and handholds are most convenient, and from my experience I would also recommend this strategy.  It can build your confidence and give you an aesthetic feeling for the numerous variances of holds, as well as provide you with a way of warming up to more difficult climbs (should you choose). As you progress, however, the fun is in choosing a specific colour of holds (the easiest routes are always the best place to start!) and beginning your mission of completing your first route.

In terms of learning more about techniques and how to improve your own style, you can’t go far wrong at first by taking things slowly and learning by your own trial and error.  That’s not to say that you shouldn’t be receptive to any advice offered during your experience but be aware that your own experience with the wall face, your tolerance for the difficulty, your own acceptance of heights and your own fitness level will differ to the next person’s so they will not be able to tell you exactly how to do something.  David Flanagan (via UK Climbing website, 2014) recommends to watch other climbers but not to copy them, instead embrace the challenge of problem solving. In addition, be sure not to make the age-old mistake of comparing your beginner’s ability to the best climber in the room and be put off as a result. Everyone started somewhere and each individual is there for their own reason.  The more hands-on (and feet-on) experience you gain with each wall, the more confident you will become and the more enjoyment you will gain.

Now I’ve briefly touched upon the enjoyment of bouldering from some perspectives but I’m probably missing the obvious one – the adrenaline rush you’ll get when you’re up there!  If, like me, you have a fear of heights then you will gain a natural adrenaline rush as soon as you get more than a couple of metres off the ground. If you’re less susceptible to this fear then you’re more likely to gain a rush from pushing yourself on a challenging route or from trying to reach that elusive foothold or from taking a risk on an unknown handhold etc.  Either way, there’s plenty there to keep the blood and endorphins flowing. The challenge instead will be to pace yourself so that you’re not burning out too quickly. I’d recommend a ten-minute break halfway through your session to give those burning arms and legs a quick rest before tackling that tricky route that was taunting you!

Photo by Cindy Chen on Unsplash

Enjoying Your Achievements

Going further and talking of feelings of accomplishment, bouldering is an excellent activity for measuring your progress.  I’ve already referred to the colour coding regarding the difficulty gradients on the walls and they will provide an ideal test for you.  Once you complete the easy route on one section of wall, you may want to try the next difficulty on the same section. Alternatively, you could try the same colour but on a more challenging wall, e.g. going from a flat wall to a wall with a slight overhang.  Of course, your own signs of progression are more prevalent over sessions and weeks but you are also likely to see some clear signs in only a single session.  

In addition to the psychological benefits that we get from the physical activity – reduced stress, improved body image, increased energy and greater levels of self-esteem to name a few – bouldering can also help us in some more specific ways.  Over prolonged exposure to climbing we can greatly develop our patience and attention. Such is the nature of bouldering that we are required to constantly observe and assess on a step by step basis in order to reach a goal. If we are not able to reach our goal with one strategy then we reassess and plan another.  This methodical process can instill patience and is a precursor to a greater euphoria of success when we eventually achieve it. Furthermore, this whole process will also accelerate the appreciation of the connection between our mind and body.

Whilst problem solving during our routes it’s essential that we listen to our body in order to make appropriate adjustments.  As well as helping us to better understand what our body needs at that moment, it can also establish more efficient practical solutions for our mind and body to succeed in any given task. Although several physical activities can aid this process, bouldering really excels in this regard. Mental Walls website (2019) has compiled a series of research information to highlight the psychological benefits of climbing, even stating that climbing can help us to remove negative stimuli and let go of unhelpful thinking patterns.  This impressive but not comprehensive list of the psychological benefits of bouldering makes it an ideal activity to undertake as a hobby or perhaps even a passion.


So, if you have read through this article and decided that you would like to try bouldering (or maybe get back into it after a period without) then get yourself down to your nearest centre and speak to the staff regarding how to complete a single session.  To find your nearest centre you can use UK Climbing’s handy search page on: https://www.ukclimbing.com/listings/


References

Flanagan, D. (January 3rd 2014).  Ten Tips For Bouldering Indoors. UK Climbing. Accessed September 2019 at https://www.ukclimbing.com/

Mental Walls (January 19th 2019). Rock climbing is particularly good for your mental health: 3 research studies exploring the benefits on depression and anxiety. Mental Walls. Accessed September 2019 at https://mentalwalls.org/blog/benefits-rock-climbing-mental-health-research-papers

Unsplash (2019). https://unsplash.com/


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