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Bouldering in Idyllwild, California
Bouldering is a form of rock climbing that is performed without the use of ropes or harnesses. While it can be done without any equipment whatsoever, most climbers use climbing shoes to help secure footholds, chalk to keep their hands dry, and bouldering mats to prevent injuries from falls. Unlike free solo climbing, which is also performed without ropes, bouldering problems (the path that a climber takes in order to complete the climb) are usually less than 6 meters (20 ft.) tall. Artificial climbing walls allow boulderers to train indoors in areas without natural boulders. Bouldering competitions, which employ a variety of formats, take place in both indoor and outdoor settings.
The sport originated as a method of training for roped climbs and mountaineering. Bouldering enabled climbers to practice specific moves at a safe distance from the ground. Additionally, the sport served to build stamina and increase finger strength. Throughout the 1900s, bouldering evolved into a separate discipline. Individual problems are assigned ratings based on their difficulty. There have been many different rating systems used throughout the history of the sport, but modern problems usually use either the V-scale or the Fontainebleau scale.
The growing popularity of the sport has caused several environmental concerns, including soil erosion and trampled vegetation as climbers hike off-trail to reach bouldering sites. This has caused some landowners to restrict access or prohibit bouldering altogether.
Bouldering is a form of rock climbing which takes place on boulders and other small rock formations, usually measuring less than 20 feet (6.1 m) from ground to top, but in some cases can measure up to 30+ ft. Unlike top rope climbing and lead climbing, no ropes are used to protect or aid the climber. Bouldering routes or "problems" require the climber to reach the top of a boulder, usually from a specified start position. Some boulder problems, known as "traverses," require the climber to climb horizontally from one position to another.:3
The characteristics of boulder problems depend largely on the type of rock being climbed. Granite, for example, often features long cracks and slabs. Sandstone rocks are known for their steep overhangs and frequent horizontal breaks. Other common bouldering rocks include limestone and volcanic rock.:21–22
There are many prominent bouldering areas throughout the United States, including Hueco Tanks in Texas, Mount Evans in Colorado, and The Buttermilks in Bishop, California. Squamish, British Columbia is one of the most popular bouldering areas in Canada.:80–81 Europe also hosts a number of bouldering sites, such as Fontainebleau in France, Albarracín in Spain, and various mountains throughout Switzerland.
Artificial climbing walls are used to simulate boulder problems in an indoor environment, usually at climbing gyms. These walls are constructed with wooden panels, polymer cement panels, concrete shells, or precast molds of actual rock walls.:49–51 Holds, usually made of plastic, are then bolted onto the wall to create problems.:18 The walls often feature steep overhanging surfaces, forcing the climber to employ highly technical movements while supporting much of their weight with their upper body strength.:133
Climbing gyms often feature multiple problems within the same section of wall. In the US the most common method Routesetters use to designate the intended route for a particular problem is by placing colored tape next to each hold—for example, holds with red tape would indicate one bouldering problem, while green tape would be used to set off a different problem in the same area.:48 Across much of the rest of the world problems and grades are usually designated by using a set color of plastic hold to indicate a particular problem. For example, green may be v0-v1, blue may be v2-v3 and so on. Setting via color has certain advantages, the most notable of which are that it makes it more obvious where the holds for a problem are, and that there is no chance of tape being accidentally kicked off of footholds. Smaller, resource-poor climbing gyms may prefer taped problems because large, expensive holds can be used in multiple routes simply by marking them with more than one color of tape.
Bouldering competitions occur in both indoor and outdoor settings.:18 The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) employs an indoor format that breaks the competition into three rounds: qualifications, semi-finals, and finals. The rounds feature different sets of four or five boulder problems, and each competitor has a fixed amount of time to attempt each problem. At the end of each round, competitors are ranked by the number of completed problems, with ties settled by the total number of attempts taken to solve the problems.
There are several other formats used for bouldering competitions. Some competitions give climbers a fixed number of attempts at each problem with a timed rest period in between each attempt, unlike the IFSC format, in which competitors can use their allotted time however they choose.:175 In an open-format competition, all climbers compete simultaneously, and are given a fixed amount of time to complete as many problems as possible. More points are awarded for more difficult problems, while points are deducted for multiple attempts on the same problem.:201
In 2012, the IFSC submitted a proposal to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to include lead climbing in the 2020 Summer Olympics. The proposal was later revised to an "overall" competition, which would feature bouldering, lead climbing, and speed climbing. In May 2013, the IOC announced that climbing would not be added to the 2020 Olympic program.
Rock climbing first emerged as a sport in the mid-1800s. Early records describe climbers engaging in what is now referred to as bouldering, not as a separate discipline, but as a form of training for larger ascents. 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. The specialized rock climbing shoe was invented by one such athlete, Pierre Allain.:ch. 1
In the 1960s, the sport was pushed forward by American mathematician John Gill, who contributed several important innovations. Gill's previous athletic pursuit was gymnastics, a sport which had an established scale of difficulty for particular movements and body positions. He applied this idea to bouldering, which shifted the focus from reaching a summit to navigating a specific sequence of holds.:ch. 1 Gill developed a closed-ended rating system: B1 problems were as difficult as the most challenging roped routes of the time, B2 problems were more difficult, and B3 problems were those that had only been completed once.:64–65
Gill introduced chalk as a method of keeping the climber's hands dry. He also emphasized the importance of strength training to complement technical skill. Neither of these practices had been popular among climbers, but as Gill's ability level and influence grew, his ideas became the norm.:ch. 1
Two important training tools emerged in the 1980s: Bouldering mats and artificial climbing walls. The former, also referred to as "crash pads", prevented injuries from falling, and enabled boulderers to climb in areas that would have been too dangerous to attempt otherwise. Indoor climbing walls helped spread the sport to areas without outdoor climbing, and allowed serious climbers to train year-round regardless of weather conditions.:ch. 1
As the sport grew in popularity, new bouldering areas were developed throughout Europe and the United States, and more athletes began participating in bouldering competitions. The visibility of the sport greatly increased in the early 2000s, as YouTube videos and climbing blogs helped boulderers around the world to quickly learn techniques, find hard problems, and announce newly completed projects.:ch. 1
In early 2010, two American climbers claimed first ascents on boulder problems that have come to be regarded as the most difficult in the world: The Game near Boulder, Colorado, established by Daniel Woods; and Lucid Dreaming near Bishop, California, established by Paul Robinson. The following year, fellow American Carlo Traversi claimed the second ascent of The Game and in January 2014, American Daniel Woods completed the second ascent of "Lucid Dreaming." In 2011, Czech climber Adam Ondra claimed the second ascent of Gioia, originally established three years earlier by Italian boulderer Christian Core, and suggested that it was among the world's most challenging boulder problems.
Unlike other climbing sports, bouldering can be performed safely and effectively with very little equipment, an aspect which makes the discipline highly appealing to many climbers.:ch. 2 Bouldering pioneer John Sherman asserted that "The only gear really needed to go bouldering is boulders".:1 Others suggest the use of climbing shoes and a chalkbag as the bare minimum, while more experienced boulderers typically bring multiple pairs of shoes, chalk, brushes, crash pads, and a skincare kit.:ch. 2
Of the aforementioned equipment, climbing shoes have the most direct impact on performance. Besides protecting the climber's feet from rough surfaces, climbing shoes are designed to help the climber secure and maintain footholds. Climbing shoes typically fit much tighter than other athletic footwear, and often curl the toes downwards to enable precise footwork. They are manufactured in a variety of different styles in order to perform well in different situations: High-top shoes, for example, provide better protection for the ankle, while low-top shoes provide greater flexibility and freedom of movement. Stiffer shoes excel at securing small edges, whereas softer shoes provide greater sensitivity. The front of the shoe, called the "toe box", can be asymmetric, which performs well on overhanging rocks, or symmetric, which is better suited for vertical problems and slabs.:1 :116 :ch. 2
Most boulderers use gymnastics chalk on their hands to absorb sweat. It is stored in a small chalkbag which can be tied around the waist, allowing the climber to reapply chalk during the climb.:119 Brushes are used to remove excess chalk and other debris from boulders in between climbs; they are often attached to the end of a stick, pipe, or other straight object in order to reach higher holds.:6 Crash pads, also referred to as bouldering mats, are foam cushions placed on the ground to protect climbers from falls.:6–7
Boulder problems are generally shorter than 20 feet (6.1 m) from ground to top.:3 This makes the sport significantly safer than free solo climbing, which is also performed without ropes, but with no upper limit on the height of the climb.:10–11 However, minor injuries are common in bouldering, particularly sprained ankles and wrists. Two factors contribute to the frequency of injuries in bouldering: first, boulder problems typically feature more difficult moves than other climbing disciplines, making falls more common. Second, without ropes to arrest the climber's descent, every fall will cause the climber to hit the ground.
To prevent injuries, boulderers position crash pads near the boulder to provide a softer landing, as well as one or more spotters to help redirect the climber towards the pads.:3 Upon landing, boulderers employ falling techniques similar to those used in gymnastics: spreading the impact across the entire body to avoid bone fractures, and positioning limbs to allow joints to move freely throughout the impact.
As with other forms of climbing, bouldering technique is largely centered on proper footwork. Leg muscles are significantly stronger than arm muscles; thus, proficient boulderers use their arms primarily to maintain balance and body positioning, relying on their legs to push them up the boulder.:52 Boulderers also keep their arms straight whenever possible, allowing their bones to support their body weight rather than their muscles.:60–61
Bouldering movements are described as either "static" or "dynamic". Static movements are those that are performed slowly, with the climber's position controlled by maintaining contact on the boulder with the other three limbs. Dynamic movements use the climber's momentum to reach holds that would be difficult or impossible to secure statically, with an increased risk of falling if the movement is not performed accurately.:70
Bouldering problems are assigned numerical difficulty ratings by routesetters and climbers. The two most widely used rating systems are the V-scale and the Fontainebleau system.:234
The V-scale, which originated in the United States, is an open-ended rating system with higher numbers indicating a higher degree of difficulty. The V1 rating indicates that a problem can be completed by a novice climber in good physical condition after several attempts.:66 The scale begins at V0, and as of 2013, the highest V rating that has been assigned to a bouldering problem is V16.:8 :12 Some climbing gyms also use a VB grade to indicate beginner problems.
The Fontainebleau scale follows a similar system, with each numerical grade divided into three ratings with the letters a, b, and c. For example, Fontainebleau 7A roughly corresponds with V6, while Fontainebleau 7C+ is equivalent to V10.:3 In both systems, grades are further differentiated by appending "+" to indicate a small increase in difficulty. Despite this level of specificity, ratings of individual problems are often controversial, as ability level is not the only factor that affects how difficult a problem will be for a particular climber. Height, arm length, flexibility, and other body characteristics can also be relevant.:11–12
Bouldering can damage vegetation that grows on rocks, such as mosses and lichens. This can occur as a result of the climber intentionally cleaning the boulder, or unintentionally from repeated use of handholds and footholds. Vegetation on the ground surrounding the boulder can also be damaged from overuse, particularly by climbers laying down crash pads. Soil erosion can occur when boulderers trample vegetation while hiking off of established trails, or when they unearth small rocks near the boulder in an effort to make the landing zone safer.:4–6 Other environmental concerns include littering, improperly disposed feces, and graffiti. These issues have caused some land managers to prohibit bouldering, as was the case in Tea Garden, a popular bouldering area in Rocklands, South Africa.
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- See The Boulder: A Philosophy for Bouldering (Stone Country Press, by Francis Sanzaro, for a more on bouldering movement, and its relation to other sports. I also found this article from Sanzaro on bouldering philosophy and landscape, called "When the Earth Enters You - Movement Aesthetics."
- Hill, Pete (2008). The Complete Guide to Climbing and Mountaineering. Cincinnati, OH 45236: David&Charles. p. 94. ISBN 978-0-7153-2842-2.
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- For more on Gill's bouldering philosophy, see The Boulder: A Philosophy for Bouldering (Stone Country Press, by Francis Sanzaro (Stone Country press, 2013).
- "Daniel Woods plays The Game Fb8C+". PlanetMountain. 12 February 2010. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
- "Lucid Dreaming, new extreme boulder problem at the Buttermilks, Bishop". PlanetMountain. 31 March 2010. Retrieved 11 August 2013.
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