intro to bouldering: getting started safely

WHEN JON GLASSBERG STARTED CLIMBING IN 1995 AT AGE 11, “bouldering wasn’t really a thing.” He says climbers at the time used bouldering as a tool for gaining strength for “real climbing objectives on a rope.” But Glassberg found his real passion in this simple version of moving over rock—“I was instantly hooked”—so after school he would head out to Moorman’s Boulders, just outside his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, with other psyched friends and college-age kids. They didn’t have crashpads, so Glassberg brought his living room carpet to the crag and laid it under the boulder to keep their shoes from getting muddy. When the forefather of bouldering John “Verm” Sherman visited Moorman’s while writing Stone Crusade, his famous tome championing bouldering as a standalone discipline of climbing, not just practice climbing for roped objectives, Verm was appalled at the rug seemingly abandoned in the dirt, so he removed it. The infamous rug made it into the book. “We were just pissed that someone had stolen our rug!” Glassberg says now. “Little did we know that the father of modern bouldering had taught us a lesson.”

Bouldering has come a long way since those days, evolving into not only what is arguably the most popular type of climbing, but it’s also a “gateway discipline” that gets thousands of people into the sport of climbing every year. You don’t need ropes, quickdraws, cams, or any of the other equipment required for sport or trad climbing. These days, there are bouldering-specific competitions, bouldering-only climbing gyms, and thousands of people, pro’s and new climbers alike who “just boulder” and never tie into a rope. With very little gear or technical systems required, bouldering is “the simplest, most distilled version of movement over rock,” Glassberg says. “There are no distractions from movement and difficulty. You can push yourself to your physical maximum on powerful short bursts of strength.” Even though bouldering is unique because of its simplicity, there are still plenty of ways to get injured. In the following article, Glassberg walks through how to get started safely, as well as tips and tricks for how to improve at bouldering.
While the movement remains largely the same whether you’re inside or outside, the potential hazards and what to watch out for are vastly different. Here is an outline of the important differences, as well as a few similarities.
  • The gym will have its own set of guidelines and rules (as well as a few unwritten ones), so be sure to follow those rules first and foremost. They can include everything from how to fall properly and how high you can climb to what type of chalk you can use and where you store your stuff.
  • Watch out for people walking under you while climbing, both kids and oblivious adults. Scout your landing beforehand, particularly any cruxes or wild swings, and don’t attempt the problem if the gym is too crowded.
  • Most gyms have permanent foam pads in place, so you shouldn’t need to move them around for protection. However, make sure there are no big jumps or moves on your chosen climb that might put you over unpadded terrain.
  • Holds can come loose and spin while you’re climbing, resulting in an unexpected fall. Always be prepared to fall. If a hold spins, make sure to let a gym employee know.
  • Smart pad placement is crucial. “Double up the pads and avoid edges! Good spotters and good pad placement help a ton,” Glassberg says. “I find that double layers of pads without edges help make sure you don’t miss the pads and land on the ground.” The biggest issues with arranging pads are landing on an edge (or off the pad completely) or your foot landing between the pads. It’s also possible to bottom out, where you land so hard that you compress the pads into the ground. Glassberg suggests arranging the pads and making a plan before starting to climb, knowing where the fall is likely and having your spotters ready for anything. Arranging the pads is an art form, and doing it well comes from experience. Try to place the pads in a way that results in a flat surface with no large holes or edges in the primary landing zone.
  • Holds can and will break, so look out for anything loose or suspect on the problem and always be prepared to fall unexpectedly. Pay attention especially on tall topouts and boulders that don’t get a lot of traffic
  • Outdoor boulder problems often have other hazards in the vicinity that could cause injury, including rocks and tree roots jutting out of the ground, or tree branches that are a little too close.
  • Be aware of your surroundings and don’t push your limits in a situation that you can’t easily get yourself out of. E.g., maybe don’t try that super tall problem (called a highball) if you’re by yourself three miles from the nearest road.

Because bouldering is a social activity that often results in several people climbing the same problem or standing around the same boulder, a customary code of behavior has developed along with bouldering as a unique discipline. While these guidelines aren’t safety related, following them will help you become a courteous, respectful climber and a solid partner who people will want to climb with. Etiquette is important no matter where you’re climbing, so consider these whether you’re at the gym or your outdoor project.

  • DO: Brush the holds before and after each attempt, including removing tick marks when your outdoor session is over. Wait patiently for your turn. Pay attention to where other climbers are on an indoor wall, making sure your climb doesn’t interfere with theirs. Keep the vibe relaxed and chill. Respect other climbers who are already projecting something before you arrive. Clean up an outdoor area when you leave, picking up trash and other items even if it’s not yours. Offer spots to other people who might be climbing alone. Stay out of other climbers’ fall zones. Wipe your climbing shoes off before stepping on the rock.
  • DON’T: Jump in front of other climbers who are waiting. Play loud music. Swear loudly, get visibly angry, or throw a tantrum. Leave tick marks on the rock. Force a spot on someone who has said they don’t want one. Offer unsolicited beta—nobody likes a spraylord! Move a pad when someone else is climbing over it, even if it’s your pad (you can probably wait a few seconds until they’re done). Walk across other people’s pads with your street shoes.

Like anything in climbing, falling is a skill that you can practice in a safe and controlled manner. The biggest rule is that you shouldn’t try to stick the landing upright on your feet. The goal is to let your feet and legs absorb most of the impact by hitting the pads feet-first with strong legs and bent knees, not stiff, straight legs. Then let your upper body follow the rest of the movement instead of fighting it. That might mean rolling backward to let your bum hit the mat, or the side of your torso. Don’t go completely limp like a rag doll, but offer enough resistance to add some control to the fall. Your elbows and wrists should hit the pads last, maintaining a strong bend in the elbows without being stiff. Get used to falling by practicing the basic techniques in the gym. “You can never have too many pads outside, so don’t be embarrassed if you need more and can’t commit without an extra layer,” Glassberg says. “A twisted ankle or broken arm is not worth it.”

For spotting, the goal is to help the climber fall on the pads no matter what (not to catch the climber). Stand behind the climber in an athletic stance (legs strong, knees and hips slightly bent) with arms up and elbows slightly bent, following her hips with your hands. If she comes off, try to put your hands on her hips to guide her onto the pads feet-first. That will take some force. Adjust your position in relation to the climber as she moves up and across the rock. Be prepared for a fall at any time, up until the moment she’s standing on top. “Don’t be afraid to touch a flying butt to re-center an off-balance fall,” Glassberg says. “And spoons, not forks! Keep those fingers and thumbs together.” This will help prevent an injury to the spotter.

Climbing in the gym as much as possible on a variety of terrain and holds (slabs, roofs, vertical) helps a lot. Getting used to falling, climbing on varied terrain, projecting, failing, sending—it all helps you become more well-rounded. When you go outside, find projects that are your ability level and try to complete boulders. You learn more from sending than you do from failing over and over on boulders that are too hard for you. Find a person you like climbing with that is knowledgeable and can give you guidance. Mentorship goes a long way.

When it comes to a specific project, I like to watch videos and beta that people have used that worked for them. I talk to people that are my size and have done the problem to get micro-beta. I then try to complete every move with the least effort possible, not wasting time on bad beta or redoing moves I have done already. Once I have done all the moves and have the beta dialed, I like to do certain sections or overlap sections to dial it in further. Then I wait for the perfect temps, good wind, no sun, and cold, sticky conditions to give it a proper go with the intention of sending. If it doesn’t go, and I start to epic over days and weeks of trying, I analyze my weaknesses and train those moves and holds specifically in the gym. Then again with great conditions, I try again. If you can do all the moves, you will do it eventually.