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Bouldering! What is it?

Like streamlined rock climbing

  Stephen Dryden October 2015

Back in 2011 I finally decided to fly the nest. I had been living with my parents throughout University and having started a new job in Newcastle, it was the perfect time to gain some independence and find my own place.

Once I’d settled in and got into the work/life routine I found that without the University course work pinning me down on an evening, I suddenly had a lot more time on my hands. I’d played guitar for a few years, but there’s only so much guitar you can play, especially if you want to stay friendly with the neighbours. I decided I needed a new hobby. I first thought about joining a gym as I like the idea of getting fit but on reflection the gym just didn’t appeal. It seemed repetitive and I didn’t like the idea of running on the spot hours on end staring at a blank wall.

I started researching local sports facilities for some inspiration and that’s when I came across Rock Climbing. As a kid I’d tried Rock Climbing a few times on school trips and loved it, despite a small fear or heights – or should that be fear of falling? I wanted to give it a go again but couldn’t quite convince anybody to come along to a belaying course. Maybe friends didn’t quite trust me holding my lives in their hands on the end of a rope.

With that idea quashed I carried on with my research and that’s when I discovered a newer form of Rock Climbing, something called Bouldering. Bouldering is very similar to Rock Climbing except it is generally done only a few meters off the ground, above crash mats, and because of this it can be done solo without the need for ropes or harnesses. This is where my new hobby (read addiction) took off. I completed a £20 induction course at my local Bouldering gym and haven’t looked back since.

When Bouldering you complete ‘problems’. These are short Rock Climbing routes identified by coloured hand holds. Generally the colour indicates the difficulty. With each problem you start at the bottom of the wall and make your way to the top, ending with both hands on the final hold. Harder problems often use fewer and smaller holds. You can also get holds with different textures, some which you may look at and think “never in a million years can I hold onto that”.

Image: Félix Larrieu

At first Bouldering problems are quite straightforward, it’s generally left hand, right hand and you’re at the top in a few moves. The fun begins when you move onto more complex problems. You really need to sit back and think about how you’re going to move. Foot and finger placement, the order that you move in and your weight distribution become critical. You can spend ages trying to work out how to get from A to B and somebody will come along and complete the same problem easily by simply placing their hand on a different part of a hold or by twisting their body a certain way.

​Image: Félix Larrieu

4 years on and I’m climbing 2-3 times a week and competing regularly in amateur competitions. I feel I’ve found my perfect sport. I originally wanted something that was going to fill in some time and keep me fit but it has taken over my life. Bouldering is such a social activity, everybody wants everyone else to do better and push themselves harder, and people are always willing to share their beta (sequence of moves to complete a problem) even if you’re in a competition against them. It is also one of the most accessible sports going. There are problems for people of all shapes and sizes and age is definitely not a factor. There a several veterans (60+ and 70+) who regularly meet up at my local climbing gym.

As for keeping fit, again it is almost the perfect sport. It utilises most of your upper and lower body muscles whilst improving your stamina. Research also highlights the benefits of Rock Climbing and improving mental health. It requires thought and complete concentration and the boost to self esteem when you complete something you’ve been attempting for several weeks is incredible!

Bouldering has dramatically increased in popularity in recent years and new gyms are popping up all over. There are several in the North East alone. If like me, the gym isn’t for you, I can’t recommend bouldering enough!

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