Rock climbers take to bouldering in a big way

It requires no ropes because it centres on short climbs and lasts no more than five minutes

“It’s going to be an awesome day,” said Beth Rodden, a 31-year-old Californian who in 2008 completed the hardest traditional climb ever created in Yosemite National Park.
It was early July and Rodden warmed up her fingers in a sort of sunburst motion. She then began to feel the boulder in front of her, pinching each wrinkle and fold. Then, right foot first, she was off the ground, dancing in the vertical. If she fell, her black mattress was on the ground just five feet below to catch her.

For decades, rock climbing was a sport about reaching places thousands of feet off the ground. These climbs can take days and require sleeping up on the rock. Spectators watch with binoculars below. Pinning ropes to the rock along the way is a necessary safeguard, and learning how to climb with a rope is a lengthy undertaking that long kept the sport on the fringe.

But in recent years, another, younger type of climbing — called bouldering — has opened the sport to a far wider group of participants and spectators. Bouldering requires no ropes because it centres on short climbs, usually up to 18 feet and lasting no more than five minutes. It is easier in many places to find a low rock to climb than it is to find a giant cliff. And it is easier to watch friends, or professionals, when they are right in front of you.

The sport was on display in New York City this summer during a giant bouldering competition in Central Park. Climbers scaled routes, or problems, on artificial rocks that were brought in for the event, but several real boulders in the park can be climbed for recreation. The city also has a two-year-old indoor gym, Brooklyn Boulders, that emphasises bouldering more than it does traditional climbing — a trend in several climbing gyms across the country.

Tracking participation in any sort of rock climbing is difficult because outdoor climbers do not report their activities to anyone, and only some indoor gyms report activity to the Climbing Wall Association. But bouldering has become so popular that it is on the short list of sports being considered for the 2020 Olympics.

The Outdoor Industry Association puts total participation in the sport in the United States at 4.7 million to 6.9 million people. And the Climbing Wall Association estimates that there are 600 climbing-specific gyms and thousands of climbing walls within larger facilities and camps.

No one tracks bouldering participation in isolation from the two other most popular types of climbing — sport and traditional, which each rely on ropes. But Eastern Mountain Sports says its sales of crash pads for bouldering have grown about 15 per cent in the last year. And sales of rock climbing shoes have grown 70 per cent over five years while sales of ropes and other gear used only for traditional climbing grew 40 per cent in that time.

A growing sport

Climbing shoes are used in all three types of the sport, so the higher growth in shoe sales very likely indicates increased interest in bouldering, said Ted Manning, the executive vice president of EMS. “Bouldering as a sport unto itself has clearly been growing, and it’s really fed climbing as a whole,” Manning said. “Bouldering is a more accessible sport, it has a lower gear threshold, and it is a very social activity, more social than climbing has traditionally been perceived.”

Further propelling bouldering’s growth is the Internet. Videos of these sorts of climbing routes are much more easily taped, because climbers are low to the ground, and new bouldering clips are outpacing videos of high-up climbing on YouTube. Web sites where climbers of all levels post new routes they have climbed are also seeing far more postings about new boulder routes than traditional ones.

Climbers now talk about bouldering spots like Fontainebleau in France and Hueco Tanks in Texas as must-visits in the same breath as more traditional climbing destinations like Yosemite in California and the Shawangunk Ridge in New York. (And even Yosemite and the Shawangunks — known as the Gunks — have bouldering areas.)

Bouldering has, to some degree, always been part of the sport because low rocks are so accessible. But as a discipline of its own, it dates to 1993, when Black Diamond sold the first commercially available crash pad, according to E M S. The number of manufacturers of these pads has grown, with nearly a dozen today focusing on ways to make them thicker, to better absorb falls, yet lighter, because they are carried on the hike in.

Even as bouldering has opened the sport to more regular people who are simply looking for an enjoyable, low-to-the ground way to get in shape, it has also grown in prestige among professional climbers, who more traditionally made names for themselves by creating arduous routes, extremely high up and often in remote places.

Rodden, a Yosemite-based climber, now spends many of her climbing trips visiting bouldering destinations, like the remote seaside rocks of Norway. Among the roughly two dozen Americans who earn a living climbing rocks, Rodden is well known for her high-up, harrowing ascents of thin cracks that many people cannot imagine fitting their fingers inside. In 2000, she was one of four climbers kidnapped by Islamic militants while climbing in Kyrgyzstan.

Since then, she has pushed the sport to new levels several times, outdoing other climbers in the difficulty of her climbs, including one in Bend, Ore., that she named the Optimist in 2004 and one in 2008 that she called Meltdown, what many consider to be the hardest stretch of climbing in Yosemite. Despite these accomplishments, Rodden says she finds bouldering to be difficult. It is more gymnastic than traditional climbing and does not rely on the long endurance that serves her so well in other climbing.

Rodden says bouldering represents the next phase of climbing history and, although she is not giving up traditional climbing, it is a new phase for her.

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