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Health & Fitness

On the rocks: the problems with bouldering

Exercising while you’re on the road is all well and good, but sometimes gym work outs can make you feel like a hamster on a wheel. Bouldering, on the other hand, is a sport that’s going places


Essentially mountaineering in miniature, it’s attraction pivots on the mental rigour it takes to negotiate a route from A to B and the strength and stamina needed to fight your way there. And it usually is a fight – you’ll burn more calories in a one-hour Bouldering session than two hours in the gym. The pure repetitive physicality of climbing improves upper body strength and muscle definition to cover-shot proportions quicker than you can say ‘perfect abs in under three weeks’.

Clinging to the side of a big rock can help you improve your balance and grip, and your ability to make sound choices at a moment’s notice.  Try it out – even your boss will notice the difference.

Starting is easy – there are no ropes or tricky knots to learn like mountaineering. In fact, there are no heavy backpacks, or even equipment. Beyond a pair of tacky soled climbing shoes,  and maybe some magnesium powder, there’s nothing more you need – except maybe an obstacle to climb.

Known in Bouldering circles as a Problem, this can be anything from a rock in a park, to a climbing wall in a gym. These rugged installations are specially designed to challenge experts and nurture novices, climbing walls are popping up in cities everywhere. Then there’s the great outdoors – where the sport began as practice for the mountains.

Famous Bouldering spots include Irleand’s Glendalough in Wicklow, the Aran Islands and Connemara. Just outside Manchester, UK, is Stanage, while Fontainebleu outside Paris is perhaps Europe’s holy grail, renowned for its beautiful and diverse sites. The US has Bishop in California, and Hueco Tanks in Texas. However, the Arapiles and Grampian Ranges in Australia is for Boulderers what Hawaii is for surfers.  Australia now boasts two of the five hardest boulder problems in the world.

The essence of bouldering is body and mind working with the rock.  But don’t worry even if you don’t have the head for heights. It’s not about who can get highest, it’s about overcoming adversity and high intensity climbing from the first step.

Bouldering is usually defined as climbing below a height from which a fall would not cause serious bodily harm – the upper reaches would be around seven metres. Above this it becomes free-climbing – otherwise known as free soloing. Because falling from this height doesn’t usually result in death, boulderers can free themselves from using a rope and harness and concentrate solely on maximum gymnastic difficulty.

Some of the most difficult sequences of mountain climbing moves are encountered in bouldering. The difference is, you can do them just two or three feet off the ground – and still they can be just as physically and mentally demanding as a climb 100m up a rock face.

And don’t worry about being looked down on – bouldering isn’t fey; not by a long chalk. It’s actually considered the most disciplined of climbing techniques because your only equipment is your body and your brain – just you and the rock. Traditionally, bouldering was training for rock climbing but in the past ten to 15 years it has evolved into a sub-sport complete with its own competitions and superstars.

Bouldering can be done solo, but it’s wise to boulder with a friend – or spotter. Falls are common; even from a height of just 1m they can and often do result in injury – hence the frequent use of crash mats. The idea is for the spotter to stand at the base of the boulder, watching the climb and helping to give you directions. A spotter may also help catch you if you fall, or move the crash pad directly beneath you as you climb.

The point of spotting is not to catch the climber, but to break the fall and protect the head and shoulders from hitting the ground. Good spotters stay ready with knees and elbows slightly bent, fingers pointed up and palms out. They should be watching the climber’s body rather than the moves.

Boulder problems vary enormously in style and length – from long traverses across a problem, to fly-crawling under over hangs, to ‘dead hangs’ where the challenge is to hang from some miniscule hold with the finger tips. You can almost feel the burn just thinking about it.

Spotters are crucial for these kind of manoeuvres where the climber is upside down or in an awkward position. In these situations, spotters sometimes place their hands lightly on the climber’s back or rear end in readiness for what’s known as a  peel off.  In other words – disaster.

Bulking up
The principles for achieving the level of strength you need for bouldering is very similar to those of weight training; i.e. use a large weight (80-100 percent of your maximum lift) and lift it a few times. To increase your endurance through weight training you do repetitive lifts of between 50-80 percent of your maximum lift.

10 tips for getting started and going further
– Boulder at the base of climbing routes, in a climbing gym, or on stand-alone boulders in a park.
– Avoid any rock that’s been polished smooth, or nonporous rock like slate. These slick rocks do not provide enough friction.
– Always examine boulders for loose rock or or anything that you might land on that could cause injury.
– The only real way of preparing for climbing is to climb. However, lower and upper body muscles can be kept in shape with suitable training.
– Always stretch before and after exercise. Don’t overwork tired muscles. You could come down to earth with a bump.
– Traversing walls close to the ground are a great practice for building endurance. Try going in one direction, then retrace your steps in the opposite direction.
– Climb back down a problem once you’ve climbed it rather than dropping. The challenge of retracing your holds builds strength and technique.
– Keep your cool, take your time, and carefully plan your routes.
– Try to place more weight on your feet that on your hands and arms.
– Be creative and invent problems – take paths that challenge your strength and force you to think.

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