A beginners guide to bouldering


Carrot Ridge, The Twelve Bens, Connemara is definitely not a boulder problem. Photo by Paul Winder.

Bouldering is becoming increasingly popular and the vast majority of people taking it up already climb routes, this is definitely a good thing as it makes for a greater understanding and appreciation of what bouldering is and isn't. This is an introduction to bouldering from the point of view of a route climber.

For an up to date guide to bouldering for beginners check out Three Rock Books.

What does a route climber have to gain from bouldering? Its enjoyable, it will improve your climbing and it's an ideal thing to do on those days when its just too cold to lead routes.

Bouldering as well as been very simple is also very adaptable. It can be a social or solitary, safe or dangerous, great for mileage or you can spend an hour gaining an inch.

A lot of peoples introduction to bouldering can be a bit demoralising as it involves being shown around the local hotshot's warm up circuit, he waltzes up a problem which he introduces by saying "this one is pretty easy". Discover bouldering on your own terms, climb whatever takes your fancy whether it is an 'established' problem or not.

A lot of the ritual associated with bouldering - cleaning and chalking holds, endless talk of sequences, pursuit of perfect conditions and the endless repetition - are just ways of tipping the balance in ones favour.



Al getting dynamic in Ticino

Often in bouldering the slightest change in technique can make all the difference between success and failure, this is when subtle techniques like thumb catches and exact body positioning come into play. One of the central appeals of bouldering is when a piece of rock goes from impossible to doable in an intense half hour and it's technique that makes this possible.

One could climb routes for a very long time and never be required to do a heel hook or a double dyno conversely hand jamming is a relatively rare occurrence. So even though its all climbing there is a lot to gain technique-wise.











The bouldering meet last year

Bouldering is a very social sport. It's easy to strike up a conversation with someone at the boulders, people are always willing to offer beta - "ooh no I do it this way" followed by lots of waving of limbs in the air.





A bloody flapper

Fingertip skin is the most precious commodity in bouldering. On rough granite wild slapping will quickly cause a "flapper" (see photo) so try and move as delicately as possible. Ideally your tips should be covered in thick yet supple skin, too hard and it will rip off in massive chunks and too soft and it will wear out quickly.

Some types of chalk can dry your skin out so its a good idea to wash your hand as soon as possible after climbing.



Chalk dries sweat from the hands, that's all. It shouldn't be used on footholds, if they are damp they should be dried with a cloth. Sometimes chalk is used to mark the position of a small footholds or a hidden handholds - known as tickmark - if you do this make the marks as small as possible and brush them off afterwards.


A pad is not essential to start bouldering but it helps. Obviously pads reduce the chance of an injury from a fall but they have prevent long term damage to the knee, foot and ankle joints caused by repeated short falls.

Don't fall into the trap of automatically putting your pad directly below the start of the problem when this will not protect you on the crux. Also be aware of what the pad might cover up, sometimes it's better to see what one is about to land on.


Spotting is an art form. The main thing to remember is that you will never stop a falling boulderer hitting the ground all you can do is protect their head, direct them towards the mat and try to keep them upright. Pay attention, there is nothing worse than wobbling high above a bad landing and to hear the unmistakable noise of your "spotter" opening a pack of crisps.


Five Ten Anasazi
one of the best shoes for bouldering

Shoes should fit tight but not necessarily painfully so. Remember when trying on a new pair they will stretch after a few weeks. Also bear in mind that you won't need to wear your shoes all day.

Damp or dirty shoes don't work well so clean/dry them on your pad or a small piece of carpet (door mats are perfect for this).

To get the maximum grip out of your shoes you can "squeak" them, this means spitting on your hand and rubbing it into the rubber until they squeak.




It would seem that there is little scope in bouldering for rules and regulations however there are a few things to be aware of:

Basically anything that damages the rock is unacceptable.





Boulderers talk about grades a lot yet most will claim that they aren't important. Ireland uses Fontainebleau system. Most trad climbers will be used to English technical grades which describes the difficulty of the hardest move whereas bouldering grades take into account the problem as a whole. This makes a direct comparison difficult.


Beta a detailed description of how to do a problem.

Circuit a collection of problems of a similar style or difficulty. Common in Fontainebleau where they are numbered and marked with arrows painted on the rock.

Dyno usually used to describe a dynamic move. Strictly speaking a dyno is a move when all points leave the rock, a jump is when three points leave, a slap is when two leave the rock.

Eliminate a problem with rules dictating what holds one is allowed use for the hands and feet, often found on overhanging faces covered in holds.

Flash to climb a problem first go.

Highball a high problem. Be warned a problem may not be considered a highball if the exposed moves are a lot easier than the crux of the problem.

Link often a boulderer will master each move in isolation on a problem (known as working the moves) before trying to link them all together in one final ascent.

Project is a problem that has been tried but hasn't been done. Also can be used to refer to a personal ambition.

Sitstart a low start to a problem, not necessarily from sitting.