My First Time Bouldering

Two photos, side-by-side of the post author in the middle of making a dynamic move on an overhanging boulder as his partner watches and holds one of the four bouldering pads they are using.

I will never forget the first time I saw someone bouldering.

Scrolling the internet in 2010, I came across a video of a pro somewhere out in the desert, climbing on a boulder that was supposedly very hard. My first thought was “Wow! That looks so easy. I think I’ll become a pro climber, it doesn’t seem that hard. Just put your hand there, and your foot over there, and you’re at the top! What’s there to it?”

Ah, the ego of a young man.

Living in Brooklyn, New York, I didn’t know anywhere I could go bouldering outside, so I checked out my local climbing gym, convinced that I would be breezing up the wall. That day, I spent my whole session at the climbing gym getting my butt whooped on a V0, the easiest grade in bouldering.

I was exhausted. I was humbled. I was hooked.

I eventually made it to the top that day, and have not stopped obsessing about climbing since. I have continued to make many, many mistakes in climbing since then, so I would like to share some things I have learned for anyone who is thinking about going bouldering for their first time.

Get A Pair Of Climbing Shoes

One difference between bouldering and other types of rock climbing is that all you need is shoes, some chalk, and a crash pad. Heck, if you’re climbing in a gym, the pads are already there!

You might be asking “Why can’t I just wear my sneakers, or those weird toe shoes?” The simple answer is, climbing shoes are designed especially to help your feet stick to all sorts of small features in the rock that you need while you’re climbing.

I wouldn’t recommend getting fancy, expensive shoes for your first pair, because your footwork will likely be terrible, and all you’ll do is ruin an expensive pair of shoes. That being said, once you have been climbing for a while and build a solid base of technique, a good pair of shoes will take your climbing ability to the next level. This brings us to my next point:

Use Your Legs

Too often I see beginner climbers hop on the wall, and try to pull themselves up using mostly their arms. Unless you have been walking on your hands your entire life (and if you have, I would love to meet you), your legs are going to be much, much stronger than your arms.

This means that it is most advantageous to try and get as much of our body weight onto our feet while climbing. Think about it. How do you climb a ladder? Do you just grab the rungs with your arms and leave your legs dangling?

Of course not.

The same technique applies with climbing. Focus on using your legs as much as you can, your arms will have enough work to do!

Have A Plan

Sometimes, bouldering can sound a little silly. After all, why climb something difficult when you can often just walk up the backside of the boulder?

There are many reasons, but some have to do with the specific line being climbed, or “boulder problem”. Each problem has its own unique way of being climbed, and it’s up to you to find your “beta”. Beta is a climbing term that means your hand and foot sequencing that is used to get to the top.

Survey all the handholds and footholds on the boulder before you get on to climb. Have a plan for what holds you will grab, and where you will put your feet to get you from bottom to top. Since everybody is different, many times you will find that the way someone else did it may not be the easiest way for you.

Think of it as a puzzle. Although watching other people may help provide some pieces for you, ultimately you will have to find your own way to climb the boulder. Keep in mind, you are less likely to succeed if you just hop on the wall and try and figure it out as you go.

You Will Fall. A lot. Learn To Love It.

For many people, one of the joys of climbing is exploring their physical and mental limits through the difficulty of movement. After all, if we can just walk up the back, why make it hard for ourselves?

The fact is, no matter if you’re a complete beginner or a seasoned pro, and you’re challenging yourself climbing, you are going to fall. A lot.

Sometimes you slip off a hold, sometimes you miss a hold, and sometimes you get so tired you can’t make another move. Regardless, try and learn as much as you can from each attempt. It will make your “sends”(climbing to the top without falling) that much sweeter.

Don’t Worry About The Numbers

Difficulty ratings for certain climbs will be rated on a V# scale, ranging currently from V0-V17. As you progress in bouldering and begin climbing harder grades, it’s easy to get caught up in the numbers game.

While you might be a long way off from V17, it might be tempting to pick climbs based on their grade. However, if your sole motivation for trying a climb is the number grade, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

There’s always going to be someone who climbs harder than you. It might be someone unexpected, like a 10-year-old climbing team kid who warms up on your max. But you know what?

No one cares how hard you climb.

There are world-class climbs at every ability level, and one of the beauties of climbing is that everyone is having a very similar experience. Climbing is a solo experience, and everyone is involved in their own struggle and triumph.

Over the last ten years, I’ve fallen in love with bouldering and I hope you do too. It’s a beautiful way to challenge the limits of your body, mind, and creativity. Each climb can be a journey of growth and self-discovery and should be treated as such.

Bouldering has taken me to some of the most beautiful places on earth and is an excellent “excuse” to travel to far-off places or explore your own backyard. Though it is a solo experience, it’s sometimes best experienced with friends. The camaraderie, support, and energy of a group of people all working on the same boulders is an experience I have never found in any other sport. I hope you find your own reasons for falling in love with bouldering and hope to see you out there!

Two photos side by side: On the left, a color photo of the post author heel-hooking during a move on a boulder with a bouldering pad beneath him; on the right: A black and white photo of the author hanging from a boulder in the desert with his partner spotting him.

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Published:September 7, 2021

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