climbing · femalestrength · fitness

Bouldering: what it is and why Bettina keeps doing it

This year, I’ve joined the 219 in 2019 workout challenge: the goal is to work out 219 times this year. We check in with each other on Facebook. There are two groups, the general one and one that grew out of Tracy, Cate and Catherine’s feminist fitness challenge. I post my updates to both of them, and in both cases when I mentioned I’d been bouldering, people asked what it was. So I thought I might blog about it here, since it still doesn’t seem to be a very well-known sport – even though you wouldn’t be able to tell by the amounts of people at my bouldering gym!

Bouldering is a type of climbing, but it’s done at relatively low heights (I’ll come to that in a moment) where you don’t need a harness and rope. You can do it outdoors and indoors, although I’ve only ever bouldered indoors. For outdoor bouldering, there are special mats, called crashpads, you can carry to where you’re climbing. At an indoor gym, the floor is one gigantic soft mat. So if you take a fall, at least you fall onto something soft (again, we’ll come back to this). Here’s what a bouldering gym looks like:

A bouldering gym with people climbing, resting, and studying different routes.

On the walls of a bouldering gym, you’ll find holds (aka boulders) of various colours drilled into the wall, forming different routes (aka problems or routes) of various levels of difficulty. The goal is to complete a problem without touching the boulders of another one. You’ve successfully completed a problem once you get to its “top” boulder with both hands.

So what do I love about bouldering? The short answer is: almost everything. It makes me feel strong and badass. By the time I finish a problem, chances are I will have overcome moments of fear, my arms will have almost given out, and my hands are sore. It turns out I’m more afraid of heights than I’d previously thought, so higher walls are a real challenge for me, and it feels fantastic to rise above that. It often takes me several attempts to finish a route because I get scared. There is some reason to this – despite the soft mats, it’s not a danger-free sport. You can fall and break something. You can hit boulders while falling or scrape yourself. I’ve definitely come home with more than one big bruise. And yet.

Bouldering has taught me that I’m stronger than I often think. Yes, there are problems I can’t do because they’re too long and I run out of strength before I make it. But at least as often I just think I won’t be able to do it, while I actually can. It’s a full-body workout that requires a lot of body tension – core strength combined with the ability to use your arms and legs to push into a wall or against a boulder all at the same time. So it’s tough, but it’s also made me tougher, and I’ve found that being able to control my muscles better has actually had a positive impact on my swimming. Plus, the longer you boulder, the more you figure out what your individual strengths are. Mine are balancy problems and slab walls. A bouldering mate of mine loves overhangs (he has excellent body tension), and so on.

That’s also why I find bouldering to be quite gender-inclusive, at least from what I’ve experienced. Yes, there is the odd gang of muscle-loaded “super manly” dude-bros who need to show off in front of each other (and everyone else). But then a women will often come along and leave them mouth agape because she could do a problem they hadn’t been able to manage. There are routes for everyone: the stronger and the less strong, the more and the less supple, and the taller and the less tall. It’s very empowering. Also, by and large, it attracts an open-minded crowd that’s in it together and has decent manners. At least at my gym, the “super manly” dude-bros are far and few between.

Bettina on a bouldering wall (not actually climbing a problem, just monkeying around).

And then there’s the mental challenge of figuring out how to approach a certain route. I love tackling stuff head-on, but here I’m learning to think before I do. Strength is precious, so you don’t want to waste it by not being able to complete a route because you got stuck somewhere and hadn’t thought about how to best place your hands and feet, balance your body, or manage a particularly long reach. (Sam blogged a while ago about how climbing seems to appeal to philosophers in particular, and I think this extends to researchers more generally.)

Finally, bouldering is a social sport. I enjoy going to the gym alone – you always end up chatting with strangers anyway and giving each other tips -, but it’s more fun in a group. We help each other through problems. We egg each other on, celebrate our victories and share our frustrations. There’s a lot of resting involved between exhausting problems, so we hang out on the mat and chat, or squint at walls together trying to figure out a good way to tackle a route. And afterwards, we have a beer together.