What exactly is Bouldering

19th Apr 2011


Lucy Creamer jamming along the strenuous traverse of Zippatrocity 7b+

In my last news piece i wrote about producing a photograph to advertise  a product (chalk bag) used in climbing. I chose to photograph top British climber Lucy Creamer bouldering on a problem called Hampers Hang out in the National Peak District of Derbyshire, UK. But what exactly is Bouldering. Who does it and where does it get done? Well, the text book reply would be something like:

"Bouldering is a style of rock climbing undertaken without a rope and normally limited to very short climbs over a crash pad (called a bouldering mat or crash pad) so that a fall will not result in serious injury. It is typically practiced on large natural boulders or artificial boulders in gyms and outdoor urban areas. However, it may also be practiced at the base of larger rock faces, or even on buildings"


"Bouldering is a style of climbing emphasizing power, strength, and dynamics. Its focus is on individual moves or short sequences of moves. Boulder routes are commonly referred to as problems, because the nature of the climb is often short, curious, and much like problem solving. Sometimes these problems are eliminates, meaning certain artificial restrictions are imposed"


Untitled from Tim Glasby on Vimeo.


Getting the picture?

To reduce the risk of injury from a fall, climbers rarely go higher than 3–5 meters above the ground. Anything above that and it's generally considered to be free soloing, or high-ball boulder problems. For protection, well there isn't really any protection, but typically climbers put a bouldering mat or pad (crash pad) on the ground to break their fall! and sometimes employ the use of one or more spotters. Spotters are other climbers, friends etc who stand behind the climber and work to direct the climber's body toward the crash pad during a fall. In other words try and stop the climber hitting the ground hard or in an awkward fashion.

Bouldering is increasing in popularity; bouldering areas are common in indoor climbing gyms and some climbing gyms are dedicated solely to bouldering, like the Climbing Works in Sheffield. Children are joining the sport now as well as adults. In fact, studies have found that young climbers develop better skills as adults from their experience with youthful disadvantages such as height and strength.



     Pump up the power

Katy Whittaker on the classic Rockatrocity 7c. Wales      Neil Mawson climbing Pump up the power 7c+



One of the major appeals of bouldering is its relatively scant equipment requirements. It is not uncommon to see people bouldering with shoes, a chalk bag, and a small mat to wipe their feet on. Although nothing is actually required, common equipment includes:

  • Loose, powdered magnesium chalk which absorbs the sweat from the climbers hands.
  • A mattress-like object called a crash pad. These are generally thick, rectangular foam pads with a heavy-duty fabric shell. They are opened and placed at the base of a boulder to cover irregularities in the landing and provide some cushion if the climber falls.

Leah Crane - Boulderer

       Leah Crane making the most of her "padding" before attempting "Bens Roof" 7c+ Raven Tor

  • Climbing shoes, for better traction and edging capabilities.
  • A brush, or several brushes of differing sizes, typically with nylon bristles but sometimes coarse animal hair, is used to clean holds and is often mounted on a telescopic pole to allow greater reach.

Brushing 2

   Meilee Rafe cleaning holds before an attempt

  • Sports tape is useful for covering cuts or blisters, as well as providing support for joints that may have been strained.
  • Clothing includes anything comfortable, flexible, and appropriate for the weather.

Bouldering Grades

As in other types of climbing, bouldering has developed its own grading system for comparing the difficulty of problems, mainly because bouldering problems can be much harder than traditional rock climbing routes. The most commonly used grading systems are the Fontainebleau system (French) which ranges from 1 to 8c+, and the John Sherman (American) V-grade system, beginning at V0 and increasing by integers to a current top grade of V16. The current hardest boulder problem in the world is probably Lucid Dreaming 8c+/V16 by American climber Paul Robinson at Buttermilk Boulders in Bishop, California - perhaps it is the hardest problem in the world today, but the grade is open to interpretation, Like the legendry British Boulderer Malcolm Smith said when he climbed Monk Life 8b+ " I see Monk life as a bottom end 8b+, only just scraping into the grade. It’s a bit harder than some things I’ve done like The Ace which get 8b. I think in Britain we have a harsher scale than in Europe and there’s loads of room in 8b+ for absolutely sick things which are harder than Monk Life. I can’t see any reason to give anything 8c. That grade is unbelievable and I struggle to believe anyone around can climb it. We’ve got to be sensible about these things"

Both scales are open-ended at the top, and thus the upper grade of these systems is always increasing.


        Fabulous Sandstone Bouldering in Spain - Lucy Creamer enjoying some winter sun in Albarricin


Famous Bouldering Areas

Way too many to mention them all, but probably the best areas in the world are Fontainebleau near Paris a particularly beautiful area with a little culture thrown in. Chironico and Magic Woods (Switzerland), Gritstone Peak District (UK), Hueco Tanks (Texas), Val di Mello (Italy), Castle Hill (New Zealand), Bishop (California), Joes Valley (Utah), Yosemite (California), Rocklands (South Africa),  Kjugekull (Sweden), Hampi (India) and Bhagirathi, Uttarakhand India.

Bhagirathi Bouldering


  Neil Mawson enjoying V6 Bouldering at Altitude -  16,000ft up beneath the awesome Bhagirathi peaks