When John Sherman first climbed, he was not a daredevil looking for mountains to conquer. He was a bored teenager who wandered the neighborhood a few blocks from his home in Berkeley, California.
It was 1974 and he came across a small city park, Indian Rock, where local climbers trained without ropes on house-sized rhyolite boulders.
“I couldn’t do a single pull-up when I started,” he said. “I really struggled at first.”
Describing himself as a chubby, unathletic kid, he was drawn to the balance and challenge of bouldering. No ropes or axes or even partners – just skill and stone. He then spent the next 50 years creating new bouldering routes – called “problems” in the sport – and helped popularize bouldering through books, articles and outrageous stunts.
Today, indoor bouldering is an Olympic event and one of the most popular adventure sports in the world, even during the pandemic. In 2021, more new US climbing gyms opened than ever before, most of which were for bouldering.
“It’s a collaborative group activity, people come together, they mingle,” said David Sacher, founder of Vital Climbing Gyms.
It is also the easiest way to enter the wider world of mountaineering, especially in urban areas. But it can be intimidating to wander through a moldy warehouse full of people hanging upside down from chalky fingers.
If you want to try bouldering, here’s what you need to know.
Rock climbing is a full body workout.
One of the first things bouldering beginners notice is that the next day they hurt in very strange places. That’s because rock climbing exercises big muscles and small muscles, including some you rarely use. It is both anaerobic and aerobic and works your upper body, lower body and core.
“It’s a whole-body engagement to understand your relationship between your whole body and the surface you’re trying to climb,” said Lanae Joubert, an assistant professor at Northern Michigan University who has studied rock climbing for decades. “Every muscle, I think, except your tongue maybe. Unless you’re climbing with your tongue.”
Dr Joubert, a seasoned climber herself, said there is no size or body type that predicts a good climber. Men have no advantage over women, she says, and what really matters is how long you practice.
Climb with your legs, not your arms.
As a skinny, clumsy high school student, I quickly learned that good climbing technique comes from the legs, not the arms. It’s all about balance, strong legs and a strong core.
The best climbers learn to relieve their arms, focus on their hips, and look for good footholds rather than grips. Good climbers don’t wobble on rock, they ooze.
The climbers can be intimidating, but don’t be discouraged.
Entering a climbing gym alone can be intimidating. There’s the weird lingo, the annoying bravado, and the occasional bloodcurdling scream. Not to mention the lack of shirting and not-so-subtle flexes.
But rock climbing was founded by affable misfits lurking in the woods, and that culture continues today. It’s not like surfing, where people get mad if you hit their wave. The wall is going nowhere and many climbers are happy to discuss strategy.
“The climbing community loves seeing climbers for the first time and loves having first-time climbers ask questions,” said Kareemah Batts, founder of Adaptive Climbing Group, a nonprofit that brings people together. people with disabilities to rock climbing.
Climbing, she said, has always been taught through mentorship with other climbers, and today there are many climbing communities for women, people of color and LGBTQ people. Ms Batts, who is an amputee and a black woman, also said many gyms have focused on equity access and are now offering discount days.
Don’t sweat the numbers.
Mr Sherman said the worst mistake a beginner climber can make has nothing to do with falling or fitness. He’s too hooked on climbing grades, called the V-scale, which range from V0 to V16 and serve as benchmarks for people looking for their next challenge. Because bouldering is supposed to be more technical than classic climbing, V1 can seem quite challenging.
“Some of the best block problems in America are V0s,” said Sherman, 62, who still sets dozens of new problems every year. Obsessing over notes ruins the fun, he added (despite the fact that he created the V-scale, so called because of his nickname, “Vermin”).
Part of the climbing is downhill.
While there are no published numbers on indoor bouldering injuries, “every climbing gym in the country will have a few ankle sprains every year,” said Scott Rennak, publisher of Climbing Business Journal. But with modern wall-to-wall pillows, there are ways to protect yourself.
If you’re afraid of heights, start with traverses or routes that go side-to-side rather than uphill. When it’s time to fall, tumble and roll backwards as you hit the mat. Better to land on the buttocks than on an ankle. Practice a little: just go up a few holds, go down and practice rolling on your back.
“Knees bent, then when you kick your feet, you immediately step back to take that weight off your legs,” Ms Batts said.
If you are still worried, you can ask a more experienced climber for a “spot” in case you veer off the wall. The goal is not to catch you but to guide you to a safer fall, Sherman said. Spotting takes time to learn and is less common indoors, where problems are designed for safe falls. Don’t spot someone who hasn’t asked for it. Many gyms offer basic rock climbing and spotting classes.
See the problem, be the problem.
Bouldering is at least as much mental as it is physical. People often call this failures with your body. By rotating one knee inward or moving your hips a little higher, an impossible problem can become doable, even easy. Should you have grabbed that hold with your right hand instead of your left? Why don’t you put your other foot on that little blue plug? These are the questions that torment a boulderer.
If you come across a problem, don’t just go back to it. Take a moment, shake your arms out, and think of other ways to come up. Look at someone else.
The block can be expensive. Or it can be very cheap.
Many newbies may be surprised by the price tags: fancy $200 shoes, gyms that cost $130 a month (though most places have day passes), Louis Vuitton chalk at $1,500.
But you don’t have to climb in the best shoes at the hottest gyms. You don’t even have to climb in a gym – I started at the same rock as Mr. Sherman with a cheap pair of shoes and ill-fitting jeans. Beginner shoes should cost between $70 and $100 (gyms often sell used shoes even cheaper).
Then buy some chalk and you’re good to go. The world is full of rocks. Mountainproject.com has a tool to locate nearby bouldering areas, and it’s relatively easy to show up and make friends.
To boulder outdoors you will eventually need a crash pad – a portable pad for landing – but people are usually happy to share with beginners. There are also many online forums for people looking for block partners.
Feel comfortable outside, but not too comfortable.
If you do end up going out to climb, even if it’s on a random piece of granite in the middle of a suburb, never forget that you’re in the wild. Treat the rock like the visitor you are, tread lightly, keep it clean, and leave portable speakers at home. Just enjoy the fresh air, the rock under your fingers and the movement of your body.
“Hopefully I’ll do it for another two decades,” Sherman said. “I love it, there’s nothing I prefer to do, nothing else that fulfills me like bouldering.”