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The first wall I ever climbed was in a Galyans within a mall. It was a towering monolith presiding over the store center like an epic plastic Everest, or so I thought when I was 10. Holds shaped like fish and chickens and numbers and letters floated across the wall. I made it up only because the employee belaying me got bored and probably hungry and then just hoisted me to the top using his heftier weight. Poor guy likely did that for small kids like myself all day.
Two years later, I visited a climbing gym for my friend’s birthday party. Again, we summited soaring (read: 27 feet tall) walls, and I was enamored by the physical and mental complexities of the sport. It was at that gym that I later joined the after-school climbing club.
I’ll never forget the moment a week later when my instructor pulled a crash pad toward a strangely short section of wall and announced that we wouldn’t require harnesses for the day, since we would be bouldering. What is bouldering? And, what’s up with that wall?
Depending on the gym(s) or crags in which you first take up climbing, chances are you will have that experience as well. So here are five bouldering wall basics for beginners.
A bouldering wall is typically 12 to 15 feet tall, and it mimics most boulders you’d encounter if climbing outside, although some “highball” outdoor boulders may be much taller. With the help of crash pads, you climb sans rope and harness. The idea is that when you top the boulder, you can simply jump off the wall and land safely on the pad below. As you get started, you may want a “spotter” who will help guide your landing.
Types of Bouldering Walls
Most bouldering walls will have boulder problems, either demarcated with tape or the same colored holds. Boulder problems range from V0 to V17, with V0 being the easiest. If you’re bouldering for the first time, you’ll want to start by attempting a V0, but don’t be afraid to grab whichever holds you’d like in order get to the top of the wall
Some bouldering walls will have small LED lights behind or beside each hold. These walls are referred to as “systems boards,” as they’re standardized training tools used by climbers in gyms and homes across the country. The board will connect to an app, which has a database of problems for you to try. Once you select a problem, the relevant holds will light up on the board.
Another bouldering wall you might encounter will not have lights or demarcated holds at all, and instead be filled with a wide range of hold types and colors. This type of wall is called a spray wall, since the holds will simply appear sprayed on. For this type of wall, the climber is meant to make up their own boulders, or even “circuits,” which involve more moves so that you can increase your stamina on the wall.
Bouldering walls are great for refining climbing technique, power, and even endurance. Since you don’t need a belayer to boulder, you can do it on your own, perhaps during a lunch break or as an after-work workout.
When you’re first starting out, just try the problems that look fun to you. You don’t need to focus on style or length—the more problems you try, the better you will get.
If you’d like to focus on improving your power, try shorter problems that feel close to your limit. If you’d like to improve your endurance, try longer boulders or circuits. As you progress, you’ll likely want to improve in both capacities.
How to Build a Bouldering Wall
If you’re serious about climbing, consider building a wall at home to practice on. Home bouldering walls are great because they’re yours—you can customize it by making it however big you’d like, at whatever angle, and with all your favorite holds. It can be a pricey endeavor, although well worth the effort.
The Future of Bouldering Walls
Like all things, bouldering walls have changed in the last 50 years. They’re often simpler in design, so that the problems they hold may be more complex and varied. Some wall companies are designing them so games can be played with the help of motion tracking devices within the holds and lights. Walltopia created large swaths of bouldering walls that may be standardized and replicated, so that climbers in New York could theoretically climb on the same boulder set in Paris (think larger, more complex system boards).
Bouldering walls are easier to set and use than taller rope climb walls. For that reason, they offer more versatility in climbing terrain and possibility for unique climbing experiences. If you’re new to the sport and have only tried climbing on a rope, give bouldering a go.