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Oh no, disaster! Your tips are bleeding and you can’t seem to pull on! Since getting completely hooked on bouldering at the gym, you’ve made steady progress, moving from V1 to V3. You planned your first trip out on to rock and had high hopes for smashing out some similar solid V numbers. You trained hard and rested up beforehand, but upon arriving, felt like a rookie out there. You couldn’t read the moves, your skin got trashed, and you felt burned out, no matter how long you rested. You wonder what went wrong.
For many gym-based boulderers, the first forays onto rock are frustrating. Real rock sounded like the dream, yet turned out to be a bit of a nightmare. Sure, we hear that we should lower our expectations when we try to transition outside, but if you’re strong, keen, and have good technique indoors, then why shouldn’t you expect to equal your gym PBs?
Let’s look at how to avoid the common pitfalls.
Plan out the trip
First up, do everything in your power to resist the temptation to explode off the blocks (or blocs) and trash yourself in the first few hours. In indoor climbing, most of us are used to doing a steady warm-up, leading into a relatively short session (of, say, two to three hours). A classic mistake on rock is to get overexcited and go too hard, too fast and without sufficient rest.
Check the guidebook and make a loose plan based on the grade spread and climbing style in each area. On the first day, head for a warm-up area with a cluster of easy and mid-grade problems, preferably in a range of styles. Get your footwork going on some slabs. You will find the footholds on rock to be smaller and the foot sequences more complex than in the gym, so move around and start to learn the nuances of the rock (while also delaying the inevitable assault on your arms!) Then get in some mileage, doing numerous problems comfortably below your max. Avoid going for the steep project on day one.
On the second day you can step things up and head for steeper, harder problems, but if it’s a longer trip then please still keep yourself on a leash. It makes more sense to consolidate with a cluster of quick sends rather than sieging something at your top end. This approach is to build confidence and establish some consistency, as well as to save energy and skin. Even elite climbers expect a learning curve upon visiting a new area.
Rest longer than you would between problems at the gym, even when doing mileage on easier blocs, to stretch out the length of your session. Take regular breaks. Pull your shoes off, and kick back with your buddies to enjoy your surroundings.
If the trip is longer than two days, factor in rest days. Sure, you will be tempted to cheat and go to the area to do easy problems on rest days, but you simply need to spare your skin from the sharp stone; give your toes a rest from tight climbing shoes; and, more than either, give your mind a break. It’s easy to underestimate the amount of concentration required in bouldering, especially when it always seems like our arms and fingers have taken the biggest hiding.
There is no single formula for balancing rest days with climbing days, but the underlying concepts are pretty simple. The more you do and the harder you push, the more rest you need. Ask yourself what really matters—is this trip about the number of hours you spend at the rocks, or do you want to come away feeling like you climbed well and kept the quality up?
If you stop for lunch, avoid a huge meal that may make you feel lethargic. Much better to graze on small snacks throughout the day. If you’re a caffeine head, then you know the pitfalls. A flask of the strong stuff can be a treat in the outdoors but if you go buck-wild you may start shaking and missing footholds.
Equipment and preparation
Make no mistake, for bouldering on rock you need tight shoes (you might want to bring comfortable ones for warming up). That comfy all-day pair just won’t cut it, even on the so-called easy slabs. You will also need an arsenal of equipment for cleaning surfaces. Brush the holds with a soft brush to keep them clean. Take a piece of carpet so you can wipe your shoes before stepping onto your crash pad, as well as a swat rag for keeping the pad clean.
Make sure your shoes are spotless before every attempt. This ritual is not necessary in the gym, is easy to forget, and requires discipline; however, it counters one of the most common and easily avoidable errors, of trying to stick smears or small footers with gunk on your shoes.
Gyms represent a relatively constant and predictable environment, in terms of temperature and humidity; outside, things are constantly changing.
For a boulderer, it’s all about being at the right crag at the right time. Check your guidebook, read up on optimum conditions for each area, and plan your trips accordingly. Consider conditions to be crucial! On the wrong day, a warm-up problem can feel impossible, yet on the perfect day a dream project can fall with minimal effort. If it’s too warm or humid: You slip and slide. Avoid sun unless you’re in the midst of winter and the temperatures are below zero. You need weather that is cool but not too cold, or your skin can be prone to splitting; and air that is dry, but not too dry, or your fingers can skid (dry-fire) off the holds. On certain days the conditions will change, even if the boulders remain in the shade. Evening can bring a fine dampness that can hinder friction, or even help it. An entire book could be written on the nuances of this subject but the short advice is to keep your nose to the air!
The most common trap for indoor boulderers on rock is to trash their skin much more quickly than expected. This is another huge topic, extending to the nuances of different rock types and the individuality of skin types, but the basic advice is to heed the previous advice about conditions and not to climb or to rein it in when it’s way too hot, humid or cold. More specifically, avoid slapping repeatedly for the same hold. Inspect your skin after each attempt, and if it’s looking pink or you see a crease or flap appearing, then take it as a warning shot and either tape up or stop. Rest longer than instinct dictates, to let your skin cool down, and be prepared to call time even if you’re in the zone. Stopping takes the most discipline of all and means that you need to be prepared to walk away when the send might have been in the cards. But gashing a tip affects your whole trip.
Some people build calluses easily, and others struggle with skin that gets sore quickly. Most experienced boulderers will factor in time at the start of a trip for their skin to adjust to the rock. Take sandpaper or an emery board to file down calluses and uneven layers of skin. You should also take all your usual skin-repair products and balms with you, and put them on religiously after climbing and overnight, but don’t expect a miracle cure. By far, the priority is not to go through a tip in the first place. Healing is far harder than prevention.
Be humble and open minded
When coaching in Fontainebleau over the years I lost count of the number of times I saw very strong climbers humbled by so-called easy problems. In general, the route-reading and sequencing on rock is very different to that of plastic, and the holds can be harder to spot. Invest extra time and care in route-reading and analyzing your movement. You may as well use those extra-long rests productively! A subtle turn of a foot or the use of a thumb may unlock a seemingly impossible move. Watch the locals, absorb their beta, and move away from judging problems by their grade. A harder problem might suit you, whereas an easier problem might not. This is rock climbing, it’s all learning, and it’s all good.
Attune to your environment
Rock climbing has a spiritual element that a new person from a gym might miss. The more you talk to experienced rock climbers, the more you understand that most are very much in tune with their surroundings. Notice the light and shade, hear the wind in the trees and the bird song, breathe the air and feel the texture of the stone. This may sound like mumbo-jumbo but it represents the wisest truth of all. Heed this advice and you will dial into a rhythm for each crag. Not only will you climb better as a result, you’ll have more fun along the path. Which also makes you climb better.
Neil Gresham, a British climber and coach, has climbed 8c+, E10 trad (5.14XX) and WI7. Between 2000 and 2017 he ran annual bouldering courses in Fontainebleau for groups of intermediates. He now offers personalized training plans at www.neilgresham.com.