S.L.E.D. for safety—smart bouldering for novices
After a trip to the climbing gym, you’re hooked. With brand new shoes and chalkbag, you venture out to the boulders, a confusing new world. Chalk, not tape, marks the holds, and the landings are made of earth, not foam. Excitedly, you launch up your first real problem. Ten feet up your head starts spinning. You’re stuck, a jagged maw of rocks menaces below, and you swear you can hear an ambulance siren in the distance.
Next time, use the “S.L.E.D.” (Spotter, Landing, Exposure, and Descent) acronym to choose boulder problems appropriate for your levels of experience, motivation, and boldness.
Spotter. Nearly all climbing texts preach the use of spotters in bouldering. The presence of a friend or two to keep your head, neck, and back from striking the ground is both comforting and prudent. This is particularly true if the problem is high off the deck, requires gymnastic, compromising body positions (such as heel hooks, which expose your head and back to injury in a fall), or has a marginal landing. Select your spotter using the same care with which you would choose a belayer. Although the spotter’s job is not to “catch” you, she must be capable of breaking your fall. Think twice if your spotter fails to inspire confidence as a result of small stature, inexperience, or laziness.
Landing. The “landing,” or ground beneath a boulder problem, is easy to evaluate. Is it flat and free of ankle-tweaking obstructions? Or is it a rock-strewn slope, without a good spotting stance? Poor landings can often be cleaned up with environmental respect (see the Sport Techtip, “Eco-padding — limit your bouldering impact,” No. 215), and crashpads or multiple spotters will also mitigate landing hazards.
Exposure. Though exposure usually refers to height, a more complex definition incorporates landing, body position, and mindset. Your mindset is important, as exposure depends as much upon your perception of apparent risk as that of actual risk. For example, a 20-foot V0 cruiser with a good landing might not feel exposed, but a shorter, harder V3 with gymnastic moves and a rocky landing might feel dicey. Neophyte boulderers should err on the side of caution. One rule of thumb is to consider whether you would willingly jump off the top of a problem. If the top is too high for a jump, perhaps it is no longer a boulder problem, but rather a free solo. Once again, crashpads and spotters help minimize these hazards.
Descent. Climbing an unfamiliar problem is invigorating, but it can also leave you stranded — an embarrassing and potentially dangerous predicament. Don’t go up until you know how to get down. A stroll around the boulder will provide all the information you need. Remember to use the same caution descending a boulder as you did climbing it, and call in the spotters and crash pads if you need reinforcements.