I had been to a climbing gym once or twice, but only started climbing seriously while I was stationed in Okinawa in 2005. A friend of mine, Jay, took me outdoors and got me on a top-rope. I was hooked instantly. It was exhilirating, challenging, and focused my attention both mentally and physically in a way I’d never really experienced before. Admittedly, the gear was no small part of the attraction at the beginning, and sport climbing involves a considerable amount of gear.
“Free-climbing,” or class five climbing, is defined as climbing a vertical or near-vertical face under your own strength, without the aid of special gear in your upward motion (though most people use safety gear in case they fall).[^1]
Free-climbing is further divided into “traditional,” or “trad,” climbing, “sport” climbing, and “bouldering.” Trad involves climbing bare rock while placing cams and nuts into cracks as protection from falling. Sport routes are generally bolted, meaning bolts and anchors are drilled into the rock at certain intervals so you can place protection.[^2]
Like most, I started out sport climbing on top-rope, i.e. with a rope already set up at the top of a route, but Jay very quickly got me on lead by not telling me how much harder and scarier it was. Which worked pretty well. (His other trick was to refuse to let me down until I’d finished a route.) And I really enjoyed it and stuck with it. I continued to buy gear: higher-performance shoes, carabiners, quick-draws; and I was preparing to make the leap to trad, an intimidating prospect considering how much more money I’d have to spend on a rack of cams and nuts, as well as the substantial new body of expertise I’d have to absorb: protection placement.
But then a funny thing happened: I went in the opposite direction, I started bouldering. All it took was an invitation to join a couple of acquaintances from the University climbing gym on a bouldering trip to Squamish.
Bouldering, of course, is the practice of climbing relatively low, but generally much more difficult routes, or “problems” in bouldering terms. The practice started as just that: practice, something for rock-climbing pioneers to do in Yosemite Valley, between ascents of big walls, to train for strength and technique. It soon became an activity unto itself.
I had bouldered before the Squamish trip, of course, but only idly, mostly between sport routes or when I couldn’t find a partner. It had always just seemed like sport climbing, except shorter. But that trip to Squamish unlocked an understanding about the very divergent nature of bouldering for me that’s a bit difficult to articulate.
There are all the obvious differences: bouldering involves less gear, just a pair of shoes and optionally a chalk bag and crash pad versus shoes, chalk bag, rope, harness, belay device, a rack of quick-draws, a helmet, and (importantly) a partner. And as I mentioned earlier, while the equipment was initially a draw for me, I later found that it and other meta-climbing periphera like learning strategy, clipping techniques, knots, belay techniques, etc. served to distract me from the business of actual climbing.
Bouldering also generally involves more strength and intensity whereas sport climbing emphasizes endurance and economy of motion. It was bouldering that opened my eyes not only to the incredible range of what the human body is capable of, but also to a greater understanding of how seemingly unrelated factors contribute in a holistic fashion to success. Sport climbing necessitates strategic thinking, but bouldering narrows focus onto specific technique: everything from minutely detailed adjustments in foot placement,[^3] to frequently counter-intuitive body-positioning, to the all-important engagement of core muscles.
In these and other general ways, bouldering is a more abstract and more internally pure experience. The distinct values inherent to the separate disciplines are right there in their respective objectives. The sport climber’s goal, to scale a natural formation, is decidedly more external, because altitude is the ambition and measure of achievement, whereas the boulderer’s goal is better described as performing a somewhat arbitrary, artificial, perhaps contrived series of movements.[^4] This distinction isn’t airtight, by any means: the sport climber does not simply choose the easiest ascent of a particular crag or peak or face, and neither does the boulderer generally have completely arbitrary starting and finishing points.[^5] But the distinction remains.
Where sport climbing is a struggle to conquer nature, bouldering is a struggle to conquer one’s own weakness.
The two disciplines are complementary, to be sure; each makes you better to a large degree at the other. But bouldering teaches you more about your own body, about your personal biomechanics,[^6] and about how to most effectively wield them. And it is for me an ultimately more spiritual experience, in that for long moments at a time, instead of all the nearly omnipresent internal voices chattering about which holds to use and how far the next clip is, there is, internally, only silence, only pure, focused will, a transcendently complete collapse of mind and body.
Somewhat paradoxically, bouldering is also more social than sport climbing. Whereas sport climbers generally work in pairs, alternating between climbing and belaying, boulderers, with notable exceptions, tend to gather in groups and work problems and problem sets together, with mutual encouragement and instruction.[^7] I’ve definitely met more people bouldering than I ever did sport climbing.[^8]
I’ve been climbing for about six years now, and find myself in a bit of a dilemma. As I get stronger and more capable, and climb harder problems, I put disproportionately more stress on certain joints, and my aging body[^9] meanwhile is more susceptible to injury, and needs longer recovery times. Certain knuckles are more or less permanently inflamed now, and tendons in both wrists strained. And at the same time, improvement that was steady for years has slowed to a trickle.
All of which is merely to note that the low-hanging fruit of youthful vigor and easy improvement have been harvested, and the real work is simply yet to begin. It means I have to be a better steward of my body, and that any further improvement is going to be hard-won. It means I’ll actually have to spend time on preventive weight-lifting and exercises, focus training sessions on specific strength and technical objectives, cross-train for endurance, generally pay more attention to what my body is telling me.
As with any serious endeavor (I suspect), the more I learn about climbing, the more I become aware of the humbling vastness of what I don’t know. After a period of soul-searching and asking myself if the point of climbing was to get better at climbing, or to enjoy myself, I realize, even as I write this, that the two are intertwined, and that my own struggle with weakness is only now beginning.
[^1]: Class six climbing is called “aid climbing,” and involves ascenders and other tools to essentially create artifical hand- and footholds. Class four, or “scrambling,” is climbing relatively gently sloped surfaces with only the occasional need for hands.
[^2]: More extreme (read: dangerous) forms of climbing include “free soloing,” and the recently pioneered “free basing.” Free soloing refers to climbing routes alone sans protective gear, with a fall generally resulting in serious injury or death. As far as I know, Dean Potter is the only person in the world to combine free soloing with BASE jumping in what he calls free base climbing: he free solos wearing a parachute that he can deploy if he falls. This allows him to push the limits of free soloing, extending the range of what he can attempt without any other equipment. Also, he generally jumps from the top of a route he’s climbed.
[^3]: Both on footholds (using toes, edges, and heel-hooks) and in support positions (flagging).
[^4]: To speak in broad generalities, in my experience, sport (and, naturally, trad) climbers tend to think and talk a lot more about nature and their relationship to it (adversarial or otherwise) than boulderers, emphasize outdoor climbing a lot more, and get bored and tired of indoor climbing much more easily.
[^5]: Either way, it’s an absurd activity, rock-climbing, though I think bouldering is more accepting of this inherenet absurdity.
[^6]: People have a fairly astounding variety of shapes and sizes. Height is an obvious differentiator when it comes to climbing (though, somewhat counterintuitively, excessive height is often a liability when it comes to difficult bouldering because the strength to weight ratio is a lot harder to maximize) but so are wingspan versus leg versus torso lengths, flexibility, hand/finger size, and muscle density. Two climbers of equal height and strength may have vastly different climbing styles due to different limb lengths and flexibility.
[^7]: A friend once made the comparison to skateboarding, which I’ve never done, but the comparison definitely seems apt.
[^8]: The majority of our Portland friends are either climbers or people we met through climbers.
[^9]: Not that I’m that old, but I never had a single injury and could climb more energetically and for longer intervals with shorter recovery times just a couple of years ago.