I love bouldering

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Bouldering

Bouldering is a subdiscipline of climbing. Several aspects of bouldering made a positive impression on me:

  • the challenge, striving, and subsequent conquest
  • the physicality, urgency, and presence of being on the wall
  • the rhythm, elegance, and power of a good beta1
  • its simplicity and accessibility
  • its variety

I’ll write about each of these turn, and hopefully, persuade you to give it a shot!

Striving and conquest

First, a definition:

Problem
the path that a climber takes in order to complete the climb

Problems are graded from V0 anywhere up to V15. In indoor climbing gyms, the allowed foot-holds and hand-holds are typically plastic, and identified by color. Outdoors, everything is “in”, and you make your own path up the rock.

Circles mark the places where you're allowed to place hands and feet. How would you solve this?

Although problems are graded up to - and perhaps beyond - the V15 grade, you don’t have to be climbing V15’s to feel the joy that comes with solving a problem that’s eluded you. Actually, the more of a beginner you are, the faster you’ll progress, and the more you’ll experience this feeling of sublime triumph!

I’ve played several other sports seriously, but I’ve never come across one where striving, failure and subsequent conquest were so prominent and ubiquitous, even at the earliest levels. You can’t will yourself to make a three-point shot in basketball for example, because there’s a lower bound of skill you have to attain first. A beginning climber can, through sheer force of will and physical power, solve a problem that’s tough for his or her level. And the subsequent feeling of conquest is empowering2 and addicting!

Being present

In bouldering, there are no ropes or harnesses. Your only protection is a mat, so you have to either not fall, or fall properly. Given these two options, it’s hard for my mind to be elsewhere while I’m on the wall.

I can’t be thinking about what happened today at work, what I’ll eat for dinner, or any other past or future concern. I have to be present.

We’re all constantly bombarded with distractions in so many other areas of our life. Climbing is not only a refuge, but an activity where focus is paramount.

Optimal betas

Though I mentioned above that it’s possible to will yourself up a problem, I’m definitely not encouraging a brute force approach to climbing!

While the best climbers are strong and powerful, they’re also technical and efficient, and have honed some fundamentals to perfection:

  • body positioning, footwork, and controlling center of mass
  • utilizing different parts of the body to minimize physical exertion
  • knowing when to climb statically vs. when to climb dynamically

When you’ve worked a problem enough and gained some technique3, and found a solution that works for your body type and skill, climbing it takes minimal effort, and it looks like you’re almost dancing up the wall or roof. I’ve heard good betas described as “smooth”, “elegant”, and “moving up the wall like water”. And although you may have to work a bit to find your optimal beta, it actually feels just as described!

Simplicity and accessibility

In indoor climbing gyms, your hand and foot placements are limited by the route setter’s4 guidance; in an outdoor setting there are even less, if any, restrictions. And the only things you technically need to play are a pair of climbing shoes, and some chalk.

But in all cases, the game is simple: you start on the ground, and your objective is to summit. Be warned though, this is definitely one of those situations where “it’s easier said than done!”

Diversity

We all know professional basketball is dominated by tall people. The average professional swimmer’s height is 6’ 4”5. The average6 male gymnast is around 5’ 7 12”, and the average female gymnast is around 5’.

Obviously, to be an elite athlete of any kind, you’ve got be fit overall, so all climbers - as do all professional athletes - have this in common. But in international competitions, I routinely find people of diverse ages, heights, and body types competing against each other at the highest levels (unfortunately, men and women aren’t competing against each other yet, though I haven’t seen any evidence as to why this is at all justified).

This is because there’s often multiple ways to solve a tough bouldering problem, and it’s up to the climber to find the beta that works for her style and body type. The sport allows for tons of variety, which makes it accessible to lots of different people.


Finally, I’ll expound on a point that I didn’t enumerate in the prequel, which is the sport’s positive impact on my diet and lifestyle.

Climbing has changed my life in a way that no other sport has. Though I’ve been reasonably athletic my entire life and have loved other sports passionately, I’ve never cared about clean eating or proper diet as I do now. On the contrary, my diet was absolute rubbish before I started climbing. But once I started climbing, I realized that a rubbish diet would negatively affect my climbing ability, for obvious reasons. And I don’t want to be clumsy and struggle on the wall, I want to be fluid and effective. It just feels that good.

So since I started climbing, I’ve lost about 10 pounds and am close to my optimal height and weight . I cross-train regularly to balance the muscles that I exert when climbing - not doing this could actually lead to muscular imbalance and injury.

I know it’s only been a few months, so the skeptic in me tells me to revisit this in a year’s time, but I’m quite happy and not struggling with my lifestyle and diet changes. So I’m optimistic that I’ll be in at least a better place a year from now.

Ultimately, I’m not really concerned about the future though, as I’m currently focused on the “problems” at hand :).