Bouldering is essentially a form of rock climbing without the rope. It involves climbing short distances and planning different routes up the rock face through various techniques, physical strength and problem-solving.
Part of the appeal is that the sport requires very little equipment – you’ll need bouldering shoes, chalk and mats – and it gives you an opportunity to get out in nature. Something many have been hankering for after months in lockdown.
Keen to give it a try, I reach out to Yanni Zhou from Urban Climb in Collingwood, Melbourne, who agrees to run me through the basics in a safe indoor setting first. I receive snug bouldering shoes, which feel like a cross between a sock and a runner. Zhou takes me through some stretches and warm-ups, emphasising the importance of limbering up before hitting the wall. She tells us it’s particularly important to warm up the shoulders, hips, wrists and forearms to help improve performance and reduce the risk of injury.
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I’m guided to a beginner wall to learn how to fall; Zhou explains that landing softly on your body is imperative, no matter where you’re climbing. She also guides me through some easy climbs then onto a wall with a higher grading of difficulty. Soon my forearms are shaky, and I could appreciate why she’d recommended learning the basics in a controlled environment. There are times I need to jump and fall from the wall or learn how to swing my body (in a dynamic way) to get to new holds. I have the confidence to do this knowing the mat beneath me is a safety net. Hanging from my arms is a new sensation and trying to move through the routes on the walls feels as much of a mental challenge as a physical one. It also helps to have Zhou just behind me, cheering me on.
But transferring these newly learned skills into the great outdoors seems like a whole new hurdle. So I contact Riley Edwards, president and founding member of Climbing QTs – a climbing group based in Melbourne – who has eight years’ experience climbing in the great outdoors.
There are a few things to be mindful of when transitioning from indoor to outdoor climbing, Edwards says, including personal, physical and emotional safety. To avoid injury and reduce the risk of accidents, they say it’s important to bring mats to go on the ground under the boulder or rock you’re intending to climb. It sounds like a no-brainer, but if you fall, you’ll fall onto the mat rather than on the hard ground.
It’s also essential to have someone with you to spot your moves. Edwards tells Broadsheet someone should “stand by to help direct you onto the mat”. They say mindset is also key. “[Be] humble and remember that we’re all sort of on a learning journey.”
Edwards says there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. “Everyone finds their own way to solve a problem or move their bodies and figure out routes that they want to do. It’s a mix of flexibility and agility and then strength.”
A good way to begin is to join a climbing community, which can be found all across Australia, and to just “give it a go”, they say. There are also many guides of crags (climbing areas) that you can find easily online.
The other thing to be mindful and respectful of, says Edwards, are the traditional custodians of the crag you’re planning to use. This includes not littering in the area, trying to limit the amount of chalk you leave on the rocks, and respecting the wishes of the traditional owners if there are rules or advice around not climbing on sacred ground.
Top tips for climbing safely outdoors:
1. Stretch beforehand – especially your forearms, wrists, shoulders and hips.
2. Be aware of the mats, so if you fall you can direct your body towards them.
3. Be conscious of other climbers around you.
4. There’s no need to rush. If you go too hard, too soon, you can risk injury.
5. Be aware of the elements. If you encounter insects, stay calm, it’s all part of the experience.
6. Go with mates who can spot you (and then return the favour).
7. Rest between climbing days to reduce the risk of injury.
8. Be kind to yourself. Have fun.