Bouldering outdoors - First time out of the gym
Bouldering is a form of climbing without using ropes, typically on walls that are no more than a few metres high. There are hundreds of bouldering gyms around the UK and the World, but most boulderers prefer to climb outdoors. Using the Font grading system, the grades start at 3, which is basically a ladder, and continue to progress right up to 9a/9b, which is so elite that most people will never be able to climb to this level. Read more about bouldering grades here.
We started bouldering a few years ago in London and went on a few dates to VauxWall, but it wasn’t very frequent and we weren’t very good. Our lives became quite unsettled for a year whilst we travelled and moved house, so climbing was put on hold until about 8 months ago when we eventually settled in Wales. North Wales is a mecca for boulderers because there are so many fantastic places to climb, but climbing outdoors can be a little intimidating when you’ve only ever been to gyms. We decided that we’d make the most of the cold wet Winter months to get as strong and confident as possible, then we’d brave the outdoor rock in Spring.
Every week we would climb for an hour or two, gradually reducing the amount of resting time we needed. Our grades improved and we celebrated our first 5a, 5b, 5c and 6a! It was official, we could now call ourselves boulderers as we’d finally reached the ‘intermediate’ grades! In January 2019 we completed our top roping course and started to climb longer roped routes too. As the weather started to improve we realised that we no longer had an excuse, we needed to get outdoors and climb real rock.
In March 2019 we saw our chance, a whole weekend of sun! We bought the North Wales Bouldering book and found a collection of boulders with a variety of easy grades called the RAC Boulders. On a sunny Saturday morning, we packed our bouldering mats into the boot of our car and drove to the boulders. It was so quiet and peaceful, no-one else was around. We were a little nervous and spent a while trying to suss out which routes looked easiest or had a nice landing spot. After 15 minutes of debating where to start, we settled on some really easy slab routes. Boulderers usually hate slabs as they require a lot of body tension and balance control, but beginner routes by their very nature are a lot less technical. For some strange reason, I find slabs more comforting to climb. Maybe I prefer to slide down the rock as I fall, rather than fall straight off? Or maybe I’m just not very good at powerful dynamic moves…
It took me a lot longer to climb than when I’m indoors because the holds weren’t obvious. I could have been making the routes much harder than they were meant to be by using tiny holds, but when the rock is all the same colour, it’s pretty difficult to work out where to put your hands and feet. If you watch climbers on Youtube, you’ll notice that the holds they use are covered in chalk. If a route is popular with climbers, there will be residue chalk left where everyone has been gripping the same spot, but climbers will also chalk the holds beforehand to allow for a quicker climb when they are on a challenging route. Being the only people at the RAC boulders, we had no-one to watch or ask about the routes. We were using our book to work out the routes and then guessing which holds to use. It was fun though; I loved being able to problem solve and think creatively on the boulders.
Another element we weren’t used to was mantling, where you have to climb up and onto the top of the boulder to complete the climb. Most indoor gyms have the rule that to complete, or ‘top’ a route, the climber has to touch both hands onto the last hold or the top of the wall. Mantling is a new skill altogether and can feel a little unnerving when you’re so high up. I had to throw myself onto some of the the boulders; it wasn’t very graceful! Then there’s the issue of getting back down again. Down-climbing in gyms is easy as there will usually be an easier route to climb down on. Down-climbing outdoors however, is very tricky as you can’t see where to put your hands and feet. Luckily most of the RAC boulders had a fairly easy way down. The landing was a lovely pile of mud though; not great for our climbing shoes.
Although we climbed at lower grades than we’re able to climb at the gym, we had a fantastic time and loved being outdoors. Completing a new route is so much more rewarding when you’re outside. It felt as if we were conquering these epic boulders, rather than just topping out and ticking off a new route. There is more fear-factor related to falling outdoors though, especially if you only have a couple of bouldering mats. You need to pay more attention to the ground and hazards around you as well as where you’re climbing. Having a partner to spot you is very important as they can move the mats around and make sure you land the right way up.
So what’s next for our climbing adventures? Well… As soon as we find another sunny weekend without plans, we’ll be heading to some more bouldering sites to try some fairly easy over-hangs and a few tougher grades. We’ll continue rope climbing indoors every week to build our stamina, but we’ve planned a trip to Fontainebleau Forest in June, so we’ll need to continue practising our mantles and getting outdoors as much as possible.
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