By Dave Westlake
So the prime bouldering season is upon us. Maybe you got a new bouldering mat for Christmas? Or maybe you just fancy getting out a bit more this year and ticking off some harder problems? This is for you - an article aimed at those who will have already done a bit of bouldering and are considering getting more serious. Improvement can be rapid, especially at first, if you approach bouldering with a good attitude and the right tactics. There are several ‘tips of the trade’ practiced by more seasoned boulderers that will assist in your quest to improve and immerse yourself in this highly enjoyable and addictive activity.
The importance of conditions is something you will hear time and again in bouldering circles and just how significant this variable is will become increasingly clear to you the more immersed in bouldering you become. The reason for this is that in optimal conditions the friction between you and the rock improves and this makes it easier to cling to the holds – a fact that is particularly applicable to slopey holds. Generally speaking, optimal friction prevails within an approximate temperature window of between -3 and +5 degrees Celsius. However, some warmer days can also yield excellent friction if humidity is low, and wind chill is also very significant. A strong wind can take conditions from good to unbearable, so on windy days you will be looking for a higher temperature range. On colder days the rubber on your shoes also tends to stay firmer, meaning that it may be slightly easier to stand on small footholds. When it is really warm, rubber is softer and deforms more, which can mean small footholds do not feel so good. Of course getting optimal conditions only really apply for those days when you are trying something near your limit, so it isn’t always a restrictive factor. Days that are too warm to try your hardest projects are excellent for doing easier circuits.
In such chilly temperatures warming up becomes a challenge and it can be difficult to stay warm between attempts. Trying to stay active throughout the session can work wonders, and climbing a few easy problems rather than standing around resting before your next try at the hard project is a good method, although not all crags are furnished with an array of climbs to make this possible. Either way, standing around is likely to be something you will do a fair bit of so it is important to be kitted out appropriately. For me this usually means a warm base layer and a t-shirt over the top. Being a boulderer, wearing a beanie hat comes naturally and on really cold days I sometimes opt for a thin pair of long johns. During rest periods the only option in really cold conditions is a down or synthetic insulated jacket. These are phenomenally warm and can be thrown on and off easily between tries. You may want to learn from my mistake here and get a jacket rather than pullover style, but above all go for one with a hood. My hoodless pullover does the job but on really cold days there is little I wouldn’t do for a hood! Another thing worth having up your sleeve (perhaps literally) on cold days is a handwarmer. These can be used many times and activated to provide heat when needed. They are small enough to keep in your pockets but can also go into a chalkbag for staying warm easily on longer problems and traverses.
As you progress through the grades you will find that the quality of the skin covering your fingertips becomes increasingly important. The slopier the holds become, the more thin or damaged skin is a limiting factor. While I will stop short of suggesting you book a place at your local beauty salon, making every effort to take care of your fingertips will undoubtedly pay dividends. I have lost count the number of times having ‘good’ skin would have been the key to success on a hard problem.
There are several methods of stacking the skin odds in your favour, and some of these may seem highly counter-intuitive. The specific skin care regime you choose will depend on your skin type and the kind of bouldering you usually do. There are however some tips that are pretty much universal, so let’s start with prevention. A common preventative measure is the use of an emery board to sand the fingertips smooth. But why would you want to sand your fingertips thinner? Let me explain. Often, large crystals or sharp edges on holds can lead to splits and tears in fingertips. Sometimes these are unavoidable, but often they are a result of the smaller nicks and imperfections being caught and made bigger. On occasions where the abrasion of the rock gradually causes these small tears the best course of action is to sand them off making a smooth skin surface that is less likely to catch and tear (see image). Another, more extreme method of hardening the skin is used by some boulderers: Antihydral cream. This rather strange cream apparently comes from Europe but worryingly nobody seems to know what medical use it is designed for. Originally, rumours suggested it was used by amputee’s to harden the skin on their ‘stumps’ (hence the nickname ‘stump cream’) but it later transpired that this was not the case. Anyway, a careful application can lead to a temporary hardening of the skin, although in my opinion this is not really a long term option since repeated use can dry the skin so much your fingertips turn yellow! An arguably safer strategy might be to alter the way in which you climb, as this can also make a difference to how your skin holds up. Aiming to grasp sharp or abrasive holds in a controlled (rather than slappy) manner, and taking more weight on your feet can mean that your skin lasts longer and avoids big tears and cuts. So you’ve followed all the advice and still ended up with a split tip? Yes, despite all the things you can do to try and avoid sore skin, it is almost inevitable that it will need some healing sooner or later. This is where moisturising comes in, and some moisturisers are also designed to heal. Using products like Climb On! is a good idea whatever type of skin you have – as simply using chalk a lot can lead to drying and cracking of the hands. Alternatives to Climb On! I’ve used are wheat germ oil (one of the ingredients in CO), and Palmers cocoa butter. Both worked okay, but I would use CO every time given the choice.
When time and energy are limited it is important that you maximise your chances each time you try a hard problem. Ensuring that you take sufficient rest between tries is sensible as this will minimise ‘bad’ attempts where you waste skin and energy. It is also important to ensure that your shoes are clean and dry, and the holds are brushed and not greasy. Take a towel to wipe your shoes and a small mat or carpet off-cut to stand on while resting – this way your shoes remain dirt free and sticky for those slopey smears.
Try and concentrate when you do go for it and aim to hit every hold correctly. If you mess up at the start of your project just step off and wait for another try – don’t hang on in there at all costs only to fail at the end through fatigue. If you come from a trad climbing background this may seem like an alien concept –you will be used to ‘hanging on in there’ at all costs. This kind of approach may prove very useful for hard flashes and traverses but is less applicable in other bouldering situations. Figure out the appropriate mental strategy for whatever your goal is, and stick to it.
Is variety, or so the saying goes. While it is never difficult to find examples of people who have climbed at a very high level in a specific style or on a rock type that suites them, I am always more impressed by people who can turn their hand to any style. For example, someone who’s maximum grade is 7a+ but who can climb 7a consistently on roofs, slabs, arêtes etc is likely to have a far better ticklist than the person who can campus the occasional, steep 7c, but who struggles on 5c slabs. Often, wall-bred climbers do particularly well on ‘basic’ problems where it boils down to power and strength, but find themselves climbing much lower grades on more subtle climbs where technique is required. The more versatile you are, the more you will get out of climbing as there will be a greater choice of problems you can do. The best way to develop this versatility is to climb on as wide a variety of problems and rock types as possible. In the classic climbing film Stone Love Ben Moon suggests that the reason he and Jerry Moffatt were so successful was because they travelled so much. This allowed them to experience a wide range of climbing styles and edge ahead of the pack. The more variety you get in your bouldering, the better your base level ability will become. You will develop a better sense of movement and find optimal body positions more instinctively. Getting a solid base level is important as it is the foundation upon which your harder climbs will be built. At first, simply bouldering as much as possible will stand you in much better stead than any specific ‘training’, although there will come a time when you may decide training is necessary to get to the next level. This may take a variety of forms, but as a general rule doing some pull ups, leg raises and a bit of ongoing work on the fingerboard are likely to pay dividends at a later stage. Whatever training you decide to do, working on your weaknesses is certainly a good approach although having the discipline for this is often difficult!
So, to summarise the key ‘tricks of the trade’ that have been covered: