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A Beginner’s Guide to Outdoor Bouldering

From pad management to spotting, some great reminders for early-season climbing

As crags open, climbers begin to return to their favourite outdoor spaces. Though these restrictions are beginning to ease, it will be a while before climbers are able to return to the gyms. So climbing outside has become exceptionally attractive to newer climbers.

For many new climbers, bouldering seems like the most accessible discipline. With a crash pad, some chalk and a pile of stoke, almost anyone can go outside and enjoy the beautiful boulders that define local crags. Though bouldering is arguably the most accessible type of climbing, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Respect Your Community

Climbing outside is a great way to be out in the environment. Unfortunately, as restrictions lift, there is the possibility that crags will become overwhelmed. Your local crag’s ecosystem may not be able to handle an influx of people. Unique from indoor climbing, outdoor climbing requires access from various land managers. Though the restrictions may have lifted in some parks, it is important to remember that the government is not considering the impacts of climbers on the environment.

As a result, that responsibility has fallen on the shoulders of community leaders. It is important that we respect natural spaces and our community members so that we avoid destroying this land. It can be challenging to self-regulate, but it would be far more challenging to lose all access to some of the most beautiful places in the country. Respect the land, respect each other, and listen to access groups and community leaders.

Learning To Spot

Spotting is one of the most necessary Skills in outdoor bouldering. If you have spent a lot of time climbing inside, you have probably received some instruction already. Both in the gym and outside, it is important to cup your hands slightly. This may have been expressed to you as “spoons not forks.” This is as much for the climber’s benefit as it is the spotter’s. By cupping your hands, you reduce the risk of jamming your fingers. It is important to keep your arms slightly bent to protect your elbows. The most important rule is to ensure that the climber’s head hits the ground last if it has to hit the ground at all. Though these skills are necessary for indoor bouldering, you may notice how infrequently people spot inside.

This is because climbers feel secure in a facility with flat, regular mats that extend beyond the limits of where they might fall. The setters create problems with safety in mind and strive to produce an accessible environment. Outdoor bouldering is not like this. The environment is irregular, the pads are thinner, and the boulder problems are not intelligently designed for safety. As such, it is important that you spot your climber on every burn. If someone is flying off a boulder, you will have to do more than protect their head. In fact, you may have to throw them into the pads a bit. Recognize the obstacle of the area and keep your ground clear. It is difficult to spot if you are having to stare at the ground to find your footing while the climber is on the wall. It is important to watch the way more experienced climbers spot outside.

Pad Management

Pad management is an overlooked skill. You lay the pads out, everything looks nice, you begin to climb and fifteen minutes later the pads have shifted down the hill. It is important to keep up your pads and eliminate the dangers of falling between them. It is common for a climber to split the pads in this way. Depending on the fall, the climber could receive an avoidable injury.

Learning To Fall

Though it is your spotter’s job to manage fall risk, it is also the climber’s responsibility to honestly assess their own skill. It is important to find the various fall risks a problem might pose. This is related to pad management. Putting crash pads directly under a line might not protect the fall, depending on the movement. Take the time to figure out what each fall might look like. In  bouldering, every fall is a ground fall. That means that dissipating energy is essential to avoiding injury. Even though crash pads are soft, landing on them with locked legs or elbows will eventually yield injury. Try and absorb the shock and roll on the pads if the situation requires it. Falling outside is just as much of a skill as climbing. It is important to watch the way more experienced climbers fall to maintain your safety.

Beware Of Choss

Even still, it is important to assess every boulder problem for loose rock even if you are in a world-class area. A chalk “X” drawn on a portion of rock tells you that the hold is loose and might break. It is best to avoid these holds. Not only are they dangerous for the climber, they are dangerous for the spotter. Falling rock can seriously injure someone. Yell “Rock!” if you see falling debris. Choss, or loose rock, can exist anywhere. Something to consider when climbing outside is the rock-type. For example, choss is less likely in granite areas due to the strength of that rock-type, though it pays to be wary. At the Niagara Glen, however, the rock is Dolomitic Limestone. This is a softer rock type that can become weaker with traffic.

Climb Dry Rock

Though we would all appreciate perfect conditions when we go out, it is common to find wet rock. If you have a sick project, it can be hard to not climb when it is wet. However, climbing wet rock, especially wet limestone and sandstone, can really damage the constitution of the boulder. Let it dry and come back to it later.

Crag Ethics

Finally, we arrive at crag ethics. Nobody wants to be told how to enjoy climbing outside, but there are a couple guidelines that are based on respecting the environment and the other climbers in it. Here’s a quick guide:

  • Don’t play music at the crag:
    • Rock climbing has inherent risk. If you are blasting some sick tunes, you might be distracting a climber that is about to complete a dangerous move. It is our job to respect their process, even if that means we can’t break out the speaker.
  • Watch your chalk:
    • Spilling chalk buckets in the gym is one thing but pouring magnesium carbonate all of the crag is a sure way to lose access. If you spill, clean it up. That might mean you have dirt in your chalk pot, but that is a small price to pay for access to a beautiful area. In that same vein, brush your holds and tick marks after you leave a problem. When chalk is caked onto a hold, it ruins the aesthetics of an area. This can be enough to shut down a crag.
  • Leave no trace:
    • If you see garbage, clean it up. A pair of gloves and a garbage bag ensure that you do not have to touch the trash with your hands. It may not feel like your responsibility, but as climbers, we are stewards of our crags. If you don’t pick it up, who will? There is nothing more impressive than someone giving back to the community that they love.
  • Be a leader:
    • Though it is important to follow these guidelines, it is also important to be a leader and a teacher. Do not police other people. Instead, communicate with them and lead by example.

Featured photo of Andy Liu.