There are two main types of climbing: One is the rope/piton/belay deal, where you need a lot of time and gear. The other is bouldering: simple, easy and minimalist. It can be as uncomplicated as clambering up and down a pile of rocks, or working on “problems” on a 10-foot high boulder.
“In bouldering, a way of climbing up is referred to as a ‘problem,’ rather than the roped-climbing term ‘route,’” says Black Diamond’s 28-year-old Jerry Hicks. “A casual person just getting into climbing thinks of ropes and mountains. But many climbers start with bouldering because it packs a sequence of short, powerful moves into a low-risk, easily accessible package.”
Bouldering is like a wilderness gym where anyone, from beginners to big mountain experts, can practice climbing. Do it for an hour, and you’ll exhaust every muscle in your body. Hicks says, “If you’re working on pushing your climbing technique, it’s easy to come out and do five moves right off the ground and work on your absolute limit of strength and balance, over and over again.”
The biggest appeal of the sport is its easy access. One of Hicks’ favorite bouldering spots is “The Gate,” about five miles up Little Cottonwood Canyon. On the left is a turnout where as many as 20 cars may be parked. The immediate winding of the trail to the left takes you out of sight of the road and out of range of traffic noise. Less than a minute from your vehicle, you’ll find a series of boulders in various sizes. It’s like you’ve materialized into an isolated and pristine wilderness setting.
“All you need for bouldering is a crash pad and a chalk bag,” says Hicks. He adds that climbing shoes are also useful “like a car racing tire, giving as much rubber and the stickiest rubber possible. Sometimes you’re using tiny little footholds. … In climbing shoes, a quarter-inch projection from the rock is enough to hold you.”
The Black Diamond retail store is one of several local shops specializing in climbing equipment. A decent starting pair of climbing shoes costs between $80 and $120 there; depending on the size, crash pads range from $150 to $300. Hicks says a pad is important not just for impact absorption but also for leveling out a rocky landing surface. The big ones weigh about 20 pounds and can be carried like a backpack. Small pads can be stuffed between two rocks sticking up, so you can lay a bigger pad on top. Most people don’t wear helmets while bouldering because there’s no rockfall from above as in roped climbing.
You can buy all the top gear you need to get into bouldering for less than $400. But one essential accessory doesn’t cost money: a spotter. “If you fall, your spotters (grab and) redirect you so you don’t land awkwardly,” says Hicks.
He adds, “It’s an amazing workout, because you’re using a ton of core, plus your arms and shoulders and legs. You learn how to spread out your weight between your toes and your hands to use an impossible hold to move somewhere else. You get overall strength, coordination and balance.”
Finding new friends to boulder with is no problem, with community boards at retail stores or climbing gyms like Rockreation or The Front. “Most climbing gyms (have) a board with Post-its that say, ‘need climbing partner,’” Hicks says. “You can even just walk around The Gate or other bouldering spots until you find some people bouldering. Most people are super nice, and it’s OK to ask someone to spot you and to use their pad.”
As he demonstrated technique on the first big rock at the Gate, some friends came wandering up the trail. Two newbies were already there, working on one small rock. They got free—and valuable—advice. It was like a party, placed in a perfect setting. The sun-dappled path stretched ahead in cool shade; birdsong and rushing water from Little Cottonwood Creek provided a peaceful soundtrack. It seemed almost impossible to believe that the road leading back down to civilization was only a 45-second walk away.