Rock Secrets: Tricks For Advanced Bouldering

Article by Dave Pickford
Tuesday 1st September 2009

The first article in this three-part series discussed some of the essential knowledge for successful advanced sport climbing. In the second article, I extended this discussion to traditional climbing. Here, in the final part of this series, I explain the secret tricks of advanced bouldering.

I spent half my energy attempting numerous problems on ‘The Fatted Calf’. Gill’s smirk only grew as he knew too well to what I aspired – to bag all the problems in the shortest time possible. At this I failed. One problem proved responsible for a host of holes in my fingers. No description could justly portray the absurdity of this leap.

- John Long, from “Pumping Sandstone” in ‘The Games Climbers Play’ (London: Diadem, 1978) 

Long’s description of an afternoon bouldering with one of the great pioneers of the art, John Gill, on Colorado sandstone in the mid-1970’s captures the intensity and frequent frustrations of climbing’s most diminutive yet ferocious arena. Long’s description will also remind many experienced boulderers of all the mistakes they made in the past: it is a classic case-in-point of bad bouldering strategy. With a grand objective in mind, Long completely burns himself out in a single session, depleting his skin to the extent that it will probably require a week off to recover. Had he taken a more tactical approach, he may well have sent the big dyno that proved his nemesis, and enjoyed climbing many of the other excellent boulders in the area. He could have probably even climbed hard the next day with such an approach. With this in mind, I will begin by looking at strategic approaches to bouldering.

Sarah Garnett taking the tactical approach on a steep V2 warm-up at the Peabody Boulders, The Buttermilks, Eastern Sierra, California - one of the world's finest granite bouldering playgrounds. Choosing warm-ups like this with good holds is a useful way of conditioning the skin before attempting more fingery problems.

1: Establish Your Objectives and Strategy

The first and arguably most crucial thing you should do before any bouldering session – if you wish to climb at your best - is to establish exactly what you want to do. This might sound obvious, but it’s amazing how easy it is to go wrong by getting distracted from your primary goal. I will now look at the three main performance objectives in bouldering.
Firstly, a very respectable goal for many boulderers is to climb a relatively large number of problems quickly (either on-sight or within a couple of tries) in the tradition of the Fontainebleau ‘circuit’. The best approach to successful bouldering in this case is to warm up by starting on problems you find relatively easy, then building up gradually to harder problems just below your normal flashing limit. At this point, you can then move on to tackle a series of problems at - or slightly beyond - your normal flashing limit when you feel at peak performance (i.e. fully warmed up but not tired).

For the second goal - trying to raise your onsight / flash limit - you’ll need a slightly different approach. To flash a problem you find really hard, you’ll have to be well rested to begin with, well warmed up, but certainly not tired. Therefore only try to flash hard problems the day after a rest day – if you try when you’re fatigued from the previous days’ climbing your efforts will most likely end in frustration. Another useful trick before you try to flash a hard problem is to climb another one of a similar style you have done already, or a similar one of a slightly easier grade. This helps the mysterious neuromuscular process known as ‘recruitment’ tremendously (to put this simply, recruitment is when your muscles ‘learn’ certain types of movement and their associated stresses) and will mean you muscles will be in optimal condition to crank the moves on your chosen hard flash. And once fully warmed up, you should rest for twenty minutes at the very least prior to trying your chosen problem.

Insufficient rest is a frequent cause of failure in bouldering, since (because most boulder problems take a relatively short time to climb) many climbers think they don’t require as much rest between attempts as full-length sport routes. This is completely false, since hard bouldering puts incredibly high demands on fast-twitch muscles – sometimes called the ‘sprinting muscles’. The body needs to be warmed up but also rested before these muscles can perform at their maximum. Olympic 100-metre sprinters warm up vigorously but certainly don’t do any 100-metre sprints before getting into the blocks: likewise, peak performance in advanced bouldering requires the climber to be very well warmed up yet not at all fatigued. This can often become a paradoxical scenario in bouldering, and getting the balance right is crucial to success.

For our third and arguably most exacting goal - to send your hardest ever problem - you’ll need a slightly different approach again. As with trying your hardest ever flash, you’ll need to be fully rested beforehand, well warmed up before trying it, and certainly not fatigued. However, since sending your hardest ever problem demands that you work the moves first, a useful strategy is to spend the second half of your warm-up routine actually trying the moves. This means the time at which you are fully warmed up will co-incide with the point at which your muscles are in maximum recruitment for the specific holds you’ll have to use. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell you that this will give you the best possible chance of sending the problem. And don’t forget – as I highlighted above – that minimum twenty minute rest period before your big attempt.   

2: Boulder In Good Conditions

Will Boxen takes advantage of an icy January day to do battle with Dave Henderson's savagely fingery and technical 'Devon Sent' (V12), Bovey Woods, Devon. The problem remains unrepeated after several years. 

To many experienced boulderers I know, going out with a crashpad in the summer (or, in some extreme cases, when the temperature climbs above 10 degrees C) makes about as much sense as flogging a dead horse. This is because in warm temperatures (above 20 degrees C) boot rubber does not stick as well as it does in colder weather, and your hands, feet, and body sweat more. These factors combine to conspire against you succeeding on a difficult boulder problem – your feet won’t stick, you’ll loose skin, and you’ll get hot, bothered, and tired rather quickly. However, this is not to say that bouldering in warmer weather is a complete no-no; in some of the world’s most celebrated bouldering areas, such as Hampi (India) and Bafa Golu (Turkey), cold temperatures simply don’t occur. In such places, you have to make the most of early mornings and the late evening – not to mention always climbing in the shade – to make the most out of your bouldering.

The author making the most of the best available conditions on one of the classic problems at Hampi, India. 'Kundalini Rising' (V10) is in the shade in the early morning: any serious attempt needs to be made in the first two or three hours of daylight.

It is also imperative to avoid bouldering in humid conditions, and this goes for cold weather as well! Remember that a winter’s day won’t be much good for bouldering unless the air is crisp and dry. Numerous photographs in UK climbing magazines over the years of people bouldering with snow on the ground have created a misleading - and mistaken - belief among British climbers that in order to boulder hard it must be cold. High performance bouldering is possible in relatively warm temperatures, provided the air is dry, the problem is completely in the shade, and the rock itself is cool.

3: Keep Your Skin In Condition

Every seasoned boulderer will remember times when a session or trip was cut short, simply due to the skin on their fingertips becoming so thin that climbing became impossible. You simply can’t climb if the skin on your fingertips in worn away to a certain level – even pulling on a good hold can be painful, and using a tiny crimp becomes impossible. Normally your skin will recover from this state sufficiently to climb again in two to three days, but it can take longer if you’ve really worn it down. There are a number of crucial tricks to prevent your skin from getting into this state of disrepair. First, you’ll need two crucial tools: some fine sandpaper, plus a good supply of a skin-regenerating product (for example Climb On, or a Vitamin-E rich skin product like Elizabeth Arden Eight Hour cream).

Fred Rouling cranks a desperately fingery problem at Bafa Golu, Turkey - for bouldering of this nature, it is vital to maintain your skin properly if you wish to climb for several days in a row. Photo copyright Fred Moix /

The first thing to use is the sandpaper. Whilst bouldering (the same goes for working a route with a bouldery, crimpy section) your fingertips will develop tiny abraded ‘ridges’ of skin where the rock has cut into the top layer. These ridges become worse after each hard pull on a small hold, eventually tearing away the whole top layer of skin. However, if you use fine sandpaper to remove them as soon as they appear, you’ll find your skin is stronger and lasts for much longer during your bouldering session. As soon as you finish, you should use the sandpaper again to remove any ridges or abrasions on the surface of skin, then immediately apply your chosen skin-nourishing product.

The final – and perhaps most important – point to make here is to always finish your session before pulling on small holds becomes painful. If you’re on a bouldering trip, conserving skin is of the utmost importance, since a split fingertip could mean up to a week off.  Another useful trick here is to structure your climbing around short sessions of no more than three to four hours (this is a particularly good tactic in warmer conditions where early morning and evening bouldering is the norm). If you only climb for a short period, your skin won’t get so thin and will also have longer to recover. The powerful and intensive nature of bouldering as an activity also lends itself much better to short sessions than to whole days of effort. As a final thought on this matter, it is worth remembering that few elite boulderers will ever have sessions of more than four hours. This allows a couple of hours to fully warm up, then a couple of hours at peak performance. Beyond the four hour mark, even the fittest boulderers will begin to fatigue and their skin will begin to thin.

4: Find Your ‘Beginner’s Mind’

The author exploring Zen and the Art of Bouldering at 5000 metres on Tangnag moraine, Khumbu, Nepal. The problem is an outstanding, unnamed V8.

One of the most interesting statements about consciousness and uncertainty in sport is the famous aphorism by the great Japanese Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki :

 “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

This has profound implications for all aspects of climbing. Whilst Suzuki is discussing meditation in the above case, in this context sport and mediation are essentially the same process. The Zen concept of Beginner’s Mind can be summarised as an attitude of openness, eagerness, and a lack of preconceptions about a subject or activity – the approach, namely, that a complete beginner would have when introduced to it for the first time.

Why exactly does this relate to advanced bouldering? A difficult boulder problem is an extraordinary kind of puzzle, for it is virtually always characterised by multiple solutions – different sequences can be used to reach the finishing holds. In order to solve such an ‘open’ conundrum, one needs to have an open-minded approach. This means not following preconceived ideas about how the problem should be climbed. Even on the most difficult and dynamic boulder problems, the world’s top climbers have used slightly different sequences of moves.

There can often be nothing worse for your technique (or confidence) than trying to ‘follow’ the sequence discovered by a more experienced, stronger climber. Often the solution that works for you will be one that they had never even considered, as you make subtle use of intermediate holds, find clever foot-changes, or discover secret knee-bars to make that crux move just a little bit more do-able. The key point here is to keep an open mind about how you could climb your chosen boulder problem. Remember that the most successful boulderers are not always as strong as their contemporaries on a campus-board. Conversely, in fact, they are often those who have the imagination and technique to find new and cunning ways of using the holds available, and who maintain an eagerness to learn new moves and sequences rather than follow old rules. Remember that strength is merely a means to an end, not the key to the door.

(As an afterthought, think of how ridiculous the ‘always maintain three points of contact with the rock’ rule of technique, that lasted well into the 1980’s, looks in the modern world of dynamic high-performance climbing.) 

5: Be Safe

At the end of a cold winter's day of perfect conditions at Stanage Plantation, one of Britain's finest bouldering areas: the introduction of bouldering mats in recent years has made such areas, with their highball problems and rocky landings, far safer than in the past. 

Bouldering today is a very different – and far safer – activity than the macho ‘I’m actually soloing but I’ll call it bouldering to sandbag my mates’ genre of yesteryear. This is due to three key things: the advent of bouldering mats, the extraordinary rise in standards over the past three decades, and the development and refinement of the practice of ‘spotting’. After you’ve bought your first bouldering mat (click here to browse the bouldering mats available from planetFear) it is useful as you progress to work on your landing technique so as to minimise impact on ankles and knees – the classic ‘feline crouch’ is the only way to land safely on a mat from a high problem, with your knees fully bending and all your limbs eventually touching the mat. If you don’t know exactly what I’m talking about, keep an eye on the cat and watch it next time it falls off something. Cats (with the exception of only the most geriatric and obese) possess a natural mastery of safe landing from height.

Top Irish climber Ricky Bell gets to grips with a classic V9 arete at The Buttermilks, California. A steep problem like this with bad holds can often result in an unexpected 'backwards' fall - note how Ricky's two spotters are covering both the thorn bush and the rocks to the left, ensuring he has a safe landing.

Good spotting is a very important aspect of modern bouldering – and super-steep problems demand it. The idea is not to catch the falling climber (you can’t) but to make sure they land vertically, on their feet. The best way to learn how to correctly spot someone is to watch experienced boulderers in action. On very steep problems, it is not uncommon to spot only thirty or forty centimetres from the climber’s back, to maximise the amount of force you can take out of the fall. A new, advanced technique for spotting highball problems, developed in the USA, involves the use of two spotters holding a small mat above the main ground mat(s). The small mat is dropped as soon as the climber hits it, thus absorbing the initial impact of the fall before the climber lands on the main mat.

6: Enjoy Your Climbing

Mike Weekes showing us what it's all about on a glorious highball arete at Yosemite's Camp 4 boulders. 

Possibly the best single-line quote I know about climbing comes from Tony Penning, pioneer of adventurous routes in south west England and Wales: “it’s how much fun you have on the crag that counts.”  Advanced bouldering can often seem like a tremendously serious activity, just like any other sport taken to a high level. Whilst it is obviously important to send the hardest boulder problems you can, it is even more important to have fun in the process.

Bouldering can be a very entertaining activity. It involves falling off a lot, often with spectacular results. I can remember numerous occasions when I or my bouldering partners have ended up in fits of laughter after flying through the air and vanishing in a huge pile of bouldering mats, or getting buried in piles of leaves. No climbing success – however big the grade – is that great if enjoyment takes second place behind achievement. The biggest challenge that all active, aspiring climbers face is the challenge of making something difficult and daunting into an enjoyable experience. The interesting aspect of this paradox is that the more fun you have, climbing’s physical and psychological challenges become exponentially less severe and more rewarding. 

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