INDOOR BOULDERING is a lot like indoor rock climbing. You need climbing shoes and chalk on your fingertips to help you scamper up a wall with hand and footholds set at varying degrees of challenge.
Unlike rock climbing, you don’t need a harness. Which is convenient. And — depending on how you feel about heights and falling onto cushy mats — scary.
Bouldering can look easier than rock climbing. It requires less equipment. The climbs are shorter, so there’s less chance of fingers and forearms cramping. On the flip side, bouldering condenses the most technical parts of rock climbing into one little route, my Seattle Bouldering Project teacher Chad explained to my intro class. Hmm, maybe bouldering is not as convenient as I thought.
During the intro class, Chad took us through basics, including equipment and how the gym is set up, then brought us downstairs to the kids party room.
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He stressed the importance of warming up. Traversing the wall is one simple way to to do it. He gave us some tips, such as keeping our arms straight to use our skeleton rather than our muscles for strength. Move beyond the holds and use all the features of the wall. Make sure to stay on the ball of your foot. He gave us some chalk, and we were off.
It felt familiar to hoist myself onto the wall. Some rock-climbing techniques, like turning my body sideways to the wall, came back. Others, like that one about keeping my arms straight rather than trying to muscle through, were seriously out of practice.
Chad taught us a few other techniques and walked us through the names of various holds, some of which are hard to grip, some not.
Back in the main climbing areas, we practiced falling on our butts and onto our backs on the thickly padded floor. Letting go and falling is scary, like it sounds, but the technique is easy to do.
Chad advised us to start at the low end of the rating system with V0 or V1 and do all those climbs in a room. Once you feel comfortable, move up slowly to the next degree of difficulty. New routes are set all the time, so there will always be challenging ones, he said.
Some routes allow you to climb all the way over to the center of the “boulder,” where you can clamber over the top and off. Other routes against the wall finish with a final hold and you climb back down.
Chad had us climb one route as a class, then released us to climb on our own. I tackled some low-level ones. I was still nervous about falling, especiallywhen I was close to the top, but felt triumphant when I completed a few of the harder ones. Climbing requires intense focus to stay present and not freak out, which I managed on a couple of routes.
One big difference between rock climbing and bouldering is you can boulder solo, because you don’t need a friend to belay you as you climb 40 feet up. But when you boulder alone, no one celebrates when you finish a challenging route.
I’m torn between bouldering and rock climbing. Climbing, I know I have a harness and belay partner, plus a padded floor to catch me. There’s something thrilling about completing climbs. Still, bouldering is fun, and with fewer logistics to make it happen, its simplicity is appealing.
I’m not the only one who thinks so; the gym was packed.
Nicole Tsong teaches yoga at studios around Seattle. Read her blog at papercraneyoga.com. Benjamin Benschneider is the Pacific NW magazine staff photographer.