• Bouldering
    No ropes. No problem.

    Bouldering is a form of free climbing that is performed on small rock formations or artificial rock walls without the use of ropes or harnesses.


    In Bouldering, athletes climb as many fixed routes, commonly referred to as “problems”, as they can on a 4.5m-high wall equipped with safety mats. The routes vary in difficulty and climbers are not permitted to practice climbing them in advance. When a climber grabs the final hold at the top of a route with both hands, they are deemed to have completed it. Climbers tackle the wall without safety ropes and if they fall during their attempt, they can try a route again during their allotted four minutes. The walls used for bouldering present a range of challenges, with overhangs and some holds so small that they can only be held by the fingertips. Climbers must plan each move carefully, thinking about which hand and foot to place in the next holds, while constantly being aware of the time limit. The physical and mental dexterity required for success is extraordinary.

    The bouldering portion is next. In bouldering, a climber attempts to scale shorter sequences (commonly called “boulders” or “problems”) without a rope. Since the boulders are not very tall—13 vertical feet at most—any fall will result in the climber landing safely on a cushioned floor or mat.

    Unlike speed climbing, the boulders’ set sequences—the problems—will be unknown to the climbers prior to the event. In fact, all climbers will be sequestered in an isolation zone before their respective turns, unable to watch the previous competitors try. Thus, there is an element of problem-solving on the fly, as competitors must first figure out how to climb the boulder (the beta—see Glossary), and then properly execute their planned sequence. Also, there is no buzzer at the top. To get credit for the problem, a competitor has to have both hands firmly matched on a designated top handhold. Competitors can also get credit for reaching one scored handhold midway up the boulder called a zone hold (see Glossary).

    The climber will be allowed to attempt a given boulder as many times as he/she wishes within a 4-minute time limit. However, when those 4 minutes are up, the climber must move on to the next boulder. In the final round, climbers will have to attempt to climb a total of three different boulders. (The Olympics will include a qualifying round and a final round; there will not be a semifinal round.)

    The difficulty of the boulders at the Olympics will vary from one boulder to the next. There are various grading systems for assessing a boulder’s physical difficulty—in the United States, this grading system is called the “V-Scale.” V0 and V1 are the easiest, while boulders graded, say, V15 or V16 would be astronomically difficult—even for the best climbers in the world. Yet, the boulders at the Olympics will not be assigned a V grade because the extraneous factors of competition (i.e., a climber’ nervousness, the crowd noise, the ticking clock, etc.) make it impossible to accurately assess “difficulty.” So, while none of the Olympics’ boulders will be close to the climbers’ (or the sport’s) limits, reaching the top in the allotted time period will still be a formidable challenge.

    The bouldering leaderboard will be determined by the number of boulders on which a competitor reaches the “top.” For instance, a competitor who tops two boulders will be in the lead compared to one who tops just one boulder. The total number of attempts and the total number of times reaching a “zone” hold will be used to further differentiate the scoring.

    If you’re new to watching competition climbing but are familiar with outdoor bouldering, expect the Olympic bouldering to appear more dynamic (in general) than its outdoors referent. The fundamentals will be the same—a lot of crimps, slopers, pinches (see Glossary) and precision footwork. However, volumes (very large, geometric holds; see Glossary) have become extremely common in competition climbing. Also, competition bouldering in its current iteration borrows heavily from parkour movement, and the route-setting often reflects—and encourages—that, featuring big jumps and extremely difficult coordination moves you rarely do on real rock. Compare this example of American Kyra Condie reaching the top of a boulder in the Rocklands of South Africa (outdoors) to this example of her ascending a boulder at the American Combined Invitational (inside a convention center in Salt Lake City, Utah) last year. The Rocklands’ boulder entails a fairly straightforward progression up the rock face, whereas the competition boulder entails coordinated swings and swooping jumps on big volumes.

    Bouldering did not always have a formal competitive component. When it first emerged, it was largely considered a way to train for climbing longer, roped or mountain routes. But over time this thinking changed, particularly as more people became introduced to climbing and realized that bouldering was a minimalistic alternative to lead climbing. (Bouldering does not require as much gear—no ropes, harnesses, carabiners or quickdraws, nor does it require belay instruction.) In many ways, it was the United States that led the charge for a bouldering boom that began in the late 1990s, aided by the eventual rise in a number of bouldering-focused competition organizations in America and the popularity of outdoor hotspots like Bishop, California, and Hueco Tanks, Texas. The boom has since gone global, with outdoor destinations such as Fontainebleau, France, contributing their own storied bouldering history to the discipline’s palette. It has all made bouldering arguably the most popular and the most common format for climbing competitions anywhere.

    Content courtesy of John Burgman, Climbing Magazine