Very basically bouldering means ropeless climbing on large boulders or small cliffs which are usually less than 15ft high. It is just you and the rock – although a decent pair of climbing shoes are a worthwhile investment. That and a chalk bag, and if you really don’t want a bruised body then perhaps a crash pad too! But no further equipment is needed.
Bouldering allows you to climb difficult routes, known as ‘problems’, close to the ground and with minimal risk of injury. This video of Banana Finger at Burbage North, the Peak District, (lagerstarfish) is a good example:
It doesn’t look that difficult but some problems can be really extreme and depending on your skill you can choose whether you are able to work on a difficult problem, or opt for something easier.
A difficult problem is generally a series of extreme moves and it is unlikely that you will solve a problem on your first attempt – it might take several attempts before you manage this. But each problem makes you smarter and more competent at analising a sequence of moves and eventually conquering them.
You can boulder virtually anywhere in the world, but Fontainebleau in France, has been used as a bouldering area since the 1870s and has almost continuously remained at the centre of the world bouldering scene since the 1930s.
It is a unique region as there are so many desirable characteristics all in one area: a large number of classic problems at all grades on quality sandstone rock – including classic moderates, and generally there are excellent soft and sandy landings. As I noted above, Fontainebleau has been the centre of bouldering for more than a hundred years and it is probable that the first ascents of problems graded at 4, 5, 6 and 7 happened here. There is still much potential for development, but the subtle nature of the problems which require clever footwork, body position and good technique, keeps this region at the head of their game. Success, here, is as much a mental workout as it is a physical one, and as a result it is supremely satisfying to any boulderer. Check out this video from ivamo.
Fontainebleau is only 90kms south of Paris and most of the boulders are in the forests surrounding the town which makes it a very attractive location. You can boulder here all year round as there will always be either shade or sun depending on the season – it’s only the rain that will stop you.
Colour-coded circuits have been developed that lead you from boulder problem to boulder problem and there are thousands of them for every level of rock climber. The yellow circuits are for inexperienced climbers; the orange, blue and red circuits for intermediate climbers; and white and black circuits offer the top end bouldering experience where brute strength is sometimes required. But that is not all, there are also many individual extreme problems outside of the circuits, which are generally graded at Font 8a and above… a challenge for even the most experienced boulderers.
Bleau.info is probably the website to visit for more information on the variety of problems on offer at Fontainebleau as they have thousand of pages on climbing information and easy-to-use interactive maps with such diverse information as climbing areas, carparks, starts of bouldering circuits, coordinates of individual boulders, camping areas, cheap hotels, RER and SNCF railway stations, and the boulder gym in case it rains.
Bouldering is definitely something you do with friends. Although very much an individual sport your friends are there to offer advice and might even be kind enough to break a fall! It is considered to be a fun and challenging day out.
Now if you want to see poetry in motion, have a look at this video of Dave Graham, probably one of the most elite boulderers out there, climbing Dreamtime (treebierd):
Bouldering is considered an extreme sport and where there is an extreme sport there is always an element of danger. While a climbing pursuit in itself, bouldering is also a way to practice new techniques, skills, and moves and this will inevitably make you stronger for climbing roped routes.