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What is bouldering?




climbing on the rocks in Fontainebleau in the first half of the XX century


John Gill, the pioneer of bouldering


Fred Nicole climbs on African rocks


a nice example of "parata" in Fontainebleau


a spectacular move during a bouldering competition

The word “bouldering”is used to indicate climbing on rocks, from 1 to 7/8 metres high. Climbing becomes extremely difficult, but it also is the fine search for technical gestures. To boulder you do not tie yourself, you only need shoes and magnesite (in order to not sweat on your hands), sometimes colophony (rosin, also called “pof”), to dry damp grips. Bouldering gives climbers a sense of freedom which in normal climbs on high walls and on cliffs is weakened by the ropes, harnesses and biners.
A “crash pad”, a sort of portable mattress that climbers always take with them, to set under the rock in dangerous points, has been recently invented, in order to limit the risks of dangerous landings after falls. A “spotter” is always suggested, that is another climber who holds his stretched hands near the boulderer’s back (without touching him), assisting and protecting him in case he falls.

A good boulderer is able to express all his strength in a few movements. Climbing is not only based on strength, and in this case the climber must be able to make the most of the least ruggedness of the rock. One of the main characteristics of bouldering is dynamism.
Practically speaking you must try to make the most of the strength of blockings to reach far away grips. Sometimes moves can be made of only one very difficult movement, which can take place only if the climber becomes aware of the complicated balances which are necessary and is able to mentally isolate the muscles which are put into motion. In this bouldering is a sort of martial art!

s I said, moves on the rocks can be extremely difficult, in fact you may say that difficulty is one of the main aims in bouldering. The crossing of some passages can take several days, but also years of attempts! This is why in bouldering a slightly different grades from the ones used for cliffs. In some cases, like in the US, a completely different grade system is used, preceded by the letter V. A very difficult move, with a very high V grade, is automatically reduced when repeated by several persons. In Europe the same grade system used for climbing is used (the French grade) but it is much more compressed..
Compression varies from two grades (a 6a boulder corresponds to a 6c cliff) to one, for the maximum difficulties. In order to distinguish this grade system, usually the grade is preceded by the letters “fb”, for Fontainebleau, the mecca of bouldering.

It seems that the first moves on small rocks were in Fontainebleau,he forest outside Paris, probably at the beginning of the 20th cent. There are more than 10.000 blocks in the forest, made of a very particular type of rock, suitable for bouldering: gres. Climbing on rocks has always been a reality for the people of Paris, at the point that famous mountain-climbers like Pierre Allain used it to train for their climbs on the Alps. It soon became a separate sport, so many climbers became specialists in this type of climbing, becoming very good at it. In bouldering it is surprising to see elderly men, sometimes more than 60 years old, performing difficult moves. It proves the importance of experience and mastery of gestures, along with the body strength.
Later on, in the ’50s, the American John Gill started climbing on rocks near Boulder (that explains the term bouldering) and transformed it into a separate sport. John was a forerunner and he also invented dynamic climbing. In the ’70s other Americans stood out, like John Bachar from California, one of the first to specifically train on strength.
The ’80s consecrated bouldering also in Europa, as an elite sport. The first to reach 8a boulder for first were the French Jakie Godoffe e Jean Pierre Bouvier (the latter specialized in crossings) and the Swiss Fred Nicole, still on the crest of the wave today and probably the best boulderer in the last twenty years. Fred was the first one to travel around the world in search of new sanctuaries of bouldering. So here we find him in the most remote areas in the world, in Sud Africa, nel Mali, a Hueco Thanks (USA), in Australia.
Bouldering has once again become fashionable in the past few years, also thanks to media. New ideas have been introduced, like starting from a sitting position in order to extend the sequences and increase the value of boulders which are only 1 metre high. The most difficult passages have been achieved by the Austrian Klem Loskot and the American Chris Sharma, along with Fred. Bouldering has come back to life also in Italy, after a blackout lasting almost 20 years. Our best climbers in this sport are Marzio Nardi from Torino and Mauro Calibani from Ascoli, who discovered and promoted Meschia, the most important boulder area in Italy. New areas are developing on the mainland and some regions, like Sardinia, can be considered paradises of the future.

With the action of media, someone decided to transfer this sport in covered gyms, on artificial holds, thus originating bouldering competitions. Bouldering has become a separate sport also in competitions, different from traditional rope climbing. It is hard for a climber to be at top levels in both sports, a bit like it is in ski.
Many artificial gyms in large towns have adapted to this new style, some are only a few metres high, offering boulder moves or courses made of many rotating movements.
If you make a mistake, you fall on soft mattresses. These gyms organize meetings and competitions, where climbers gather and meet, travelling for hundreds of kilometres to get there..

By Maurizio Oviglia