Climbing Safety with Outdoor Bouldering

Advice on minimising risk and managing fear when bouldering outdoors.  How to be safe and enjoy your climbing in WA.

Ground falls are part and parcel of bouldering and in knowing this we need to minimize the risk of a fall.  This can be done via several means.

Firstly you should always scout the boulder you are intending to send; not only for sequencing but also to check if holds are loose or flaking off.  There is a huge difference between chipping holds to make a climb facile and being safe.  If a hold is obviously loose and flexing it is in every climbers best interest that the hold be avoided (best case scenario) or removed (worst case scenario) – so use your best judgement.  Scouting a problem will also help with figuring out where your fall zones will be (generally the cruxy sections of a problem) and help you better prepare your landing, which brings us to the next point.

While you are assessing your landings, you are always trying to set up pads as flat as possible. On uneven terrain you have the option of building a flat landing by moving rocks or infilling holes but be careful to minimise damage to flora and fauna especially if you are within a national park. Ultimately it is your choice with landings.  If you choose to climb with a bad landing you introduce the element of fear to your climb, which is what you are trying to avoid in the first place! Setting up your pads properly can also decrease the chance of injury. Remember mats are like jigsaw puzzles – you should experiment with various orientations in order to get a nice flat landing.  Many bouldering injuries result from a rolled ankle on the edge of a crash pad; you can avoid this by using multiple flat pads rather than stacking, and ensure there are no gaps between the pads.  Another helpful tip is making sure you always check your mat arrangements between attempts; again this helps with building confidence while you climb.

Another mistake climbers make when climbing outdoors is not adequately warming up. A warm up is not only physically beneficial but mentally beneficial too. A good warm up physically puts you in better stead for avoiding injuries and mentally helps to build confidence.  Take your time to climb a very easy boulder, focus on stretching while you climb with attention on your joints as well as your muscles.  Take your time to stretch out your shoulders, arms, neck, and back by hanging in different positions on jugs throughout the problem.  After you are warmed up start stretching on the ground, using a crash mat for comfort.  A good way to tell if you’re adequately warmed up for bouldering is if your hands feel loose. Your fingers shouldn’t feel stiff or achy and your arms and shoulders should feel warm and limber. Everybody is different and after warming up properly you might start to notice indicators of your own.

Last and most certainly not least, correct spotting is a vital way of protecting a climber. You should always choose a spotter that is closely matched to you in weight and someone you are comfortable climbing with.  An inattentive spotter is just as bad as an uneven landing.  While spotting make sure that you have a good stable stance, usually one foot slightly behind you and positioned close enough to minimise acceleration should the climber fall.  Don’t stand so close that they will fall on top of you!  Generally the most effective way to guide a falling climber is to place your hands just above their waist (near their centre of gravity). Letting your hands slide up into their armpits can also help maintain your grip and guide their fall.  Grabbing a climber too low can cause a dangerous backwards rotation and never try to catch and hold a falling climber. Your job is to slow down and direct the fall, thereby lengthening the process of landing which will reduce the force of impact.  Protecting the head, neck and spine should be your prime directive.  When possible, help the climber land on their feet as this is the most effective position for dissipating force.

No matter how comfortable you are with falling on rope and regardless of your individual climbing ability, bouldering is a completely different head game.  Overcoming the fear of topping out can be summed up by the old adage “practise makes perfect”.  The only way to get comfortable is to physically climb more and the more you top out, the more you will build muscle memory.  You can build your confidence and minimise risk by climbing below your ability and using repetition of easier problems while slowly increasing the difficulty.  Grade consolidation is no new concept and it makes perfect sense for building confidence. A few exercises you can try to help make mantling more controlled are: pistol squats to improve leg power, core strengthing because let’s face it you can never have enough and for the arms – tricep dips!

The mental aspect of overcoming fear is more of an ongoing task and it is easier to break down how you approach a boulder outside. As mentioned earlier a good start is to make sure your landing is safe and then assess the top out.  If you are able to get on top of the boulder and brush up the holds it will also help you with the next step. Sequencing your climb from the ground will minimize the panic that can arise when you are close to topping out. It helps you to be efficient in your movement and saves your energy for the last push. Even if the problem you are trying are easy, you should leave the ego at home. If you suffer from fear it is going to take a few practise drops onto your crash mat to overcome it. Whether or not you flash a V1 is irrelevant.  Lastly ensure your spotter is always paying attention!


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