For some rock climbers, nothing beats bouldering
Kids love to scramble up trees, rocks, and hills. Why do we lose that natural urge as we age? But it’s safe to say that some grown-ups never lose the sense of wonder and accomplishment that climbing offers.
Mia DePaolis, a 27-year-old Quincy resident, is a veteran rock climber and a full-time route-setter for Central Rock Gym in Randolph. She got her start at age 11, at the Boston Rock Gym.
“At the time, that was the only climbing gym in Massachusetts,” she said. “I went with my dad’s work partner and his son, who was on the climbing team there. I watched his son lead climbing on the roof of the building and immediately thought, ‘I want to do that.’
“At the time, I didn’t know there was anything to do except rope climbing,” she said. “The bouldering at Boston Rock Gym consisted of two routes, and that was it. Now you’ll be hard pressed to find me climbing on ropes. I’m definitely a boulderer.”
For the uninitiated, bouldering is the compact cousin of the better-known climbing disciplines, including traditional, sport, and top-roping.
■ Traditional or “trad” climbing is outdoor-specific, on unblemished rock, where climbers bring the gear they need, including ropes and “pro,” a variety of cams, nuts, and bolts that provide protection (by supporting the climber’s safety ropes).
■ Sport, or lead, climbing is similar to trad climbing “in the sense that you clip your rope into gear as you climb,” said DePaolis. However, in sport climbing, the rock already has bolt hangers drilled into it, and climbers bring quickdraws — two carabiners attached by a piece of webbing — to clip into those hangers for safety.
■ Finally, top-roping refers to the climbing method popular both indoors and out, in which the rope is secured at the top of the route, and the climber “follows” the rope, in a sense, while threading it into protection devices. Typically, a partner on belay at the bottom of the route is an added precaution.
Bouldering, conversely, is performed much closer to the ground, inside a gym or in the great outdoors, and doesn’t require ropes or protective devices. “You don’t need all the gear, which is very expensive,” said DePaolis. All a climber really needs is a wall, a route, a good pair of climbing-specific shoes, a chalk bag (for improved grip), calluses, and a “crash pad” (usually a large square of dense foam).
Generally speaking, bouldering consists of short routes, requiring dynamic, powerful movements and keen problem-solving skills. In fact, many bouldering routes are referred to as “problems.”
“You can sit and figure out the micro beta [information] that will work for you, and try the moves isolated in order to piece together the climb bit by bit,” said DePaolis, “Sometimes you can figure it out in 10 minutes. Sometimes it takes years.
“It’s also much more of a social form of climbing,” she said.
“Usually people get together and work on one climb together and help each other out, figuring out the puzzle together. Alternatively, if you want to be alone, you can boulder alone, depending on where you are and how sketchy the landing zone is.”
But as DePaolis noted, the one major disadvantage to bouldering is the risk of injury.
“Since every fall is a ground fall, you see a lot of broken ankles and compound fractures. This is why climbing bouldering in a group is so much safer.”
“The more people you’re with, the more pads you’ll have to land on, the softer and larger the landing zone is,” said DePaolis. “Also, the more people you have, the more spotters you have. And spotting is so important.”
Indoor climbing, such as Central Rock Gym, provides more predictability by offering a controlled environment for bouldering. That’s especially true in summer, when the heat and humidity, and bugs, create less-than-ideal conditions.
“Cold, dry weather is actually better conditions for climbing,” said DePaolis. “When the air is dry the friction on the rock is much higher, which allows you to get a better grip and helps your shoes stick better.
“The humidity makes everything very slimy and hard to hold,” she said. “Fall and spring are usually the seasons where people really work on their projects.”
While DePaolis enjoys indoor climbing, being outside is special, she said.
“I live in Quincy, and I’m very much a city kid,” said DePaolis. “But having access to so much climbing around Massachusetts and within driving distance allows me to get away from the city when I want to. It’s time away from everything else. It’s time outside with people you enjoy hanging out with, all pushing each other to climb harder. And even if I don’t send (complete) something that day, I still got to hang out in a beautiful place.”
Close to Boston, DePaolis said, Lynn Woods and Hammond Pond in Newton may be the best of a mediocre lot for bouldering spots. Lincoln Woods in Rhode Island and Pawtuckaway State Park in southern New Hampshire are even better choices, and just a short drive away, or Great Barrington in Western Massachusetts.