Boulder’s eponymous sport

As bouldering’s popularity increases, so does its environmental impact

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Pamela White

There was a time when people went bouldering only when they couldn’t get away to rock climb. Bouldering — climbing rock formations and boulders low to the ground — was viewed as a way to improve one’s technical skills and get a climbing fix between hitting more serious projects.

 

Those days are long gone. “It’s its own thing at this point,” says Erin
Wall of The Spot Bouldering Gym. “We have entire competitions set around
just bouldering.” Perhaps appropriately, Boulder, named after the very rocks one seeks for this sport, is one of the state’s most popular places to go bouldering. People are drawn to the sport for different reasons, among them its technical challenges, but also its more social nature.

“It’s shorter distances,
but it’s more technical,” Wall says. “So you have shorter distance but
you have harder problems within that distance. It’s kind of nice, too,
because you can see the whole problem and you can kind of plan it out in
your mind before going up.”

And autumn, with cooler temps and students back in town, is prime bouldering time for locals.

“Most of the bouldering,
especially up on Flagstaff, is east-facing, so it’s very hot in the
summer,” says Rick Hatfield, a ranger and naturalist with the city of
Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP). “It drives a lot of
people up into the alpine zone to go bouldering. It’s cooler there, and
it’s more adventurous. Summer is really the only time you can access
that area.”

But when the leaves
start to change, Boulder County residents grab their crash pads and
return to their favorite local spots. Weather like we’ve had these past
two months is ideal for autumn—let’s not say “fall”—bouldering.

“We’ve had phenomenal weather,” Hatfield says.

The most popular bouldering areas in OSMP are Flagstaff Mountain and Mount Sanitas.

But with the increased popularity of bouldering comes environmental damage.

“Up until the late ’90s,
an area like the Terrain Boulders was on very few people’s radar as a
bouldering destination,” says Hatfield, who was an avid climber in his
20s. “Now it’s well publicized, and people go there. In a relatively
short amount of time, you can see profound impacts there.”

Often, the impacts of bouldering are more pronounced than those associated with rock climbing.

And the more remote the bouldering area, the more extensive the environmental damage tends to be.

“With climbing, you have
two people go out, and you have four feet at the base of a rock climb,”
he says. “Once they step off the ground, the damage to the vegetation
by those four feet is over. But bouldering — you may have groups of
four, five, six or sometimes even larger. That’s part of the draw of the
sport. It is a very social activity, and that’s one of the things that
makes it fun.”

But having hundreds of
people gathering in the course of a week around OSMP’s various
bouldering sites leads to devastation of the vegetation around those
sites, contributing to other problems, such as erosion.

Greater damage occurs if boulderers attempt to “groom” the terrain.

“That’s where someone
sees the potential for a great boulder problem, but the landing is just
scary. So they’ll go in sometimes with rock bars and flatten the area,”
Hatfield says. “They’ll move rocks and move vegetation just to make the
landing safe. If you want that kind of safe environment, you really
don’t need to do anything but go to the Spot Bouldering Gym. You can
climb to your heart’s content.

You can make the most
difficult problem in the world and have a very safe landing. Don’t
export that to places like the Flatirons where you have to compete with
natural resources.”

Wall says The Spot is there to provide complex bouldering in a safe environment.

“We would never
encourage grooming,” she says. The social nature of bouldering is
probably the biggest draw for the gym’s clientele, she says.

“It’s not only climbing,
but it’s also a whole social gathering,” she says. “We have more social
interaction on the floor than you see at any other gym.”

But sometimes there’s no
match for being in nature. For those times, Hatfield encourages
boulderers and all OSMP users to follow the rules. Don’t remove
vegetation, and don’t groom.

“Leave the place intact, and follow the rules that we have in place for our visitors,” he says.

For more information about bouldering areas and regulations, go to www.osmp.org. For information on The Spot Bouldering Gym, go to www.thespotgym.com.

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