Whether you’re a climber or not, you’ll regularly see beanie-clad folks wearing Patagonia button-downs schlepping into the woods of Little Cottonwood with giant square crash pads strapped to their backs. And while most long-route climbers see bouldering as an entirely different beast, the two are close cousins, and training in one discipline can boost your skill in the other.
Full-length routes require stamina, more gear, and being comfortable with exposure. Bouldering requires intense strength, poise, and balance. Put the two disciplines together, and you’ve got an all-around program for ascending things well.
Here’s a quick primer of five things you need to know to get started bouldering in Salt Lake City, from how to gear up to where to go when you have a few skills built up.
1. What’s the nitty-gritty on bouldering?
Officially, bouldering is just climbing super-short routes close to the ground, without a rope, going only as high as you can safely fall onto your crash pad. It can be done solo since you’re not on belay—which is a nice bonus.
The ratings are different from regular climbing, though. The numbers are lower, but don’t let that fool you. The routes are called “problems,” mainly because they’re a far harder sequence of compact crux moves. The easiest problems start at a V0, which roughly equates with a 5.9 climb in difficulty. If you’re pretty darn good, you’ll get up to a V4 or V5 rating, which is in the 5.12 range. Ratings go up to about V13, but at that level, few mortals can hope to conquer them.
Keeping that in mind, it's important to stay humble while you're just getting started—bouldering is challenging, even on the low end of the scale.
2. Why is it worth trying if you’re normally a sport/trad climber?
Climbers who view bouldering as a disparate sport are missing the chance to jump in on an ideal workout. If your climbing skills have leveled off or you want a strength-building workout that mimics the moves you’ll be making on longer routes, look no further.
If you already climb, the good news is you need hardly any additional gear to boulder. If you head outside, just take your shoes, chalk bag, and a portable crash pad. You can boulder indoors and enjoy the cushy floor, which means you don’t need to buy a crash pad at all. Other than that, all you really need are your climbing shoes and chalk bag. Some folks bring a toothbrush to brush dust, grime, and debris off holds, but that’s not a must-have at the outset.
Where can I go to get tips or lessons?
Bouldering enthusiasts are generally a friendly bunch, and if you head to your local climbing gym, you can start observing what’s what and asking questions to those who are willing to talk through what they’re doing. People climbing a grade or two above you are usually happy to explain their wizardry.
But besides old-fashioned observing and asking, you can also sign up for a proper lesson. Both Momentum and The Front offer introductory lessons and coaching. Throw down a few bucks, learn the basics from a pro, and set yourself up for a faster learning curve.
Where are some good bouldering spots around Salt Lake?
Fortunately, the Wasatch front is blessed with some great climbing gyms with superb bouldering areas. They’re perfect for practicing in a safe environment and squeezing a workout into your day without making a long drive.
Putting your skills to work on real rock brings a whole new level of fun to the mix, too. A good starting point is WikiBoulder’s Utah page; click around to find areas within your driving range and ability. The site neatly organizes and maps different areas, with clear diagrams of route locations and difficulty levels. Here, a few highlights.
Little Cottonwood: Little Cottonwood is a bouldering mecca, and it’s close enough to squeeze in before or after work. White Pine north, White Pine south, the Riverside boulders, and Snowbird boulders are some of the more popular spots with countless routes ranging from V0 to V. Impossible. These boulders sit low in Little Cottonwood, where summer temps are cool and winter temps are milder than up high. If you feel ambitious, you can trek as high as Catherine Pass to play on stellar granite surrounded by wildflower meadows.
The Uintas: If you have time to make a longer drive, the Uintas offer a couple of particularly exceptional bouldering areas. The Grandview area requires a solid 1.5-hour drive from Kamas, so you may want to make an overnighter of it. But the rewards are ample: more than 90 bouldering problems ranging from easy to very difficult.
Joe’s Valley: If you can make a long weekend of it, drive three hours south to Joe’s Valley, a world-renowned bouldering playground just outside the tiny town of Orangeville in Central Utah. You can stop in Orangeville to pick up a guidebook, but Wikiboulderoffers a good preliminary overview as well. The three main bouldering areas within Joe’s Valley—Left Fork, Right Fork, and New Joe’s—collectively comprise a bonanza of bouldering problems ranging from V0 to (a crazy) V14.
Remember as you go: Always practice safe bouldering techniques. Learning how to fall correctly can minimize injury, and bringing a spotter along can boost safety while giving you a pal to chat through the route with.