The first time John Sherman went rock climbing, he wasn’t some daredevil looking for mountains to conquer. He was a bored teenager wandering the neighborhood a few blocks from his home in Berkeley, Calif.
It was 1974 and he stumbled across a small city park, Indian Rock, where local climbers were practicing without ropes on house-size rhyolite boulders.
“I couldn’t do a single pull-up when I started,” he said. “I really struggled at first.”
A self-described pudgy, unathletic kid, he was drawn to the balance and the challenge of bouldering. No ropes or axes or even partners — just skill and stone. He went on to spend the next 50 years creating new boulder routes — called “problems” in the sport — and helped popularize bouldering through books, articles and outrageous stunts.
Today, indoor bouldering is an Olympic event and among the world’s most popular adventure sports, even during the pandemic. In 2021, more new U.S. climbing gyms opened than ever before, most of which were for bouldering.
“It’s a collaborative group activity, people get together, they mingle,” said David Sacher, founder of Vital climbing gyms.
It’s also the easiest way to enter the wider world of mountaineering, especially in urban areas. But it can be intimidating, wandering into some musty warehouse full of people hanging upside down from chalky fingers.
If you want to try bouldering, here’s what you need to know.
Climbing is a full-body workout.
One of the first things first-time boulderers notice is that the next day they are sore in very odd places. That’s because climbing exercises large muscles and small muscles, including a few you rarely use. It’s both anaerobic and aerobic and works the upper body, lower body and core.
“It is a full-body commitment to understanding your relationship between your whole body and the surface that you’re trying to climb,” said Lanae Joubert, an assistant professor at Northern Michigan University who has studied rock climbing for decades. “Every muscle, I think, except your tongue maybe. Unless you do climb with your tongue out.”
Dr. Joubert, a veteran climber herself, said there’s no body size or type that predicts a good climber. Men have no advantage over women, she said, and what really matters is how much time you practice.
Climb with your legs, not your arms.
As a skinny, awkward high school kid, I quickly learned that good climbing technique comes from the legs, not the arms. It’s about balance, strong legs and a solid core.
The best climbers learn to take weight off their arms, focus on their hips and look for good footholds, rather than handholds. Good climbers don’t lurch up the rock, they ooze up.
Climbers can be intimidating, but don’t be put off.
Walking into a climbing gym by yourself can be daunting. There is the strange lingo, the annoying bravado and the occasional bloodcurdling scream. Not to mention the lack of shirts and not-so-subtle flexing.
But climbing was founded by affable misfits lurking in the woods, and that culture mostly continues to this day. It’s not like surfing, where people get peeved if you bumble onto their wave. The wall isn’t going anywhere, and many climbers are happy to chat about strategy.
“The climbing community loves to see first-time climbers and loves for first-time climbers to ask questions,” said Kareemah Batts, founder of Adaptive Climbing Group, a nonprofit that brings people with disabilities into climbing.
Climbing, she said, has always been taught through mentorship with other climbers, and today there are many climbing communities for women, people of color and L.G.B.T.Q. people. Ms. Batts, who is an amputee and a Black woman, also said many gyms have been focusing on equity access and now offer discount days.
Don’t sweat the numbers.
Mr. Sherman said the worst mistake a beginner boulderer can make has nothing to do with falling or fitness. It’s getting too hung up on the climbing grades, called the V-scale, which go from V0 to V16 and act as guideposts for people looking for their next challenge. Because bouldering is meant to be more technical than regular rock climbing, V1 can feel pretty hard.
“Some of the best boulder problems in America are V0s,” said Mr. Sherman, 62, who still establishes scores of new problems each year. Obsessing on grades ruins the fun, he added (despite the fact that he created the V-scale, so called because of his nickname, “Vermin”).
Part of climbing is falling.
While there are no published numbers on indoor bouldering injuries, “every climbing gym in the country is going to have a few sprained ankles every year,” said Scott Rennak, publisher of Climbing Business Journal. But with modern wall-to-wall pads, there are ways to protect yourself.
If you are scared of heights, start with traverses, or routes that go side to side, rather than up. When it’s time to fall, tumble and roll backward when you hit the mat. Better to land on your butt than an ankle. Practice a bit: Just climb up a few holds, drop off, and practice rolling onto your backside.
“Knees bent, and then when you hit your feet, you are immediately rolling back to take that weight off of your legs,” Ms. Batts said.
If you are still worried, you can ask a more experienced climber for a “spot” in case you come off the wall. The point is not to catch you but to guide you to a safer fall, Mr. Sherman said. Spotting takes time to learn and is less common indoors, where problems are designed for safe falls. Do not spot someone who hasn’t asked for it. Many gyms offer classes in basic climbing and spotting.
See the problem, be the problem.
Bouldering is at least as much mental as it is physical. People often call it chess with your body. By pivoting a knee in or shifting your hips a little higher, an impossible problem can become doable, even easy. Should you have grabbed that hold with your right hand instead of your left? What if you put your other foot on that little blue hold? These are the questions that plague a boulderer.
If you fall off a problem, don’t just jump back on it. Take a moment, shake your arms out and ponder other ways to go up. Watch someone else.
Bouldering can be expensive. Or it can be dirt cheap.
Many beginners can be taken aback by the price tags: fancy $200 shoes, gyms that cost $130 per month (though most places have day passes), $1,500 Louis Vuitton designer chalk bags.
But you don’t have to climb with the best shoes in the hippest gyms. You don’t even have to climb in a gym at all — I started at the same rock as Mr. Sherman with a pair of cheap shoes and ill-fitting jeans. Beginner shoes should cost $70 to $100 (gyms often sell used shoes even cheaper).
Then buy some chalk and you’re ready to go. The world is full of rocks. Mountainproject.com has a tool to locate nearby bouldering areas, and it’s relatively easy to show up and make friends.
Bouldering outside, you will eventually need a crash pad — a portable cushion for landing on — but people are usually happy to share with beginners. There are also plenty of online forums for people looking for bouldering partners.
Feel comfortable outside — but not too comfortable.
If you eventually head outside to climb, even if it’s to some random chunk of granite in the middle of a suburb, never forget you are in nature. Treat the rock like the visitor you are, treading lightly, keeping it clean and leaving portable speakers at home. Just enjoy the fresh air, the rock under your fingers and the movement of your body.
“I’m hoping I’ll be doing it for another two decades,” Mr. Sherman said. “I love it, there’s nothing I’d rather be doing, nothing else that fulfills me like bouldering.”