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Thursday, October 21,2010

Boulder's eponymous sport

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

By 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.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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