Sunday, August 22, 2010

Spotting in Bouldering: Some Do's and Dont's

As mentioned in the previous post, with the advent of crash pads, the game of bouldering changed drastically in the mid-1990s. For many problems, spotting became a non-issue.The use of of crashpads took the sting out of many previously committing problems.However, risk is still a big part of bouldering and spotting is an essential part of managing it. Any number of twisted sprained or broken ankles testify to this basic truth; every fall in bouldering is a ground fall. A good spot can provide the margin of confidence needed to succeed on the problem and maybe  never even put the spot to the test.

To make the spot successful, a few basic rules need to be followed and they can by summed up as follows using the SPOT acronym: S=Stance, P=Preparation, O=Observation, T=Tactics

By stance, I mean the way in which a spotter stands relative to the climber. Generally the spotter wants to be standing close to the climber, with legs apart, knees bent with hands positioned just above the climbers center of gravity. The footing should be secure and reliable and nothing should threaten to interfere with the movement of the spotter.

By preparation, I mean that the landing area has been cleared of extraneous stuff and pads arranged for maximal use and effectiveness.

By observation, I mean that the spotter is continually observing the climber and the terrain, being aware of any changes in the situation that may affect the safety of the climber.

By tactics, I mean that both the spotter and the climber have a plan in place to maximize the effectiveness of the tools and people at hand to ensure a successful ascent.

A good spot on Tommy's Arete V7 RMNP
The photo above shows a good spot in action on a problem where it really helps.Tommy's Arete V7 in Rocky Mountain National Park is a steeply overhung problem that goes over a very uneven talus landing. Several pads are required to prepare the base to a minimal level of security. To further complicate matters, a large boulder rests just behind the problem, offering a backslapping slide down to the pads from the last crux. In the photo, climber Tara Kramer is being spotted on this last section in perfect form. The spotter's hands are at rib level, ready to guide her into the pile of pads at the base. Just out of the frame, a pad has been hung on the steep slab behind the problem, offering some protection in the event of a fall. While Tara didn't get the problem in this session, she tried it in the confidence that a safe outcome would be the likely result, regardless of whether she topped out or not.

In the next post, more on special spotting situations and some thoughts on how to fall better.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Spotting and Bouldering: A Changed Paradigm

Although the advent of crashpads has significantly altered the nature of spotting in bouldering there is no question of its importance. In this post I want to discuss briefly the nature of spotting back in the day and how it has changed.

When bouldering in America was initially practiced seriously, in the late 50s through the mid 70s, it was a ground-up affair. Even if topropes were occasionally used, the attitude was that falling was a sign that the climber needed to start over. Rarely did climbers hang in place anywhere and pre-inspection was almost unheard-of. This, along with the absence of prepared landing surfaces such as pads, meant that even low problems could be very serious indeed. Although mats were used in gymnastics, which is where much of the idea of bouldering came from, they did not find wide acceptance in climbing until the mid-1990s. Even today, I will encounter older climbers who refuse the offer of a pad, even though their body language on the problem says they could really use it. Spotting was so important then because the ground was so hard and irregular on even the most level and clear landings that an unbroken fall of even just a few feet could twist an ankle or break a heel.

My theory is that spotting, also typical of gymnastics, was acceptable at that time because it mirrored in some sense the climber-belayer relationship typical of roped climbing and preserved a sense of ground-up adventure. This view might explain why pads were slow in being adopted. Certainly, the technology involved in pad manufacture or use is trivial and climbers could have been using them much earlier. Spotting in the pre-pad era consisted, much as it does now, primarily of stabilizing a climber's landing or directing the climber to a safer landing. However without a pad the consequences of a poor spot were potentially much more severe. This is perhaps why many classic problems from this era were rarely dynamic, steep compression affairs but instead more typically vertical or slightly overhung face climbs, problems that usually allowed a certain amount of time to climb down if possible or at least fall with some advance notice. Thus spotting was done in the manner typical of highball spots today, providing moral support as much as anything else.

Today, the situation is quite different on many problems. The crashpad has rendered spotting in many situations irrelevant as the climber moves above a sea of pads a few inches below her back. Indeed, on many steep problems, there is no room for a spotter anyway. A plethora of pads removes the need to direct the climber as he can land anywhere safely, even in a talus field, if the pads are placed well. Spotting has become for most a kind of lost art, rendered obsolete by new approaches and equipment.

That said, spotting remains a valuable skill in a number of situations. The ability to keep a climber upright and reasonably stable during impact can make you a valuable companion and bouldering partner and the ability to communicate this skill to others may save your own skin in a bad situation. More on how to fall and how to spot in the next post.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Gripping Positions: Which is Best?

One of the most important but overlooked aspects of climbing is the position of the hands on the holds. Typically beginning climbers do whatever comes naturally when they get started and unfortunately this often means crimping.

Crimping is by far the most mechanically strong grip to use in climbing but it is also the most injury-prone hand position. The raised knuckles exert far more force on the tendons in your fingers, making the likelihood of strain or tearing much greater. Therefore, it's advisable to work on consciously adopting the safer open-hand position.

I find myself inclined to use the open-hand position most of the time. In this position, the fingers are extended, allowing a more passive gripping of the hold,as seen here.
This is the first move of a V11/12 called Clear Blue Skies. I am using a crimp position for my right hand and snagging the first hold in an open-hand position. However, the next move involves a powerful and somewhat awkward cross to another edge for my right hand. The open-hand position's primary weakness is gaining height in a static position. Its passive attitude makes it hard to easily bend and lock off the pulling arm. Therefore, for the next move to work, I have to shift from an open-hand to a crimping position, building up enough body tension to make the next move. I find I often will make this transition in the course of a move, starting open-handed and then crimping to gain height. A good example is seen in these two photos of Jimmy Webb on the notoriously crimpy European Human Being V12 at RMNP. A powerful reach to a crimp is begun in the open-hand position with the tips of three fingers grabbing the hold.

After getting good contact,Jimmy sets up for the last move in a full crimp. A full crimp helps gain the necessary distance to the obvious left hold he is aiming for. It also helps resist the "barn-door" effect that this move produces as the climber's center of gravity shifts to the left.

Another option is an intermediate position between the two extremes. This can be seen in this photo of my setting up the last move on Clear Blue Skies.
The last move on this problem is a fairly powerful dyno off a poor left edge. The right hand is better but stays low. And, in order to set up for the move, I will first need to move my right foot up. An intermediate position allows me to minimize effort while hanging on to reset my feet and also allows a quick transition to the full crimp position for the final throw.

Sometimes part of the difficulty in a problem is mastering the exact position of your hand on a given hold and potentially needing to transition through different grip positions as you move. Often you will find yourself doing unlikely things such as crimping a sloper or openhanding a severely incut small edge. Find what works best for you and don't hesitate to try all alternatives. Even just an inch of height gain can mean success so find the grip that lets you get it. However don't forget the dangers of intense full crimping. The power it offers can come with a high cost. Be careful.