Thursday, January 13, 2011

Inside or Outside?

Boulder CO has been in a deep freeze and I have been finishing up the book. So my climbing time outside is essentially zero. Fortunately visits to the home wall, The Spot, The Boulder Rock Club, and CATS can substitute for the real thing for a while. However sometimes I get the feeling that for many climbers, climbing inside becomes the real thing. So what is the difference between bouldering outdoors and indoors?

1. The size of the holds. Even at CATS, one of the few public gyms that has loads of crimpers, most of the smallest handholds are still not as small or complex as holds outside. At the Spot or the BRC, most of the holds are quite large with dynamic long moves and very limited feet to create difficulty. The kinds of crimps, and micro-features you have to use on harder problems outside are rarely encountered inside. Compared with outside, 99% of gym footholds are ledges by comparison. Learning to climb better outside may mean focusing on using the smallest footholds you can find inside.

2. Texture. I have been climbing on real rock and artificial holds for a very long time and if there is one thing about gym climbing I don't like, it is the texture, the "hand" so to speak, of the holds. There is such a difference between real rock, whatever type, that has been molded and affected by natural processes and plastic. While smooth hold textures can prolong a training session nicely, the roughness and complexity of real rock can be a wakeup call.

3. Landings. Gym climbing can be very dangerous, no mistake. I see people blow it at the Spot all the time. Friends have been forced into lengthy layoffs from falls at CATS. However learning the ins and outs of safe falling and landing on complex surfaces is crucial to climbing safely on boulder problems outside.

4. Movement types and setting. Gym setting is a perennial topic of discussion and I find myself forced to say, "It is what it is." I know a number of pro routesetters and they do their job well. I have done a fair amount of it myself. It is hard physical work that can be frustratingly fussy. But it can be hard to translate their work to the natural environment. The majority of problems in contemporary routesetting feature fairly large holds far apart, usually pretty sloping on the low-angle walls or fairly incut on the steeper ones. Physical power and friction seem to matter the most. Precise grip, core tension,footwork and technique rate lower.

5. Environment. I actually really like the gym environment, even if most people I am around are half my age. There is a certain energy and animation to the setting that can boost motivation. Folks used to the noise, the movement, the music etc, may find the quiet and stillness of the outdoors a little unsettling. I find it to be a source of strength and restoration of centeredness and balance, being among ancient boulders and old trees. This helps me to focus clearly on the task at hand and enjoy the process more. The permanence of the boulders and the changing scenery and conditions of the natural environment complement each other.

I will always like gym climbing. You can't have a life and not need some time climbing hard in a gym to get stronger and keep fitness high as possible. But in a perfect world, I would always climb outdoors.


  1. Love your blogs Peter. You did a great job articulating why the real thing is the "real thing" for you. I would be interested in you arguing for indoor climbing gyms though. Take those same bullet points and flip the script so to speak. Not as a joke but to really put yourself into those Dragons that have never touched rock.