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Jim Ablo and Jeff Frizzell bouldering at Smith Rock

By Keith Ridler The Bulletin

Bouldering doesn't reach great heights, but its popularity is soaring.

"It's probably the most popular aspect of rock climbing," says Jeff Frizzell, a guide with First Ascent through Red Point Climbers Supply in Bend and Terrebonne. "Virtually anybody who climbs will at least occasionally boulder. But there's a new wave of people out there who exclusively boulder. It's kind of the latest rage."

Bouldering is pretty much what it sounds like - rock climbing on boulders. But it also includes rock climbing on low rock faces and in climbing gyms. Typically, bouldering involves staying relatively close to the ground and therefore does not require the use of ropes.

"In a lot of ways (bouldering) is training for rock climbing," says Jim Ablao, also a climbing guide through Red Point. "Its history is in training for climbing, just like rock climbing was training for mountaineering. What's been happening in the last 10, 15 years is that bouldering has become an end in itself. A pursuit all its own. The great thing about bouldering is you can focus on pure difficulty of moving."

And it turns out Central Oregon has some fairly respectable bouldering areas. Smith Rock State Park, of course, is popular for bouldering, but there are also bouldering routes scattered in other areas throughout the region.

"There is good bouldering around here," adds Frizzell. "I wouldn't say that it's world class. But there's a fair bit of it and it's pretty good."

Due to bouldering's relatively low heights, climbers place pads below the routes and use spotters rather than employing ropes and various devices to protect against a fall. That leaves climbers unencumbered.

"There's a purity of movement," says Frizzell. "There's the simplicity of it. You don't have to have as much skill and knowledge in order to do it safely. And some people prefer to stay close to the ground."

Not having to worry about a big fall means climbers can take a few more chances, really test themselves.

"For the most part it's just you and 15 feet, maybe three to 10 moves in a row," says Ablao. 'That really allows you to open up and try harder and harder moves."

And without all the extra equipment that comes with the use of ropes, a climber doesn't need all the extra know-how.
"You eliminate the complexity of it, so in many ways you've made it safer," Frizzell says. "I would say, for the most part, bouldering is one of the safest aspects of climbing in that it's the easiest to control virtually every aspect."

It can even be controlled to the extent of moving indoors. At INCLIMB rock gym in Bend, Larry Brumwell expanded the bouldering area to 6,000 square feet to meet demand, and he estimates that 85 percent of gym users are there for the bouldering.

"Adding the extra bouldering terrain is one of the best moves we've made," says Brumwell. "Bouldering right now is coming on as one of the more popular aspects of climbing. It's booming within the sport of climbing. It's pretty much taken over."

He adds that in other areas of the country "people are spending $200,000 on gyms that don't go more than 15 feet off the ground, and they're extremely popular."

Part of the reason for bouldering's increasing popularity is the perception that it's safer than other types of rock climbing. But safe can be a relative term.

"I would never, me personally, use the word 'safe' anywhere involved with rock climbing," Brumwell says. "When you're bouldering and you fall off, you always fall to the ground. Twisted ankles. Just anything you can think of when you fall to the ground. You can maim yourself pretty good bouldering being 10 feet off the ground."

So the perception of bouldering being safe could be a little off the mark. But bouldering definitely has some advantages over rock climbing on big walls. Chief among them is that it's cheaper.

"In fact, that's one of its appeals," Frizzell says.

Equipment includes climbing shoes (about $100), chalk bag (about $20), and bouldering pad (abouf $80 to $260). Bouldering at INCLIMB costs $8 per day for climbers age 11 and under, and $12 all day for age 12 and up.

Bouldering is also convenient, indoors or out.
"As a society, we seem to be so convenience oriented," Brumwell says. "And bouldering
is just a heck of a lot more convenient. You don't need rope You don't need expensive climbing gear."

The same is true for heading outside.

"A couple hours is all you really need to grab your bouldering pad, shoes and chalk bag and get all the exercise you need," says Ablao.

"And it's virtually without suffering," says Frizzell. "With other (longer) routes you know you're going to get pushed to the limit. With bouldering you can go out during your lunch break and do a few problems (climbing difficult sections). It's very convenient and easy. It's less time consuming. You can do it alone, you don't need a partner to hold the rope."

For the most part, bouldering is done up to a point where a fall likely wouldn't cause serious injuries. Ablao says this is up to about 10 or 15 feet, though he notes that some climbers push as high as 30 feet and into an area known as free soloing, or climbing without protection at a height where a fall is likely to have serious consequences.

Free soloing is a high-risk, high-adrenaline endeavor. Bouldering, though certainly challenging, is not meant to put life and limb in danger. What it comes down to is how comfortable an individual feels at a particular height.

"There's sort of a gray area," says Frizzell. "It's really hard to say where that line is."

Easier to find are local areas on which to participate in bouldering.

"Scattered through the Bureau of Land Management (land) and national forest there are a lot of micro areas," notes Abalo. "For 25 yards, 50 yards, the cliff band (rock wall) will come up and create some nice climbing areas. But it wouldn't hold your interest for a week. If you were to hang out there you would tap it out in three days."

Both Ablao and Frizzell point out that knowing exactly who owns the land and what the rules are is important for anyone planning to go out bouldering.

Bouldering on private land requires permission. Some public land areas do not allow the use of chalk

"They (climbers) should be very respectful of access issues and be as sensitive to the environment as they can possibly be," says Frizzell

The Bulletin