Bouldering: a history of an obsession

People have been purposefully climbing on boulders for nearly a hundred and fifty years. Whether the earliest forays constituted bouldering or not is a matter of debate. But I wonder, these days, do we share the same goals with the early boulderers? What about the culture and ethos of the sport – has that changed? Or are there other goals, attributes or dimensions to the activity we haven’t fully explored? I put together a potted history of the sport to investigate.

A few points came to mind having got the dates together:

  • A focus on athleticism has long been central to the sport, evidenced earliest by Fraser Campbell. However, with the (relatively) recent advent of highballing, surely the outdoor boulderer requires a cool head in addition to polished biceps. This is at odds with the larger (and growing) numbers of people who climb indoors in an arguably safer environment.
  • How did members of the “Boulder Society” differ from other climbing clubs? I’m sure that there were many folk who climbed both problems and routes. But it’s a long-standing joke that trad climbers and boulderers are inherently different (trad climbers = goretex and beards; boulderers = beanies and shirts off). Did versions of these stereotypes exist in the 1800’s?
  • Evidence from the Peak District suggests people have long been creating eliminate problems. Therefore we see the climbers’ creativity has always played an important role in defining the challenge.
  • John Gill’s focus on style seems to have been eclipsed by the pursuit of difficulty. Can we imagine bouldering where-by people are ranked on their style by judges, in a similar way to gymnastics?
  • Is shoeless climbing the future? In an age where there are bouldering toothbrushes, bouldering handcream and bouldering underpants, is less more?

Found something I’ve missed? Let me know below! I’m not pretending this is exhaustive…

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