Bouldering is rock climbing stripped down to its raw essentials. Leaving behind ropes and harnesses and just using climbing shoes and a bag of chalk over safety mats, your challenge is to climb short but tricky bouldering "problems" (a route, or sequence of moves) using balance, technique, strength, and your brain.
You don't need experience or lots of expensive kit to have a go - making it really easy to get into if you've never tried it before.
The climbs are high enough to be exciting, but not so high that they're hugely intimidating. Using safety mats means that the risks of falling off can be managed, and leaving the ropes behind means that you are free to concentrate on the climbing, not the equipment. It's just you, the wall, and your friends on the ground egging you on.
Every climb, or "problem", has its own solution, and to successfully climb it you need to work it out. Depending on your body shape and personal strengths, your solution could be different to the next person's. If you're tall, you might be able to reach the next hold more easily on spaced-out problems - but find yourself cramped when the route takes you into the nooks and crannies of the wall. It all evens out in the end.
The key to the problem could be about how you position your body when you climb, or what order you put your feet and hands on the wall - or there might be a sneaky "toe hook" or one of countless other climbing techniques that suddenly takes the problem from impossible, to crushed. You might need to refine your technique before you can do it - or train some more and get stronger!
Our indoor bouldering centre tries to take some of the best elements of outdoor bouldering, but making them accessible all year round. Using artificial climbing holds we create problems at all levels of difficulty, organised into colour-coded circuits - so that you can work out your level and instantly know which climbs in the centre you might enjoy trying out.
These holds can be spun into different orientations and moved around the walls by our team of expert route-setters, meaning that we can change the problems regularly. No two bouldering problems are ever the same, and regular route-setting means that there will always be a new challenge waiting for you. Throw in our cafe, some great tunes on the stereo and a friendly bunch of like-minded people and what's not to like?
We think that one of the best things about bouldering is how social it is. Because there aren't any ropes about to limit the number of people on a section of wall, you often get several people working a tricky problem together. This often involves one person having a go, then lots of chat on the ground as everyone discusses how they would have done it better, before trying and failing themselves.
At the wall, this means that even if you turn up on your own, chances are you'll end up talking to a few people you've never met before during your session, and swapping some tips or tricks. You'll get to know the regulars, and the hard core climbers we all envy as they make the problem you've been sweating over for an hour look like climbing a set of stairs!
It's a real leveller, and makes for a great friendly vibe. Special events like competitions can feel like little mini festivals - hopefully we'll get some live music from local bands to make these even more fun.
Bouldering is a great physical workout, using muscles all over your body - not just your arms. Core strength is a real focus, as is flexibility. But unlike some other forms of exercise, it's so much fun you might not notice that you've had a big workout - until you wake up the next day! If you want to see what regular climbing could do for your physique, just take a look at some pictures of famous rock climbers online - it's pretty impressive.
It also takes a bit of thinking, as often brute force alone won't be enough to get you to the top. You'll need to think about how to solve the various bouldering problems, try some different techniques and methods out, and hopefully eventually crack it. This makes a bouldering session totally absorbing, making your forget about your stresses and leaving your mind clear and refreshed at the end of it all.
If you're new to the sport, you'll find that you make big improvements in your climbing ability after only a few sessions, as you use and tone those rarely used muscles. Breaking into the harder grades takes a bit longer, but by that stage you'll be hooked!
One of the spiritual homes of bouldering is just over the Channel in Fontainebleau, just south of Paris, where literally thousands of rock-hard sandstone boulders are strewn amongst the peaceful, leafy forests. Climbs are organised into circuits of a similar grade, and are colour coded to help those trying to find them. The difficulty ranges from deliciously easy to eye-wateringly hard.
Some particularly good problems have been given names over the years - for example La Marie Rose, which was for a short time the hardest boulder problem in the world (before the invention of sticky boots!) - but is now seen as more of a rite of passage at a grade of 6A (more about grades below). Some boulders have names themselves, some more obvious than others - see Le Cul de Chien (the Dog's Head) at Les Trois Pignons.
Boulderers head to the forest and climb, usually in small groups of friends, ending the day exhausted, exhilarated and slightly closer to nature than they started it. You can find loads of bouldering videos like the one here on the internet - check them out for some inspiration!
Bouldering grades, and climbing grades in general, are the source of endless arguments and strife. It's a subjective system, and one person's idea of hard can be very different to another's - particularly if one is short and one is tall, or one is ultra-skinny and the other heavy.
We think that giving bouldering problems grades is a great way to point you in the right direction in terms of which climbs at the centre you might enjoy, and give you a sense of improvement over time - but grades aren't everything. The important thing is to have fun and enjoy your climbing - your sense of achievement having managed to climb something that you found a challenge is what really counts.
There are several different grading systems in use across the world. We prefer the Fontainebleau system, which is also popular in the UK (including on the Southern Sandstone - the nearest natural bouldering to Brighton, near Tunbridge Wells). This gives a number and a letter to indicate how hard the climb is, for instance 5B. Grade 5C would be one grade harder, 5A one grade easier.
The Font system starts at 1 for the easiest climb imaginable and goes all the way up to 9A for the super-humanly hard (only a handful of people in the world can climb at this level). It sounds complicated but isn't really once you get used to it. If you're used to a different system you can get a rough idea of how the Font system compares using conversion charts like the one here.
Worried about people talking about flashing all the time? Still think crimping is something to do with 80s haircuts? Maybe you need: Our handy guide to the weird and wonderful world of boulder-speak