What’s That Thing On Your Back?

The first hairpin turn on Catalina Highway as the road begins its long climb up to Mt Lemmon. Marshall Gulch trailhead. Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Hueco Tanks State Park outside of El Paso. Little Cottonwood Canyon in Salt Lake City. These places all have something in common: if you visit them enough as an outdoorsperson, you’re likely to see people walking around with a strange, large, mat-looking thing on their backs.

Your author, wearing a crashpad on his back, ready to go bouldering

In fact, you’re likely to see me with one of those strange things on my back. And, if you’re like most outdoorspeople, you won’t know what it is. It sort of looks like a backpack, but it’s an awfully large and strangely shaped backpack. Again, if you’re like most people, you’ll stop me and ask “Say, what’s that thing on your back?!”

I’ve heard some creative ideas about what might be on my back:

“Are those sleds you’ve got on your backs?”

“What do you have on your backs there, hang-gliders?”

“Those look like comfortable camping mats on your backs!”

“Are those massage tables for wilderness massage?”

None of those ideas is correct, unfortunately. What they are are four foot by five foot slabs of 3-6′ foam that fold in half and have backpack straps attached for carrying. What they do is soften the ground for the inevitable falls that happen in the sport of bouldering. They are called “crash pads” “sketch pads” or, as they say in the UK, “bouldering mats”

For whatever reason, the sport of bouldering is still fairly obscure and so needs some introduction. Simply put, it’s a form of rock climbing. But instead of climbing 50-2,000 foot cliffs with safety lines, boulderers climb 8-20+ foot boulders. A particular face on a boulder can have several different routes (or ways of reaching the top, called “boulder problems”) of varying difficulty; those who found the boulder will have named the problems and assigned them difficulty ratings.

Me about to begin climbing a problem called Hairpin Roof Right at the base of Mt Lemmon. Note the crashpad strategically placed in the “fall zone” behind me.

The ratings go from V0, all the way up to V15 or V16 (there’s currently some contention among the sport’s elite about how hard the world’s hardest boulder problems are). Just about anyone in good physical conditioning (and proper rock climbing shoes) ought to be able to get up a V0 after a few tries. But by the V2 rating, only very practiced rock climbers who have developed specialized strength and coordination will be able to climb the boulder problem. Most recreational boulderers who have been at it for more than a year or two top out at the V6-8 range, while the number of people in the world capable of climbing V15 or V16 is almost certainly less than 20.

Me in the middle of climbing Hairpin Roof Right

Like all climbers, boulderers wear specialized shoes, and we keep our hands well-dusted with gymnastic chalk while we climb to prevent slipping from sweat and finger grease. (Climbers’ pants are constantly covered in a fine coat of white chalk dust.)

Dusting my hands with chalk before beginning a climb.

We carry toothbrushes around that we use to scrub chalk dust and finger grease off of the hand-holds on the boulder problems we are trying (“Why are you guys cleaning the rocks?” is a question I’ve heard more than a few times!) And we might spend weeks trying to climb a single boulder problem – learning the individual hand and foot movements, and doing them in sequence, is a bit like learning a dance or gymnastic routine. 

Modern bouldering’s heritage begins, in large part, with the exploits of the famed American climber John Gill. In the 1950s and 1960s, rock climbing was a very new sport and still rooted in its mountaineering past: the challenges climbers sought were the biggest, most majestic cliffs, and they sought to ascend them using any means necessary (hammering pitons into the rock and pulling up on them). With his gymnastics background, John Gill sought a different challenge: he wanted to see how difficult unassisted movement up rock could be. He was interested in the kinesiology of climbing movement rather than getting to the top of big cliffs. If pure physical difficulty and kinesthetic beauty are the interest, climbing boulders rather than huge cliffs starts to make sense: they’re typically more accessible and offer a relatively safe arena for pushing one’s physical limits.

Another shot of me on Hairpin Roof Right. Note the size of the handholds- just the tips of my fingers have purchase on the rock. The size of the handholds (and how far apart they’re spaced) is one of the major factors determining the difficulty of a boulder problem.

The question of safety brings us back to crash pads. For the first 40 years of bouldering’s history, there was no such thing as a crash pad. When you fell, you landed on the ground. I’m sure there were countless sprained and broken ankles, but nobody was dying. But as popularity and difficulty levels rose, the repeated ground falls necessary to learn a boulder problem got old. Someone had the wise idea of throwing a piece of foam on the ground. Then someone else thought to attach backpack straps to make it easier to carry.

Today, many of the world’s major outdoors brands manufacture crash pads with specialized, dual-density foam, and relatively comfortable shoulder harnesses. There are even a few smaller companies whose entire business is crash pads. Bouldering is now an international sport with competitions, professional athletes, and specialized gear. There are even indoor climbing gyms with simulated boulders and manufactured hand and foot holds. Older boulderers feel that what “counts” is what you accomplish outside on real rock, but many kids who grew up climbing only inside don’t draw that distinction – they just like fun climbing movements, whether it’s on manufactured plastic holds or features of real rocks.

My freestanding bouldering wall for training at home

So now you know: that thing on my back is a crash pad, and it’s there because I’m going bouldering. To end, here’s a little video of me climbing a classic boulder problem on Mt Lemmon called “Jewel Thief.” It’s a pretty tall problem, and it was first done by Bob Murray in the 80s with no crash pads. Before completing this problem, I fell from the last move at the top probably two dozen times. Each time, I was very glad to have four crash pads underneath me.


Editor’s Note: Bouldering and rock climbing are both dangerous sports with the potential for life-threatening injury and even death. The Summit Hut encourages our readers to seek out professional instruction if interested in learning more about them.

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