Circus boulders – is that even bouldering?

Just about every major climbing competition results in a lively discussion on the style of the problems afterwards. Some people feel boulder problems especially have become too much of a circus act at times.

Michiel Hennevelt is a Dutch routesetter with experience in setting national competitions. We asked him on his thoughts about the evolution of setting for competitions, and in return got a plea for the modern style of bouldering.

The sport of bouldering is continuously evolving. It all started in Fontainebleau as practice for the real thing in the Alps. The first indoor bouldering, too, was mostly a means of training for hard outdoor routes. Nowadays bouldering, in gyms as well as outdoor, is a complete sport in and of itself. Where, on the one hand, legends like Dave Graham and Nalle Hukkataival are pushing the boundaries on rock, a whole other group of the strongest male and female athletes are competing on plastic all over the world.

We can safely say that the sport of bouldering is never standing still. The development at the top level illustrates this best. A select group of routesetters is literally setting the standard competitors need to meet at the various world cups. This results in a remarkable difference between bouldering and most other sports: not only does an athlete have to beat his fellow competitors, he is in a constant battle with the routesetters as well.

This results in a situation where the athletes are always trying to anticipate what kind of problems they will have to climb. There is, however, a noticeable trend. In worldcups we see that the emphasis is shifting from power to technique, from static to dynamic, from secure to sketchy, and from simple to – for lack of a better word – obscure. Two video fragments illustrate this development quite clearly. The first one shows a 2010 world cup, the style of climbing can be characterized as classical: a dirty, old wall in a dark gym, holds that break your fingers and an athlete that is steadily advancing through every move. Classical, because it resembles climbing on rock.

Compare this to the most recent series of world cups of 2014. The sharp edges have been exchanged for big, wooden features. The steep overhang has made way for a nice vertical or ever so slightly overhanging wall and the athletes are never in a secure position, getting punished for the smallest mistakes.

The fact that World Cup level setters are increasingly setting this modern style and the skeptics who are playing it down as “fun bouldering” or “circus bouldering”, makes a lot of sense! Bouldering is getting more and more attention from a very broad crowd. In the Netherlands we have gone from two to seven bouldering gyms in a mere four years. To serve this large crowd, competitions need to offer a far larger show element than before. Big, outstanding holds and features, athletes that are flying from one side of the stage to another, and walls designed to look like pieces of art, all help this cause.

Show isn’t the only reason though. In competitions it’s crucial to separate the field of athletes as best as possible. The problem is that, as training for climbing gets easier and more professional over time, athletes are reaching an upper boundary as far as strength goes. When setting boulders, it will be very hard to achieve a good separation of the field that requires only strength: either all competitors reach the top with relative ease, or no one does because the problem is physically too demanding. Setters thus won’t separate the field by setting harder and harder problems, but rather by shifting the emphasis to a style of climbing that is harder to master.

Some climbers may wonder if this style of climbing can still be called bouldering. In my opinion it definitely can be. Climbing indoors and outdoors were once two complementary disciplines, but this is not the case anymore. They are increasingly becoming two separate sports. The culture among climbers is shifting accordingly; today you can find a lot of climbers in gyms who have never climbed on rock. These climbers don’t want to pull on razor-sharp edges, they don’t want to bash through a 60 degree overhang, fighting for every move until their joints start to hurt. The contemporary climber wants to play, move and surprise himself. Climbing gyms are picking up on this trend and the best example is Stuntwerk in Cologne.

This gym was established by a group of German climbing fanatics with a fresh view on bouldering. They take the modern bouldering style we see in the World Cups to its most extreme form. The result: a parcours-like experience on a climbing wall. Walking into their climbing gym today, you will find a mix of classical and modern problems, including a complete circuit of parcours boulders such as in the video above. Every type of climber can go all out!

Will we then start to see gyms, or at least boulder problems, like these elsewhere? I think we will eventually. Like every trend, there will be both early adopters and laggards. Gyms from different countries and areas have always inspired each other, with some gyms presenting a very fresh vision on the bouldering scene. It’s time for the next generation of climbers and setters to be inspired, push forward and carry out their own vision.

By: Michiel Hennevelt

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Bram Berkien

Mede-oprichter van Siked! Verzorgt fotografie en een artikel hier en daar. Daarnaast ook zelfstandig werkzaam als active lifestyle fotograaf. Na een begin als boulderaar kan hij nu ook de lokroep van het sportklimmen niet weerstaan.