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Spotlight - equipment views and reviews from the AK team

How high is too high?

By Ashleigh Naysmith
19, Aug, 2014

Never think of bouldering as climbings safer cousin, if you fall you will hit the deck!

Miscericorde, Font 8A

The point at which a boulder problem becomes a route is a favourite topic amongst climbers, and with the increased use of bouldering mats many extreme graded routes are now often climbed as highball bouldering problems. Just take a look at Hazel Findlay’s great interview with Katy Whittaker for some insight. 

There is no safe height for bouldering, you can get injured from falling at any height. The height at which you feel comfortable to climb at is an entirely subjective decision. Clearly, the higher you climb, the more likely you are to seriously injure yourself if you fall off. Even at a climbing centre where the entire floor is covered in a thick layer of foam you can still twist your ankle, break a leg, sprain an arm or worse.

I personally feel most ‘comfortable’ bouldering at a height up to 3 metres, depending on the landing. 3-5 metres starts to feel rather high and I will feel much more tentative on any sketchy or highly dynamic moves. If I feel very confident on the climb and know enough about the route, I may make the decision to take the risk and climb higher than my fall comfort limit but I am well aware of the risks I am taking and I am venturing into soloing. 

I have climbed far past my comfort limit for the pad on a few occasions and have been lucky. Recently, I was bouldering about in a limestone sports climbing area. Whilst down-climbing, the rock broke away in my hand and I fell very quickly and suddenly; it came as quite a surprise to me. I felt exceedingly grateful that hadn’t happened 4 metres higher up. I had felt very comfortable climbing. The holds were positive, I felt strong, the rock seemed sturdy, I had spotters. But there are always uncontrollable variables. So if you climb past the height of a reasonable landing, you are always at risk of seriously injuring yourself.

Learning to fall safely from a height takes some skill, especially when at your limit. When I am pushing myself to reach a distant hold or maintain body tension to keep my toe on a small smear I am not in an ideal position to take a fall, it is so easy to forget the consequences when you are psyched! When you are upside down and you land on your back, an out stretched hand or with straight legs you are landing wrong! Remember even landing in water can hurt if you land out of shape.

I have seen a lot of people choosing a bouldering mat because it feels soft and squishy, but this isn’t going to do anything for you when you fall from a height. You might walk away with a red back if you take a flat fall on to your back in the climbing wall but outside things are not so sanitised. A bouldering mat has many compromises, it has to be portable, it has to protect you from rocks sticking out of the ground which is why I look for a mat which is firm so your impact is spread across the surface of the mat and minimises the chance of ‘bottoming out’. 

Lastly it is not all about the mat! Above 3 metres and your mat will start to look very small and the higher you go the less chance of you landing on it! I feel much safer bouldering at height with a group of reliable spotting friends and multiple crash pads. 

So how high can you fall from safely? It is a simple question I get asked a lot at Alpkit. You will understand from the issues I have outlined above that the variables are complex and it is not going to lead to a magical number that will guarantee your safety. 

It is interesting to note that there are currently no standard tests that measure the effectiveness of a crash pad. We are working with the UIAA and other mat manufacturers to see if it is possible to develop a standard but the discussion has just begun. The aim is noble, to make sure everyone is as safe as possible but a number is never going to be a substitute for experience!

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