From Spotting to Pad Placement to Falling

Linda Rider

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One of the true joys of bouldering is its simplicity, which also makes it an excellent introduction to the sport of climbing. There are no complicated rope systems, you typically don’t get too high off the ground, and all you really need are shoes and some chalk. Yet even though bouldering seems safer than other forms of climbing—fatal falls are exceedingly rare, as are instances of sizeable rockfall—it’s also a high-impact sport: when you fall you hit the ground. And this can easily lead to injury if you hit the pads wrong (or miss them altogether).

In this article, we cover:

  1. How to fall
  2. How to arrange bouldering pads
  3. How (and when) to spot boulder problems
  4. How to customize landing zones

How to safely fall when bouldering

No two falls are exactly the same, and bouldering’s gymnastic nature often puts our bodies in funky positions, which means that there’s no “one true way” when it comes to safer landings. The following list is a set of guidelines that you’ll want to think about and practice any time you head out for a bouldering session, whether it’s inside or outside.

Before you climb

  • Remove all jewelry, belts, and anything heavy / sharp in your pockets or on your person that could cause injury to you or others, including keys, phone, and wallet.
  • Scope the landing zone to make sure it’s free of everything from water bottles and chalkbags to other climbers.
  • Scope the route and look at the places where you might fall, then compare this to the landing zone you’ve built. If you fall on that big sideways dyno up there, are you still going to land on the pads?
  • Make sure your spotters have a plan. If there’s an obstacle that you might hit if you fall in a certain place, make sure that they know to spot you off of it—and know when they’re likely to have to do so. If you need them to move pads, tell them roughly when that should happen, and where the pads should go.

Once you’re falling

  • Once you start to peel off, never try to grab other holds to catch yourself. Accept that you’re falling and go with the flow—literally. The key is to find a good balance between keeping your whole body slightly engaged and at the same time somewhat relaxed. This might sound impossible, but finding the sweet spot of keeping muscles activated but soft is the key to safe landings. Tensing up too much before impact will lead to strains, sprains, and even bone breaks, ligament injuries, and muscle tears.

How to land

  • Try to land with a shoulder-width or wider stance and bent, soft knees, directing most of the impact into your strong lower body, which is designed to absorb that sort of falling force.
  • Land with the bottoms of your feet squarely on the mat, instead of the heels, toes, or side of the foot.
  • Tucking your chin to your chest will help engage your neck muscles to prevent whiplash, which is one of bouldering’s most common injuries.
  • Do NOT try to stick the landing and finish standing on their feet. When you land, allow your body to tuck in and roll down onto your side, back, or shoulder. Don’t fight the momentum of the fall; allow it to take you down to the mat in a soft “tuck and roll” manner. If there are obstacles that make this unreasonable, you should still go through the same motions but have your spotters stop the “roll” part.
  • Never try to stop yourself with your hands or arms. Landing on an outstretched hand or arm can lead to an upper extremity injury like sprains, strains, or breaks. As you’re falling, try to hug your arms high and into your chest. This prevents them from instinctively reaching down to stop a fall, and it keeps them out of the way so you won’t bash them on any obstacles on your way down.

Tailor your landing method to each type of climb

  • When falling from a low roof where your body is almost horizontal, keep your arms and legs elevated, almost like they’re still holding onto the wall, allowing your back to absorb the impact (think of a turtle flipped on its shell). Remember to tuck your chin to your chest to prevent whiplash.
  • Dynos can cause a scary, face-down fall that leaves little time to correct your body position. Keep your arms and legs up to avoid landing on them and turn your head to one side to stabilize the neck and prevent whiplash. Try to engage your core as well to soften the landing.
  • When landing directly on your back or stomach, instead of curling your arms up into your chest, it’s often better to slap the mat out to your sides at the moment of impact. This will help counteract the force of the fall and engage your upper body just enough to keep it from flopping around, which can cause injury. (Note: if you’re climbing outside with limited pads, this might result in slapping the ground, or other rocks… so tailor your use to the occasion.)
Notice the pads: no gaps between them and ample room for the climber to roll backward if/when they hit the ground. (Photo: Cavan Images / Getty Images)

How to arrange bouldering pads

The quality of your landing zone may be the the single most important safety metric in outdoor bouldering, and it comes down to two things; the quality of the landing itself (is it level? are there rocks?) and the care with which you place pads.

Not sure what kind of pad to buy? Check out out “Everything You Need to Know About Crash Pads”

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about what makes for good pad coverage, even on flat ground. Some people seem to think that you can’t have multiple layers of pad; i.e. that you’ve got to have a perfectly even surface to land on or you’ll land on the edge of one pad and roll your ankle. But for the most part, this isn’t true; unless they’re brand frickin’ new, pads are generally soft enough that their edges will compress under your weight. By far the bigger problem is cracks between pads that can allow your foot to hit the hard earth. Make sure these cracks don’t form and, when possible, cover cracks with other pads (blubbers or other thin pads work well, though blubbers bring other risks: see below).

When thinking about where to place different pads, you should weigh two considerations: (1) the likeliness of a fall in any given place, and (b) the consequence of that fall. Sometimes that calculus makes decisions pretty easy: I’m most likely to fall off the last move of this 10 foot problem, so I’ll put the big firm bad under the lip of the boulder rather than in close near the start. Other times, you have to split the difference: I’m most likely to fall on the second move, but if I fall of the tenth move it could be pretty bad, so I’ll protect the second move with my softer, thinner, less substantial pad and put the big one over there, to protect against the catastrophe-haunted end of the problem.

Things to think about:

  • Don’t let cracks or gaps form between pads.
  • Be aware that pads move when stepped on or fallen on or when placed on unlevel surfaces: you should be ready to adjust the landing zone between every attempt.
  • If you’re using a blubber pad over your other pads, be careful of two things: (1) to ensure that the blubber doesn’t slide when fallen upon. Injuries happen often when the climber falls at an angle and then has the blubber slide away, which pulls their feet out from under them. (2) That the blubber doesn’t disguise gaps that form between the pads. This is one reason why many more elite climbers prefer to go without blubbers in the first place.
  • Level the landing. Sometimes, it might be better to have a smaller, flatter landing than a big multi-leveled one. This might require placing an unopened pad in a hole, for instance, and laying the other pad on top.

For tips about how to attach multiple—think three or four—pads together, see this article about exactly that.

a spotter prepares to catch a climber cruxing out on a boulder problem
Notice the spotter seems 100% invested in the climber’s move? (Photo: Kiff Alcocer)

To spot or not to spot? (And how to do it)

Outside, it’s almost always a good idea to spot climbers, especially if they’re higher than a few feet up, climbing with heel hooks or heel-toe cams that might force them to fall on their backs, or engaged in dynamic movements that might carry them off the pads.

Some things to think about when you’re spotting

  • Your goal is threefold: (1) to ensure that the climber doesn’t hit their head. (2) To ensure that the climber doesn’t fly wildly off the pads. (3) If despite your best efforts the climber does fly wildly off the pads, keep them from hitting their head.
  • Let them hit the pads before you interfere with their fall. Ideally they’ll hit the pads and collapse to absorb some of the momentum, at which point you step forward and keep them from (yes) hitting their head.
  • Be ready. You often see photos of spotters standing with their arms out or above their heads, waiting to catch the climber when they fall. This is because, if the climber does fall, they will accelerate very quickly and as a spotter you might not have time to reach up and redirect their fall before they’ve already hit the ground.
  • Spot with your fingers closed together like they’re in mittens, or like you’re swimming. Extended fingers are far more likely to break, which is a common spotting injury.
  • You’re not trying to catch the climber.
  • You’re not going to help the climber by standing underneath them.
  • If you do this wrong, you are likely to (a) hurt the climber instead of helping them and (b) get hurt yourself.
climber and spotter
Notice how the spotter is focused on keeping the climber’s head and shoulders from hitting the ground even though the problem is not tall. (Photo: Kiff Alcocer)

How to keep spotting safe for the spotter

Spotting is quite dangerous. You’re literally getting in the way of a 100-200-300-(?)-pound falling object, and, when that object hits you, it is going to pass some of its force onto you. Make sure, therefore, that you:

  • Know what’s behind you
  • Have a good stance
  • Communicate with the climber about their expectations and your plans
  • Customize your spotting method to the situation. If you’re far smaller than the falling climber, limit your goals to keeping their head off the ground. If there’s a chance the climber will come off wildly, ask what they think you should do to help.
  • Identify the most likely cause of injury and spot away from that. Is there a rock in the landing? Is there a tree branch sticking out like a spear from that tree? Will the climber be climbing to the side of their pads for a few moves and, if so, how can you help minimize the danger in that section?

Highball bouldering

The one exception to the spotting rule is, counterintuitively, on what we’ll call super highball boulders. Watch videos of Kevin Jorgeson on the first ascent of Ambrosia (V11, 55 feet) or Nina Williams repeating Alex Honnold’s Too Big to Fail (V10, 55 feet) and you’ll see that, after the climbers have got to a certain height, everyone just steps away. Why? Because these climbers are essentially free soloing. The only thing that will keep them safe when they fall is a proper tuck-and-roll when they hit the pads. Spotters will only get in the way of that, and, in the process, put themselves in danger.

Climbing on a highball boulder problem while spotter adjusts pads
Kiff Alcocer climbing a tall problem in New Hampshire while his wary spotter considers adjusting the pads. (Photo: Kiff Alcocer)

Spotting in gyms

Gyms with fully padded floors in the bouldering area rarely require a spotter, but even fully padded gyms might have problems that climb over an unpadded spot or require moves that should be spotted. The spotter’s job is to guide the climber’s body so it lands in the safest spot possible. That doesn’t mean catching the climber; instead, the spotter should have her arms up, elbows bent, and wrists and hands soft, ready to grasp the falling climber’s hips or waist and gently push them toward the safest part of the landing zone. A good spot relies on a good stance: feet a little more than shoulder-width, one foot slightly in front of the other with knees bent.

How to customize landing zones outside

The frequency with which new climbers have to build landings has decreased over the decades, with most beginners now starting in gyms and/or in well-established climbing areas where the landings have already been tailored to increase the safety of falls. But for some climbers, going out and finding new, undone boulders is a joyful experience. And these climbers might find it useful (or necessary) to adjust landings below boulders. Sometimes this is as simple as moving a few rocks or branches. Other times (and when the land managers are OK with it) this might involve clearing brush or covering pits with logs and branches that can serve as support for a pad.

Some practical considerations:

  • If you’re covering a pit or leveling a slope, try to ensure that there’s room on the edges of your structure for your spotters to stand. After all, their presence is what will keep you from falling off the landing.
  • Try to cut saplings below the ground level so that the stumps won’t tear holes in your pad (or your body if you miss the pad).

Some ethical to think about when you’re doing this:

  • Is it legal to make physical adjustments to the land where you are?
  • Are your actions going to bother anyone else or attract negative attention to climbers?
  • Do the minimum. Pads don’t need to rest on pancake-flat ground in order to be flat enough to fall upon safely.
  • Make sure the problem is worth it. Let’s face it, not all boulders deserve luxury landings. If a problem is poor quality, or short, and no one but you is going to climb on it, consider finding a way to climb it without influencing the environment at all. Maybe this involves toproping the climb. Maybe it involves not doing it. This is something that route and boulder developers think a lot about: is this problem worth the environmental impact that it will take to climb it? If not, maybe move on and find something else.

READ OTHER SAFETY FIRST ARTICLES

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Is Trad More Dangerous Than Sport Climbing?

ABCs of Avalanche Safety

Stay Safe In The Gym

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