“Alpine bouldering.” The phrase has become ubiquitous in the lexicon of boulderers throughout the country. It conjures images in the mind––Dave Graham going haywire in Rocky Mountain National Park’s Chaos Canyon, establishing scores of hard boulder problems in the early 2000’s; the explosion of development throughout California’s Lake Tahoe and Black Mountain areas; maybe you saw our video of FL Athlete Josh Larsen bouldering in the Tetons, and your interest piqued.
Since the early days of bouldering in RMNP it has become clear that, in one way or another, the future of bouldering lies in the alpine. Serious development in the Rockies and the Sierra Nevada placed high-altitude bouldering squarely on the map for many hardcore American boulderers––and the psych is spreading. As more and more people take up bouldering in the gyms, more and more of them will eventually hit the alpine as well. If you’re one of those people, perhaps you’d appreciate a helping hand in getting started!
The alpine environment is harsh, unforgiving, and should never be underestimated. This guide will provide you with a foundation of knowledge so you can approach alpine bouldering with confidence and understanding. Good luck in your adventures!
First of all...what is alpine bouldering, exactly? Technically, the term “alpine” refers to areas of high elevation near “treeline”––i.e. the elevation at which trees are no longer able to grow, usually around 11,000 feet in mountainous regions. In terms of rock climbing (and for ease of use of this guide), it’s best to think of alpine bouldering in a more general sense. How about a definition?
Alpine bouldering (n): The act of bouldering in mountainous terrain at high elevations with cooler temperatures and crispy friction.
Of course, there will be gripes with this definition, but it’s only meant to provide a broad sense of the term :)
Before you go bouldering in the alpine, you have to actually go to the alpine environments. And, since these regions are found only in specific areas around the country, many climbers must carefully plan their visits. Check out the list of destinations below, sorted by geographic location.
In 2011 local developer and author Jamie Emerson released an excellent guidebook detailing the bouldering found in RMNP and Mt. Evans, with an updated edition to be released soon. Approaches and navigation can be tricky, therefore I highly recommend picking up a copy of the guide before trying to explore these areas.
So far, accessible alpine bouldering areas are relatively concentrated in Colorado and California. But you can be sure that vast potential for more development exists anywhere you can find mountains. As time goes on, truly wild places in other mountainous states will come to light through the efforts of adventurous boulderers. Who knows––maybe you’ll be one of them!
Typically, what differentiates alpine bouldering from other forms of the sport is remoteness and elevation. Of course, these two factors vary from location to location. There are road-side bouldering areas in Colorado between 10 and 11k feet, where your only danger is shortness of breath. Then there are talus fields in Montana that only a handful of humans have ever visited, 7 miles deep through thick forest and bear country.
No matter where you decide to climb, it is always a good idea to prepare for the worst. It’s simply not worth the risk to go unprepared into an alpine environment. Bouldering itself is dangerous enough––why not minimize other risks by planning ahead?
Here are some of my recommendations to prepare for the alpine:
Pack more food and water than you need. This is of the utmost importance. Keep yourself nourished and hydrated! At higher elevations your metabolism skyrockets; you’ll need more water and calorie-rich food than you think. If you’re worried about the added weight in your pack, don’t fret––the load will lighten quickly as the day goes on! My essentials: a sandwich, peanut butter, baby carrots, CLIF Bars, fruit, chocolate, and mixed nuts.
Prepare for all types of weather. The day starts warm and dry, and you don’t think twice about it. Around 3 in the afternoon, the clouds roll in––the temperature drops dramatically, it starts pouring rain, and you’re stuck in shorts and a t-shirt. Avoid this situation at all costs by packing clothing for any weather you might encounter. I always bring two shirts, two pairs of socks, short and long pants, a long-sleeve upper body layer, a rain coat, a down jacket, and a beanie––even in the dead of summer. Start with these basics and you should be fine in most situations. Oh, and don’t forget your sunglasses!
Get to know the wildlife. The less people there are in a wilderness area, the more likely you are to see potentially dangerous wildlife. And make no mistake––anything bigger than a fox can be dangerous. If you happen to come across a large creature in the alpine, try not to panic. While not predatory, moose and elk aggressively protect their young; make your presence known, then get out of their space as calmly and quickly as possible. If they don’t immediately run away from you, predatory animals such as bears and mountain lions must know that you are the dominant animal: get as big as you can ( an easy task with a crash pad on your back), make loud noises, and stand your ground. Also, always travel in groups. An animal is much less likely to attack multiple people.
Never take climbing in the alpine for granted. These fragile areas provide us with the means to practice our craft, and we owe them the proper respect in return. When you enter alpine environments to go rock climbing, remember that you can make a significant impact on the landscape, even if you tread lightly. I recommend familiarizing yourself with the Leave No Trace Principles to minimize your effect on the land.
Along with respect for the land, it’s equally important to show respect for the other climbers who utilize these alpine areas. In most cases other climbers were here before you, developing the area for others to enjoy. Show respect and gratitude to the developers of these alpine climbing areas by following any ethical standards they may have laid out. Aside from local ethics, do your best to be a good steward of climbing while you’re outside. Make sure to check out our blog post, “6 Rules of Etiquette for Outdoor Climbing,” to learn more about how you can max out your street cred in the eyes of other climbers!
Most important, don't be like JERRY!
Alpine bouldering is still a very young pursuit within the sport of rock climbing. And for most of the casual climbers out there, it will never be an opportunity they get to experience. It takes effort, dedication, and experience. Oh, and time––lots of time.
But as time continues rolling on, the fringed edges of our sport become more commonplace, more refined. And hiking for hours into the desolation of high-elevation wilderness no longer seems as daunting. Many of us will leave the gym behind, and replace it with something––somewhere––that holds more meaning.
If you have the inclination and the desire, I implore you to take a bouldering expedition into the alpine at some point in your life. Never have I met another climber who regretted that decision. So scribble it down on your bucket list, then work towards checking it off.
Thanks for reading!