Happy landings

14 February, 2011
Ben Bransby BaslowBen Bransby on Flying Start Prow V3/Font 6A, Baslow © Simon Panton<

We've put a lot of thought into our range of bouldering pads and judging by how popular they are it seems that we've got the designs pretty spot on. Yet we are conscious that a bit of advice on the dark art of pad placement and spotting would be appreciated by some folk.

Nowadays nearly all climbers have at least one pad, and most will own two, three or even four pads. With all this protective foam around you’d think that the danger element had been taken out of the game. The truth is that pad technology has allowed the boundaries of bouldering to be pushed. Micro routes are now bouldered out, and bad or rocky landings can be dealt with. Consequently, bouldering remains a potentially risky activity and there is still a need for attentive spotting and careful pad arrangement.

It might seem like a no-brainer, but landing safely from a boulder problem is not always an easy task. Get the padding and spotting right and you will be able to push yourself with confidence, perhaps to the top of that frustratingly elusive problem. Get it wrong and the consequences could be painful.

The first step is to try and anticipate the likely flight path of a fall. This isn't always easy to predict, especially if a hold unexpectedly breaks. Obviously you need to pad the area immediately under the boulder problem, but take some time to consider the potential for sideways movement and pad accordingly. For example, powerful moves on side pulls or undercuts can lead to wild sideways or backwards falls.

It is worth remembering that while a high fall, perhaps as much as 6m, onto a well padded, flat surface is unlikely to end in tears, a low level but awkward slip onto uneven or poorly padded landing can result in serious injury. Make sure that adjacent pads are pushed together to give consistent coverage, and if in doubt double up in the high impact zones.

The main area where even well-seasoned boulderers tend to fail is in the basic act of spotting. If you are stood on the ground beneath a wildly-slapping and out-of-control climber have you really thought through exactly what you are going to do 'if' (or perhaps 'when') they blow it and come crashing back to earth?

Never underestimate the potential violence of a fall, even from a low position. A strong climber who explodes backwards from a bunched up undercut sequence will do so with a terrific amount of force. Make sure you are paying attention to their every move and are suitably braced should they come flying in your direction. Hands should be held up close to the climber’s upper back, but never touching or so close that a sudden movement will lead to a touch.

As they climb higher on the problem keep your attention firmly locked onto the changes in likely fall trajectory. If they switch out of sequence or start improvising be prepared to respond accordingly, perhaps by quickly shifting a pad to a new position.

Of course, there does come a point on a highball problem when the falling climber will do more damage to you, than you will save them from with your flailing arms. The best tactic is to try and guide the falling climber into the padded area in an upright position and to stop them rolling out of it once they have landed.

Controlled retreats from highball problems require a bit of team work. Imagine you've just slapped the top of a big boulder problem only to find that it is wet/covered in snow and that to attempt the mantel would almost certainly lead to an unpredictable fall. Your best option is to shout down to your mate instructing him to double up the pads, which had previously been spread out, in a position directly beneath your dangling legs. You may have shrunk the fall zone, but you've doubled the padding. A carefully executed drop off should land you safely onto the centre of the pad stack, but your spotters need to keep their arms up in case you catapult sideways after landing.

Dave Rudkin at BrownstonesDave Rudkin spotted by Stu McAleese and Jack Rattenbury on Ground Hog V6/Font 7A, Brownstone Quarry. © Simon Panton

Communication between the climber and spotters is always important. If you are about to commit to a 50:50 move where the outcome is uncertain a quick shout of the word “spot” will warn the spotters to brace themselves ready for a possible fall. Equally the spotters can boost your confidence by offering verbal assurances – a well timed “we’ve got your back” can do wonders in a committing scenario.

Wet landings require a particular set of tactics. Our pads are designed to be laid outside surface facing down – the foam inside has a harder, energy-dissipating layer on top, so it works best this way. Most wet landings are reasonably soft (think: boggy grass or wet sand) so turning your pad over won't matter as the pad's main role here is to keep your feet dry. The advantage of placing the pad with the inside panel facing down is that at the end of your session you can fold away the damp material and keep it from messing up your coat or the boot of your car. If the landing is really boggy then it is best to place a waterproof tarp down beneath your pads.

Many modern problems involve long traverse or roof sequences. Padding such stamina fests requires a lot of pads, however if the location makes that difficult or impractical there are a few useful tactics you can adopt. Obviously you should place your pads over the likely failure points and hope that you don’t slip off in between, or you could give your mate a more active role. The carrying straps on our larger pads make good tow ropes allowing your trusty mate to drag the pad along beneath you as you progress on the problem, perhaps switching to a conventional spotting position once you reach the higher finishing section.

In constricted or low ball situations thin pads such as our Spot and Bit mat are really useful. Impacting your back or head on a rocky surface can still hurt, even if you’ve only taken a 6 inch fall. If there is a danger of your head hitting an adjacent block or wall your spotter can hold a thin pad between your skull and the rock. This works better than a hand spot which tends to leave the poor spotter with a crushed hand!

Sloping or deeply pitted landings are a pain, but they can be dealt with. Try packing out a hole with one pad then create a flat surface on top with another pad. On a slope use a similar tactic with your spotter holding the bottom thicker edge of the pads in place with their legs. On slopey grass surfaces it sometimes pays to tent peg a pad in place or attach it to the base of the cliff with a cam or nut, otherwise you’ll surfing down the hill in a most spectacular fashion, especially if the grass is damp. A spotter stood on the edge of the slip-prone pad can also be a good way of halting a slide.

If the common descent route off a boulder involves a drop off onto a hard or uneven surface leave a small pad here to save your ankles. And if the ground is wet use a trail of smaller pads to create a dry ‘stepping stone’ route back from the descent to the main bouldering area.

Sometimes you will need to drape a tied off pad down the face of an enclosing wall or boulder. It pays to keep a few of your climbing slings in your bouldering bag for such an eventuality.

Bouldering pads are extremely versatile and the more we learn to use them creatively, the safer we will be and the more fun we will have. Next time you are out why not try out some of the tactics explained here. And if you have any top tips yourself, do get in touch, we are always keen to hear new ideas.

Written by Simon Panton, Editor of www.northwalesbouldering.com.