Can the Activity of Bouldering Develop into a Negative Addiction?

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I first became interested in the aspects of negative addiction about a year after I had first started bouldering. Following a solid six months of climbing I hurt my arm on a project problem. Yet every time I took a few days off the sun would come out and I would find myself back bouldering again.

Somehow though I didn't stop climbing despite the injury and ended up with a bad case of tendentious in my arm. This injury plagued my climbing for at least two years until I started a proper program of recovery.

All the time a question was playing around in the back of my head: Why did I keep climbing even when the more a climbed the worse my injury got? That question led me to the following paper 'Can the Activity of Bouldering Develop into a Negative Addiction?'.

The following paper shows how people who participate in bouldering are open to becoming negatively addicted to said activity. I hope you approach the paper with an open mind and find it to be helpful. If anyone has any questions, wants a full copy of the paper, or wishes to discus any issues raised please feel free to email me at

I would like to thank everyone who helped me gather the information, by filling in questionnaires and giving me email addresses of other boulderers. Without your support I could not have completed the research.

Thank you

Iain Beveridg


Brief History of Bouldering

Bouldering has become the quickest way to 'climb hard' as it removes most of the threat of large falls, like on a lead climb, allowing a participant to fall safely numerous times before completing a line. This means the participant is able to push themselves much harder much quicker than in other aspects of climbing. It can become a consuming 'passion' and some problems can take hundreds of repetitions of sequenced moves on steep and blank rock. This calls for highly gymnastic movements, high finger strength and power. In-turn this lead's to high levels of stress upon muscles and tendons. Where as originally bouldering was seen as simply training for lead rock climbing it has found itself formed into a separate activity, which has a thriving and driven following, so much so that combined with the above factors the hardest movements on rock have been climbed upon boulders. Some of these problems have taken years of practice, dieting, rehearsing of movement and immense mental concentration and effort. It allows, on the most part, for only a completely committed individual to succeed. The basic premise behind this project has been to show that participants in bouldering are susceptible to a negative addiction. Specifically that the current face of bouldering pushes them to climb harder which leads to injury. Then from there the addiction, which has formed, compels them to keep climbing at stressful levels. The activity has developed into a negative addiction, as participants become unable too properly recover.


How does addiction relate to bouldering? Firstly we have to understand the basic elements of an addiction, a clarification of addiction. A person can become addicted to almost anything that is familiar or from which they receive pleasure. According to the DSMV (an independent medical board based in America), a person must exhibit three of the following five criteria in order to be dependent on a substance. They are:

  • Building up a tolerance to something
  • When it is taken away they experience withdrawal (i.e. side effects, whether psychological or physical)
  • Unsuccessful efforts to cut down intake
  • Interference with social, occupational, or recreational activities
  • Continuation of substance despite recognition that doing so has caused physical or psychological problems.

Common societal perception of a person who has become an addict comes in the form of the down and out heroin dependent. The truth can be more realistically painted by breaking down all the building blocks that society has installed in us over the decades. A larger picture of a thousand different strengths of addictions to a thousand different things can open the truth of addictions and dependence. This means addiction can be formed to chocolate, alcohol, caffeine, narcotics, running, swimming, anything which fulfills the above criteria dependant upon the person involved with the substance or activity. Nothing is a certainty with an addiction.

'If you deny the fact that people can use drugs like heroin, cocaine, marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco responsibly you'll never comprehend the true meaning of addiction.' - Dr Jeffrey Schaler.

What this means is that addiction is mostly dependent upon the individual concerned, i.e. one persons hopeless dependence could be another persons casual use.

'Addictions are as diverse as people's values.' - Dr Jeffrey Schaler (Choosing a new line on Addictions, p 1).

This can leave the terms 'positive' and 'negative' addiction open to a 'dependence' upon the individual.

Addiction in Sport

What about addiction to sports though? Well one of the classic example of addictions to sport has been since the 1970's- the runner. Studies of runners have found that a runner who has developed an addiction to the activity will run through anything-stress-emotional hardships-injury and addiction. It is this inability to 'control' the activity, which leads to exhaustion and injury. Which if not recognized and addressed will lead to a negative addiction, i.e. if a runner develops a ligament problem yet ignores it and continues to run it will get worse. This however is a common occurrence (the belief that the pain can be 'ran' through). In 1978 Bob Glover, writer of 'The Competitive Runners Handbook', suggested that runners should maintain a 'triangle of life'. Where there must be a balance between the body mind and soul. To accomplish this there must be a balance between the physical side of running, the intellectual and career side of life and the spiritual and emotional side. If these rules are adhered to then there would be more of a control placed upon an addiction. However by its very nature once a dependence upon an activity is formed then this can lead to misuse and problems. Addiction is also not just an immediate thing. A person becomes dependent upon something over a given period (dependent upon the substance activity in relation to their make up).

Peele (1978) has provided a number of points to consider in discussing addiction. It is important to note that addiction is a process, rather than a condition. It is not an all or nothing state of being, unambiguously present or absent. Addiction is an extension of ordinary behavior, a pathological habit, dependence, or compulsion. It is not characteristic of drugs or activities per-se, but of the involvement of a person forms with these substances or events.' - Saches, M L, (Psychology of Running: Running Addiction, p 117).


What did the study find?

By using the gathered data it has been possible to show the nature of bouldering and how the trends which effect it move participants towards climbing harder and harder problems. As the results showed 90% of participants regularly work harder problem than they on-sight, with 70% of them working problems close to the top grades of problems, even although only 10% of participants claimed to on-sight at that level. Results show that the average boulderer tries to climb high-grade problems.

This pushing of high grades brings with it smaller holds and more gymnastic movements, which in-turn mean the introduction of higher levels of stress upon tendons and muscles. 79% of the 95% of participants injured were found to have suffered from some sort of tendon problem. Yet it seems as if participants do not stop bouldering and 68.5% returned to climbing at stressful levels before properly recovered, this is believed to be because bouldering is susceptible to becoming a negative addiction.

To go about proving a negative addiction a number of things were looked at, including building up a tolerance to something, unsuccessful efforts to cut down intake, interference with social-occupational-recreational activities and continuation of substance despite recognition that doing so has caused physical or psychological problems.

By looking at these factors of recognized formation of addiction it became possible to prove a link between the activity of bouldering and the formation of an addiction to the said activity. Results show that 90% push towards trying harder problems, while 89% of these participants now boulder more than when they first started. Suggesting that an increase in the amount of activity is needed to equal the effects that were first enjoyed, giving the impression of an increase in tolerance.

Perhaps partly because of its status of being viewed as a positive addiction and therefore the encouragement by society and fellow climbers (climbing society) to spend as much time bouldering as possible. Boulderers might not see why they should cut down present levels of climbing. For example no one in their right mind would advise someone to indulge him or herself with heroin as much as possible. However people involved in so called 'positive' addictions are not subject to such rules.

We find evidence of a joking tone taken to addiction in climbing and bouldering, which takes the seriousness out of the addiction which can lead to injury and therefore physical and psychological damage.

This can lead to the refusal to accept that this activity could be developing into a problem. So when an injury is picked up this can be the only time when a boulderer will want to cut down their intake. To show participants pushed past where they should have cut back the number of participants injured was looked at. As mentioned previously 50% of participants contacted without knowledge of injuries and 90% of these had been injured. Indicating that boulderers will push to breaking point before an addiction is even noticed.

Participants also suffered from an interference with social-occupational-recreational activities. When asked to rate bouldering in a list of their lives priority 70% said it rated within their top three priorities and 30% of these said they had altered their occupational life around bouldering. Only 5% made any mention of activities outside of climbing, and 60% of people asked said more than 40% of their social group was made up of fellow boulderers.

The final point of recognition of addiction came by showing continuation of substance despite recognition that doing so has caused physical or psychological problems. This was the crux of the study as the results were able to help prove both addiction and negative addiction. As stated before 95% of participants in this study had been injured and out of that 68.5% returned to bouldering before properly healed. This shows definite trends of addiction, as once a climber has been injured the injury will always be noticeable when climbing. So the participant will be aware of the problem but will chose to ignore it so they are still able to keep bouldering.

From this data it was possible to suggest signs of a negative addiction as 68.5% returned to bouldering before properly healed, which meant that participants continued to boulder even although it was bad for them. Results showed that participants in bouldering can become negative addicted to the activity.

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