Open Source Bouldering

UPDATE:  Someone on Reddit informed me that the idea I describe below has already been done in the UK and it’s called the Moonboard.  It’s almost identical to the system I envisioned.  Seems like a great idea but apparently it hasn’t proven to be very popular – probably because the number of climbers that are motivated enough to build something like this (and have the space to do it) is relatively small.  However, this is sort of a network effect idea – the more people that have it, the more appealing it becomes…

I’m been thinking about an interesting idea for rock climbing (specifically home and gym bouldering).  The idea was inspired by two things:

1) IFSC speed climbing walls, which use a standardized route pattern, holds, and wall angle so that climbers around the world can practice and compete on exactly the same route.

2) Crossfit, which uses standardized workouts called Workouts of the Day (“WODs”).  This allows people around the world to share the same workout experience, motivate (or compete with) each other (in person and online), and track their performance.  This has been a big part of Crossfit’s incredible success.

What if the ideas of standardization and sharing were applied to bouldering?  Imagine hundreds or even thousands of climbers across the world with the same simple, low cost bouldering wall at home or in their local gym.  Using the simple system described below they could set up identical boulder problems and connect with people across the country (and world) that are working the same problems.  It wouldn’t take long for the community to amass a large collection of “open source” boulder problems that could be shared, discussed, and rated by users for difficulty and quality.

Here’s how it could work:

1) The system could be based on a simple, inexpensive “woody” bouldering wall, similar to the walls many of us have in our garages and basements.  The wall size and overhang would be standardized – perhaps three 4 x 8 foot panels stacked to form an 8 x 12 foot wall.  With a 1 foot kicker panel and an overhang of about 35% this wall would fit in a room with an 8 foot ceiling.


Figure 1.  Side view of a basic wall design. Standardized, simple, and affordable.

2) Panels would be manufactured to ensure precise bolt hole locations  and, more importantly, they would have “alignment holes” around each threaded bolt hole to make sure holds are oriented properly (more on hold orientation below).  Rows and columns of bolt holes would be labeled so that the coordinates of each location could be easily referenced (e.g. “J16” as shown in Figure 2 below).


Figure 2.  The wall panels would have a pre-drilled grid of bolt holes,
with column and row labels so that boulder problem “blueprints”
could reference hold locations.

3) One of the big challenges with this idea is hold orientation.  Any climber knows that turning a hold a few degrees one way or the other can dramatically change the difficulty.  This problem is easily solved with a peg & hole alignment system.  Holds would be molded with short alignment pegs on the back that fit into small holes around each bolt hole in order to precisely and securely orient holds in fixed positions.  This feature would be crucial to make sure that boulder problems could be accurately replicated on any Open Source wall.


Figure 3.  Each bolt hole would be surrounded by alignment holes
that enable precise orientation of holds that are molded with
matching pegs on the back.  The design shown here would support
four orientations of a hold (0, 90, 180, & 270 degrees).

4) Boulder problem “blueprints” would be a simple list of each hold to be used (holds designed for this system could each have a name), its location on the wall (column and row), and its orientation.  With this system, problems could be set from blueprints in a matter of minutes with zero routesetting skill – a big plus for people who would rather climb than set problems.  Lots of boulder problem blueprints would be available online so that climbers could choose problems by difficulty, style, quality rating, and other factors (and of course submit new problems).  The website would allow users to post beta and comments and upload photos and videos, much like Mountain Project (in fact, the community could use Mountain Project pretty much as is).  It would be easy to connect with climbers of similar ability and climbing style.  You can imagine that talented routesetters would develop a following and perhaps pro climbers would contribute.  Wouldn’t it be fun to try a problem designed by Chris Sharma from the comfort of your garage?

5) With a relatively small set of holds (maybe 50?) a wide range of problems would be possible.  Ideally, the standards for this system would be shared by all climbing hold manufacturers and they could sell hold sets designed for specific problems (sell holds by making them part of a great boulder problem!).

I like this idea for a few reasons:

  • It would make training more social and fun.
  • It would allow climbers to quickly set high quality routes on their home wall.
  • It would allow climbers to track their ticks online and compare with others.
  • Problems could be documented forever and favorites could be revisited (re-set) from time to time.
  • It would allow for benchmarking of ratings by many climbers, similar to what happens on sites like Mountain Project.

Does this idea have legs?


4 thoughts on “Open Source Bouldering

  1. I’m surprised no one has responded to this idea. This is brilliant. One of the pleasures of a climbing gym, that you lose w/ a home woody, is the mental challenge of figuring out a problem. Not just finding the strength/balance to accomplish moves that you set. And having the ability for someone else (anyone else) to set problems for your wall could be epic. (I love the idea of having a Sharma/graham/whoever problem on my personal wall. And even better, that personal climbing walls become globally social.)

    (Looking into the Moon Wall, it seems they started down that path, but it sure hasn’t gained any momentum. And they really haven’t made it the social experience that it could be.)

    How do we make this a reality? Sounds like something that would be perfect for Kickstarter…

    • This may be one of those situations where a great idea doesn’t get traction because it isn’t a great business. The number of climbers that is motivated enough (and has the space and financial means) to build a home wall and participate in this sort of ecosystem is probably very small. However, as you and I know from our day jobs it’s all about the marketing. A well-designed “social bouldering” system with big names attached to it (Sharma, Graham, Woods, Puccio, etc.) would get a lot more attention. Also, as events like the ABS Nationals become bigger you could have one of the comp routes be set on this system so you could try it at home – something other sports can’t offer.

      P.S. I like your Tweeting Birdhouse idea. Looks like you’re into some cool stuff.

      • Why thank you. :-) I do enjoy my day job.

        You’re right about it being a bit of a long shot financially.
        But I also agree, that with a well-designed, well-marketed product there might be a sustainable business in there somewhere. If you create something easy to build, easy to keep fresh, and with an added social component, then tie all that in to relevant events, (I had the same thought about setting up the system at the ABS, brilliant) and put a bit of money into getting big names to set showcase problems…
        You might be able to create a larger market for home walls. I know I’d be in the market for this exact product, and I’ve had a home wall before and told my wife I’d never go back. (It was just too hard to keep motivated when I set all my own problems. My climbing buddy lost motivation, and all the camaraderie/competition/etc of the gym was lacking) If we could allow people to show off their setting chops, climb fresh climbs from around the country every week, and perhaps participate in national events…

        Just spitballing here but it seems the components of the business would be:
        1. The physical wall: Plans for DIY standardized wall sections. (perhaps modular to allow expansion.) 4’x4′ -ish sections so you could build an 8’h x 12’w in your basement, or a 12’h x 16’w wall in your backyard.
        2. The climbing holds: partner w/ a young hungry holds company to sell a starter kit, and then expansion kits for difficulty levels or types of climbing. (This might be where Kickstarter comes in. Come to the holds manufacturer with 500 customers ready to purchase, and you’ve got bargaining power.)
        3. The web app: A place where you explore/rate all the problems set by community / celebs / your friends. And a place where you build and show off your own problems. Create a well designed problem builder, and a gallery or perhaps a market for boulder problems. (free access to most of the content, but cheap access to celeb content. $1.99 for a Sharma special. $9.99 for entrance into the ABS. That kind of thing.)

  2. Agree on all points. I have a treadwall and this same concept would work really well for that since it’s already a standardized platform. But again, it’s a tiny niche. Good to meet you – you seem like a like-minded dude.

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