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Bouldering Basics with Lonnie Kauk

Let’s start from the top, well the bottom. Bouldering is a sport within climbing that refers to climbs that are protected by pads instead of ropes. Bouldering problems, as they’re referred to, are usually not more than 12-to-15 feet high with any number of moves from bottom to where you “top out” on the boulder. Bouldering only requires a pair of climbing shoes, a bouldering pad (or multiple pads) and a chalk bag. There’s no special apparel required, just clothing you can move freely in. Almost everything you need to know about the sport can be learned through local bouldering guidebooks or alternately on Mountain Project.

The simplicity of bouldering is almost defined by what you don’t need—no ropes, no knot tying skills, no climbing hardware, and no harness. You don’t even really need a partner. It can just be you, the few simple pieces of gear and the rock.

Lonnie bouldering on Midnight Lightning
Lonnie Kauk on Midnight Lightning

This simplicity is what originally drew world-renowned climber Lonnie Kauk to bouldering. We caught up with Kauk as he was taking a day off from climbing near June Lake, California, nursing his inflamed knuckles and strategizing his next climb out of the heat wave.

Kauk says, “I first got into climbing as a teenager through bouldering—no ropes, just a crash pad and a partner.” His dad, world-famous climber Ron Kauk, gave him his pro model La Sportiva climbing shoes, the Kaukulator. The image-conscious teen however was more interested in the low-profile Velcro models than the “boot-like” shoes his dad kicked down. Lonnie says, “He put the boulder pad down and said, ‘Do the traverse.’” From that moment on Lonnie quickly got the hang of bouldering and progressed rapidly.

Lonnie, born in the Yosemite Valley and a direct descendant of Yosemite’s Ahwahneechee Tribe chief Tenaya, felt an immediate spiritual connection to the rock and to his ancestors. Almost immediately Lonnie set his eyes on Midnight Lightning, a bouldering problem located prominently in Camp 4 where the big wall climbing elite spend their summers and famously first ascended by his father. Within three years, Lonnie had ticked off Midnight Lightning, which is rated as a V8 (bouldering uses a V scale ranking difficulty of climbs beginning with V0). Kauk says, “My mom and dad just happened to be there the day I reached up blindly and grabbed the last hold. It was such a cool moment. It really connected me with climbing. I was really obsessed then.”  

Lonnie was generous enough to share some of his learnings from his time bouldering:

  • Advice for fitting bouldering shoes: “You want the tightest shoes you can get. When you put your foot on a foothold you want to feel it so good. The more you push with your foot the better it is for your arms.” Lonnie wears street shoes in size 10, but for bouldering opts for an 8.5 on his right foot and a 9 on his slightly larger left foot.

  • “I’ve had the same chalk bag since 2012 that I’ve sent everything in.” He adds, “I always wear a chalk bag, but when you fall sometimes the chalk bag dumps on your lower back and sometimes when you’re bouldering there’s no room to chalk up.”

  • Lonnie appreciates the long-term focus required with bouldering and looks for longer climbs to train his attention span. He contrasts the strategy of climbing a heavy 25-move boulder problem, which requires sustained focus, to rock climbing a route with, “100 moves, where maybe 80 of which are easy, then 20 are hard moves.”

  • His ultimate bouldering advice is this: “Set your boulder pads up perfectly, don’t carelessly throw the mat down and think you’re going to be alright. The minute you twist your ankle you’re going to be so bummed.” This can mean double or triple stacking pads over rocks and being aware of how you’re going to fall.

  • Good etiquette to Lonnie means keeping the place clean and respecting the area—“Always leave no trace other than the chalk on the rock.”

  • Part of Lonnie’s practice is to swim in the lake to cool his body off after a day of climbing. (Great advice to minimize joint swelling and to speed recovery.)

  • Lonnie says the best part about climbing is the energy from the rocks— “All your muscles are being developed from the rock. They’re like people, they keep you strong and flexible. Rock climbing just takes care of you.”

Check out more of Lonnie Kauk at Reel Rock 15 in the film Deep Roots. Support his newest endeavor, the Magic Line brand, paying homage to the climb pioneered by his dad and followed by Lonnie.

Annie Fast writes about winter sports and outdoor adventures from her home in Bend, Oregon.You can read more about her and her work at

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