At odds with this fact, was the notion, which I held until recently, that a mat was for life, not just for Christmas. It was only when my knees started to tremble at the thought of another fall and I could feel the rocky ground through the foam when I landed on it that I put two and two together I needed a new mat.
I think that climbers are used to recording every significant fall that a rope takes and replacing them accordingly, however we maybe fail to realise that our mats take a lot punishment given the number of falls that they take in a session. Yes, the normal bouldering spill generates less force than a trad whipper, but the numbers add up.
I will admit that I was also spoiled. I had the gold standard of bouldering mats; the Franklin Drop Zone II. This mat was directly responsible for a huge leap forward in my climbing confidence. It was great at absorbing impact and seemed to last forever. However, like all good things, it had to come to an end and this was about 3 years after my purchase. Unfortunately, so too did the company. They were taken over by Black Diamond and many recent reports have claimed that the newer foam isn't quite up to the standard of the original. I don't know if this is true in practice or not, however it made me wary of buying one. Could anything ever live up to my old Drop Zone?
In looking for an answer, I decided to turn to a company that I have always trusted for trad gear, DMM. Being the scardy-cat that I am, I went with the Highball which gives a good combination of depth (10.5 cm) and landing area (122cm by 99cm). It has a rather photogenic yellow 1000d Cordura top cover and Ballistic Cordura on the bottom. The ends of the Highball are rounded in order to reduce wear.
When folded the mat is held in place by chunky, but still lightweight, Lowe Alpine Load Locker buckles which hook via sturdy nylon webbing straps to Plastel closure flaps. The closure system was actually quite important to me because this was the first thing to go on my old Drop Zone. So far, they seem to be going well. The Drop Zone is a big mat and taco-style, yet it only has two straps to hold it in place. The Highball is hinged, but also has a more reasonable three straps; this set-up should stress each individual one a bit less.
The heart of the matter foam
All of this adds up to a bomb-proof construction that will withstand being dragged over the rockiest ground time and time again, however this is of no relevance if the filling is rubbish. As with any mat, the foam is the most important part, after all, it is what is saving your knees, ankles and even hips from an early retirement.
I will admit that I was sceptical when I first got a hold of the Highball. Normally, I trust ultra-dense foam and steer well clear of anything softer. The foam in the Highball was a bit firm, but not enough for my liking. However, feeling a mat will only get you so far; you need to try it out in anger. As luck would have it I am much better at falling than climbing, so I was presented with many opportunities to judge its ability to absorb impact.
The Highball is a completely different beast from any other mat I have used. DMM have utilised a three-layered foam system which consists of two high-density outer layers and a thick layer of open-cell foam in the middle. The reasoning behind the three layer system is that it will spread out the impact of a fall, even on terrain that is not level, or strewn with sharp rocks.
So does the three-layered foam system work?
I would answer with a resounding yes. I liked what I didn't feel. After a few weekend trips followed by a full week of bouldering in North Wales, my knees are none the less for the wear. Quite a few times I was high up and cringing at the thought of falling, but I felt no pain whatsoever when the inevitable happened. In fact I no longer think that you need ultra-firm foam which can even sometimes transfer back the force of your impact. The Highball's three-layered foam seemed to absorb most of what I could throw at it. Indeed my partner, who had a sprained ankle, was pretty comfortable to fall on it.
I used the Highball in combination with the DMM Bit, which is a small two layered foam mat (dimensions 50cm by 100cm) that slips in between the folded up Highball for transportation and can be used to give an extra bit of ground clearance or even more importantly to level out rocky ground. Several times I placed the Bit in a depression to even out the ankle-snapping holes created by mini-boulders. It was also handy to drag along when working traverses.
The Highball has some helpful extras such as a small piece of removable carpet for cleaning your shoes which neatly tucks away in its own Plastel pocket. Transportation options vary from over the shoulder to rucksack style thanks to the removable shoulder straps. I've been using it rucksack style and I have to say that it is one of the most comfortable mats that I have carried. Further increasing portability are the rubber moulded grab handles which allow you to easily move the mat from problem to problem. In addition you can use these handles to peg down the mat if gale force winds decided to descend upon your chosen bouldering venue.
The Highball has a few extra straps for attaching shoes and odds and ends that you might want to carry around, but one of these is the source of a small gripe. DMM have included a strap which allows you to hook two mats together. Unfortunately, it dangles down and kept lodging itself in rock crevices. I found it so frustrating that I had to tie it out of the way.
Something else that the Highball could benefit from is a zippered pocket to store your keys and odds and ends. It would also have been more convenient if DMM had extended the Plastel flaps so that the mat was completely closed-off the; thereby allowing you to store your shoes without worrying about them slipping out. Nevertheless these glitches are relatively minor and do not detract from the most important part of the mat, the foam and its amazing ability to absorb impact.
My previous mat was a taco style which by definition didn't have a middle hinge where the mat folded up. I was quite concerned using a hinge design mat for fear of falling in the middle. I've not had any problems yet, but I was a bit wary.
I raised my concern over the hinge with DMM directly and Dave Noddings had this to say:
This is an issue that a lot of customers raise when they are comparing different types of mat before they buy - A central hinge was seen as a potential area of weakness, and this is really highlighted with poorly constructed pads- A few points stand out as things to look for:
Poorly Fitting Foam - If there is loads of slack between the foam and the cover on a hinged pad; this would allow the foam to be forced apart in a fall, leaving a gap in which rocks can come up, and limbs can go down. The hinge seams should be tight - there should not be any play, or any areas down the hinge where an ankle size object could go!
Poor Quality Foam - For starters, if the foam is too soft, it is neither use nor ornament. The same can be said for foam that is too firm. The pad construction for most pads is to have a higher density foam sheet on the top of the pad which is designed to spread the impact, and then a softer density foam underneath which absorbs the impact, and take the sting out of any rocks or roots that are beneath the pad (we have the higher density foam on the underside too, as you mentioned)
I've never come a cropper from landing on or near the hinge area of any pad I have ever used.
Well the Highball definitely doesn't have badly fitting foam nor is it of a poor quality. The more that I used the hinged mat, the less of a concern the hinge became. In fact I also realised an additional benefit of this design. Taco style mats are best stored open to prevent the performance of the foam near the fold degrading. For flat-dwellers such as me, for whom space is at a premium, a hinge styled mat can happily be stored away folded.
Now that we've covered foam quality and outside construction, how long should you trust your mat not to wreck your joints?
Again, Dave Noddings at DMM had some helpful ideas:
[It] is a really hard question to answer. As with any other bit of safety gear, the lifespan of a pad will vary from user to user- there are so many variables to consider, that it is impossible to give a stock answer.
Some people will manage to get many years out of a pad, whereas others could trash a pad within a year! It would be ace if there was a system like car shock absorbers! - bounce on each corner, and if it bounces more than 3 times its time to change... but there's not.
Things that I would look out for are:
Noticeably harder landings - if you are getting sore joints? Obviously this could be down to falling off from 30ft, or it could be down to tired foam.
If you notice that the cover is becoming slacker and slacker - this could mean that the foam is not recovering from the impacts, and is remaining compressed - this obviously affects its cushioning.
If the foam is hanging out of the cover - the foam works with the cover to make the pad work - the cover holds everything in place. If the foam can spread sideways it will not be doing its job.
As of later on this year, because our covers are lasting so well, we will be offering replacement foam as a DMM product in case people want to give their old pads a boost.
These are all good points to keep in mind. As I mentioned earlier, I used the Franklin Drop Zone regularly for two and a half years before I noticed any degradation of the foam. The opposite of this was my Metolius mat which became squidgy after a few months. So far the DMM Highball and Bit seem to be holding up well but only time will tell.
The DMM highball combines a bombproof construction consisting of ultra-durable Cordura outer with a robust closure system and flexible transport options with a novel three-layered foam system that spreads the impact, even on the worst of landing areas. When used in combination with the Bit mat, you have lots of options for padding out un-even ground or just increasing the margins of your landing area, and they easily fold into a highly portable package.
The main purpose of a bouldering mat is to absorb the impact of a fall and that the Highball did this better than any other mat that I have used better even that the old Franklin Drop Zone. I have already recommended one to a friend.