At one point or another every serious boulderer has been on a climb in which they suddenly found a little too much air under their feet. Perhaps they knew the moment would come when they left the ground, or perhaps it snuck up on them and took them by surprise. Those with cunning and skill can turn their brains off and climb farther and farther into dangerous ground, and in doing so climb back into safety. Being able to calculate and manage this danger can lead to some extremely rewarding experiences. Tall problems are often the most beautiful, most obvious and most proud lines in the area. We all understand what it feels like to feel fear on a boulder problem, but what exactly is a highball?
I’m not sure that we can pin an exact definition on this but after discussing it with several friends it is a very interesting concept. I think we all agree that something like Kevin Jorgeson’s 35′ The Beautiful and Damned, in Bishop, CA, is a highball, or Jason Kehl’s classic Evilution, in the same area. Kevin and Jason have established some of the most impressive and beautiful highballs in America in the last 20 years. Kehl’s ascent of Evilution was particularly ground breaking, as it was one of the first times a boulderer had gathered so many pads (even after top rope rehearsal) to climb a first ascent. It also speaks to the idea that what was once considered a highball has now become “a tall problem,” and the new generation of highballers are climbing problems that are gigantic. Lisa Rands has racked up an impressive list of tall problems herself, including the FFA of This Side of Paradise, in Bishop, Ride the Lightning in Squamish, BC, and Megalithe in Fontainebleau, FR. Here is footage of the FA of Evilution.
But what about shorter and safer problems like See Spot Run V6, in Hueco Tanks? See Spot Run was first climbed by Bob Murray, and later by John Sherman, without a crashpad. Here Brandi Profitt makes a modern and relatively safe repeat, presumably with a bed of crashpads. Should this be considered a highball?
There are several factors which contribute to the discussion.
Height: In talking to several climbers it seems difficult to determine a specific height at which a problem becomes a highball, mostly because anyone can be scared on just about any problem. Interestingly enough, this may be the easiest way to define a highball. See Spot Run could be the benchmark for the lowest a problem could be and still be a highball.
If it was defined at a certain height on the low end, could we then define it at a certain height on the high end too? While monstrous problems like Ambrosia were climbed with crashpads and no rope, this at very least blurs the line between a free-solo and a highball at the upper end. It seems clear as well that when Alex Honnold climbed Half Dome ropeless it would be as foolish as Honnold’s ascent to suggest that it was a highball. There is also the issue of intent. Kehl set out 25 or so pads for his climb of Evilution, while John Bachar soloed things in Joshua Tree with no pads. The highball climber seems willing to fall, but at the potential risk of serious injury. The free soloist makes no preperation to fall, with the understanding that doing so would mean death.
Landing: While problems with bad landings can often be very scary, I would hesitate to call these highballs. Even very low problems can feel committing with a jagged mess of talus and inadequate foam. While a sloped, rocky, or poorly padded landing can make a problem seem as scary as one that is much higher but has a flat landing, it is hard to justify calling such a problem a highball. Another facet of the landing is how well a large posse of motivated climbers with huge Organic Pads can turn even the worst of landings into fairly reasonable affairs. This has changed drastically in the last 20 years, and has opened up problems like See Spot Run for the masses, and The Beautiful and Damned for the truly motivated.
Fear and Difficulty: For someone who has sent V6 or V7, a problem like See Spot Run is a committing but reasonable goal. The crux is at the bottom, and the holds, while somewhat far apart, are reasonably good. I think most who find this climb at their limit would also find themselves quite scared at the last few moves to the lip. This climb is a far different proposition for a climber like Dave Graham, who went up it in his tennis shoes. Should a highball be based upon one’s ability? Or perhaps their comfort level on the climb? Melon Patch, in Hueco Tanks, is a popular V0 highball that many climbers run up. Many who do this climb probably aren’t scared at all, but does that not make it a highball?
Kaiya Ward climbs Melon Patch in the first part of this video.
I would love to hear about what defines a highball for everyone. Thoughts? And finally, here is a list of some of the best highballs in America:
List of some of the best highballs in America:
Evilution, Bishop, CA
This Side of Paradise, Bishop, CA
The Beautiful and Damned, Bishop, CA
Whispers of Wisdom, RMMP, CO
Germ Free Adolescence, Eldorado Canyon, CO
The Wind Below, Joe’s Valley, UT
Western Gold, Dayton Pocket, TN
The Speed of Life, Western Mass.
See Spot Run, Hueco Tanks, TX
King Air, Yosemite, CA
Feel free to comment on others.