The Highball

The Highball

Posted on 17. Jan, 2011 by in News

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.

47 Responses to “The Highball”

  1. Kaelen W

    17. Jan, 2011

    I don’t think Whispers is really a highball. Yes you climb high, but only on rock that is very easy in comparison to the rest of the problem. All the hard climbing feels safe with just three or four pads and two or three spotters, at least it does in the spring when the snow is in.

  2. Hayden

    17. Jan, 2011

    Prince Paul, Farley
    The Fly, Rumney
    The Nothing, Mt Evans
    All of the Above, Index
    Luminance, Bishop
    King Air, Yosemite
    Sleeping Lady, Leavenworth
    Peanut Butter Pudding Surprise, Newlin

  3. Beaudering

    17. Jan, 2011

    @Kaelen, without snow Whispers is pretty damn high! then you have another 30ft of slab climbing after you pull the lip.

  4. justin

    17. Jan, 2011

    Yes the upper section is easier, but at least one climber I know of fell off the upper slab when a bit of rock broke off. While this climber was saved by the mound of snow piled up behind it, the potential exists for others to fall when such a mound is no longer present making the fall potentially lethal, thus I’d say it still qualifies.

  5. jan

    17. Jan, 2011

    the first highball I saw was so high in josh. a true beauty and done (probably) without any pad at that time. crux is high, better to flash that thing and not fall. so what is a highball? if it is tall and you fall and may get hurt that is a highball. even the strongest will fall in case something breaks. so ability may not have anything to do with it. of course you can do it the modern way with a sea of pads, but then it may just be tall, not a highball. so as long as your heartbeat goes up and you are proud once you have survived it is a highball. very subjective thing again, right? why have all attempts to define bouldering have failed so far? love bouldering

  6. peter beal

    17. Jan, 2011

    Jamie, good post. Defining a highball is a lot like defining E-grades on gritstone, nebulous and inconclusive. John Gill has said that for him highball bouldering isn’t really bouldering as he sees it, a position I tend to agree with. If you are worrying about getting seriously hurt, you are doing something else.

  7. Paully

    17. Jan, 2011

    I’d add zig zag crack at Rumney, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, So High, and King Air to that list. And the most impressive highball I’ve ever seen is Iron Resolution in JTree.

  8. Mathieu

    17. Jan, 2011

    There’s this very impressive boulder problem in squamish:
    Grade is V8, I can’t recall the name, (War of the worlds or something along those lines ? Can’t remember.)

  9. bongowurm

    17. Jan, 2011

    This kind of ropeless climbing, combined with exploring, is even harder to compare to the typical bouldering routine. “Highball aficionados” might have more in common with traditional climbers than gym rats.

    I think the best bouldering experience is just below the highballing zone, but the location of the line is forbidden knowledge. You have to push higher to find it.

  10. Alex

    17. Jan, 2011

    Megalithe is an impressive send but not because it’s tall, I wouldn’t consider that a highball.

    I think there are too many amazing highballs to make a proper list of them all.

  11. justin

    17. Jan, 2011

    I tend to agree with Peter, but will add that the best highballers are the ones that aren’t thinking about getting hurt when they are way off the deck. Sure they may put give it a lot of consideration while preparing for the climb, but while they are climbing there is only climbing.

  12. B3

    17. Jan, 2011

    @Alex The point of the list is not to be comprehensive, but just to give some examples.

    “I think there are too many… to make a list”

    I don’t think this should stop someone from trying.

  13. JamesO

    17. Jan, 2011

    I understand the list is not supposed to include everything. But what happend to Ambrosia? The most impressive and obvious line in Bishop.

  14. B3

    17. Jan, 2011

    Isn’t it inherent from the post that it is a classic?

  15. BIgA

    17. Jan, 2011

    GREAT post…thanks for sharing, and attempting to define. This conversation comes up a lot and I enjoy it the most.

    I think you are accurate for the most part in defining a highball, especially the part about stating that with a highball the climber keeps the idea of a fall in preparation whilst the soloist entertains NO such notions. Obviously with high-end highballing, this line becomes blurred. Several things I have climbed that I consider my best I felt as though I were soloing and had rehearsed it as such, knowing once i reached a certain height, I could NOT fall. HOWEVER, this did not mean I had my friends remove the pads at this point.

    Also, your point about “easy” highballs such as melon patch is interesting as well. I would suggest that the term highball should relate to the grade to some degree. For example, a fledgling V0 climber should likely not attempt Melon Patch because of the danger, and for that climber Melon Patch is extremely highball.
    I would not think that Whispers is highball because of that same criteria, snow patch or not. Yes, it has a high finish, but that does not make a highball. The exit slab is so much easier than anything else on the line, its almost an afterthought; a hero romp. You are talking about V10 into 5.6 or 5.7. If the bottom was 5.6, it would be a highball, or if the top had a heinous V6 mantle move up high, then maybe…
    This same discussion carries over into gear routes. Because something is 5.8X makes it a death route for a 5.8 climber, not necessarily a 5.13 climber. Furthermore, the gear rating historically only should relate to the crux, not easier climbing before or after. So runout 5.9 leading to a well-protected 5.12 move does not make 5.12R, it makes 5.12G. But I digress….

    The point about the landings is well-founded. To carry it a step further though, whilst not necessarily defining of a highball, I do think that a poor landing can tip the scales towards a problem being a highball then a flat one. If any of the intro level highballs of Bishop were in RMNP, they would obviously a lot more committing of a highball then not.
    Anyway great post…

  16. Nate

    17. Jan, 2011

    I think highballs should be defined prior to piling pads underneath. I consider See Spot Run highball but you could certainly pad it enough to minimize any potential risk. For me a highball should have a topout at a height at which a severe injury would occur. It needs to be scary but not deadly. I would consider problems in many alpine areas to not be highballs but have bad landings. For example, I don’t think of Gobot or Jingus Bells as highball. These lines have bad landings and require commitment but they aren’t highball in my opinion.
    White Rastafarian should be added to the list.

  17. Danny B

    17. Jan, 2011

    I have yet to have read all these other posts, but as my response to HighBall it is really hard to place any of it in the HighBall range when you start considering so many options. For me I prefer to look at it like a freesolo to a route. Once you have reached a potential dangerzone above the landing it becomes questionable.

    First I give a basic layout of the landing, then determine distance like many do, but using my knowledge on where bolts and how many would be placed given this was a route. I have taken ground falls from almost 3 bolts above a start, and this is where I believe the safety of a fall is at risk… with no rope that is. So I personally think that once you have exceeded a standard 3rd bolt height you will have entered a Highball Zone.

    You can stack a thousand pads under a 20 to 30ft problem and even lace the ends of the pads with mesh netting, somehow.. someway highball will be defined. Different for everyone just as the grading system, someone sets those standards and we work from there to alter it over the years to come.

  18. bob banks

    17. Jan, 2011

    Many would argue that ‘rehearsing’ a ‘boulder problem’ on a rope negates it’s status as a ‘boulder problem’. Doesn’t mean it’s not rad, just a different animal, it’s a toprope problem that was then soloed.

  19. Kaelen W

    17. Jan, 2011

    I guess the way I think of Whispers (again, when the snow is there) is a safe V10 with a highball V0 on top of it, which, in my mind, is different from a highball V10, since the difficult climbing is not in the highball part of the problem. I’d probably classify Midnight Frightening as a true highball V10… I haven’t gotten more than maybe 2/3 the way up it, at which point it isn’t really highball, but the climbing looks hard all the way up to and including the topout, which is pretty high up.

    Climbing Whispers without the snow is like climbing a problem without enough pads: it’s dangerous, but sort of avoidable.

  20. B3

    17. Jan, 2011

    thanks Salo, I had a feeling you would enjoy that one. Is there something different that goes in the head of say Jorgeson or Pringle, as opposed to someone who doesn’t go after huge highballs? Do they feel the same thing and just manage it better, or do they feel more confident? You’ve done some big problems, what do you think?

  21. BigA

    17. Jan, 2011

    @bob banks: True, one could argue this. Keep in mind though, that many problems we now consider to be ” classic boulder problems were toproped first. All of the Gill problems on the Mental Block at Horsetooth were toproped first. Additionally, See Spot Run was first TR’d by Bob Murray. Many of his famous Mushroom boulder lines were also done in this fashion. Toproping simply allows the climber to get a better, safer grasp of what is in store. It also allows those that follow to attempt the line in a more “boulder problem” manner, ie droppin’ the TR.

    JE, your question is a good one. Something different goes in the head of a great highballer absolutely. There is definitely a good deal of fear to some degree; yes, but I would say that the good highballers manage that fear much better than the normal climber. In managing the fear, the highball climber goes through what I would call a “risk vs. reward” analysis in their own head. Is it worth it? Is the climb worth it? Is jeopardizing my spotters worth it (there have been times where I have gotten to a spot and said “ok, im own my own guys.”)? If the risk vs reward outcome is a resounding “yes”, steps are taken to reduce the risk: Toprope rehearsal, multiple pads and spotters, waiting for the sun to leave, etc. In doing so, the fear becomes replaced with confidence not found (for me) on lower problems. A fall from the worst possible place is still a possibility, but the likelihood is now MUCH less and the highballer knows this. Climbing tall problems would not be possible without confidence. But I don’t think the confidence is that much different then the climber who lays siege to a hard testpiece session after session and never once doubting that they can send. It is just applied differently.

    John Sherman once said that his highball prowess would be more greatly evidenced if he backed off of a tall problem rather than carrying on and falling off. So true

  22. Jabroni

    17. Jan, 2011

    Overthinking it… If highball is relative to your ability or the number of pads you have, then guidebooks start becoming overly complex. I.e. ‘this is a highball for anyone without 23 pads and who can’t climb V8’. Forget it. Like someone said, it becomes as complex as the British grading system.

    The term highball should only relate to the distance of the topout from the deck. At over 4 metres off the ground, your chance of dying if you hit the ground (a possibility even with mats) grows exponentially. You can choose to bring tons of mats, a home swimming pool, or a foam pit and put it under the climb, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a high climb; it simply makes the climb safer, similar to adding bolts to a climb. Safe is always a relative term.

    A climber like Dave Graham or Kevin Jorgeson can pretty much ignore the tag highball if applied to anything with less than double digits. But it’s damn useful for someone travelling to a new area to know that the V7 they were thinking of attempting right at their limit is a highball. And the V0 climber jumping on a V0 highball is in danger, even if Dave definitely isn’t.

  23. Nietzsche

    17. Jan, 2011

    Flight of the Bumblebee V8 in Bishop. I think Lisa has also done Golden Shower in Bishop which is one of the most striking lines I’ve ever seen.

    For whatever its worth on the Whispers count, I don’t think Whispers is a high ball. I’ve taken many bad falls and with good spotting and pads I don’t really think it is dangerous.

    Personally, I really like Jason’s comment in 20 Classic Climbs where he said that highballing is “whenever you feel you’re too high off the ground.” While his suggestion may appear completely subjective, I don’t think it is. Highballing is an experience that either you fall into (e.g. “the zone” or “bubble” that so many highballers talk about) or you don’t. I think this is a very real state that blurs the line between subjectivity (seemingly bad) and objectivity (seemingly good… or at least for Jamie’s purposes?).

    I personally feel that whenever I enter into this zone it combines an intense amount of concentration (not turning one’s mind off, but perhaps a different sort of thinking that is less calculative and more intuitive), planning, experience, and sometimes even rehearsal.

    That said I would say that highballing doesn’t have a height, difficulty, or landing zone. It is not purely a mental state either.

  24. Philip

    18. Jan, 2011

    What about something like Mexican Chicken or Fern Roof? The hard climbing finishes at like 14 ft or so, and then you are on V0– slab, but a fall at the top would almost certainly lead to serious injury or death. Would topping these out be considered soloing or highball bouldering?

  25. Kaelen W

    18. Jan, 2011

    As long as we’re on the subject of highballs, does anyone know why tall boulder problems are called “highballs”? Obviously you’re high off the ground, but that doesn’t explain the “balls” part (cue comment about needing balls, hur hur). Highballs are also a drink, of course, but I don’t see why someone would name a type of problem after a drink. Does anyone know who coined the term and when?

  26. molo

    18. Jan, 2011

    and all highball in joshua tree ? so hight and all
    look thi video

  27. cardboard_dog

    18. Jan, 2011

    I think highbal should definitely be defined by height. If it’s over 18 ft it’s highball, no question. One solution to kind of marry the danger and difficulty is to take a page from trad ratings and instead of the G, PG, R, or X ratings for gear, simply apply it to the danger of falling factor.

    If we agree that every highball without pads is either R, or X rated, you can grade appropriately from that starting point. Pads are now an essential part of bouldering and aren’t going anywhere so .. I think most climbers can assume that proper padding is playing a part in the safety rating as every trad climber knows that the gear and gear placements are playing a part in the routes safety rating.

    The Bishop guide is already on this path isn’t it?? With the heart with wings, or the heart with wings coupled with the skull and crossbones?

    Whispers is a great example .. if you are a V10 climber and can climb the hard section to the slab, it would be considered a G rated highball, or PG to be safe because of possible weak holds up high. ??

  28. cardboard_dog

    18. Jan, 2011

    @Kaelen ..

    maybe Highball refers to the “my balls are in my stomach” factor on some boulder probs ..

  29. sidepull

    18. Jan, 2011

    Nice product placement. Subtle, very subtle.

  30. TimS

    18. Jan, 2011

    I guess the classic UK one is Careless Torque, 8A start into an 7B+ ish top section, for me this height (unless the climbing was markedly easier) defines the end of bouldering and the start of soloing, but I guess everything is bigger in the States!

  31. Danny B

    18. Jan, 2011

    What was the first recorded HighBall? How tall was it, and what was the landing like?… ignoring the grade.

  32. matt

    18. Jan, 2011

    good question?
    maybe The Thimble was one of the first documented highballs? I know it’s in the needles (south dakota).

    It’s around 30 ft tall and the original landing had a guard rail underneath it. John Gill did the FA.

  33. Davin

    18. Jan, 2011

    John Bachar defined a three bracket system for soloing that was somewhat based on height. I don’t recall the height brackets for the system at this time (stuck at work and can’t look them up), but it seamed logical in consideration of the forces of fall based on the height of a problem. If I remember correctly the first bracket was for shorter solos that could result in injury, but not death (See Spot Run). The second was severe injury and possibly death (Ambrosia). The third of course resulted in death (Half Dome).

    I do believe landing quality played a secondary role in Bacher’s system as a bad landing in talus is more apt to cause harm than a flat landing.

    Perhaps the first bracket of Bacher’s system could be used to define a highball. The second bracket would include things like Ambrosia where a fall is potentially fatal, based on the height of a problem. There is always gray area and it seams Bacher’s second bracket would fit that gray area well (highball vs. solo).

    Maybe a place to start? Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about?

  34. Dylan

    19. Jan, 2011

    At Joshua Tree, I think I recall seeing a boulder that was rated V1 R, near SNL. It was no more than 15 feet tall, but there was a big cholla cactus under the crux section. Not highball for sure, but an interesting application of the safety rating.

  35. Socrates Face

    19. Jan, 2011

    I modestly propose two definitions of a highball: ‘de facto’ and ‘de jure’.

    First: de jure (“by law”) we can try to define a highball by asserting all highballs are above a set height. The general consensus, it seems, is around 18 ft – 20 ft, the point which injury seems plausible.

    But as Kehl points out, fear creates illusions. 18 ft is NOT that tall. A writer for backcountry suggests 25 ft.

    He also quotes Kehl, who’s “driven mostly by big lines that create an illusion of danger. Deciphering that illusion and performing it is an addicting experience. I’m not attracted to danger itself but the risk of possible danger. Danger scares me. It’s all about how you prepare yourself for that danger….You could miss the last move on a 25 ft boulder problem and land perfectly.”

    Landing. Such NONSENSE! This should NOT be a matter of debate! We should assume the landing is flat because one stiffish, bilayered foam pad will even out most heinous landings, assuming is is put where the climber will fall.

    And if the landing is too uneven for a single pad, this is easily rectified. Exhibit A, under White Rastafarian V4, there is a rock just below the crux. Pad goes on top. Climber falls. Climber is OK. Exhibit B: beneath Fall Guy is another 10 ft boulder face, making the fall almost slide-like… but with one more pad, the danger is nullified.

    On mention of White Rastafarian, if I may corrupt this topic, Molo, your video of someone doings tall, easy problems in J-Tree is “not Malo,” but still…reminiscent of an attention headache. To decapitate my own large head, I have myself done So High, have myself fallen at the crux with one layer of pads, and have myself greatly relished grabbing the jugs that begin just at the height where one feels they might be injured. Thonk. Guillotined. (I suggest you take some asprin.)

    In a tete-a-tete conversation with B3, choosing a classic highball, then trying to define all problems as highball/not highball based on their relation to the classic (for example See Spot Run) seems plausible, yet arbitrary: I feel such an exact specification would not be universal enough, and authorities in the climbing community would not be able to agree “This is the lowest highball, ergo all problems taller than this one are all highballs.” To cap: classic highball = 28.9ft – (problem > 18.9ft) = highball – too arbitrary for a definition.

    cardboard_dog, height measurement seems the most obvious way to define a highball problem.

    Point of possible injury with single layer of pads:
    20ft. It’s also a multiple of 10.

    Secondly: de fact (“in practice”) we can define a highball just like we define grades – by general consensus on Why not? Is defining a highball actually more important than defining the problem by grade? Shouldn’t the methods be the same?

    Nah nah nahnah naaaaah,
    Socrates Face

  36. michael rathke

    19. Jan, 2011

    big deal, campusman is the smoothest rock climber in the world

  37. cardboard_dog

    21. Jan, 2011

    Epic discussion man. So many good input.

  38. Adam M

    21. Jan, 2011

    This is a good thread.

  39. Seth

    21. Jan, 2011

    It never ceases to amaze me that the ‘simple’ sport of bouldering has just as many ‘debate wars’ as trad climbing and sport climbing.
    1. to stash or not to stash?
    2. highball or not?
    3. to downgrade or not?
    4. to video or not to video, (and it better be uncut)
    5. steal someone’s proj or let it be?
    6. manicure/landscape landings?


  40. Socrates Face

    22. Jan, 2011

    On a personal note, if we were to, say, collabatorize on what we think a highball is, and not set the bar at 20 feet, I agree with Kehl that many climbers are under an illusion of danger until they actually take the fall, and I personally would not consider White Rastafarian or So High highballs.

  41. Ty G

    22. Jan, 2011

    Maybe the height of the climber should be taken into consideration too. A boulder that tops out at 18 ft would be 3 body lengths for a 6 ft climber, but for a 5 ft climber it would be more than 3 and a half body lengths, which means a longer fall for the shorter climber. The longer the fall, the bigger the highball, right?

  42. slabdyno

    22. Jan, 2011

    good post, i have seen Biga on highballs. he is way smoother than campusman who shakes violently more than 8ft off the deck.

    I was into High ball-bouldering at one point in my life. regardless of the size of the ball, wrestling to its apex was much more difficult after blazing it up.

  43. michael rathke

    23. Jan, 2011

    thats funny considering what people that have tried direct despondency said in their comments

  44. char

    23. Jan, 2011

    So High not a highball!? Really?!! It being defined as a highball doesn’t mean you have to die if you fall! Is the Thimble also not a highball?

  45. Socrates Face

    25. Jan, 2011

    char, I have not tried The Thimble. I could not say. But I do not espouse death by fast dirt.

  46. Robin

    29. Jan, 2011


    Do you remember where it’s located?

  47. irene

    17. Apr, 2013

    it’s a fucking rock. climb it and be done with it.

    on the other hand, i wonder if this green glob i just pulled out of my nose is big enough to qualify as a booger.

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