Homage to the Lowball
Words by Justin Roth
From Urban Climber #23
There’s nothing more satisfying than sitting down in some bramble-choked rat’s nest and cranking a couple of sick hard moves.
—Matt Samet, Climbing No. 196
The lowball boulder problem is perhaps the most derided of rock climbs. On a boldness scale, it lies somewhere between toproping in the gym and standing on a chair to change a light bulb. No one makes films about lowballs, or writes books about them — how many lowballs have you seen in the photo galleries of this magazine? They are uninspiring. They get picked last for the kickball team. There is no glory in the lowball.
But the lowball is, in point of fact, rock climbing in one of its purest forms. Allow me to explain.
On one end of things, you have the mountain expedition. Achieving the summit by hook or by crook is the name of the game. And there is purity in this — whatever strength and ingenuity you have is put to the cause of reaching the top (and descending) safely. On the other, smaller end, you have the lowball. Its purity comes in an entirely different form. It takes the idea of contrivance to its extreme. On many lowballs, you could reach the top if you just jumped a little. Instead, lowballers sit in the dirt, lie down, even crawl into pits, and then eke their way up (or across, in the case of traverses) to the “finish,” which may or may not be a logical stopping point. (The hardest part of many lowballs is avoiding the dab.)
Lowballs often use rules to create the challenge: the arête or the big foot block is off, or only the lowest line of holds on the traverse may be used. Absurd. But in this absurdity something pure is revealed — something present in all climbs that we sometimes forget: climbing is a bold act of arbitrariness. Why we go up here or there is without rhyme or reason. “But what about Everest?” You might ask. “It’s the tallest in the world!” So what? It’s just a big bump on the Earth’s surface, and whether we climb it changes nothing… except ourselves. Which is precisely the point of the lowball — and all we expect from it, really: a perfectly arbitrary challenge and a couple of blissfully engaging moves.
Famed lowball pioneer (not to mention founder of Crater Holds, one-time owner of Cincinnati’s Climb Time climbing gym, and now Director of Sales and Marketing for Total Climbing), Scott Rennak, has been establishing the short stuff around Boulder, Colorado, for years. “Climbing tends to be a sport where you’re with a partner,” he says. “If you’re looking for a departure from that, lowballing is a great option.” Scott also appreciates the way lowballs reduce climbing to the essentials of movement, and adds “It’s an awesome way for the short guys to get revenge on their tall buddies. … And I think lowballing builds your abs, ‘cause you have to keep your feet off the ground.” He was so taken with boulder problems of short stature, he planned to write a guidebook called Scott’s Stupid Sit-Starts, though he hasn’t yet gotten around to it.
I recently fell in love with another of Rennak’s reasons to lowball: safety. Not only are you less likely to split your talus bone (the way a friend of mine did recently while engaging in the luck-pressing pursuit of highballs), but it follows that with danger gone, so too is the need for crashpads, which bend the backs of many a young boulderer. On my lunch-break forays to nearby Flagstaff Mountain, I’d bring a small bag with shoes and chalk and set to work on the uberclassic and aptly named Undercling Traverse (V8; FA Jim Holloway, 1974). With my feet never more than a foot from the earth (and at times much closer) I learned to use my biceps in ways I’d never before imagined. I enjoyed four visits to UCT, each time getting lost in the burly intricacies of it’s ten-odd horizontal moves. The finicky planets of balance, pressure, and timing needed to align for me to send; I was no less pleased “topping out” UCT than I was the classic highball Mavericks, in Clear Creek Canyon, or clipping the anchors after the final runout on Tuna Town, in the Red River Gorge. Nobody saw the send. I did not report it to 8a.nu. I did not tick it off in the bouldering guide. I simply repacked my little bag, took a swig of water, and headed to the office, the sweet smell of lowball still in my jacket.
So here I challenge you to climb any one of the following lowballs and continue to scoff. On problems like these, the Zen perfection of pointlessness is attained. You’ll win no prizes, garner no media attention, risk no great bodily injury — you’ll simply climb for the sake of movement and learn to plumb your inner depths, which, when you strip it all away, is what most of us are after, anyway.
So You Wanna Be A (Low)Baller?
Enjoy butt-dragging, back-smacking, dabalicious pebble grappling? Then check out this list of 20 of the finest vertically-challenged probs:
- Lowdown, HP40, Alabama
- Weasel, Squamish, British Columbia
- Groundwater, The Happy Boulders, Bishop, California
- Iron Man Traverse, The Buttermilk, Bishop, California
- Nat’s Traverse, Mortar Rock, San Francisco, California
- The Romp Roof, Joshua Tree, California
- The Centaur, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
- Guanophobia, The Ghetto, Flatirons, Colorado
- Mongolian Cosmonaut, Flagstaff Mountain, Colorado
- Turning Point, Satellite Boulders, Flatirons, Colorado
- The Womb, Rocktown, Georgia
- Jerry’s Traverse, Stanage Plantation, England
- The Pearl Red River Gorge, Kentucky
- The Sit Traverse, Lincoln Woods, New Hampshire
- Hobbit Hole, Pawtuckaway, New Hampshire
- Slither, The Woodies, Palomas, New Mexico
- Temple of Jahboo, The Gunks, New York
- Chong Li, Hueco Tanks, Texas
- Heroin Face Right, Little Cottonwood Canyon, Utah
- The Worm Turns, Joes Valley, Utah