How to Approach Highball Boulder Problems

Expert advice for climbing tall boulders
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Expert advice for climbing tall boulders
Nina Williams Highball Bouldering Climbing

The author practices her craft. Photo: James Lucas

Elvis leg sets into your calves, which tremble to the rapid beat of a panicked heart. Fingers readjust on holds you could have sworn were jugs a minute ago—now they’ve shrunk to micro-slimpers. The next hold is far away. You glance down—Oh, God!—the ground is really far away. To fall or to fight? This guide will outline proper techniques so you can feel safe and confident about climbing your next highball boulder problem.

Preparation

It’s easy to hop straight on the rock. That beautiful line begs to be climbed, but a bit of planning can make your experience safer and more successful.

Practice falling

Before arriving at the boulder, take practice falls, which sharpen reaction time and provide experience for a worst-case scenario. Start with controlled falls in the gym, remembering that sprained ankles can still happen here. Fall during small dynos and graduate to bigger distances as you feel more comfortable. Pay attention to your center of gravity, and how your body reacts when you fall sideways. When practicing outdoors, make sure you have a good pad setup. During falls, look down and pinpoint a landing. Practice will improve your ability to land safely.

Scope the downclimb

Nobody wants to be a kitten stuck in a tree, so figure out the descent before you start. The way might be a walk-off, but some descents are more technical. If there’s a jump or hard downclimbing, have a friend bring the pads around for a comfortable landing.

Assess the line

Think about beta and look for hidden holds. Consider potential cruxes and places to shake out. Plan where you might land if you fall from a certain spot, and where your personal “no-fall zone” is. This means deciding on a specific height or hold above which you don’t want to fall—a point where you have to commit or bail.

Check rock quality for questionable holds. Be cautious of potential breakage, especially on newer terrain. While assessing the line, visualize yourself climbing. Make sure to leave the ground with a full chalkbag.

Arrange the landing

Strategic crashpad placement is essential to highball safety. Depending on the terrain and number of pads/spotters you have, consider the following:

  1. On flat terrain, place the pads where you think the highest fall potential will be. Vertical walls will result in straight-down falls. Steeper overhangs will have more angled falls, farther from the wall. Arrange the pads to cover the greatest surface area possible. Line up the edges of the pads so there are no gaps or raised surfaces.
  2. On uneven terrain, cover exposed rocks, roots, and other back-breakers and ankle-rollers. Position your setup around these obstacles to create a landing zone that is as flat and even as possible; you might need to fold pads. Use just enough pads—throwing an extra pad on top can create more potential for a sprained ankle. If the landing is slanted, tie the pads together with the straps, or have your spotter stand on the pads to prevent them from slipping. Pay attention and push them back into place after each go.
  3. With limited pads, arrange them to cover the most ground. Spotters should drag pads as you climb. They can leapfrog the pads to keep up with your movement. With lots of pads, make a double or triple stack. Create a base of softer pads, layering pads on top to cover the seams of the first tier.

Communicate with spotters

Never assume you’re being spotted and don’t be afraid to request one. As climbers, we’re responsible for our own safety. Spotting a super-highball can be dangerous, and the main goal for a spotter is to guide the falling climber onto the pads, not to catch her or slow her fall. Discuss the landing zone, how you might fall, and where the spotters should stand. As the climber falls, the spotter should aim to grasp her hips and fall with her toward the pads. With really big highballs, use a “floating pad” to cushion the impact: Two people hold a regular pad a few feet above the main pad layout, tracking underneath the climber and letting go when the climber hits this pad. The climber will hit the floating pad first, slowing her fall, before landing on the layered pads below.

While spotting, keep fingers and thumbs together in a cupped position (spoons) as opposed to spread out (forks). This prevents finger and hand injury. With arms up, keep your elbows and knees slightly bent.

Falling

Bouldering is 10 percent sending and 90 percent falling. You must be ready to fall. There are two types of falling: controlled falls (dropping off) and uncontrolled falls (popping off).

Controlled Falls

Look down: Gauge the distance between the bottom of your feet and the ground. You will only fall as far as your feet. If you are past your no-fall zone, downclimb to a comfortable point. Breathe. The thought of falling is usually scarier than the fall itself. Panicking only delays the inevitable and encourages hasty decisions. Commit to the fall and let go.

Fall: As you go down, try to straighten your body as much as possible, taking a deep breath to relax your muscles. As your feet make impact, crumple your whole body down and backward onto the pads. Your knees will absorb much of the shock; be aware of their position as you fall. If the landing is uneven, let your body tumble naturally and remain loose.

Uncontrolled Falls

Look around: If you did the proper prep work, you should be aware of various landing spots, and as you move upward, be looking around for them.

Fall: Be aware of your head. Bring your torso over your legs. Keep your legs ready to absorb impact. Avoid flailing your arms, instead keeping them close to the center of your body to prevent arm or hand injury upon impact.

Fighting

Committing requires confidence and practice. Fighting for the next move ends in one of three ways: falling, progress, or sending. Whatever the outcome, each time you decide to fight you make another contribution to a reservoir of mental strength.

Understanding fear

Fear can be a paralyzing or a stimulating energy. Utilize that energy to motivate yourself through cruxes.

Identify how ‘being scared’ feels: Is it suffocating? A pressure in your chest? A trembling? Picture your fear as being containable, a force you can work with. Use your mind to shape it into a manageable size. When the fear becomes overwhelming, compress it back down to a small size.

For instance, if your fear feels like an expanding pressure in your chest, visualize it as a ball of light. Imagine your hands wrapping around the ball, containing the light and shrinking it. Mid-crux, when you’re scared, release just enough light to propel you through the difficult climbing. If you feel shaky, picture warm molasses flowing through your veins to slow the trembling.

Loosen up

Keep just enough body tension to hold onto the wall Over-gripping drains valuable energy. During rests, chalk up and stretch and shake out your arms. If you’re anxious, relax your eyes. Find a spot on the wall above you and calm your gaze. Take deep breaths, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth.

Focus

Aim for flawless execution on each move. Put extra effort into grabbing holds perfectly. If you fail to catch them correctly, adjust as little as possible. If you make a mistake and your concentration breaks, loosen up again and recenter yourself.

Keep it together

Once through the crux, keep your mental composure all the way to the top, breathing to relax while also keeping your mind engaged.

Work It

Toproping

Knowing the moves beforehand helps you gain the confidence needed to commit. Toproping, a.k.a. headpoint prep, allows you to scope out good/bad holds, cruxes, and fall zones. Working moves allows you to learn beta and to mentally prepare for the send.

When headpointing, set up a bomber toprope anchor. Check the summit. Established highballs often have bolts. If there are no bolts, make sure your TR is solidly built.

Ground up

Working a climb ground-up means having no knowledge of the top moves unless you’ve reached them from the ground. This adventurous method is truer to bouldering’s old-school ethic. It saves the trouble of setting up a toprope, but it is also much riskier. Route-finding can be difficult 20-plus feet off the ground, and climbing off-route could end badly. If the problem seems within your ability and you feel comfortable, then going ground-up could make sense.

Remember This

Highball bouldering is dangerous. The decision to climb high off the deck without a rope is not one to be made lightly. You should never feel pressured to climb a line you don’t feel comfortable with.

Consider all risks involved and figure out how to reduce them as much as possible. Have an emergency plan in case of injury.

Highballing is a personal endeavor that can be highly rewarding. Achieving that tranquil state of concentration is addictive. Just because you do it once, twice, or 100 times doesn’t mean you’ll escape injury every time. Find a balance between pushing your limits and keeping it safe.

Nina Williams is a professional climber based in Salt Lake City. She has topped out such notable highballs as Evilution Direct (V11), Speed of Life (V10), and Footprints (V9).