Progression: How Keenan Takahashi Is Pushing the Highball Envelope

By James Lucas ,

Highball specialist Keenan Takahashi.

Kevin Takashi Smith

In September 2014, the Californian Keenan Takahashi grabbed a crimp with his left hand. He curled his right hand around another crimp on the 30-foot Kush Boulder, below Yosemite’s Lost Brother formation. His mustache formed a thick broom on his upper lip, which quivered with exertion. He steadied himself and then swung his left foot hard across the wall, double-clutching a sloper, maxing out his plus-six-inch wingspan. Takahashi finished the first ascent of the highball V11 with El Cap as a backdrop. The problem, with its wild movement, marked a progression not only in Yosemite’s modern bouldering style but in Takahashi’s climbing as well.

When it came time to name the line, he took inspiration from a great horned owl feather he’d found, shed by a bird that had been hooting nearby. “One of my favorite animals is the owl,” Takahashi says, and in fact a three-inch tattoo of an owl adorns his left ankle. Takahashi received his only piece of body art the summer before his senior year in high school. He’d traveled to France on an exchange program, a trip that introduced him to climbing. And so the problem became Winged Tiger, named after the airborne predator.

Winged Tiger is just one climb in the El Portal, California–based 26-year-old’s expanding résumé. Beyond his occasional roped exploits, where’s he’s climbed the trad routes Broken Arrow (5.13c) and Top Gun (5.13d), both in Tuolumne, Takahashi has established over a dozen double-digit boulder problems across the western US and in Rocklands, with an emphasis on highballs. These include the 30-foot Zephyr (V12) in Yosemite, the 35-foot Terminus (V12) in Bishop, California, the 30-foot Hokusai’s Wave (V12) in Roy, New Mexico, and the 35-foot Ubuntu (V13) in Rocklands, South Africa.

“They’re big and beautiful and pure,” Takahashi says of the climbs, adding, “I only climb tall things because I think they’re pretty and inspiring.” However, with his background as a skater who was unafraid of big drops, you can’t help but wonder if he likes the adrenaline and the exposure.

At the beginning of the nine-minute YouTube video Jamboree, one of a dozen skate videos that Takahashi and his friend Jonas Mueller filmed and starred in, a teenage Takahashi climbs into a tree in his hometown of Davis, California. He then drops five feet into a cement ditch, sticks the landing, and skates off. Takahashi, born September 1991, grew up in the central California town, the only child of Barb and Eugene Takahashi, a Sierra Club employee and a state epidemiologist, respectively. At nine years old, Takahashi asked his parents for a skateboard. Over the next eight years, he skateboarded daily at the courtyard of the local junior high and in the flat suburbs around Davis. As he progressed, he and Mueller started filming their tricks; at the end of Jamboree, Takahashi sticks his best trick, a 360 flip off a series of ledges. “I skated so much,” Takahashi says. Though he stuck kick flips and other basic tricks early in his skating career, pushing further required practice and obsession. He estimates he spent 10,000 attempts over three years to stick the 360 flip. “That really plays into my love of bouldering where I just obsess over little things,” Takahashi says.

Takahashi staying cool on his new line Ubuntu (v13), Fields of Joy, Rocklands.   

Kevin Takashi Smith

To engage in skateboarder antics, Takahashi would often climb onto roofs and into trees. In high school, when he traveled to France, he found himself climbing the façades of old buildings in Paris. “You should go to the climbing gym,” Jolie Law, another Davis exchange student, told him. In summer 2008, when Takahashi was 17, he went to Rocknasium, the Davis climbing gym. The next day, he returned. Soon he was spending six days a week there. Shortly thereafter, he went to the Nut Tree Boulders in nearby Vacaville, climbing on the black basalt eggs in 105-degree heat. After going to the grocery store and pounding two liters of Gatorade, Takahashi realized, “Outdoor climbing is where it’s at—this is what I want to focus on.”

“The switch just flipped,” says Takahashi’s friend Teddy Rendahl of their first trips to Bishop. Rendahl met Takahashi in third grade when they played soccer together at elementary school in Davis, and later got into climbing himself on a local youth team. In high school, the pair began climbing together extensively. The heights did little to scare Takahashi. “I don’t think I’ve taken any falls in climbing that bruised me the way skating did,” Takahashi says. “That’s kind of why I like taller things—because they still haven’t felt as scary as the skating stuff.” Takahashi would know: The three-minute Vimeo video The Greatest Moments in the Life of Keenan Takahashi features a teenage Takahashi falling off his skateboard in slo-mo 15 times, twisting his ankles, getting nailed in the head by his board, and writhing in pain on the ground. When he started falling on crashpads, climbing felt much safer—even the highballs.

“He would just go super-hard. He didn’t know any better,” Rendahl recalls of his friend’s early years. “He would try hard problems even though he wasn’t anywhere close.” Rendahl remembers Takahashi pulling onto the Buttermilks classic The Mandala (V12) right after he’d climbed his first V5. After bouldering all day, “He’d make eight packs of ramen, pound them, and then go to sleep,” Rendahl says.

After graduating high school in 2009, Takahashi headed to the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC), but after the fall quarter returned to Davis and began route setting at Rocknasium, and took community-college classes. For two years, he climbed four days a week, spending weekends in Tahoe and Bishop. Though his climbing moved forward, his life had stalled out. In autumn 2011, he returned to UCSC to study earth science, but with no car to access the rock he struggled to climb. “It was the least improvement I felt in my climbing,” Takahashi says. Then, in September 2013, he took an internship in Yosemite studying talus morphology with park geologist Greg Stock. The position allowed Takahashi to walk through the limitless boulders of Yosemite. “I got psyched and realized this was the best bouldering in the country,” says Takahashi. When he graduated from UCSC in spring 2014, he returned to the Valley, and by May 2015 had taken a seasonal job monitoring air and water quality for the NPS.

These days, Takahashi clocks in at 8 a.m., and then at 5:30 p.m. he’s running through the boulders, scrubbing new problems, or bouldering. “Working here poses its challenges,” says Yosemite Climbing Ranger Eric Bissell, who climbed with Takahashi on the first ascents, in 2014, of Dreamsnatcher (V10), Delta V (V10), and the Uncertainty Principle (V10), all at the modern Happy Isles Boulders. Ironically, even with all that Valley granite, the lack of a gym and steep rock can make it difficult to stay strong. Only in the past five years have Yosemite boulderers solidified V13, a concerted effort that means a willingness to rap, scrub, and work new problems. But Takahashi is young, able, and psyched. In the past three years, he’s established 10 new double-digit boulder problems in Yosemite, showing the wealth of hard problems still available.

Takahashi on the first ascent of Terminus (v12), Pollen Grains, Bishop.   

Kevin Takashi Smith

“It’s the most scared I’ve ever been,” Takahashi says of his 2015 FA of Zephyr (V12) at The Crumbles, below Yosemite’s Cookie Cliff. The crux comes low, but then there’s the slopey V7 move with “faith-based feet” 25 feet up. Takahashi was toproping the end crux successfully only one time in four. “Normally, when I’m doing a highball like that, I wanna be doing it every single try,” Takahashi says. However, when he stuck the bottom crux, he continued upward, bolstered by the 15 pads and crew that had shown up. Earlier that winter, to gain the mental confidence, Takahashi had climbed the 60-foot Evilution Direct (V11) in Bishop, citing it as much less frightening.

In February 2016, Takahashi climbed a 35-foot overhanging arête atop the Pollen Grains boulders above Bishop, naming the problem Terminus. Two years earlier, a friend had shown Takahashi the problem. “I totally freaked,” recalls Takahashi of the golden rock. “It’s one of the most beautiful pieces of rock I’ve seen anywhere.” Takahashi worked the highball on a rope but failed to piece together its 14 beastly moves of power crimping. “I wasn’t ready,” he says, “physically or mentally.” So he began to train rigorously, using an Excel spreadsheet to outline and monitor progress. When he got to Bishop in January 2016, he did The Mystery, a long, crimpy V12 on Grandma Peabody. He topped it out his second try the first day. Then he repeated it three times in a row the next day. Then four times, building the crimp fitness and power-endurance for Terminus. When Terminus finally went down, Takahashi’s ascent was controlled, precise, and fluid (watch it below), his heels and toes locking onto the holds. Two months later, Takahashi established the 30-foot Roy problem Hokusai’s Wave (V12), a sandstone wave with a high compression crux. Later that year, he established another highball, in South Africa.

“He was always into looking for these crazy first ascents,” Rendahl recalls of his and Takahashi’s first trip to Rocklands, in 2014. Takahashi became notorious for telling his friends about amazing potential problems that were 35 feet tall and had, like, two holds. “You’re, like, ‘What are we doing here?’” Rendahl recalls. One day in 2014, they went to Fields of Joy where Takahashi found a 30-foot prow. The problem begins on a pseudo tufa and follows toe hooks and heel hooks along an arête. “It’s hard and physical and kind of scary. You don’t want to fall, but you’re probably not going to fall if you get through it,” Takahashi says of his hardest highball FA to date, the V13 Ubuntu (June 2017). “It’s my favorite style.”

As the grades have gotten bigger, Takahashi has become less manic in his approach, or perhaps it’s his more studied methodology—coupled with travel and teaming up with other strong boulderers—that’s allowed him to excel. Says Rendahl, “He’s better at being methodical. When I go climbing with him now and he’s trying these hard problems, it’s one attempt, eat a banana, rest for 20 minutes, stretch. It’s not the same thrash on stuff until you do it.”

“Holy hell. I’m always psyched, and I didn’t think I could keep up,” pro climber Jimmy Webb recalls of meeting Takahashi in late 2016. Over the next six months with Webb, Kevin Smith, Hannah Donnelly, and his now-girlfriend, Parker Yamasaki, Takahashi climbed in Font, Switzerland, and South Africa. The trip provided him access to V14s and V15s, something that his home boulders of Yosemite lack. 2017 proved the fruits of Takahashi’s obsession. He completed 18 V13s in Red Rock, Fontainebleau, Magic Wood, Rocklands, Squamish, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Mount Evans, and two V14s: The Island in Font and Speed of Sound in Rocklands.

“He knew how to climb on the rock even though he’d never been there,” Webb says of Takahashi’s savoir-faire at the notoriously techy Font. “He’ll get everything to a T, and then when he does it, it looks perfect.” This precise style has helped Takahashi deal with climbing high off the ground.

These days in his apartment in El Portal, Takahashi follows a spreadsheet of exercises. He logs ascents of any problems, and at night has been practicing fingertip pushups to prep for the mantel-style triple bump of The Nest, a V15 in Las Vegas. He plans on escaping Yosemite this winter, or, if the good weather lasts, he’ll be pushing new, hard terrain there. Regardless of venue, he’ll be trying hard. As he says, “I’m obsessed with personal progression.”

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