Nina Williams Makes First Female Ascent of Ambrosia (V11) Highball

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Nina Williams climbs the committing Ambrosia (V11). Photo: Michael Pang (@pangtastic)

Nina Williams climbs the committing Ambrosia (V11). Photo: Michael Pang (@pangtastic)

On Tuesday February 28, Nina Williams made the first female ascent of Ambrosia, a 50-foot V11 (5.14 X) on the Grandpa Peabody Boulder in the Buttermilks, California.

In the early 1990s, California climber and Buttermilks regular Tommy Herbert attempted the line on the Grandpa’s east face on toprope. Herbert had already removed bolts placed on the nearby Transporter Room (V5, 5.12c), a hair-raising Dale Bard highball, to protest bolting at the Buttermilks and decided to leave his prospective line unbolted. Herbert named it Ambrosia, the food of the Greek and Roman gods, and left the project for future generations.

In January of 2009, Buttermilks highball master Kevin Jorgeson shuttled pads to the east face of the Peabody. He'd spent multiple days spent sussing and rehearsing the line. After a difficult start, Jorgeson climbed through 31 moves to complete the first ascent. George Ullrich had attempted the line as well, climbing the top two-thirds off a ladder but leaving the bottom untouched. The extreme highball nature of Ambrosia blurs the line between bouldering and free soloing. While the most difficult moves come in the first 15 feet, the upper face still involves V6 or 5.12+ movement. The problem has seen over a half dozen ascents, by Alex Honnold, Isaac Caldiero, and others. Numerous holds have broken. Higher on the problem, holds have been reinforced with glue. Subsequent ascents have used slightly different starting beta than Jorgeson. “Which made it easier,” Honnold wrote on his card after his 2010 second ascent, “but I’m still calling it 8a (V11), just cause it’s so tall.”

Over the past few years, Williams sought to complete a trifecta of each difficult face on Grandpa Peabody, California’s signature boulder. In March of 2015, she completed the 50-foot Footprints (V9) on the north face. In February of 2016, she completed the 55-foot Evilution Direct (V11) on the south face. For her ascent of Ambrosia, the hardest and most committing of the three, Williams trained for six weeks in her home of Salt Lake City, competed at ABS nationals, then traveled to Bishop. On her third day, Williams set a toprope on the route and climbed from a hueco at 17 feet to the top. She spent three more days on Ambrosia, climbing to the top from a lower point each time. Before attempting the problem from the ground, Williams climbed Ambrosia twice from the second move to the top on toprope.

“It was systematic,” said Williams. “I lowpointed the route and it gave me confidence to send.” On February 28, Williams went for her ropeless ascent. Fifteen pads lined the landing, while four photographers, two spectators, and one spotter watched her link the first few moves. She reached the the prominent hueco rest at one-third height and recovered for a little over a minute. At 5’3”, Williams had to jump and deadpoint for a number of long moves on the problem—this dynamic style meant downclimbing would be difficult if not impossible. From the rest, she could either make a knee-crushing jump to the pads, or leave the hueco and commit to going for the top. When Williams left the rest and launched into the V6/12c upper section, her spotter chalked his sweaty hands. She climbed the upper wall easily. Williams’s ascent marks the first female ascent of the boulder problem, or if considered a route, one of the hardest free solos ever done by a woman.

The day after her ascent, Williams spoke with her father, Donald. “Are you done climbing tall climbs for your trip?” he asked. Williams said she was, and told him she had to work over the upcoming weekend at the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival. She's teaching a clinic on highball bouldering. Donald then asked his daughter if she had heard of a new style of climbing: “It’s called low bouldering.” Her father insisted that it was a better style for a professional climber, because “You can actually see the sponsor logos.”