The Weird Origins Of Bouldering’s Sit Start

Sit Starts, Drop Ins, and Things No One Has Thought Of Yet

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The story of Midnight Lightning, the iconic V8 in the middle of Yosemite’s Camp 4, is part of climbing legend. The origin of the sit start is not. But both were conceived by the same person—John Yablonski. While not mythologized like the genesis of the world’s best-known boulder problem, the innovation of the sit start was literally a game changer.

Game changes can be a slow, evolutionary process. Groundbreaking ideas might be easy to dismiss as weird, but this one took.

What other changes to the climbing games we play are on the horizon? It is too early to tell, but a 2017 Mellow video depicting a creative ascent of Fontainebleau’s Karma—one that feels like a skate trick and pays homage to 1990s bouldering culture—might also point toward a new bouldering game: the drop-in start.

Cranking at Intersection Rock, Joshua Tree. “Every burn was like his last breath on earth,” says photographer and friend Dean Fidelman. “The line between sending and ending became part of the performance.” Photo: Dean Fidelman

1. Yabo’s Midnight Lightning Vision

Many have heard the tale of John Yablonski’s vision, in Camp 4, staring at the wave of granite on the east face of the Columbia Boulder. How I envision the story is a mix of what people told me and my imagination.

Here is my amalgam:

Yabo spends the day in the Valley doing some solos and a bouldering circuit. He drops acid at sunset but it doesn’t hit until dark. A big campfire flickers orange light on the overhanging face of the monolith in the middle of camp. He wants to retreat. Language fails him. Time warps. Things get grotesque, especially peoples’ faces. Leave the light—that’s better. The stars are close. A coyote howls.

It feels good lying on the cool slab beneath the giant overhanging boulder, looking up. Suddenly it seems so clear. How could he not have seen it before? The wave comes to a perfect point at head height, as if saying, “Start here.” Looking down—a big, obvious foot. And there, a comfortable crimp fits the right hand perfectly. There’s an obvious sidepull toward the top of the point before the wave, but then what?

Don’t look at the rock, look at the light flickering against the rock. There are shapes and forms everywhere. I can see holds at night, invisible in daylight, by looking for shadows they cast from the fire. Two edges present themselves as the next steps after the sidepull at the top of the point. He can imagine the position.

Yabo stares at the crest of the wave beneath a little roof. He closes his eyes, opens them. He sees the shadow of a thin lightning bolt etched in the rock. Was that there before? The right side was perfect for the right hand, the left side perfect for the left. That’s what you do. You jump to the Lightning Bolt, match it, and pull sideways to the lip.

If Ron Kauk and John Bachar’s subsequent efforts created Midnight Lightning, John Yablonski’s vision was the moment of conception. As the saying goes, “Yabo Lives.”

That John Yablonski was an out-of-the-box thinker is an understatement. His imagination ran wild at his popular hangs, including Yosemite and Joshua Tree. Here, he is seen on the Triangle Boulder, Joshua Tree, early 1980s. Photo: Dean Fidelman

2.  The Yabo Start

The origins of the “Yabo start” are not mythologized like his Midnight Lightning vision. We are not told stories about Yabo’s “discovery” of the sit start around a campfire. When I search around online, all that shows up is that a “sit start” is synonymous with a “Yabo start,” which is named after John Yablonski.

There could be any number of reasons. One might be that the story of the Yabo start might not be a good one, at least on its surface. It could go like this:

Yabo winters in Joshua Tree. He enjoys his days wandering the Dr. Seussian landscape. After some sketchy soloing, he rounds out the day with some bouldering in Hidden Valley Campground. He does a problem and likes it so much he wants to do it again. He notices a big hueco’d-out undercling at the bottom of the boulder, just below waist height.

“What are you doing?” one of the others asks him.

“Starting down here,” Yabo responds.

“Why would you do that? You look ridiculous.”

“For the same reason I would start up there. Just different, I guess.”

Yabo finds it hard to pull his butt off the ground. He is unaccustomed to the nature of the movement. He takes off his chalkbag—it was getting in the way—and puts an extra layer of chalk on his hands. He inhales deep and uses his breath to flex his entire body. Hands pull up. Shoulder blades engage down into his back. His abs stabilize his torso while at the same time driving down to his feet, pasted on nothing.

Yabo lifts his butt off the ground with significant effort and does two difficult hand moves to get to the “starting” holds at head height. But those moves make him unable to grab the “starting” holds the way he normally would. They felt worse and his arms were taxed. The next moves felt harder too. He fights his way through the thin face moves and shakes over the top.

Perhaps the others spend the rest of the night mocking him. They sit down at the base of diminutive rock formations and grimace as if they are trying to pull themselves off the ground.

For whatever reason, the origins of the Yabo start are not mythologized like his Midnight Lightning vision. But the Yabo start is more significant to bouldering history than Midnight Lightning.

Yabo was an artist/ninja. Each bouldering session was a blank canvas for him to create something new. The sit start became one way of adding his signature to the moment. Photo: Dean Fidelman

3. The Yabo Start’s Transformative Impact

The Yabo start transformed bouldering. Nearly all of the world’s hardest boulder problems are sit starts. The Grand Illusion (V16) in Little Cottonwood Canyon (LCC), Utah, is a fine case study.

What would become The Grand Illusion began in the early 2000s as Euro Roof (V9). You can reach the finishing jugs of Euro Roof from the ground. To start the original line, though, you get into a low squat to grab two sidepulls, pull onto the wall using bad smears, and do a violent move to an incut. One more move gets you to the lip.

In the mid-2000s, longtime LCC local Jay Keener added the original sit start, Euro Trash (V12). Keener began by sitting on a pointy rock and putting both feet on the wall before pulling off the ground using a juggy undercling. He then added two powerful moves using a marginal bicycle to get established on the start holds of Euro Roof. At the time, it was not possible to start lower. There were big rocks in the way.

“His next-level imagination allowed him to look beyond the limits imposed by the present, and to find a vertical path into the possible,” says Fidelman. “This ability to see the duality of the impossible was on full display with Yabo’s LSD-inspired masterpiece, Midnight Lightning.”
Photo: Dean Fidelman

Euro Roof evolved again in the 2010s. A local climber used the ancient quarrying art of “pins and feathers” to clear out numerous blocks, including the pointy rock climbers sat on to start Euro Trash. This made room for an even lower start to Euro Roof. Four moves on perfect rounded underclings and sidepulls with poor feet get you to the Euro Trash start. These new moves were not harder than the Euro Trash moves but, in classic sit start fashion, upped the fatigue factor enough to bump the V-grade a notch. Chris Sharma made quick work of this new V13 lower start to Euro Roof while in town for the 2013 Outdoor Retailer show. In a 2013 video showing an early repeat, Carlo Traversi refers to this as the “lowest start.” At the time, it was the lowest possible start. Only another round of pins and feathers would open the “granite tufas in a roof” forming the next iteration: the 13-move, V15ish intro to The Grand Illusion, completed last year through the efforts of Drew Ruana and Nathaniel Coleman. You access them by going down the slab under the roof. It feels like crawling into the underworld.

The Yabo start transformed climbers’ views of what a climbing line should be. As Drew Ruana remarks in the Mellow video about the ascent, “I am trying to start as far down as the holds go.” According to this aesthetic, it’s not that The Grand Illusion adds another low start to Euro Roof. It’s that The Grand Illusion completes the line. The ideal is to start at the absolute bottom, butt on the ground (with no pads to use as a booster seat), pull off the ground and establish control on the holds, then start climbing. But sit starts, like life, are not without their variations and compromises—starting off a pad, or squatting, or “bouncing” off the ground to propel yourself to the next hold without establishing on the starting holds.

4. Strategies to Maximize Bouldering Gameplay

In the seminal 1967 essay “Games Climbers Play,” Lito Tejado-Flores describes bouldering as “the most complex game in the climbing hierarchy,” because “it has more rules than any other climbing-game, rules which prohibit nearly everything—ropes, pitons, and belayers. All that is left is the individual standing in front of a rock problem.”

Note that Tejado-Flores describes bouldering’s complex rules lead to standing in front of a problem! When he penned Games Climbers Play in 1967, maybe no one had ever thought a sit start would be a serious thing serious climbers do.

Why does bouldering have all these prohibitive rules? According to Tejado-Flores, they represent “the basic principle of a handicap … applied to maintain a degree of uncertainty as to the eventual outcome, and from this very uncertainty stems the adventure and personal satisfaction of climbing.”

Tejado-Flores’ bouldering rules get the game off the ground. But they do not account for sit starts, which are a different type of rule. Just as a sit start adds to an existing climb, the sit start rule takes all of the basic “thou shalt not” bouldering rules for granted. They are foundational.

One way of looking at sit starts is as a positive rule built upon the negative ones. The prohibitive rules are “negative” in the sense that they tell you what you can’t do while playing the climbing game. If applying the basic rules to a boulder defines the field of play, adding a sit start maximizes the boulderer’s amount of gameplay.

It is easy to forget that the rules we climbers take for granted were, not too long ago, dismissed as contrivances. Try explaining to a toddler why you would take anything but the path of least resistance to the top of a mountain employing less than “anything goes” siege tactics. Or consider the practice of prehanging quickdraws on fixed bolts and clipping your rope into them as you go, but not being allowed to otherwise touch or use them (until you get to the “chains” at half rope length, of course, at which point they are fair game). Or invalidating a bouldering ascent because you “dabbed” by grazing an adjacent boulder on a top out. Indeed, bouldering itself was once considered just practice for real climbing.

While sit starts have become an accepted part of the global bouldering lexicon, “aller retours” generally have not. An aller retour is a style of doing an existing climb developed by the Bleausards, the original developers of Fontainebleau bouldering. The phrase translates to “there and back.” To do an aller retour is to complete a boulder traverse and then, without touching the ground, reverse to the start.

But sit starts, like life, are not without their variations and compromises—starting off a pad, or squatting, or "bouncing" off the ground to propel yourself to the next hold without establishing on the starting holds.

Jean-Pierre Bouvier is a master of this style, having completed an aller retour in 2012, at age 55, for which he proposed the grade of 9A traverse on the Font scale. Unlike the Font-scale, the V-scale does not separately account for traverses, so any attempt at translation is more art than science. But it probably translates to somewhere in the V15/16 or solid 5.15 range. The 45 comments to a post about Bouvier’s achievement on range from characterizing the climb as “really stupid,” to a “perversion,” to being “bad for the future,” to, “It’s the future of sport climbing!”     

However the climbing community may view aller retours, they have a family resemblance to sit starts. They are a positive rule, overlaid on the foundational negative prohibitions, to maximize bouldering gameplay.

5. Looking for What’s Next in a Climbing Life, Post-Highballing

I started climbing in the mid-1990s. Sustained sport routes captured my attention. On a trip to Southern France at age 13, my first 7c+ was Le Privilege du Serpent, which follows a steep line of blue and gold limestone in Céüse’s Secteur Cascade. I also spent a lot of time in Smith Rock’s Aggro Gully and, before it was rightfully closed to climbing, Cave Rock on Lake Tahoe’s Nevada side. I liked wearing a chalk bag, shaking out, and chalking up. I liked having to fight the pump to keep it together if, on that magic try, I somehow managed to stick the crux. So when I was swept up in the great bouldering wave of the late-1990s, it made sense I would gravitate toward highballs with sit-start jugs and sustained moves. Two climbs of this style from my formative years in Bishop, California were Hidetaka Suzuki’s Secrets of the Beehive (V7) and my wandering extension to Mick Ryan’s The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (V5), which I simply called The Beekeeper (V6).

I had over 15 years to explore this style. But one day, in 2016, my foot popped at the most inopportune time. I got really hurt and am lucky to be alive. I give this background not to share my story, but to explain how I arrived at what I am about to propose.   

Returning to bouldering after the trauma, multiple surgeries, hundreds of hours of rehab, and 18 months later, I struggled to find climbing objectives. I dabbled in trying to repeat problems I had climbed before. But it was not engaging in the way I wanted. And my body didn’t like doing hard moves in isolation and taking repeated falls the way it once did. I enjoyed moderate problems, but it just wasn’t the same as climbing at a level closer to my limit. Had I reached a dead end as a boulderer, with so much life left to live?

One perfect autumn day in 2019, these questions unresolved, I found myself doing a moderate circuit at LCC’s Gate Boulders. The Gate Boulders are nestled on the north side of LCC about a mile up from the mouth of the canyon. It is the original and most classic bouldering area in the canyon, with a high concentration of problems of all styles shaded by scrub oaks on solid but strange rock that is at once slippery and sharp. I bumped into a delightful couple, Sean and Deanna Ferrell. We found our way to the Standard Overhang Boulder, where I asked if they had ever tried Crystal Traverse (V4). As the Mountain Project entry for the climb states, “[S]tart on the far right side of the boulder next to the tree, traverse the lip going left.” I remembered being shown the starting edge next to the tree years ago.

I was fascinated by the timing. It felt like I was tapped into the same "cosmic pudding" that led the younger climbers to even think to climb this sort of line. It must be somewhere in that pudding where Yabo lives.

“It starts on the right side of the overhang there, over by the tree.” I pointed.

Sean walked over to the tree. He put his hands on a surfboard feature to the right of the starting edge.

“Here?” Sean asked.

“No. Down on that edge to the left,” I said categorically.

Fortunately, the better angels of my bouldering nature kicked in. Why had I not noticed that surfboard before? When I put my hands on it, I naturally turned my head to the right. The surfboard kept going. And there was this cool knob on the corner between the south and east faces. And then a slab and—behold—a massive starting jug!

It didn’t make sense to finish on Crystal Traverse. The engaging terrain kept going. All you had to do was reverse the classic Standard Overhang (V3). You could wrap around the corner on the perfect knob at the top of Crystal Pinch (V6), which took you to the end of Pump Traverse (V3), which you could ride all the way to the end of the boulder.

Moments before, this line had been completely invisible to me. But once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it. The unorthodox movements and “backwardness” of the climbing only appeared strange in reference to the other, shorter lines. When I looked at it from the right angle, it stood out like a ridgeline. Instead of weird contrivances, the drop-down moves gave the line a fluidity like the stroke of a calligrapher. And, practically speaking, they were necessary to complete the line, just as starting at the bottom completed The Grand Illusion. The top of the boulder no longer looked like the end point. It was your “exit” if you were too pumped to keep going.

I didn’t know it had been climbed before. I later learned that around 2014-2015, the “mayor” of LCC bouldering, Mike Beck, noticed a scrub oak had shifted. It was this shift that opened the possibility to traverse in from the right. That is probably why I hadn’t seen the line before. When I was “taught” the boulder, the line wasn’t there!

At the time I was first shown Crystal Traverse, the received wisdom made sense. But trees and other things have a natural tendency to shift. And these shifts can open new possibilities that weren’t there before. It took someone who had not been taught the “actual” start of Crystal Traverse to open my eyes and see, like Yabo, that there were new shapes and forms everywhere. You just had to look.    

6. Multiples at Physical Monsters

LCC seemed new again. I couldn’t wait to find other climbs of this style.

One idea was to connect problems in the Black Roof Boulders. I remembered the refrigerator block roof Physicality (V8) and nearby Angry Little Monster (V6): heel hooks, pinches, and upside-down trickery to move your feet in the roof without dabbing. If the holds were there, the concept of reversing one of the problems into the other—even starting from the top of the boulder and “dropping in” to the roof—seemed just the playful thing to do.

Before I had a chance to session the boulder, I learned two talented young Canadian climbers, Sean Faulkner and Victor Beaudrand, had done the link. They called it Physical Monsters. I was fascinated by the timing. It felt like I was tapped into the same “cosmic pudding” that led the younger climbers to even think to climb this sort of line. It must be somewhere in that pudding where Yabo lives.    

As Malcom Gladwell writes, “[t]his phenomenon of simultaneous discovery—what science historians call ‘multiples’—turns out to be extremely common… [T]he sheer number of multiples could mean only one thing: scientific discoveries must, in some sense, be inevitable. They must be in the air, products of the intellectual climate of a specific time and place.” (Emphasis added).

Within a couple days after learning of Physical Monsters, I happened across one of the first ascensionists. I shared the story of my independent “discovery” of the line. We agreed that once you saw the line, it seemed incomplete to start in the middle of the roof rather than climb all the way across it.

I mentioned doing “drop-ins” as a different way of starting boulder problems, like an aller retour but not on traverses.

“Have you seen the video of Shawn Raboutou downclimbing Karma?” he asked.

7. Fromage et Biscuits: Shawn Raboutou’s 2017 Drop In Start to Karma—A Speciation Moment?

I’m no skateboarder, but I love skateboarding. One day I stumbled upon Almost Skateboard’s 2006 release, Cheese and Crackers, featuring Daewon Song and Chris Haslam. The video is described as a “snack size mini ramp video.” For the first six minutes of the video, Cheese and Crackers seems like just about any other skate video. It opens with fast-paced music and pro skaters doing grinds and flip tricks.

But there is a logic to the first few minutes. Song and Haslam demonstrate their mastery of “classical” mini ramp skating with increasingly difficult and complex combinations of tricks.

Around the six-minute mark the video shifts into ludicrous mode. Someone yells and throws a door on the ramp. Song opens the door and Haslam, with complete control, 50/50 grinds the door’s edge. The last eight minutes mark a radical departure from classical skating, with Song and Haslam using a variety of props—blankets, tires, cans, multiple skateboards, Carl’s Jr. cups, strings, 2x4s, and other objects—in a way that can only be described as Jedi-level skateboarding mastery. It is confusing, exciting, disorienting, and inspiring all at once.

I felt the same way when I saw Mellow’s video of Shawn Raboutou and Giuliano Cameroni climbing in Fontainebleau in February 2017. Toward the start, there’s a pause in the action as Cameroni struggles on the finicky Eclipse (7C). A techno track flips on from The Real Thing: “The Original Bouldering Movie” released in 1996 documenting Ben Moon and Jerry Moffatt’s quest in Fontainebleau to repeat Frederic Nicole’s testpiece Karma (8A). The nod to The Real Thing—1990s techno, dance club footage, and French driving scenes—is a brilliant homage.

At 8:00 the screen goes dark and the music gets spacey. Then Raboutou is shown chalking up—standing on top of a boulder. He crouches down to carefully place his hands on the chalky topout slopers and drops into a heel hook. The viewer can see the boulder is none other than Karma.

The footage looks unnaturally smooth and otherworldly—as if in some sort of Tenet-style rewind. Raboutou drops down, pastes his feet on nothing, and holds a one-arm lock to establish both hands on the starting hold. He is wearing a chalk bag. He chalks his left hand, then his right. He crosses his hand to the corner of the dead-end seam feature and proceeds to slap, scrap, palm smear, contort, and battle his way through the iconic Fred Nicole testpiece. The video credits refer to the climb as Karma 2.0 (8B).

The evolutionary concept of “speciation” attempts to explain how a distinctive new thing is born out of something pre-existing. Scientists can’t tell if an organism’s birth—a new branch in the tree of life—is a moment of speciation when it happens. Time needs to pass; successive branches need to “harden” into a species. Then you can look back and say, “Aha! That moment, back there in the tree, was the ‘birthday’ of this new species.”

Looking back, we can now say that, along with John Gill’s arrows and use of chalk, and Kurt Albert’s rotpunkts, the moment Yabo first pulled his butt of the ground was a moment of speciation.

Was Raboutou’s 2017 drop in start to Karma a moment of speciation? Right now, it is too early to tell. There haven’t been many branches to the tree. But we might be in the early stages of something “new” being born out of something “old” that will only come into focus years later.

Would it be possible to do what Raboutou did on The Grand Illusion? It seems possible because the moves have all been done in one direction. But we don’t know because it has never been done. If Raboutou’s drop-in start to Karma is any indication, however, it would be a creative expression of Jedi-level bouldering mastery.

Why do it? Because bouldering gameplay is worth maximizing. Because of Cheese and Crackers or, if you’re in Font, Fromage et Biscuits. Because Yabo Lives, and Yabo Sits, and someone might drop in to ascend again.

Victor Copeland established the oft-repeated Bishop classic Atari (V6) in 1999, at age 16, and the unrepeated LCC highball Omega Man (V11ish) in 2013, at age 31. His search for the esoteric John Gill essay “Bouldering: A Mystical Art Form” is ongoing.

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