Should You Spot Highball Boulder Problems?

Once you get higher than 20 feet, a spot might still seem useful. A reality check.

Photo: Getty Images

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I get that highball bouldering is committing, but I can’t stomach spotters standing dozens of feet below a climber, arms in the air. Looks to me like the spotters are poised to catch a beachball rather than a 200-pound bag of bones.

When a person skyrockets off a problem from four times their height, does spotting expose numerous people to injury instead of just one?


According to “The Splat Calculator” (real, Google it), a 155-pound climber falling 23 feet—highball country—will generate 3,542 foot pounds. The average car weighs 3,221 pounds. Unless you are Spider Man or Wonder Woman, you aren’t going to catch anyone from even 10 feet. Don’t try.

Instead, as noted in “Accidents,” a spotter’s job is to keep the falling climber upright and onto pads and away from punji-like hazards.

Highball spotting is an art that borders on a profession, and a skilled highball spotter is as valuable as a seat belt. As you posited, a spotter who doesn’t know what he is doing is only endangering everyone.

One highball technique that is increasingly popular is “Pad-fu.” This is where the spotter, after copiously padding the ground with crash pads, holds one pad in the air, similar to how firefighters might hold a blanket to catch a victim jumping out of a window. Of course with Pad-fu you don’t try to catch the climber; rather, when the climber hits the pad it is ripped out of your hands and the climber is slowed before impacting the ground pads. Whether Pad-fu really saves the day, though, is debatable. Likely, the technique is more a psychological aid than actual safety enhancement.

Frankly, highball bouldering is for the rare few who have stacks of bouldering pads and are strong and cool-headed enough to seldom or never fall above that red line of 20 feet.

Where does that leave the rest of us?

Toprope, my friend. The most revered boulderer of all time, John Gill, wasn’t ashamed to bust out the cord when problems reached ankle-breaking height. Toproping is safer than a highball spot, requires less gear and takes only one other person. Environmentally, toproping is often easier on the flora and terra, which is often landscaped with bushes and small trees smashed flat by pads or cleared out, rocks dug up and rolled away, holes filled in and the ground leveled. In extreme cases log balconies are even built to shim up uneven ground. If anyone can tell me how all those shenanigans are better than toproping, I’ll eat my rack. But don’t listen to me, read this excellent article by Bernd Zangerl on why we need to rethink highball tactics.

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