Here is where I might write about coaching.
In February 2017 I topped out Ambrosia, a 50ft boulder and one of Bishop’s most notorious highballs. For a full interview discussing my thought process and progression, click here. Check the video below:
Originally published in Climbing Magazine, How To Approach Highball Boulder Problems.
Elvis-leg sets into your calves, trembling to the beat of a panicked heart rate. Fingers readjust on holds you could have sworn were jugs a minute before – now they’ve shrunk into crimps. 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 ways to prevent the worst if your grip slips, and techniques on how to fight through fear on your next go.
It’s easy to over-stoke and hop straight on the rock. That beautiful line is just begging to be climbed! But there are a few steps of planning that are crucial to every highball experience.
- Scope the down-climb. Nobody wants to be that kitten stuck in a tree. Make sure you know the best way to come down without having to call the fire department. If the down-climb is less than friendly, have a friend bring a pad or two to jump on.
- Scope the line. Think about beta and look for holds that may be out of sight. Consider potential cruxes and where you might land after a fall. Visualize yourself climbing as though you were watching a video – this tactic can help predict falling scenarios as well as encourage efficient climbing.
- Arrange the landing. Whether you have one pad or ten pads, strategic placement is essential to highball safety.
- With one or two pads, guessing the ‘fall zone’ is extra-important. Place the pads where you think the highest fall potential will be, side-by-side and as evenly as possible. Tell your spotter to drag the pads as you climb. If there’s only two of you, a soft landing will usually be more important than spotting.
- A greater number of pads requires some Tetris puzzling. Push the pads tightly together to avoid gaps and uneven surfaces. Make a base tier of softer pads and stack stiffer pads on top to cover the cracks in the first. Drape pads over large rocks, being aware of crash pad straps that may snag a falling climber.
- Check with your spotters. Communication is key. Climbers are responsible for their own safety and that involves speaking up. Never assume a spot, and don’t be afraid to request one. Keep in mind that spotters can only do so much; their job is to guide the climber onto the pads. Spotting a super-highball can be dangerous for both spotter and climber. If you have enough pads, you may be better off on your own.
The hold is too far away. Time to bail! Bouldering is 10% sending and 90% falling. The stakes are even higher with highball bouldering. A commonly-heard phrase while highballing is, “Don’t look down!” Another phrase is simply, “Don’t fall.” While these phrases make sense in the moment, they prevent mental feedback for the climber to use in the future. For now, lets throw these common phrases – and (seemingly) common sense – out of the window.
- Make a mental note of any hazards: uneven/poorly placed pads, exposed rock, wandering dogs, or clueless spotters (they’re just trying to help).
- Gauge the distance between the bottom of your feet and the ground. Remember that you will only fall as far as your feet – this can make the height seem less intimidating.
- Take a deep breath. The thought of falling is scarier than the fall itself. Panicking will only delay the inevitable, and encourage erratic decisions. Commit to the fall and let go.
- Get used to falling. Taking practice falls will sharpen your reaction time and give you more experience for a worst-case scenario.
- Keep arms and legs close to your body and pick a target point free of obstacles (the practice falls will help speed up this decision-making).
- Don’t brace for impact. Stiffening your body will make the fall hurt more. As the ground approaches, try to relax your muscles so they absorb the shock. Inhaling or exhaling helps release tension – just don’t hold your breath! Channel your inner noodle and fall al dente; not too stiff and not too, well, noodle-y.
The hold seems far away, but… it’s not that far. Time to go for it! Committing requires confidence AND practice, so hopefully you’ve taken enough falls to understand the consequences. Fighting for the next move can have three different results: falling, progression (a move farther), or sending. Whatever the outcome, you’ll be building a reservoir of mental strength.
- As mentioned in the ‘Preparation’ section, visualization is important for efficient climbing. Picture different types of beta before leaving the ground. Make note of important holds (and footholds!) that will help later on. When you’re mid-crux high off the deck, remembering that hidden hold could be the difference between falling and sending.
- Understanding fear. Fear can be overwhelmingly paralyzing; it can also be a stimulating energy. It’s important to find a balance and utilize that energy to motivate through cruxes.
- Identify how ‘being scared’ feels to you personally: is it suffocating? A pressure on your chest? A jittery tremble? Once you’ve identified that fear, incorporate mental visualization.
- Picture your fear as something to be contained – a force you can work with. Shape your fear into a manageable size and keep it close in your mind. When the fear starts getting out of control, press it back down to a small amount.
- As an example, I imagine my own fear as a ball of light. It feels like a pressure that expands in my chest when it gets out of control. I visualize my hands wrapping around the ball and containing the light, making it smaller and smaller. Mid-crux, when I’m scared, I release the light just enough to propel me through the climbing.
- Loosen up. Keep just enough body tension to hold you on the wall. Over-gripping will drain valuable energy. Take a moment to chalk up and stretch your arms. Make a point to relax your eyeballs; find a point on the wall and calm your gaze.
- Concentrate on individual moves, taking each as they come. Aim for perfection. If you get tunnel vision, you’re doing it right.
- Keep it together. Once you’re through the crux, don’t let your guard down until your feet are back on the ground. Keep your composure all the way to the top.
There are two approaches to working a highball boulder problem: top-roping or going ground-up. Both are perfectly fine ways to work the problem.
- Top-roping. Knowing the moves beforehand goes a long way towards gaining the confidence to commit. Top-roping, or ‘head-pointing’, gives you a chance to scope out good/bad holds, cruxes, and fall zones. It increases safety by mentally preparing the climber.
- When head-pointing, it is important to set up a safe top-rope anchor. Check out the summit; there are often bolts at the top of established highballs. If there are no bolts make sure your top-rope has two points of contact and 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. Ground-up highball bouldering is very admirable. It is important to remember, however, that climbing ground-up does not make you a ‘better’ climber than someone else. Any choices made with highball bouldering are very personal and should not be looked down upon by others.
Highball bouldering is dangerous. Making the decision to climb way off the deck should not be made lightly. It is important to consider all risks involved, and to reduce those risks as much as possible. Highball bouldering is a personal endeavor; you should never feel pressured to climb a line you don’t feel comfortable with. Highball bouldering is also quite rewarding! Achieving that tranquil state of concentration is an addictive feeling. Be sure to think about why you want to try a highball boulder problem. If it’s to impress your friends, reconsider. But above all, be safe.
Originally published in Rock and Ice Magazine: Learning To Climb For Myself, The Hard Way.
I took a deep breath. Sweat beaded on my temples and worked through the chalk in my fingertips. Ninety minutes remained at the Doylestown Rock Gym competition in Pennsylvania. The blank spaces on my scorecard demanded urgency. I turned to my coach, Dana Seaton, for advice.
Dana stood next to me, deep in conversation with the parent of another competitor. His brows furrowed and he spoke quietly, shoulders tensed. The mom was upset. As their voices raised, Dana squared his body away from me, attempting to hide their conversation. The woman’s mouth opened, her eyebrows knitted, her face turned crimson. The more I listened, the more I realized why Dana wanted to protect me.
“I heard a girl on your team cheated at Regionals last year. My daughter doesn’t want to compete against a cheater, anyways!”
My face flushed with embarrassment.
I was the cheater.
Everyone knew it.
I joined a competitive team at 13, a year after I started climbing. We met a few days a week, splitting time between indoor workouts and outdoor excursions to the local bouldering spots. I respected my coaches and admired my teammates – the majority of whom were male. Good-natured ribbing and friendly competition set the par for the course. An inner pressure grew in my mind, driven by ego and a desire to prove myself. I wanted to show that I could climb as well as the boys, and better.
As the pressure grew I became preoccupied by what other people thought of me. Climbing competitions became my source of validation. If I placed well, I would earn praise. If didn’t place well, I would disappoint. This thinking drove me through my first year of competition. I improved as a climber and stood on the podium at several local comps. As the 2004 USAC Youth Regionals approached, I knew I had a chance at qualifying for Nationals. The event represented a huge milestone for me. I wanted it more than anything.
On the day of Regionals, I walked through the doors of MetroRock South in Boston, MA. It was a few months after my fourteenth birthday. The gym hummed with excitement from a hundred youth climbers hoping to make the cut. White clouds billowed, born of nervous chalking that added to the organized chaos. I ran from problem to problem searching for the highest scoring climbs. My eyes darted through the crowd, studying the progress of the other girls. I needed to beat them. Meg Georgevits and I vied for 2 nd , the minimum place to move onto Nationals. I climbed well but so did Meg. I couldn’t tell if I had performed better than her.
As the 10-minute warning sounded I panicked. One problem remained that I had come close on but hadn’t completed. Justifications swirled; I could have done that climb. I basically did it anyways, falling on the very last move. If I missed my chance at Nationals I would let everyone down. I wanted to see happiness in my coaches’ eyes, not disappointment. My pride couldn’t allow anything less.
My eyes darted nervously. I folded my scorecard and tucked it into my shirt. The corner stuck out awkwardly, scratching against my skin. Would anyone notice? I grabbed a pen on the way to the bathroom, masked by the throngs of spectators. I committed to my decision with a single-minded intensity. In the privacy of the stall, I studied a pair of judges’ initials that had signed off on completed climbs. I tried to keep the ink steady as I carefully forged the same initials next to the climb I hadn’t done. When the competition ended, I handed my scorecard in with a beating heart. Hopefully it had been enough.
An eternity passed while results were tallied. I sat with friends, covering my nervousness with idle chatter. When the judges posted the scores, I half-expected to see – disqualified – next to my name. Instead, I placed 2nd . I hugged and high-fived my teammates, thrilled that I would get to compete in the 2004 USAC Nationals representing my gym, my team, and my home state of Rhode Island. The praise and support I received only helped to vindicate my actions. I was a good climber; everyone told me so. I deserved to move on.
When the event came a couple months later, I felt less pressure to place well. It was my first national-level competition after all. As it happened, I climbed my way to 2 nd with no need to forge anything. I beamed as I received my team jacket and trophy, assured that I deserved to be there.
I continued to compete into the 2005 season. My ego remained unchecked. Once Nationals ended, the inner pressure returned. I found myself climbing in a local event where the highest stakes were a crash pad or a pair of shoes for 1 st . The familiar haze of white chalk settled in the air over the local climbers. My muscles ached from falling off the last move of a climb I had tried multiple times. Only minutes remained in the competition. I couldn’t let people see I had failed. I snuck into the bathroom and repeated the whole process – forged initials and defensive excuses. After an hour of waiting for results, Gigi Metcalf, the head of the USAC New England Region, approached me, frowning slightly, her lips a line of troubled concern. My heart sank.
“Nina, we need to talk about one of your scores here. When did you do this climb?” She pointed to the one I hadn’t done.
“Right at the last minute,” I responded. “That was a hard one! Took me awhile.” I tried to play it off, ignoring the heat rising to my face.
“See… I would like to believe you.” Gigi said. “But we saw you fall on the last move again and again. Nobody saw you send it. And we don’t recognize the initials that are signed here.”
I stared at the scorecard in her hand, the evidence of my guilt. A lump formed in my chest and stuck in my throat.
“Nina, did you cheat?”
I couldn’t answer.
After Gigi caught me, USA Climbing reviewed my competition placements from the past season. They discovered that I cheated at Regionals – the pen I wrote with had red ink, standing out against the black signatures. I had to compose and read apology letters to my coaches, teammates, parents, gym employees, and fellow competitors. I was banned from the rest of the 2005 bouldering and sport climbing season but still had to volunteer at the rope comps. USA Climbing revoked my team jacket and trophy. The climbing community, which had become my whole world, rejected me. My team splintered; some parents demanded I be kicked out of the gym. My high school boyfriend (who was part of the climbing team) broke up with me. An assistant coach whom I admired, said that going to Nationals with me had been a waste of his time.
After weeks of reflection, I recognized that relying on validation from other people made me distrust my own abilities. I became so wrapped up in climbing for everyone else that I had forgotten to climb for myself.
Over the next few weeks I read my apologies, belayed at the rope comps, and returned the jacket and trophy. I had searched for the easy way and found the hard way instead. The weight of my experience served to bury a darker part of myself that I didn’t want anymore. I was never tempted to cheat again.
Despite the trials, my need for climbing remained unchanged. Competitions still offered an arena of excitement, with the challenges of problem-solving becoming a renewed source of motivation. I realized my fear of disappointment had blinded the appreciation my community already had for me – regardless of any podium achievement.
I have nothing to prove.
I try hard for myself.
I climb because I love it.
I repeated this to myself as I walked towards the exit of the Doylestown gym. My chest hiccuped, aching with silent sobs. The outdoor breeze did nothing to cool the heat of humiliation still burning on my face. Raindrops mixed with tears that crept through my eyelashes and spilled onto my cheeks. I still cared about what others thought. Hearing Dana and the mom’s argument brought back a reality that seemed would never go away. I knew the incident would fade from people’s minds. I also knew it would stay with me for years.
Dana came to console me and, after a few minutes, we talked about the remaining time in the competition. I pulled my knees to my chest and hid my face. “I can’t do it.” I said. “Everyone looks at me weird. I don’t want to climb anymore.”
Dana gazed downwards, considering his next words.
“The past is like your wallet. You pull it out if you need something. But most of the time it just hangs out behind you. So you can either sit here and sulk,” he said, “or you can get your head out of your ass and finish what you started.”
I took a moment to sulk. My face still burned. I raised my head and uncurled my knees, staring at my scorecard. The blank space of one climb remained.
I laced my shoes and walked back inside.
This is an excerpt from the Rocklands climbing film ZA, produced in 2015 by Big Paw Productions and reposted with permission.
Ray of Light took me 8 days of effort and a fair bit of screaming. It was my first (and only) of the grade. I stuck the crux move during the first session, but spent the next seven sessions linking moves and convincing myself it would come together. It is still one my proudest accomplishments. Check it out below!