Learn This: How To Highball

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.

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Preparation

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.

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Falling

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.

Look Down:

  • 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.

Fall:

  • 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.

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Fighting

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.

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Consider This

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.

Remember This

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.

Climb on!