Off the Deck: Learning to Love Highballs

Man, I’m like…red-lining the whole time.

I said those words to my friend Georgie as I was topping out Original Line, the 30-plus foot V0 warm-up/down-climb on the Lidija Boulder in the Pollen Grains, home to some truly massive boulders. It was my very first time in that area of Bishop, and I was just a little bit intimidated.

I can remember back to a time in my climbing career when I thought highballs were the coolest thing ever. They appealed to me in a way I couldn’t really explain, and I didn’t know why. That was back when I first picked up climbing as a serious pursuit, and I have no idea what I was thinking. Climbing’s mental game has always fascinated me, but personally, my mental discipline has never been exceptional. My physical abilities are respectable for someone of my experience level, but when it comes to being bold, you’re looking at the wrong guy.

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About as bold as I get: Mother Nature, 25 feet, V1 – Nut Tree Boulders, CA; photo credit: Katelyn Dolan

Fast-forward a few years, and you’ll find me shaking on the no-big-deal top out of a V0 somewhere in Bishop, California. Not just a little shaky, but full-on disco-kneeing, chicken-winging, over-gripping, brow-sweating, cross-your-fingers-(but not literally)-and-pray shaky. Like, gumby status to the max. I’m not gonna lie to you—I was freaking the *!%# out.

Somehow, I managed to not rattle myself off the boulder and stood at the top for a minute, composing my thoughts and desperately trying to lower my heart rate that felt like the backbeat to an EDM festival. I knew I was far more freaked out than I should have been, but I really couldn’t help it. I was light years out of my element, and in that moment, I remembered why I avoided highballs. Eventually, I managed to steady myself enough to process rational thought again, and the pressing question of the day popped into my mind:

are you going to try Suspended in Silence?

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Nalle Hukkataival on top of the Lidija Boulder; photo credit: Killian Fischhuber

Once I found out we were heading to the Pollen Grains on Sunday morning, thoughts of the classic V5 started swirling around my head. One of only two four-star climbs in the guidebook. Beautiful boulder. Fantastic scenery. But how’s the landing? Is it sketchy? How tall is it going to feel in person? Are the moves height-dependent? Can I even stick the dyno?

To be honest, the only reason I truly wanted to try Suspended was because the first move is a dyno. I’ve loved dynamic movement for as long as I’ve been a climber, and I rarely pass up the opportunity to try my hand at big hucks. Some of my less-vertically-challenged friends who have climbed Suspended told me they were barely able to stick the move. Challenge accepted.

I spent a while sitting around and contemplating whether or not to go for it. The conversations I was having with myself weren’t even productive or all that rational. I actually don’t remember exactly what they were, so they couldn’t have been very profound. I’m fairly confident that I spent most of that time repeating the phrases “deep breaths”, “calm down”, and “relax” to myself. Clearly on top of my game.

Finally, I decided that I needed to at least try the dyno before psyching myself out too much and mentally exhausting myself for the rest of the day. I had only climbed that one warm-up, and the longer I looked at the move, the more I started to doubt my ability to stick it. I told myself “if you don’t stick it, don’t worry about the rest – come back to it some other time…maybe.” At this point, I was trying to find any reason to avoid doing this problem!

I pulled on my Anasazi’s, asked Mike for a spot, and pulled onto the start jug. I rocked up over my feet twice to get my hips moving in the right direction, committed to the move, and fired towards the jug. Imagine my surprise (and the surprise of those around me) when I latched the hold with one hand, supermanned, matched, and pasted my feet back on the rock.

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Holding the swing on the dyno; photo credit: Ethan Pringle

Well, that was unexpected …

I said, half to myself, half to the small crowd gathering around the climb.

Dude, just go for the flash!

I heard Mike say. In that moment, I had to make a decision—just go for it and maybe flash a classic problem, or drop off and blow it. I let go of the hold and rolled onto the pads.

I really wanna watch someone do it first,

I said with just a twinge of regret.

And I wanna change my shoes.

After sticking the dyno, I knew that I had no choice.

I would go for the send of Suspended that day. I had plenty of pads, plenty of spotters, and plenty of support from the awesome crew around me. I had already stuck the crux move. All that was left was the head game. I had no excuses left.

I spent a while alternating between being psyched on sticking the dyno and psyching myself out about the rest of the problem. Thankfully, I was able to watch two friends send, and both cruised up the solid edges that dot the bulk of the “hard” climbing. Mike’s beta in particular looked simple and controlled, and I made sure to have him spray me down on the ground with what holds to use, which feet were best, and as much reassurance as he could muster.

And just like that, it was my turn.

I traded in my teal Anasazi’s for my favorite black Teams. I strapped on my chalk bag, asked Ethan to snag a video, and walked up to the start jug. I pulled onto the jug, stuck the dyno, and paused to chalk my hands. It was go time.

I cruised through the moves with ease, reminding myself to breathe and relax and not think about the distance below. It’s amazing how high 30 feet sounds and looks but how few moves really make up Suspended. Mike’s beta worked beautifully for me, and to be honest, it all felt easy. I stalled a little bit at the final move before the boulder slabs out, reaching around desperately for the good jug that led to the easier terrain above.

It felt like an eternity, but after a second or two, I found the jug, pulled up onto the slab, and began scampering towards the top. Before I knew it, I was standing with my hands behind my head, breathing deeply, and taking in the beauty around me. I’ll be completely honest: I was surprised to be there, and my smile stretched from ear-to-ear. I shut off my brain for just a few seconds and relished the feeling of harnessing the mental control – if only for a moment – that so often escapes me.

Topping out on Suspended Silence; photo credit: Betsy Dorsett
Topping out on Suspended Silence; photo credit: Betsy Dorsett

I am constantly reminded of how far I’ve come—and how far I still have to go as a climber. From a naive gumby watching climbing movies on his laptop to the boulderer keeping it together on Suspended in Silence, my journey into the realm of highballs has been an interesting one, and it has just barely begun. In thinking back to my few experiences, I can’t help but contemplate what my future holds off the deck.

The prospect of combining my physical abilities with an improved mental game is tantalizing, and the striking lines of some of Bishop’s proudest boulders seem to call to me more and more with each passing trip. For now, I’m happy to have expanded my comfort zone, if only by a little bit, and I’m excited to continue exploring the heart-fluttering climbs that the vertical world has to offer.

Finishing up on Jedi Mind Tricks; photo credit: Wes Miraglio
Finishing up on Jedi Mind Tricks; photo credit: Wes Miraglio
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