I have always been drawn to highballs. As a child, I would climb the redwoods at the park close to my house to the very top where their branches would thin and sway in the wind. And today, not much has changed except for the fact that now I climb rocks. Climbing something with a lot of air under my feet—even if it’s the easiest, most uninteresting climbing in the world—feeds me in ways that other types of climbing never have.
Because of this curiosity, I’ve spent a lot of time in the land of highballs, the Buttermilks. When I first arrived in Bishop this season, I came to the Buttermilks thinking that I’d be able to do my usual warmup circuit. This included both of the easy yet extremely high routes on both of the Peabody boulders.
On my first day back, I remember standing under the Southwest Arete of the Grandma Peabody and not wanting to leave the ground. My stomach swarmed with butterflies and my throat tightened. I just kept chalking up and wondering how the hell I used to do lap after lap on this route without even thinking twice. Not only did I question the sanity of my past self, but I also felt like I had lost some crucial part of my identity as a climber.
Would I not be able to climb highballs this year or ever again?
Confused and disheartened, I walked over to the Sunshine Slab wondering what had happened.
As the season goes on, I’m getting more comfortable with climbing things that are high, but still don’t feel like I used to. The more climbers I talk to, the more I realize how normal this is. Our desire to climb things that are scary can change from season to season and even on a day to day basis. This is all very interesting to me and has led to a lot of contemplation and conversation about how, why, and when we climb highballs.
Here is what I have learned …
What is a highball, anyway?
There is not a specific height that a boulder must be in order to be considered a highball. Like grades, what is deemed a “highball” varies between climbing destinations. For example, most of the boulders in the Buttermilks would be considered highball in other areas, but are not necessarily defined as such because so many of the boulders in that area are gigantic.
Most guidebooks will have some kind of symbol to signify if a problem is a highball. Usually the symbol is a heart with wings, also known as a “heart flutter.” The more heart flutters, the scarier the problem supposedly is. Some problems may also receive a grade of PG-13, R, or X. But, as with most things in guidebooks, take these ratings with a grain of salt. Many climbs that don’t receive a highball rating scare me, while other problems that get two or even three “heart flutters” don’t feel sketchy to me at all.
Related: Climbing Grades: Comparison Chart and Rating Systems Overview
Highballs are dangerous
… you probably already knew that. But it’s important to understand that highball bouldering comes with risk. Because of that, it requires a different set of mental and physical skills in order to climb them. For many climbers, this risk is what makes the climbing fun and engaging. On the other hand, some people decide that the risk is not worth the reward, and opt out of highballs all together. Both of these attitudes are good. Whatever personal opinions you hold about highballs are worthy, and in no way impact how “good” or “bad” of a climber you are.
Related: Off the Deck: Learning to Love Highballs
Me climbing Professional Widow in Bishop, CA:
Highballs are a personal experience
Defining something as “highball” will vary among climbers. Climbers will disagree about whether something is scary due to their varying experience levels, fears, and desires.
Someone who has only climbed small boulders may feel that a boulder that’s fifteen feet tall is a highball, where as a climber who has a lot of experience with taller climbs may disagree. For example, a highball for me is probably quite different than a highball for Alex Honnold. This is not a bad thing, and it should not be a source of shame or embarrassment—it’s just another layer to the subjective, personal nature of our sport.
Related: A Question of Risk with Alex Honnold
Highballs are a personal decision
Because of how varied and personal highball climbing is, it’s important that you base your decisions surrounding highballs on nothing other than yourself. It is easy to see someone take laps up an easy-looking highball without second thought, think that you’ll be able to do the same, and then get yourself into a really dangerous situation.
Another thing to keep in mind is that climbing anything that’s scary or committing—including highballs—is glorified in the climbing media and community. This does not mean that you are not an accomplished or strong climber if you don’t wish to partake in this kind of climbing.
Related: Highball Bouldering with Nina Williams
Things to ask yourself before climbing a highball:
Why do you want to climb this route?
Is it because your friend did it? Does your hand just have to grab that cool-looking pinch? Did you see a video of it on YouTube? Have you been obsessing over this line since the moment you saw it?
Have you climbed something this high before?
Did you freak out or were you calm? Was it easy to stay focused or were you a nervous wreck?
If you were to fall, what will the fall be like? How hard is the climbing and where is the crux?
Is there a no-fall zone? If so, what is the climbing like in the no-fall zone? (A no-fall zone is a part of a route where the fall would result in serious injury or death, due to its height or landing zone.)
What is the landing like?
The landing zone has a huge impact on highball climbing. If the landing is flat, not only can you fall from much higher without injury, but you will likely feel more confident and secure while climbing.
How many pads do you have?
Can you make the landing safe with the amount of pads available?
Can you bail?
Could you down climb or jump off safely if things got kinda crazy up there?
What is your physical/mental/emotional state?
Your physical, mental, and emotional state has a huge impact on climbing anything, but especially climbing routes that involve fear. Even something as simple as not sleeping well the night before can have a huge impact on your ability to control and analyze fear. It’s imperative that you check in with yourself before climbing a highball. If you aren’t feeling it, consider climbing something that doesn’t require as much mental energy.
Related: Mastering the Mind: An Interview with Mental Training Specialist, Paul Roberts
Answering these questions before you attempt a highball will help you decide whether or not you want to go for it. Keep in mind that there are no “right” answers to these questions—one climber may feel fine climbing over a bad landing, where even a semi-sketchy landing may completely deter another person from going for it.
This decision-making process may only take a split-second for some climbs, while it could take weeks or even months for others. Treat each highball as its own route—just because you’ve climbed one doesn’t mean you’ll feel comfortable climbing them all.
When to try a highball boulder problem on a rope before going for the send:
If you have any desire to try something on top rope beforehand, you should. While some people consider this bad form or even cheating, this style in which you climb something is a very personal decision that only you can make. The most important thing is to have fun, and keeping yourself safe is a huge part of that.
Here are some good reasons to rope up before attempting to send a highball:
- The crux is high off the deck or in a no fall zone.
- You aren’t sure what the holds are like at the top.
- The landing is sketchy.
- The down climb is technical, difficult, or unknown.
- You would simply feel more comfortable and have more fun if you were to rehearse the moves on top rope beforehand.
Even if you have to throw a rope down on a problem that most people consider a warmup—do it! Take care of yourself and do not let other climbers sway your decision-making. There is no shame in keeping yourself safe.
If you decide to go for a highball:
After you’ve made the (sometimes) time and energy-consuming decision to attempt a highball, you still have to climb the dang thing!
Here are some tips to use while climbing high off the deck:
Breathing is always crucial to your climbing performance, but it is imperative if you’re climbing something that involves fear. Check out these breathing techniques.
Easier said than done, but staying relaxed is very important when climbing a highball. Tensing up will cause you to climb poorly and lose focus.
Using a mantra is a great way to keep your mind focused and your breath steady. Come up with a two-word phrase that helps you climb. Say the first word of the phrase to yourself as you inhale, and the second as you exhale. For example: I can, feel strong, be calm, send hard, super burritos, cold beer, Chris Sharma … you get the point!
If you decide not to go for a highball:
You’re still cool. Have fun climbing things that don’t involve the risk of breaking your legs!
At the end of the day, all that matters is that you’re climbing in the style and manner in which you want to climb. Know that this may change over the years or even on a day to day basis. Make sure you’re checking in with yourself about where your psych is at, and know that your fear will wax and wane depending on a number of different factors. This will ensure that you’re staying safe and above all, having fun!
Want more climbing content? Get our awesome climbing newsletter, delivered weekly.
- Off the Deck: Learning to Love Highballs
- A Question of Risk with Alex Honnold
- Highball Bouldering with Nina Williams
- Mastering the Mind: An Interview with Mental Training Specialist, Paul Roberts
- Top 25 Books for Rock Climbers
- Rock Climbing Gear Buying Guides
- Our 30+ most popular articles ever
- Free Rock Climbing eBooks on Technique, Knots, Training, and More
Want more climbing content? Get our awesome climbing newsletter.
Join our mailing list to receive the latest climbing news, hand-picked gear deals, training, articles, and more updates from our team. Thanks for supporting our grassroots community!