Highball boulder problems are long, difficult lines that are high off the ground. These challenges can bring about great reward once they are overcome, but safety and practice are key. It is easy to look at a rock that begs to be climbed and just have it, but a bit of planning can help make your highball boulder problems a bit safer. What is most important here, and cannot be stressed enough, is that you need to prepare for such climbs. This is not an undertaking that you enjoy as a beginner or intermediate. The risks involved mean that you need to be experienced.
Part of that experience is knowing how to fall. You might have seen top rope climbers trying this in climbing gyms, where they practice falls. It is a great thing to do. However, the key difference between top rope practiced falls and these falls is that you have no rope so you need to practice not only falling, but rolling. In all honesty, taking a Jiu Jitsu class or other martial arts beginner class where they emphasize falling and rolling would be a great way to get some practice in. Check out this safety video before you head out to your rock.
Part of your approach to highball bouldering problems is knowing at what points you can fall, and knowing that you have the ability to fall safely without injury. You might need to practice a problem for an entire season before you get it right, but you can’t practice anything if you get seriously injured out of zeal.
The last thing you want is to be up on a rock with your muscles spasms and hands slipping, wishing you had practiced a controlled fall. Start doing controlled falls inside a gym, but remember that sprains can still happen inside. Fall at bigger distances the more you gain comfort and pay special attention to your center of gravity. Use a pad if practicing your falls outdoors and always pinpoint your landing spot visually while falling. The more you practice this, the more comfortable you will feel.
Make Sure You Can Get Down
Figure out the descent before you start making your way up. Some descents are rather technical and you don’t want to end up stuck. Bring pads if there is a jump involved to pad your landing. It is very important that you look for a way down before you start making your way up. You should be mentally prepared for the route you are going to take up and down. More importantly, you need to be mentally prepared for your point of no return, the “no fall” zone. Once you reach this point, you cannot just fall and try again later. You have to continue. Always check rock quality and look out for questionable holds too. Keep that chalk bag full.
Big moves and techniques can also be acquired to improve your skillset. No matter how experienced you already are, learning new things can help. Look over this video on techniques applicable for such bouldering problems.
Set Up Your Landing
Set up a crash pad strategically so that you have highball safety. The number of pads you have is contingent upon the terrain. If you have flat terrain, put the pads where the highest fall potential is. Remember that vertical walls will result in a straight down fall but steep overhands will result in an angled fall. Leave no gaps or raised surfaces in your pad set up. If you are on uneven terrain, then position the setup so that there is a landing zone covering rocks or roots. Cover as much ground as you can. For more information on highball bouldering and arranging your landing, watch this short video.
Talk to Your Spotters
Make sure you have spotters too. Sure, when you are up on the rock you are personally responsible for yourself, but it doesn’t hurt to have some spotters on the ground to help guide you not just up, but back down. Spotters can help you to fall appropriately. They can set themselves up at points that offer the best viewing advantages, and from there they can help you on your way up or down, whether climbing or falling. This is important, not just for mental reassurance but for physical safety. Do not disregard the importance of having spotters on your side.
The Climb: Mental and Physical Demands
During the climb, you will need to achieve a higher state of mind, a different mental flow than you do with other climbs. Bouldering requires focus and concentration always, but it requires more of it with highball bouldering, and a longer amount of it. With highball boulder problems, you need to commit with confidence. This takes practice. You have to fight to the end of your mental and physical strength. Fear can either paralyze you or stimulate you. Use your fear to stimulate yourself through cruxes. Practice techniques to calm yourself midway through. If, for example, you start to feel shaky, then start to picture molasses flowing through your body, slowing down any trembling.
Loosen up too. You want to keep tension in your muscles to hold onto the wall without over-gripping. Over-gripping will drain energy you need for later. During your rests, shake and stretch your arms, and get some more chalk on your hands. Relax your eyes and breathe deeply. Focus on a flawless execution for every move. It is best for you to put the extra effort into grabbing your holds perfectly. If you do not execute correctly, adjust as little as possible so as to retain valuable energy for later. If you lose focus, re-center. You want to keep your mental composure the entire way up, and deep breathing can help to keep your mind engaged while you make it through the crux.
Working Your Way Up
As you begin to tackle a highball bouldering problem, there are two schools of thought as to what you do next. After your prep work has been done and you have practiced falling more times than you can count, you can do one of two things.
1. First, you can familiarize yourself with the route ahead of time by completing the line top roping before you try it bouldering. Knowing the moves ahead of time can really help you to enjoy the climb and give yourself the confidence you need. One of the things you can do is top roping. This is a great way to scope out the good or bad holds, the fall zones, and the cruxes. You can also check out the summit and look for bolts. Established highballs should have bolts. Take advantage of these better bouldering tips too.
2. Second, you can go at it without any background knowledge to challenge yourself even more. You can choose to do it from the ground up, as they say. This means you have no knowledge of the moves until you reach them. This is a rather old-school method, one that is truer to the ethics of bouldering, but the rock isn’t going to care which one you use. If you use this method it will save you having to set up the rope ahead of time, but of course it comes with more risk. Route finding can be a serious challenge when you are more than 20 feet off the ground, and you might not be that comfortable with your abilities.
So, this choice is up to you. You can choose whichever is better for you based on your given skillset at the time. While bouldering is typically done sans ropes, an upper top rope belay or safety rope might be something you use the first time, and then ditch as you become more advanced.
Overall, you need to remember that highball bouldering is dangerous no matter your skillset. Your choice to climb that high off the deck sans ropes is not a choice you should make lightly. Do not feel pressured to climb a line with which you are uncomfortable in any way.
Often fellow climbers make the mistake of pressuring others into a climb because, while well intentioned, they think the person is afraid and with a bit of peer pressure that fear will go away. You might be afraid because you know that your skillset is not up to snuff, or you might just need a bit of motivation from your friends. Figure out which one it is and do not let someone else pressure you into taking this risk is you are not ready.
Take into consideration all of the risks and how you can reduce them. Highballing is a rewarding personal endeavor, but do not take it until you are ready. Achieving the meditative tranquil mindset required for such focus can be an addictive process. But remember that just because you have done it once, or done it one hundred times, does not mean you can’t get hurt. It does not mean there are no risks. And it certainly does not mean you will be able to easily tackle your next project.
Find that perfect balance between safety and pushing your limits, and always know that you can try again later.