Jason Kehl is high. Twenty-five feet up the Grandpa Peabody boulder, the 60-foot monster testpiece in the Buttermilks near Bishop, he has just pimped a sustained, overhanging V10 section, but isn’t out of the woods yet. The seven-move sloper crux is still ahead. Below are a stack of pads and a crew of nervous spotters. A few days before, Kehl had tested the fall by tossing a three-foot-tall doll down the project. “Cindy” missed the pads. Kehl commits to the crux. Screaming, he sticks the moves. Evilution (V12) is toast.
Kehl, 29, a Maryland native who now calls his van home, is the king of high fright. Besides Evilution, his “highest and hardest so far,” he has bouldered The Fly, a 5.14d (or V13) two-bolt sport route with a tiered, jagged landing at Rumney, New Hampshire, and last year made a cordless ascent of Straight Outta Squampton, a 25-foot, bolted 5.13+ at Squamish, British Columbia.
Few climbers can perform at Kehl’s level. Fewer still should. Highball bouldering, like highball drinking, can ruin your health. Dabble above the “gym line,” that invisible red stripe mentally painted at the 15-foot level across every boulder on earth, and twisted ankles, blown knees, compressed spines, psychological paralysis (or worse) are the price you’ll pay for failure. While highballing isn’t for everyone, its techniques—pad placement, spotting, fall strategies and so on—are. If they work for Kehl and other top boulderers, imagine what they can do for those of us with less lofty ambitions.
Breaking news: You don’t have to boulder with a pad. Boone Speed, who began bouldering in 1985 and helped design some of the first crash pads, says “Once you start to use pads as a substitute for a rope, you lose the essence of bouldering.” His advice: “Instead of rounding up 100 pounds of pads and a gang of spotters for your highball, drop a toprope on it. A rope is lighter and easier, and only requires one other person.”
While highballing isn’t for everyone, its techniques—pad placement, spotting, fall strategies and so on—are.
Kehl adheres to a different philosophy, using whatever pads are available. Although he typically uses a “base pad” set on the ground and a “floating” pad that his spotter constantly moves to keep under him, he says, “I sometimes can’t help having a ton of pads because there’s 10 people hanging out and they all want to toss theirs onto the pile.” When Kehl was working Squampton, for instance, he had about a dozen onlookers’ pads on the ground, and one pad that his spotters held in the air, like firemen holding a blanket. When Kehl hit the pad, blasting it out of his spotters’ hands, the dead space under the pad created an air brake that “really cushioned the fall,” he says.
Since many, if not most, bouldering injuries are caused by rolling your ankle on the edge of a pad, Kehl lays multiple pads flat, rather than stacked. Kehl also arranges his pads so there are no gaps between them, and checks the pads after every fall because they can move. If you do stack pads, don’t make the common mistake of tossing them willy-nilly into a heap. Instead, strategically fit them like a jigsaw puzzle so they present as few exposed edges as possible.
When a pad covers a rock or drop-off, Kehl marks it on his pad with chalk so he knows to avoid landing on that particular spot. “I’ll also draw a big X as a bull’s eye,” he says, “so I know exactly where to hit the pad.” But not even a fat, chalk-marked pad will help if you miss it. Ask a spotter to move the pad as you climb, and when you are alone, don’t simply chuck your pad at the start of the problem and reef away.
Most likely the crux isn’t the butt start, but higher and/or to the side. Instead of wasting your pad at the beginning (use a thin “starter” pad or a swatch of carpet to keep you off the dirt), carefully visualize where you are most likely to land, and set the pad there.
Exceptions abound, and you’ll need to assess the risk for each problem, and place your pad where it will do the most good. For example, when a back-breaking rock juts out of the ground you’ll probably want to pad it even though the move above it isn’t cruxy. Speed recommends sometimes turning the pad over, strap-side up, so its contours match those of whatever it covers—or not using a pad at all, saying he would rather see a hazard and know to avoid it at all costs, rather than have it hidden under a pad.
Fill in potholes under the base pad with clothes or a pack, or, if the hole is a sump or you need to level a hillside, fold a pad in half and place it under your base pad. Building a level landing zone is as critical as constructing a flat one—it’s easy to snap an ankle or stumble when you land on a sloping pad.
What began decades ago as a method to keep you from busting your head on the ground has now evolved into a mosh pit of sorts. How often have you seen a boulderer high above a sea of outstretched arms? How often have those hands represented little more than false hope, prompting the boulderer (you) to climb higher than you otherwise would? How often have you smoked right past all those happy hands and slammed with a hard, wet thud into the ground?
One spotter who knows his business is better than six slackers. In some cases having no spotter at all may actually be safest. Speed says that he “doesn’t want a spot most of the time, preferring instead to spot myself,” rather than rely on someone who isn’t going to do him any good.
Knowing how to spot, like knowing how to belay, is mission critical. And as the climber, know what to expect from your spotter. Don’t expect him to magically snatch you out of the air and gently set you on your feet. Your falling body can, in just a few feet, generate a force many times its weight. To test, have your significant other leap off the bed and into your waiting arms. Now imagine catching some oily dude (unless you just did).
With boulderers continuing to push problems higher and harder, “It’s getting more and more dangerous for the spotter,” adds Speed.
Rather than catch you, a spotter’s job, says Kehl, “is to set you straight so you land feet first,” and to shove you away from obstacles or onto the pad. The spotter is most effective when he hooks you under your armpits or pushes your upper torso. A spotter may also redirect your fall by body slamming into you. Sounds violent, and it is, but it beats the alternative. Many spotters use a hip clamp, which will keep the climber from falling backwards once he’s hit the pad, but doesn’t really work to right someone who is falling cockeyed.
If you are the spotter, stand far enough back so you won’t get kicked or slugged in the chops. Avoid jamming your thumbs by tucking them into your palms. With boulderers continuing to push problems higher and harder, “It’s getting more and more dangerous for the spotter,” adds Speed. When you spot, think about how you are going to assist the fall, but also about what is going to happen to you when that 160-pound meat missile pile drives into you. Can you get knocked into sharp talus or off a ledge?
Kehl says that the best spotter is someone, “You can communicate with when you are climbing. Your spotter understands what you are trying to do, and moves the pads as you climb.” Last, Kehl recommends making eye contact with your spotter before you go up. “Feel your spotter’s presence,” he says.
When Kehl was working Straight Outta Squampton he bouldered to the exit, a long throw to a sloping grab, but instead of committing, he tentatively dynoed, lightly tapped the hold, taking repeated 20-foot, feet first-falls onto the pads. After several dry runs, Kehl had the move and the fall sussed. He went back up, lunged for the lip and stuck it. At the same time, the route’s first ascentionist, Jeremy Smith, tried to boulder it. He dynoed for and snagged the lip, swung out and off, just caught the edge of a crashpad and tumbled down a hillside.
There are two types of falls, those that you can completely control, and those that you can only control a little bit, if at all. When a foot or hand just blows off the rock, or a hold breaks, you’ll only have a millisecond to react. Rather than rag-doll onto the ground, use your airtime to get your feet under you. Our inner gyroscopes will help us right ourselves, but you can reduce your risk of a belly flop by, “Being aware of where you are on the planet,” says Speed. When you climb, mentally scroll through where and how you’ll land if you fall. Do this even on easy moves.
When you fall because you let go, you’ll naturally land on your feet, but you may need to push off the rock, adjusting your trajectory to avoid an obstacle. When you hit the pad, don’t land on just one leg or straight legged—Jason Kehl’s only serious injury occurred at a bouldering competition when he landed on a locked knee and blew his ACL. If the fall is long and you hit the pad hard, buckle your knees, then collapse your torso and use your hands and arms as the final shock absorbers. Bend your elbows to avoid jamming them.
As important as it is to fall on your feet, some moves, such as heel hooks, cause you to helicopter off the rock. Before you commit to a heel hook, especially one that’s higher than your waist, think about the fall. If a hand pops, will you be able to release the heel in time to get your feet under you? Do you have a spotter who can grab your hips or armpits and set you on your feet? Unless you are positive you can stick the next move, set the hook lightly so you can instantly release it, or avoid the hook and try a different sequence. Intentionally avoiding a heel hook usually makes a problem harder, but the fall safer. On highballs, avoid heel-hooks and other fancy foot moves altogether, and climb perpendicular to the ground, feet straight under you.
Dyno falls are also tricky and can be dangerous. Worst case: You lunge for a hold and stick it for a second. Then your feet swing out, you blow off and rip through the air, twisting and unable to control your landing. As Kehl demonstrated on Squampton, it pays to test a dyno and the fall before committing to the move.
Invariably, even if you don’t make a game of highballing, you will end up stretched too thin on a move that is too high off the ground. What do you do if you can’t reverse?
You can flip out and call upon divine intervention (or a hasty rope), or use Kehl’s trick. When he confronts a high move he says, “I don’t think about it too much.” By that Kehl doesn’t mean that he goes brain gimp, but instead climbs confidently. He doesn’t hesitate. He flows up the moves. “If it’s not difficult, if you are just topping out, you just want to climb,” he says.
Ultimately, the very thing that attracts us to bouldering—its simplicity—is all you can really count on.
Then, there are the times you intentionally climb high. Again, rather than simply praying for the best, Kehl has a strategy. “A lot of times it’s going up there and feeling it out, not going for the move,” he says. “I’ll work through the falls by going up one move and dropping off. Then, I’ll go up two moves and fall off. And on and on.” Testing the falls, says Kehl, gives him the confidence to finally commit to the high moves. He also says that he always “personally checks the pads and positions the spotters myself.”
Ultimately, the very thing that attracts us to bouldering—its simplicity—is all you can really count on. You can haul in a truck load of pads and bus in a team of spotters, but if you aren’t up to snuff, if your head isn’t right and you don’t hold yourself accountable for what can happen, you won’t be any safer than if you are out there solo. In the end, bouldering is just you.
STYLE MATTERS (Even In Bouldering)
The best style is to begin a problem with your feet (or ass) on the dirt. Most of us will, however, start off a single pad and call it good. Using a folded pad or stacked pads to boost you to holds is, however, generally considered bad style, as the crux of some problems is just pulling both feet off the ground. If you’ve stacked pads to make the ground six or more inches higher, you are cheating the move. Consider seppuku.
Ground-up, on-sight bouldering is still the purest. Sometimes, however, you have to ding style to get the FA. For example, when a prospective problem has grimy or loose holds, you’ll need a shoulder stand, ladder or even a rope to boost or hold you while you brush and test the grips. How shamefully you suss the holds and moves is for you to decide.
John Gill toproped many of his hardest problems, so why can’t you? Leave the 35-foot V13s for Kehl, and set a rope whenever you like. Speed does it, and considers this style of ascent “similar to gritstone headpointing.” Impure, but practical.