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Is it Highball Bouldering? Or should we be calling it Free-Soloing

U.K. climbing coach Pete Edwards takes a look at the fine line between highball bouldering and free-soloing

November brings with it crisp conditions, extra friction and of course, another dose of the annual Reel Rock Film Tour. For years, the film festival has been inspiring us to greater heights, harder grades and more often than not, showing us how fast The Nose has been climbed. Every year, I eagerly check to see if my preferred discipline of bouldering gets some airtime.

Last year I was in for a treat, with a 17-minute feature called The High Road featuring the powerful Nina Williams. Only it was about highball bouldering, about free-soloing problems up to nearly 20 metres.

There was a similar feeling when Free Solo was screened, that it wasn’t representative of the sport most of us do. Top climber Sasha DiGiulian expressed both her admiration and feelings, explaining to her 500,000-plus social media followers that while Alex Honnold’s achievements – and Jimmy Chin’s fantastic film – are both outstanding, that the climbing the public saw in the film is very far removed from the style most of us choose to adopt.

As a Brit, Williams’ climbs are the height of many of our trad cliffs. Fifteen metres of climbing on gritstone could see you climb such classics as Great Western at Almscliff, Quietus at Stanage, Three Pebble Slab at Froggatt or Wings of Unreason at the Roaches – all classic routes – and still have plenty of rope to spare. That height isn’t bouldering, it’s soloing. Five metres is bouldering and even then, I might be starting to glance down occasionally to check my landing.

No one over this side of the pond seriously suggests that these routes should become classed as boulder problems and that falls from them are totally fine to take, although there have been exceptions. Ned Feehally, Micky Page, Dan Varian and a host of other very notable climbers highballed many of the classic grit routes for their Life on Hold film back in 2012. The climbs are still thought of to be routes and not problems. I totally admire Williams and her fantastic accomplishments, but The High Road got me thinking: is she bouldering or is it now free-soloing?

For me, it’s simply too high to be classed as bouldering. My own personal definition for a boulder problem is the willingness of the climber to fall relatively unscathed from the last hard move. In bouldering, you might have an easy run-out that blurs the boundaries and you may have to take the landing into account. As a general guide, if you’re willing to take a fall from the last hard move and not worry, you’re on a boulder problem. Go above that and you’re into soloing territory.

It’s easy to feel that Evilution V11, Too Hard to Flail V10 and many of the classics from the Buttermilks are free-solos and that no amount of pads dragged up the hillside is going to change that. In 1968, Bolivian climber Lito Tejada-Flores wrote a piece for the Alpine Journal that has since become a seminal article on how we think of the different disciplines of climbing.

For those who haven’t yet read Games Climbers Play – and you really should – Tejada-Flores broke climbing down into a series of games: the bouldering game, the crag climbing game, the continuous rock climbing game, the big wall game, the alpine climbing game, the super alpine climbing game, and the expedition game.

They’re all based on two things: the environment in which they’re played and the “complexity (or number) of their rules.” For example, in the expedition game, ladders are commonplace and acceptable. “Everest defends itself so well that one ladder no longer tips the scales toward certain success,” said Tejada-Flores.

As far as highball boulderers are concerned, most of these games are irrelevant. My definition from earlier suggests that they’re climbing, the other possibility is that they’re bouldering. So how do we decide? The simple answer: they do. They have chosen to apply the bouldering game to the setting of their choice and that means they’re bouldering. Tejada-Flores even alludes to this possibility in his description of the game, saying “when we see solo climbing at any level of difficulty it represents the application of bouldering rules to some other climbing game.”

So, there we go, highball boulderers are bouldering because they have chosen to “eliminate not only protection but also companions” on their ascent. But hold on a moment, if that were the case then surely Honnold choosing to free-solo Freerider in Yosemite is bouldering too?

Yes, this is obviously ridiculous but it does follow the same rules and muddies the waters further. Honnold obviously isn’t bouldering, it’s a big wall, and he’s simply applying bouldering rules in a different place. Honnold has chosen that it’s not bouldering, he knows he’s on a big wall playing a different game.

Tejada-Flores cites the legendary John Gill doing much the same as highball boulderers when he “applied bouldering rules to certain crag climbing problems, doing extremely hard, unprotected moves high off the ground.” It seems in extreme cases that we can apply the rules of one game in the setting of another.

It is the consensus that makes the difference. As long as the climbing community at large is happy, then it becomes the accepted set of rules to apply and thus, the game that is played. However, the over-riding factor is the participant themselves and if highball boulderers are happy to say they’re playing the bouldering game, we are in no position to tell them they’re wrong.

Highball boulderers have decided that they are playing the bouldering game, rather than the crag climbing game. Instead of the environment defining the style, the climbers are calling it what they want to.

Nina Williams on Ambrosia

Pete Edwards is a top U.K. boulderer and climbing coach, follow him on Instagram here.