Highball Head: Finding Bravery in the Buttermilks

“How’s your highball head?” I had been bubbling about my excitement for our upcoming trip to Bishop to a seasoned climber buddy when he broke my excitement with a question I didn’t know how to answer.  After all, I’d never climbed higher (unroped, that is) than 12 feet off the ground.

Attempting Roadside Highball (V3), right about the point where hand holds cease to exist.

Attempting Roadside Highball (V3), right about the point where hand holds cease to exist.

I did know I was a heady climber, afraid of committing moves and low percentage success rates.  I had the grip strength and physical ability disproportionate to my overall skill.  For example, on straightforward lines that demanded nothing more than crimping hard and locking down, I could flash V6 and even the occasional V7, but stick me on something obscure and a little bit dynamic, well, V4 was optimistic.

A month later, I returned to my home in Alaska having failed to send anything above V0.  Seriously!  Despite the V5 and V6 classics I worked, I was too chicken to top any of the boulders there, even the easy warm-ups.  I couldn’t actually count anything I did as a send.  At the end of the trip, I chalked it up to “gaining experience” and “getting better through volume”.  The shameful truth was I did care, but I fabricated my flippant story to pitifully justify my cowardly copouts.  Less to others, more to myself, and I got so good at telling the lie, I almost started to believe it.

Six months later, despite my failure and distance, I found myself again bound for the Buttermilks, the land of big moves and even bigger boulders.  The Buttermilks represented just about everything I was bad at, and yet I felt inexplicably drawn to them, and this time, I wasn’t making any excuses.  Not only was I going to send something, I was going to face my shame and become a better mental climber. 

So I started at the bottom, on a tiny little forgotten boulder lurking in the shadows of the more trafficked Soul Slinger.  Only about 12 feet high but littered with four different V0 lines.  Like reading a book, I went left to right, starting on the natural arête, pulling on with cold fingers and sore skin.

The climbing was easy, of course, but toward the top, I felt that old familiar fluttering in my chest and my body’s immediate impulse to bail to return to the safety (and shame) of the crash pads.  I didn’t understand this fear; I wasn’t afraid of heights, but something about being exposed and vulnerable on the wall got to me.  I closed my eyes, inhaling through my nose and exhaling through my mouth, breathing into the next move.  I repeated the process for each and every move until I was beaching myself over the lip and onto the pothole-ridden top.

And there it was: my first Bishop topout.  Below me, a guy was celebrating success on the area classic V9, Soul Slinger.  I tried not to feel bad for myself at what success had come to mean to me. 

I down-climbed the same line then climbed it again, before moving on to each adjacent line, climbing them slowly and mindfully until I could send it without fear.  I remained hyper focused on my breathing, forcing my body to remain in a parasympathetic state.  It was an exercise in existing on the wall, just as I would on the ground.

The next day, I went on to send my first Bishop (and outdoor) V6, Smooth Shrimp, the physically burly lowball traverse with a high jug-haul topout.  It seemed there was hope for me yet.

Emboldened by my success on Smooth Shrimp, I set my sights a little higher… literally.  I decided to climb The Hunk, a 20-foot V2 slab so iconic it decorates the cover of the latest Bishop Bouldering guidebook.  What was more, next to its grade in the book, it boasted not just one but two out of a possible three fluttering heart symbols, meaning, “Don’t fall or lots of pads needed”.  Three was reserved for sheer bouts of freesoloing insanity like Too Big to Flail (V10) and Ambrosia (V11), of which there are only a handful.

I pulled on the start holds and glided through the low crux before dropping, still getting my fingers warm and my skin sufficiently numb.  Before I pulled on for my second attempt, two people walked up and asked if they could throw down pads; I looked at my meager two and tried to sound casual as I welcomed the pads and spot.

Again I floated through the delicate crux and made moved up the line until I found myself full-crimping on a sharp and shallow right hand crimp with a big committing lateral move to a patina jug that felt so far away.

And there it was: fear. I glanced down and felt the illusion of the crash pads falling away.  I knew they were big, but why did they look so small?  I froze right at the edge of the no-fall zone, ten yawning feet of air beneath my feet.  I knew if I could reach the sidepull, it was over, a veritable jug haul to the top if I could keep a cool head, but every part of me screamed, “Back off!  Bail!”

I almost listened.  I even began lowering my foot to do so, but the only things louder than my mental panic were the voices of two total strangers cheering me on, tell me not to quit with such ferocity that I could have sworn we were lifelong friends.  My heart swelled with an overwhelming love for the climbing community; nothing else in the world could bring people together so quickly.

I decided I was absolutely not going to quit on them, or on myself.

Bishop5.jpg

I gritted my teeth and crimped harder, granite crystals digging deeper into already.  I place my foot far left on a crystal and extended to an uncomfortable degree out of my right shoulder, and caught the sidepull.  I didn’t pause to celebrate my success.  The looming six feet above told me the climb wasn’t over yet. 

Suddenly, however, I wasn’t afraid.  I knew I could finish this climb, and I floated up the patina with confident footwork and suddenly, my hand slapped the hueco finish and just like that, I was standing on top, trembling all over.

As if to show how meaningless climbing grades really are, the pride I felt on top of that boulder was so much more than that of my send four grades harder just days prior.  This one took guts and bravery to say, “I will not quit.”

I sat on the narrow point of the boulder, surveying the Buttermilks.  There were the oh-so-striking Peabodys just below and the proud but tragically blank Mandala boulder behind, all bathed in bright sunlight under an endlessly blue sky.  I loved this place.  I loved how empowering and heartbreaking it was all at the same time.

I didn’t want that moment to end… or maybe I just didn’t want to do the down climb.


Originally published by Bivy: Stories (February 2019)