How Keenan Taka­hashi is push­ing the high­ball en­ve­lope.


Climbing - - CONTENTS - By James Lu­cas | Pho­tos by Kevin Takashi Smith

IN SEPTEM­BER 2014, the Cal­i­for­nian Keenan Taka­hashi grabbed a crimp with his left hand. He curled his right hand around another crimp on the 30-foot Kush Boul­der, be­low Yosemite’s Lost Brother for­ma­tion. His mous­tache formed a thick broom on his up­per lip, which quiv­ered with ex­er­tion. He stead­ied him­self and then swung his left foot hard across the wall, dou­ble-clutch­ing a sloper, max­ing out his plus-six-inch wing­span. Taka­hashi fin­ished the first as­cent of the high­ball V11 with El Cap as a back­drop. The prob­lem, with its wild move­ment, marked a pro­gres­sion not only in Yosemite’s mod­ern boul­der­ing style but in Taka­hashi’s climb­ing as well.

When it came time to name the line, he took in­spi­ra­tion from a great horned owl feather he’d found, shed by a bird that had been hoot­ing nearby. “One of my fa­vorite an­i­mals is the owl,” Taka­hashi says, and in fact a three-inch tat­too of an owl adorns his left an­kle. Taka­hashi re­ceived his only piece of body art the sum­mer be­fore his se­nior year in high school. He’d trav­eled to France on an ex­change pro­gram, a trip that in­tro­duced him to climb­ing. And so the prob­lem be­came Winged Tiger, named af­ter the air­borne preda­tor.

Winged Tiger is just one climb in the El Por­tal, Cal­i­for­nia–based 26-year-old’s ex­pand­ing ré­sumé. Be­yond his oc­ca­sional roped ex­ploits, where’s he’s climbed the trad routes

Bro­ken Ar­row (5.13c) and Top Gun (5.13d), both in Tuolumne, Taka­hashi has es­tab­lished over a dozen dou­ble-digit boul­der prob­lems across the west­ern US and in Rock­lands, with an em­pha­sis on high­balls. These in­clude the 30-foot Ze­phyr (V12) in Yosemite, the 35-foot Ter­mi­nus (V12) in Bishop, Cal­i­for­nia, the 30-foot Hoku­sai’s Wave (V12) in Roy, New Mex­ico, and the 35-foot Ubuntu (V13) in Rock­lands, South Africa.

“They’re big and beau­ti­ful and pure,” Taka­hashi says of the climbs, adding, “I only climb tall things be­cause I think they’re pretty and in­spir­ing.” How­ever, with his back­ground as a skater who was un­afraid of big drops, you can’t help but won­der if he likes the adrenaline and the ex­po­sure.

AT THE BE­GIN­NING of the nine-minute YouTube video Jam­boree, one of a dozen skate videos that Taka­hashi and his friend Jonas Mueller filmed and starred in, a teenage Taka­hashi climbs into a tree in his home­town of Davis, Cal­i­for­nia. He then drops five feet into a ce­ment ditch, sticks the land­ing, and skates off. Taka­hashi, born Septem­ber 1991, grew up in the cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia town, the only child of Barb and Eu­gene Taka­hashi, a Sierra Club em­ployee and a state epi­demi­ol­o­gist, re­spec­tively. At nine years old, Taka­hashi

When he started climb­ing, fall­ing felt much safer than skate­board­ing— even the high­balls.

asked his par­ents for a skate­board. Over the next eight years, he skate­boarded daily at the court­yard of the lo­cal ju­nior high and in the flat sub­urbs around Davis. As he pro­gressed, he and Mueller started film­ing their tricks; at the end of Jam­boree, Taka­hashi sticks his best trick, a 360 flip off a se­ries of ledges. “I skated so much,” Taka­hashi says. Though he stuck kick flips and other ba­sic tricks early in his skat­ing ca­reer, push­ing fur­ther re­quired prac­tice and ob­ses­sion. He es­ti­mates he spent 10,000 at­tempts over three years to stick the 360 flip. “That re­ally plays into my love of boul­der­ing where I just ob­sess over lit­tle things,” Taka­hashi says.

To en­gage in skate­boarder an­tics, Taka­hashi would of­ten climb onto roofs and into trees. In high school, when he trav­eled to France, he found him­self climb­ing the façades of old

build­ings in Paris. “You should go to the climb­ing gym,” Jolie Law, another Davis ex­change stu­dent, told him. In sum­mer 2008, when Taka­hashi was 17, he went to Rock­na­sium, the Davis climb­ing gym. The next day, he re­turned. Soon he was spend­ing six days a week there. Shortly there­after, he went to the Nut Tree Boul­ders in nearby Va­cav­ille, climb­ing on the black basalt eggs in 105-de­gree heat. Af­ter go­ing to the gro­cery store and pound­ing two liters of Ga­torade, Taka­hashi re­al­ized, “Out­door climb­ing is where it’s at—this is what I want to fo­cus on.”

“The switch just flipped,” says Taka­hashi’s friend Teddy Ren­dahl of their first trips to Bishop. Ren­dahl met Taka­hashi in third grade when they played soc­cer to­gether at ele­men­tary school in Davis, and later got into climb­ing him­self on a lo­cal youth team. In high school, the pair be­gan climb­ing to­gether ex­ten­sively. The heights did lit­tle to scare Taka­hashi. “I don’t think I’ve taken any falls in climb­ing that bruised me the way skat­ing did,” Taka­hashi says. “That’s kind of why I like taller things— be­cause they still haven’t felt as scary as the skat­ing stuff.” Taka­hashi would know: The three-minute Vimeo video The Great­est Mo

ments in the Life of Keenan Taka­hashi fea­tures a teenage Taka­hashi fall­ing off his skate­board in slo-mo 15 times, twist­ing his an­kles, get­ting nailed in the head by his board, and writhing in pain on the ground. When he started fall­ing on crash­pads, climb­ing felt much safer—even the high­balls.

“He would just go super-hard. He didn’t know any bet­ter,” Ren­dahl re­calls of his friend’s early years. “He would try hard prob­lems even though he wasn’t any­where close.” Ren­dahl re­mem­bers Taka­hashi pulling onto the But­ter­milks clas­sic The Man­dala (V12) right af­ter he’d climbed his first V5. Af­ter boul­der­ing all day, “He’d make eight packs of ra­men, pound them, and then go to sleep,” Ren­dahl says.

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing high school in 2009, Taka­hashi headed to the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Santa Cruz (UCSC), but af­ter the fall quar­ter re­turned to Davis and be­gan route set­ting at Rock­na­sium, and took com­mu­nity-col­lege classes. For two years, he climbed four days a week, spend­ing week­ends in Ta­hoe and Bishop. Though his climb­ing moved for­ward, his life had stalled out. In au­tumn 2011, he re­turned to UCSC to study earth science, but with no car to ac­cess the rock he strug­gled to climb. “It was the least im­prove­ment I felt in my climb­ing,” Taka­hashi says. Then, in Septem­ber 2013, he took an in­tern­ship in Yo-

As the grades have got­ten big­ger, Taka­hashi has got­ten less manic—and more stud­ied—in his ap­proach.

semite study­ing talus mor­phol­ogy with park ge­ol­o­gist Greg Stock. The po­si­tion al­lowed Taka­hashi to walk through the lim­it­less boul­ders of Yosemite. “I got psyched and re­al­ized this was the best boul­der­ing in the coun­try,” says Taka­hashi. When he grad­u­ated from UCSC in spring 2014, he re­turned to the Val­ley, and by May 2015 had taken a sea­sonal job mon­i­tor­ing air and wa­ter qual­ity for the NPS.

These days, Taka­hashi clocks in at 8 a.m., and then at 5:30 p.m. he’s run­ning through the boul­ders, scrub­bing new prob­lems, or boul­der­ing. “Work­ing here poses its chal­lenges,” says Yosemite Climb­ing Ranger Eric Bis­sell, who climbed with Taka­hashi on the first as­cents, in 2014, of Dream­snatcher (V10), Delta

V (V10), and the Un­cer­tainty Prin­ci­ple (V10), all at the mod­ern Happy Isles Boul­ders. Iron­i­cally, even with all that Val­ley gran­ite, the lack of a gym and steep rock can make it dif­fi­cult to stay strong. Only in the past five years have Yosemite boul­der­ers so­lid­i­fied V13, a con­certed ef­fort that means a will­ing­ness to rap, scrub, and work new prob­lems. But Taka­hashi is young, able, and psyched. In the past three years, he’s es­tab­lished 10 new dou­ble-digit boul­der prob­lems in Yosemite, show­ing the wealth of hard prob­lems still avail­able.

“IT’S THE MOST SCARED I’ve ever been,” Taka­hashi says of his 2015 FA of Ze­phyr (V12) at The Crum­bles, be­low Yosemite’s Cookie Cliff. The crux comes low, but then there’s the slopey V7 move with “faith-based feet” 25 feet up. Taka­hashi was toprop­ing the end crux suc­cess­fully only one time in four. “Nor­mally, when I’m do­ing a high­ball like that, I wanna be do­ing it ev­ery sin­gle try,” Taka­hashi says. How­ever, when he stuck the bot­tom crux, he con­tin­ued up­ward, bol­stered by the 15 pads and crew that had shown up. Ear­lier that win­ter, to gain the men­tal con­fi­dence, Taka­hashi had climbed the 60-foot Evi­lu­tion Di­rect (V11) in Bishop, cit­ing it as much less fright­en­ing.

In Fe­bru­ary 2016, Taka­hashi climbed a 35-foot over­hang­ing ar•te atop the Pollen Grains boul­ders above Bishop, nam­ing the prob­lem Ter­mi­nus. Two years ear­lier, a friend had shown Taka­hashi the prob­lem. “I to­tally freaked,” re­calls Taka­hashi of the golden rock. “It’s one of the most beau­ti­ful pieces of rock I’ve seen any­where.” Taka­hashi worked the high­ball on a rope but failed to piece to­gether its 14 beastly moves of power crimp­ing. “I wasn’t ready,” he says, “phys­i­cally or men­tally.” So he be­gan to train rig­or­ously, us­ing an Ex­cel spread­sheet to out­line and monitor progress. When he got to Bishop in Jan­uary 2016, he did The Mys­tery, a long, crimpy V12 on Grandma Pe­abody. He topped it out his sec­ond try the first day. Then he re­peated it three times in a row the next day. Then four times, build­ing the crimp fit­ness and power-en­durance for Ter­mi­nus. When Ter­mi­nus fi­nally went down, Taka­hashi’s as­cent was con­trolled, pre­cise, and fluid (watch it at climb­­mi­nus), his heels and toes lock­ing onto the holds. Two months later, Taka­hashi es­tab­lished the 30-foot Roy prob­lem Hoku­sai’s Wave (V12; climb­ roy), a sand­stone wave with a high com­pres­sion crux. Later that year, he es­tab­lished another high­ball, in South Africa.

“He was al­ways into look­ing for these crazy first as­cents,” Ren­dahl re­calls of his and Taka­hashi’s first trip to Rock­lands, in 2014. Taka­hashi be­came no­to­ri­ous for telling his friends about amaz­ing po­ten­tial prob­lems that were 35 feet tall and had, like, two holds. “You’re, like, ‘ What are we do­ing here?’” Ren­dahl re­calls. One day in 2014, they went to Fields of Joy where Taka­hashi found a 30-foot prow. The prob­lem be­gins on a pseudo tufa and fol­lows toe hooks and heel hooks along an ar•te. “It’s hard and phys­i­cal and kind of scary. You don’t want to fall, but you’re prob­a­bly not go­ing to fall if you get through it,” Taka­hashi says of his hard­est high­ball FA to date, the V13 Ubuntu (June 2017). “It’s my fa­vorite style.”

As the grades have got­ten big­ger, Taka­hashi has be­come less manic in his ap­proach, or per­haps it’s his more stud­ied method­ol­ogy—cou­pled with travel and team­ing up with other strong boul­der­ers—that’s al­lowed him to ex­cel. Says Ren­dahl, “He’s bet­ter at be­ing me­thod­i­cal. When I go climb­ing with him now and he’s try­ing these hard prob­lems, it’s one at­tempt, eat a banana, rest for 20 min­utes, stretch. It’s not the same thrash on stuff un­til you do it.”

“Holy hell. I’m al­ways psyched, and I didn’t think I could keep up,” pro climber Jimmy Webb re­calls of meet­ing Taka­hashi in late 2016. Over the next six months with Webb, Kevin Smith, Han­nah Don­nelly, and his now-girl­friend, Parker Ya­masaki, Taka­hashi climbed in Font, Switzer­land, and South Africa. The trip pro­vided him ac­cess to V14s and V15s, some­thing that his home boul­ders of Yosemite lack. 2017 proved the fruits of Taka­hashi’s ob­ses­sion. He com­pleted 18 V13s in Red Rock, Fon­tainebleau, Magic Wood, Rock­lands, Squamish, Rocky Moun­tain Na­tional Park, and Mount Evans, and two V14s: The Is­land in Font and Speed of Sound in Rock­lands.

“He knew how to climb on the rock even

though he’d never been there,” Webb says of Taka­hashi’s savoir-faire at the no­to­ri­ously techy Font. “He’ll get everything to a T, and then when he does it, it looks per­fect.” This pre­cise style has helped Taka­hashi deal with climb­ing high off the ground.

These days in his apart­ment in El Por­tal, Taka­hashi fol­lows a spread­sheet of ex­er­cises. He logs as­cents of any prob­lems, and at night has been prac­tic­ing fin­ger­tip pushups to prep for the man­tel-style triple bump of The Nest, a V15 in Las Vegas. He plans on es­cap­ing Yosemite this win­ter, or, if the good weather lasts, he’ll be push­ing new, hard ter­rain there. Re­gard­less of venue, he’ll be try­ing hard. As he says, “I’m ob­sessed with per­sonal pro­gres­sion.”



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