Boul­der­ing or Free-solo­ing?

How high is a high­ball?

Gripped - - CONTENTS - by Pete Ed­wards

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. This year I was in for a treat, with a 17-minute fea­ture called The High Road fea­tur­ing the pow­er­ful Nina Wil­liams. Only it wasn’t about high­ball boul­der­ing, it was about free-solo­ing prob­lems up to nearly 20 me­tres.

There was a sim­i­lar feel­ing when Free Solo 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 Hon­nold’s achieve­ments – and Chin’s fan­tas­tic film – are both out­stand­ing, 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’s 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 glance down oc­ca­sion­ally to check my land­ing.

No one on 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 as routes, not prob­lems. I to­tally ad­mire Wil­liams and her fan­tas­tic ac­com­plish­ments, but The High Road got me think­ing: is she boul­der­ing or is she now free-solo­ing?

For me, it’s sim­ply too high to be classed as boul­der­ing. My own per­sonal def­i­ni­tion of 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 runout 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 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,” wrote Te­jada-flores.

As far as Wil­liams is con­cerned, most of th­ese games are ir­rel­e­vant. My def­i­ni­tion from ear­lier sug­gests that she’s crag climb­ing. The other pos­si­bil­ity is that she’s boul­der­ing. How do we de­cide? The sim­ple an­swer: Wil­liams de­cides. She has cho­sen to ap­ply the boul­der­ing game to the set­ting of her choice and that means she’s 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, Wil­liams is boul­der­ing be­cause she has cho­sen to “elim­i­nate not only pro­tec­tion but also com­pan­ions” on her as­cent. But hold on a mo­ment – if that were the case then surely Alex 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 Wil­liams 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 to 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 over­rid­ing fac­tor is the par­tic­i­pant them­selves and if Wil­liams is happy to say she’s play­ing the boul­der­ing game, we are in no po­si­tion to tell her she’s wrong.

Wil­liams and other 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

High Plains Drifter, a high­ball V7 in Bishop

Nina Wil­liams on Too Big to Flail

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