What is a High Ball Boulder Problem?

Tips to Climb High Ball Problems

Ian Green cranks a high ball boulder problem on Bullethole Boulder near Grand Junction, Colorado. Photograph copyright Stewart M. Green

High Ball Problem

A high ball, also spelled highball, is a boulder problem that is long, difficult, and high off the ground so a resulting fall could result in serious injury. Bouldering is usually done without a safety rope and an upper top rope belay so when a boulderer climbs a high problem, he assumes a lot of risks.

Crash Pads and Topropes Lessen High Ball Risks

Most climbers will mitigate the risks of falling off a highball boulder problem by stacking several crash pads at the base of the route to absorb some of the energy of the fall.

Other climbers will sometimes use a toprope on high problems to avoid risk. A toprope is useful on a highball to learn and rehearse the difficult climbing moves; when the climber has the route wired, he then will climb it without a rope. The great boulderer John Gill, consider the "father" of bouldering, says that a toprope ascent of a high ball boulder problem is a legitimate ascent. Some climbers disagree, saying that the use of a top rope makes it a toprope route and that a climber must climb it without a climbing rope or without toprope rehearsal. 

How High is a High Ball?

When does a problem go from being a boulder problem to a high ball boulder problem? There is no fast and sure way to decide what is a high ball. Most boulderers that I know consider anything above 15 feet high to be a high ball problem. Some elite climbers consider anything below 20 feet high to be a "tall" problem.

 The upper limit is somewhere around 25 or 35 feet in height; above that the argument can be made that it is a free-solo climbing route, although the line is blurred between boulder problem and route.

High Ball Bouldering is Rewarding

Successful high ball boulderers climb with the mindset that they won't fall.

A high fall is dangerous and the climber risks breaking a leg or worse, even with the most crash pads and best spotters. When the climber falls, he hits the ground. Highball bouldering, however, has immense rewards since it is pure climbing in a sense with no equipment beyond rock shoes and chalk.

High Ball Boulderers Make a Plan to Fall

In the high ball ascent, there is only the climber pulling on holds, moving upward with poise and purpose, and staying calm, cool, and collected. There is the risk of falling and injury, and the high baller makes plans for that possibility, whereas the free solo climber plans simply not to fall because falling is fatal. (The Death Zone is considered to be 35 feet--fall from above that and there is a good chance you will die.) 

High Ball Bouldering Tips

Here are some tips to climb high ball boulder problems:

  • Pick problems you can do on-sight and without a lot of work. It the problem requires you to project it, then learn the moves and be able to reverse them.
  • Scout the problem beforehand, especially if you haven't climbed it before. Check out the starting moves, where the bail-off points are, the rock quality, the landing zone, holds for possible rests, the top out, and the descent off the top. 
  • Make a plan for falling. Scope out the landing zone. Place crash pads strategically.
  • Breath and pay attention to your state of mind before climbing and during your ascent.
  • Be prepared to back off the high ball by downclimbing to the base. It's better for your knees and ankles to downclimb rather than jumping down to the pads. Back off while you are still in control. 
  • Focus on the upper section of the route and the top-out onto the summit of the boulder.
  • Do not commit to climbing a high ball problem unless you are absolutely sure that you can do it. There is no safety rope. If you fall, you may have serious injuries that could end your climbing career

Usage: “Stewart finally did that new high ball problem on the backside of Graduation Boulder. If he fell at the top he would seriously break a leg on those boulders in the creek.”