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Gear Guy

What’s the Point of Spotting Highball Boulder Problems?

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I get that highball bouldering is committing, but I can’t stomach spotters standing dozens of feet below a climber, arms in the air. Looks to me like the spotters are poised to catch a beachball rather than a 200-pound bag of bones.

When a person skyrockets off a problem from four times their height, does spotting expose numerous people to injury instead of just one?

—Krissy, via

Your question is prescient. In this very issue, in “Accident Prevention,” we read about a spotter who tried to break a highball fall and instead broke the climber’s leg. Then, Dr. J tells us about a climber who fell on the head of his belayer, breaking her neck and arm.

According to “The Splat Calculator” (real, Google it, or, let me Google that for you), a 155-pound climber falling 23 feet—highball country—will generate 3,542 foot pounds. The average car weighs 3,221 pounds. Unless you are Wonder Woman, you aren’t going to catch anyone from even 10 feet. Don’t try.

Instead, as noted in “Accidents,” a spotter’s job is to keep the falling climber upright and onto pads and away from punji-like hazards.

Highball spotting is an art that borders on a profession, and a skilled highball spotter is as valuable as a seat belt. As you posited, a spotter who doesn’t know what he is doing is only endangering everyone.

One highball technique that is increasingly popular is “Pad-fu.” This is where the spotter, after copiously padding the ground with crash pads, holds one pad in the air, similar to how firefighters might hold a blanket to catch a victim jumping out of a window. Of course with Pad-fu you don’t try to catch the climber; rather, when the climber hits the pad it is ripped out of your hands and the climber is slowed before impacting the ground pads.

Frankly, highball bouldering is for the rare few who have 10 to 20 bouldering pads and are strong and cool-headed enough to seldom fall above that red line of 20 feet.

Where does that leave the rest of us?

Toprope, my friend. The most revered boulderer of all time, John Gill, wasn’t ashamed to bust out the cord when problems reached the stratosphere. Toproping is safer than a highball spot, requires less gear and takes only one other person. I’m a fan. Gear Guy has spoken!

This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 243 (July 2017).