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Fabian Buhl Goes Big in Bishop

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Ambrosia (V11), Too Big to Flail (V10) and Old Greg (V11): Three boulder problems with a combined height of roughly 140 feet. In a month-long trip to Bishop, a veritable land of giants, the 27-year-old German climber Fabian Buhl sent them all.

Buhl on Old Greg (V11). Photo: Melissa le Nevé.
Buhl on Old Greg (V11). Photo: Melissa le Nevé.

At the start of his trip in December 2017, before getting on the “Big Three” as he calls them, Buhl hopped on a bunch of other classic highballs, like This Side of Paradise (V10) and Luminence (V9). He says, “I just needed to get my head right. I wasn’t climbing very hard, but was climbing high things.”

Once acclimated to the dizzying heights of the Buttermilks’ blocs, Buhl set to work on Ambrosia. First climbed by Kevin Jorgeson in 2009, Ambrosia is approximately 50-feet tall and is the double-digit-V-grade highball testpiece in the area. Nina Williams recently made the first female ascent.

“It’s only difficult at the bottom and very controllable,” Buhl says. “I wanted to climb Ambrosia smooth, otherwise I knew I’d have no chance on Too Big to Flail.”

After two days of intermittent work on the climb, he went ropeless and sent it. One down, two to go.

Alex Honnold climbed Too Big to Flail in 2012. At about 55-feet, it’s the highest of the three boulders that Buhl wanted to climb. Since Honnold’s first ascent, the glassy slab has seen three repeats: by Lonnie Kauk in 2013, and by both Steven Roth and Ethan Pringle in 2014.

Buhl says of TBTF, “It’s very slick rock and you only have a few holds. The feet are the problem. The lower crux is maybe a 7C [V9] boulder and the top part is maybe a 5.12d slab. But it’s very insecure climbing up there. If you don’t climb fully relaxed, you fall. If you don’t move nicely, you fall. I think I’d rather climb some Spanish 5.13d free solo than [TBTF], just because it’s more controllable—you have holds and footholds. ”

Notably, too, Buhl found the upper climbing surprisingly difficult; he is quite a bit shorter than the previous ascentionists. Giovanni Traversi and Nina Williams had also worked on TBTF but experienced the same height-related issues. “Giovanni broke his ankle when he fell from the lower crux,” Buhl says.

Buhl on Too Big to Flail (V10). Photo: Stefan Schlumpf.
Buhl on Too Big to Flail (V10). Photo: Stefan Schlumpf.

Buhl worked TBTF for four days. In total, he climbed on toprope without falling 12 times. The day he sent was cold—”I numbed out once on a toprope try that day”—but he felt ready: “My head was in the right place. I trusted myself and knew that I wouldn’t fall.” During his send burn he climbed “fluently,” finding that flow state and continuing upward until he was “standing in the sun.”

With two of his highball targets in the bag and just a few days left, Buhl got to work on Old Greg right after topping out TBTF. Ethan Pringle opened the line in 2016. Though the shortest of Buhl’s three goals at about 35 feet, Old Greg’s crux comes near the top, making it highball through and through. “It’s about a 7B [V8] boulder crux,” he says. “Ethan did a few big moves which I couldn’t do, so I used some smaller crimps. Basically the same beta, I just came first into smaller holds. It’s very physical.”

After working the moves on rappel to find his beta, Buhl carried up some pads the following rest day, and sent it the day after following a quick rehearsal on toprope. His was the problem’s second ascent. With his trifecta complete, Buhl flew home.

In his career thus far, Buhl has amassed a formidable ticklist across virtually every discipline. He has sent 5.14d sport routes and 5.14a trad lines. Even before his highball tour of Bishop, he had climbed lines like Dreamtime and Le Boa, both Fred Nicole 8C’s (V15) in Switzerland. Nicole established the latter in 2011, and Buhl’s was the first, and to date only, repeat. “For me it was for sure the hardest boulder I’ve done so far,” Buhl says.

While he has climbed big wall testpieces like Nirwana and Ganesha, Buhl has also carved out a niche for himself as a winter rope-soloist. In 2016, he made the first winter ascent, solo, of Wetterbockwand, a big 8c (5.14b) multipitch established by Alexander Huber in the Berchtesgaden Alps, Austria.

The steely nerves required for highballing are similar to those Buhl needed to climb difficult and runout multipitch testpieces like Wetterbockwand. “From alpine climbing, my head is quite good. I really like the mental part of climbing, so once I feel prepared for a climb, I don’t get scared normally.”

Next up for Buhl? Patagonia with Alexander Huber and Luka Lindič for all of February, during which they’ll try to climb a route on Cerro Torre’s East Face in alpine style. And if Patagonia’s notoriously poor and unpredictable weather hampers those plans? “There’s lots of good bouldering in Chalten,” Buhl says.

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