Empire Blocks – New York City’s HighballsConstructing New York's modern highballs.
Perched on the rickety limb of an old oak tree, I signaled to Andy Salo that I was ready to shoot. He calmly wiped the bright orange pine needles from his climbing shoes and started up the commanding 45-degree arete, which resembled a giant petrified log. Only moments before, Andy had completed the first ascent of this imposing problem, dubbed Ideas Are Bulletproof (V11), in the Gunks. The small festive scene of climbers that had reveled in his original and undocumented first ascent was now silent, full of suspense over the simulated attempt. When Andy approached the no-fall zone, the spotters became visibly anxious and shifted the pads to prepare for an out-of-control fall. My hands tightened on the camera and my breath shortened. A mystical symbiosis was taking place, and I could feel the palpable sense of danger in my bones. A series of insecure compression moves brought Andy to the tenuous crimps 16 feet above the talus pit. Looking solid and at ease, he executed the moves with watchmaker precision and topped out at 25 feet.
Despite having been a mere observer, I shared the satisfaction of topping out on a tall and dangerous line way out of my comfort zone. Andy Salo is one of the most confident climbers I’ve ever had the experience of photographing.
Watching him climb Ideas Are Bulletproof three times in the face of fatigue inspired me to ask him and other local boulderers and see if they’d be willing to help me share these hidden treasures of southeastern New York.
This photo essay is more than just a series of adrenaline-inducing action shots. It is an ode to the local and unknown — to that boulder in your backyard that may never appear in a guidebook, but contains your favorite holds and best experiences. These lines may not be the most difficult, nor are their ascents groundbreaking, but they are beautiful, proud and represent significant personal achievements for the climbers. The boulderers in this piece are all hard-working people with normal jobs who also happen to be gifted at scaling large blocks. Their vision for lines in areas off the beaten path or previously thought to be tapped out has resulted in dozens of new problems.
This is my visual homage not just to the New York bouldering community, but to all those climbers out there pushing their physical and psychological limits, expecting nothing in return but the pure joy of movement, the excitement of a new hard line, and the pleasure of being outdoors.
THE SUM OF IT ALL | By Brett Lowell
Greater Than (V10) is a sweet line up a steep piece of gneiss that holds a slew of interesting moves; there are double hand jams, a high slab top out, and even a heel/toe cam above your head. The ground slopes away from the boulder at a similar but opposing angle, giving the look of the greater than symbol when viewed in profile. My brother Josh established the line many years ago, back when I was too intimidated to try hard moves way off the deck.
These days I travel a lot and film some of the world’s top climbers, which can be inspirational, but mostly gives me a heightened sense of self-suckyness. Although I consider climbing a personal pursuit of my own limits, it’s impossible not to compare myself with my comrades. In truth, I sometimes find it hard to remain psyched when my climbing partners — who climb five grades harder — warm up on my projects. This explains why the most memorable moments in my 20-year climbing history have been bouldering on crisp fall days with my closest friends, battling to unlock the next move on a tall and proud new line — when grades are irrelevant and all that matters is being the first to send . . . and not get hurt trying.
TERROR AND CHAOS
By Paul Jung
ego terrorist (V9), shown right, is just one of the many new lines located deep in the talus of the presumed tapped-out Gunks. We must have walked by this giant boulder, which resembles a ship’s prow, over and over again in our search for undone lines. After a great session withfriends fromAlbany and the usual suspects (Salo and Keenan), I was lucky enough to nab the first ascent of this beautiful piece of rock. Ego Terrorist has since become a classic. My friend Tommy Morrison,whomade the third ascent, said, Phenomenal line! Eyed by a local prostitute and FA’d by a local Chinaman! in reference to Andy Salo and myself, respectively. He wasn’t serious, it’s just the way we all are — good friends and jokers. We love climbing, and try not to take it too seriously.
The next new problem is Chaotic Stability (V10), not shown. This problem is on a huge boulder in the main area of the Gunks near the Boxcar boulder. The funny thing is that for such an obvious line, no one really knows about it and on any given weekend hundreds of climbers walk right past it. Perhaps its 20-foot height and jumbled talus landing is too intimidating for most.
The first time I tried Chaotic I got spanked. The landing is far from ideal, and to flatten it we wedged a few fallen tree limbs across the large gaps. I spent several days working out the series of sidepulls, finger-friendly crimps and delicate foot positions, and the further I got, the more obsessed I became. As a fulltime mechanic, I knew the possibility of a bone-crushing fall from the top crux moves was not an option and I constantly rehearsed the sequence in my mind. On the day the moves finally came together all I needed were three pads and two spotters. Shortly after completing the climb I realized obsession equals progression. Proper!
WHAT WINS THE RACE | By John Koots Kuphal
When I first saw Hawk Rock, whose resemblance to a bird of prey is remarkable, the entire boulder made my hands sweat. It stands out atop a small hill in an open hemlock forest as a solitary glacial erratic composed of perfect Putnam County gneiss — cloistered in the Ninham Mountains about an hour northeast of Manhattan. After I spotted its line of crimps, sidepulls and slopers on a huge bulging feature, my first thought upon seeing the tallest arete on the boulder was, Wow, this is sweet. In reality, I had no clue.
The Turtle (V9), shown above, has its first and most committing crux move about 12 feet up off a comfy right-hand sidepull/pinch and a high smeary left-foot jib, which allows you to reach up left to a gaston like a small hanging snaggletooth. The first time I committed to the gaston, the lower half snapped off and I fell behind the pads, somehow landing feet first in the dirt like a cat thrown off a second-story deck. Lucky, and ever persistent, I re-committed a few minutes later and found myself atop Hawk Rock.
The problem gets its name from the petroglyph of a turtle carved into the side of the boulder, and from the nature of the climb — the slow and steady upward movement that contrasts with the huge flapping moves of an adjacent line, The Hawk (V9). Located deep in the New York woods, this climb defines my favorite kind of bouldering — big blocks and no crowds.
FEAR & FOREBODING | By Tim Keenan
My friend Andrew Zalewski, a strong climber and buyer for the famed gear shop Rock and Snow in New Paltz,showed me this gorgeous line, shown left, called Sex Bomb (V8), located in a secret area called Triple Right. He couldn’t unlock the crux sequence, but after some collaborative problem solving, the moves revealed themselves. A full body extension from an undercling leads to a bad right-hand sloper, where you had to readjust and then gun for yet another bad sloper with your left hand. We worked the line for a while, taking successive burns — feet ripping off the wall, big swinging falls, yearning for the first ascent.I eventually stuck the move, only to pull into a key rail filled with dirt that made it impassable. Drew later returned for the first ascent and I came back shortly after, totally motivated to repeat this rad line. Located on a small cliff, Sex Bomb features bomber rock and wild dynamic movement up high — really, just another amazing problem I’m happy to have shared with a close friend.
When an experience is good, you want to repeat it. Andrew showed me another gleaming line up a rightward-leaning arete made of sharp silica conglomerate. I was attracted to this problem for its height and dangerous crux above a backbreaking slab arete. After nailing the first crux, you have to match hands on extended feet, and the possibility of a bad fall looms in the back of your head. Fortunately, knowing a good friend and great spotter has your back gives you the confidence to overcome fear. Dark Foreboding Skies (V9) tops out at 23 feet on slopers that I had hoped would be jugs. Full value!
INSPIRATION & AESTHETICS | By Andy Salo
High Price (V9) is on the Behemoth boulder on the Carriage Road at the Gunks and was an old project that had previously been toproped by a strong local. With an atrocious landing and insecure moves, High Price was never seriously considered to be a boulder problem.
Around the first anniversary of the death of my close climbing friend Josh Price, I made the first ropeless ascent of High Price — it felt like soloing, and I kept that mentality until I topped out. I was extremely relieved to complete the problem but also felt a lingering emptiness. I wished Josh had been present, because I’m sure he would’ve been proud.
Highball bouldering is a pursuit of aesthetics. I don’t choose to climb dangerously or wish to get hurt, but the most inspiring lines tend to be dangerous. I find that motivating. Most of the focus in the bouldering world is on big numbers and sheer difficulty. This one-dimensional outlook obscures some of the better parts of the pursuit. Historically, bouldering incorporated elements of difficulty and danger, and the challenges associated with both were equally valid. That isn’t to suggest that danger needs to be sought out, but to point out that inspiration should remain the bottom line.
PROJECT FAILURE | By John Koots Kuphal
I feel like no one knows more about failing on projects than I do. Always ahead of my climbing ability, my friends have snaked practically every line I’ve found in the past 10 years. I am now accustomed to the dull pain of watching someone else succeed first.
This process of failure is frustrating and inspiring. The inspiration comes from unlocking a sequence and the frustration comes from being too burned out to complete it. Every day outside is special to me, and I try to make the most of it because I work two jobs and have a family. With only a few hours to spend on myself every week, finding a project and sending it can become a multi-week affair. Right now I am trying to send this one unnamed highball, shown left, with a dangerous stepped landing and a mono fingerlock crux. This may be irresponsible of me to admit, but the reason I’m drawn to this project is the danger and the level of commitment. It may not be that scary to someone else, but because I broke my ankle six months ago from a 15-foot fall, this climb signifies a major step toward overcoming my fear of injury.
The mono crux is the antithesis of my strengths, too. Give me a nice juicy pinch and I’m a pig in shit. The crux moves are right above a ledge and I wonder if I’m ready to suffer the consequences. I have set a simulation of the problem at the Cliffs in Valhalla in order to train … hopefully I’ll SEND!
BLADE SLAYER | By Ivan Greene
Finally, on a perfect fall day, Andy Salo took me out to Triple Right in the Gunks and showed me the goods. He and the crew had been sneaking around for awhile sending gems without me. Having just recovered from a broken heel, I wasn’t really in shape for highball bouldering, but after doing a few amazing lines I decided to explore. I immediately stumbled upon this overhanging blade (shown upper left) that soared up from the ground. Upon closer inspection, I found that sculpted crimps and a maze of quartzite pebbles led to a sloping rail on top. A fall from there seemed deadly, and apparently I was not alone since the striking problem had not been climbed.
The following week, I returned and headed straight to the blade, no warming up. As I scrubbed the holds, I only became more confused about the proper sequence. As with most first ascents, the only solution is to step up and simply experience the movement — hesitation, second-guessing or theorizing have little use; just action.
I crimped, heel hooked, smeared, screamed and threw a little higher with each attempt. The crux would require leaving the security of the blade and trending right toward the sloping rail. On one of my final attempts, I made it to the rail and prepared for the launch to the lip. I took flight, missed, and screamed down onto the talus. No broken heels, ankles, cracked skull, nada. Other than the nervous trembling, I was intact. Immediately, with a head full of I’m gonna fucking do this, I got back on and made it back to the sloping rail again, dug my feet into the little crystals andWhapp! I stuck the top ofSteppin’ Razor (V10/11).I love this shit!
BACKYARD PLAYGROUND | By Josh Lowell
This boulder is about 15 minutes from my house, and five minutes from a small crag where I learned to climb 20 years ago. A lot has changed since the days of toproping 5.10s after school. I have a family, a mortgage, a career and a long list of accumulated injuries. But the joy of cl mbing at my limit is as strong as ever. I’ve climbed all over the world, but The Godfather (V11) brought me full circle, back to where it all began for one of my most memorable ascents.
Ten intricate crimp moves bring you to a big, scary dyno. The landing is flat, but the intimidation factor is high, especially for me because I am not brave. I’ve spent too much time on the disabled list to risk another sprained ankle or worse, so I usually pass on the truly scary problems, and watch John, Ivan or Andy scream and flail over the talus. In this case I built my confidence gradually over a series of short sessions — a couple of hours here and there between work, with my daughter Sierra crawling around the base — until the nervousness was replaced by a sense of trust that I wouldn’t spaz out and fly off the move in some uncontrolled death spiral. For me it’s never about danger, but purity of movement and line. It just so happens that the best lines are sometimes the biggest.
IN THE MOMENT | By Andy Salo
I was immediately drawn to Ideas are Bulletproof (V11), which is also in the Gunks, due to its imposing presence and striking 45-degree arete. It hangs atop a large pile of talus below a gorgeous section of cliff. The combination of height, bad landing and difficulty made the problem seem like too much — another level. However, I always kept the line in the back of my mind because I knew it would one day become a boulder problem. The day I got the opportunity to attempt the line, it came alive — with every burn my obsession grew until I simply had to climb it or get hurt trying. The falls were unpredictable and would send me in any dire tion because the moves were oppositional on non-positive holds. The moves were difficult enough to demand a lot of attention and it was easy to lose focus on the danger in order to send. Once the moves were completed, however, I felt as though I’d dodged a bullet. It’s the same sort of feeling you get when you narrowly avoid a car accident, only in highball bouldering, it makes you come back for more.
Photos and Text by Tom Donoso
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