The Pad Problem: Honnold, Kehl on Headpoints and Highballs

As cutting edge problems get longer and higher, I was interested to hear what one of the foremost practitioners of the highball game had to say about the proliferation of pads, the practice of headpointing and the future of the “sport.”

By Jeff Jackson | September 11th, 2019

Wes Walker going ground-up above two pads for a first ascent of a 30-foot problem in northern Mexico. Photo: Boone Speed.
Wes Walker going ground-up above two pads for a first ascent of a 30-foot problem in northern Mexico. Photo: Boone Speed.

On Friday I looked at some pictures of a beautiful granite bouldering area in northern California—acres of flawless salt-white stone flecked with coarse feldspar pepper. Among the 2,000 or so problems, there seemed to be something for everyone, but one picture struck me more than the others. A wiry climber was high up on a king line, a 40-degree 20-foot overhanging prow spackled with distinctive green lichen. The dude was near the top, maybe 15 feet above a particolored quilt of pads, and while the climb looked incredible, it was the pads that really caught my attention. I counted 20, but there were undoubtedly more pads buried beneath.


A few years ago I did a trip to Northern Mexico for a story [“Landscaping,” No. 173] on the prolific route developer/philosophy professor, Alex Catlin. Boone Speed was there to photograph the excursion, along with two Rock and Ice interns, Wes Walker and Minnesota Dave Costello. It turned out to be one of my favorite trips not only for the great climbing Alex shared with us, but also for the bull sessions. Alex is a deep thinker and his conversation ranges eruditely from Nietzsche to Dogen to climbing ethics.

One day, as we bouldered on some 30-foot streambed cliffs beneath the Puente de Dios (Bridge of God), the subject turned to highballs. As we did drop tests to try and gauge the landing area and accurately place our two pads, Boone asked, “Have you seen how many pads these guys are bringing into the backcountry these days? Like 20 pads or more! Someday people are gonna figure out that it makes more sense to bring a little gear and a short rope and headpoint highballs.”

I’d thought of Boone’s point several times in the interim, especially when I’d see a photo such as the one on Friday. It makes a lot of sense to me. By practicing high problems on top rope, then—if you want the experience—soloing them, you get closer to the ideal of simplicity—once such an integral part of bouldering, now obviously less important (or perhaps the ethic has been misplaced beneath the pile of crash pads, chalk pots, extendo-brushes, tripods and cameras).

A rope and some gear is lighter than 20 pads and once you get to your klettergarten, headpointing won’t crush the sotol cactus, ferns, grasses, or tundra. You won’t feel inclined to stash your pads and inadvertently poison hungry critters like pika and mice that chew up the straps and foam. Headpointing doesn’t cost as much as a $400 crashpad, either—think about how much money was sitting under that Northern California boulder. There were probably $8,000 worth of pads under there!

Finally, headpointing is more stylish than bouldering above a veritable pole vault pit of pads because it ups the commitment and demands a higher level of psychological control. Say what you will (please, in the comments), but risk has always elevated mere games to what Papa Hemingway termed sports.

As cutting edge problems get longer and higher, I was interested to hear what one of the foremost practitioners of the highball game had to say about the proliferation of pads, the practice of headpointing and the future of the “sport,” so I contacted Jason Kehl, the guy who opened perhaps the most famous highball in America in 2002, Evilution (V12), a 55-foot problem in the Buttermilk Boulders of California.

“Yeah, I agree,” he responded, “the pads can get out of control at times and it also contradicts the whole concept of bouldering—to climb with minimal gear. I don’t think there can be a limit to the amount of pads you use—its more a question of style and that’s ultimately up to the climber. I prefer to work taller problems with a short static line, not only to not have to carry a ton of foam, but to not have to gather a posse of friends every time I want to try my highball project. I know when I’m close and when the time is right. Then it’s worth taking all the pads out. I like to keep it simple, use good judgment and not over pad—but pad it just right. That process to me is impressive and a game in itself.”

Alex Honnold, America’s premier soloist, famously ripped through the homeland of headpointing, the UK Gritstone, in 2008 raising eyebrows with his success on many of the area’s hardest lines, so I sent him an e-mail asking what he thought of headpointing and the proliferation of pads. “In my very limited experience with that kind of thing,” he wrote, “I feel that if the person doing the climbing is willing to do the work of carrying in all the pads, then it’s kind of their call. Personally, I think that soloing/highballing is stylistically cooler than headpointing and futzing around with tricky gear. But that’s why I like to solo things. I don’t think there are any set rules. It’s all about personal preference.”

I also contacted Wills Young, who writes the Bishop Bouldering Blog and reports on many highball ascents in the Bishop, California area, many of which utilize 20-plus pads. To my assertion that maybe there’s a time when using that many pads becomes kind of silly, he responded: “It might also be a lot of fun.”

When I asked if headpointing might be better stylistically, Wills wrote: “It’s hard to argue that a style is good, better or best in some absolute or objective sense. Ultimately to say something is in good style or that a climber displays good style is more a judgment of whether we are personally impressed/inspired or whether we look up to some act as something we’d wish to emulate or even if we look up to the climber as cool, likeable, or enviable—a hero-figure. Environmental concerns can influence a judgment on style, and this is often a case of perspective, attitudes, emotional connections, etc., which can all change over time, as can the idea of who or what is cool, trendy, or heroic, in climbing. Usually we set out with a specific game in mind. We are going to adopt a set of arbitrary rules and go out to have some fun or take on a specific challenge defined by those rules. But it is the outcome that is in question in the first place, i.e., what exactly are we trying to achieve here?”

Fair enough. It’s a good question. What are we trying to achieve by climbing a highball boulder? Does style matter? How about the number of pads versus ropes and gear?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about pads, highballs and headpointing, too. Please feel free to comment below.


This article was originally published in 2013.


Notify of
1 Comment
newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
1 year ago

Not a boulderer here but sport/trad/alpine climber, so you can tell me to sod off, but I’ve always appreciated the silent/intimate/whatever aspect of climbing in remote areas with just one partner (and sometimes I’d like to be alone too), so I cringe in seeing those mobs below a boulder…

Between the Lines: It’s Time To Change Offensive Route Names

Routes belong to us all. That should include their names.

read more

Between the Lines: 5 Ways Climbers Cheat

What is “cheating” when it comes to using performance enhancers or drugs like dexamethasone?

read more

Between the Lines: Covid is Making Climbers Act Better

Maybe climbers should have been doing some of these things—social distancing, using hand sanitizer, etc.—all along, writes Andrew Bisharat, in this week’s “Between The Lines.”

read more