Jason Kehl: What I’ve Learned

Highball boulderer, artist, hold shaper, photographer, 42

By Alison Osius (Interview) | March 11th, 2019

Jason Kehl with his daughter, Eva Luna, in Hueco Tanks, Texas. Photo: Martina Mali.

In high school [in northern Maryland] I was really not into the whole team-sport thing, I was kind of a loner. I was doing karate after school, then I got into climbing. Baltimore got a gym, the Clipper City Gym. That was the one that burned down [in 1995]. I was on a road trip when I found out. I felt pretty lost. That was kind of my home … where I went to get my release.

At some point in high school everyone starts separating into groups, the jocks and the dorks or whatever, and I wasn’t any of those. My plan was to be as plain and boring as possible and just fit in and float through. Let’s just get in and get out, try not to make too much of a scene. Then I found climbing … and realized [climbers] were more accepting and on the fringe. It was finally a place where I could be myself [with “aggressive creativity”: a skullet, opaque contact lenses, doll collection, and an early blog and website].

***

Back then you traveled. Everyone had the same road-climber mentality. I took my first road trip right out of high school in a ’68 Mercury Diesel car that I’m surprised made it to Smith Rock. … What I wanted to learn was how I could do this for the rest of my life. I went back to Maryland and would have jobs, and I kept trying to make the road trip last longer.

***

[Van living] teaches you a really simple lifestyle. I don’t like to collect junk, to have things that weigh me down. I can’t work in a room if the room is a mess. I have to clean it up. In a van I had everything I needed, and it was a simple life and easily organized.

***

Evilution [benchmark highball at 55 feet, V12, FA by Kehl in 2002] at the time felt really, really high to me. [Since then] the bar has been raised. It was a stepping stone to higher things. People were doing high stuff back then, but they weren’t doing high, hard things.

***

The Fly [5.14d, Rumney, New Hampshire, first 5.14d ever bouldered] is 20 feet but a tiered landing. You start on this refrigerator-sized block. You do two moves, you’re falling another eight feet.

I just went up there by myself and stayed in the van. I worked it, using a Grigri or something, but I was not going to leave the place until I got it.

***

I have never done anything on a rope first. I’m not trying to climb something on a rope and then pull the rope and solo it. I’m using the rope as a means to work the movement, and then when I realize I can do it, let’s say I pull the crux, then I say, OK, let’s take the rope away and start trying it as a boulder problem.

***

I love that point where you think you can do it and you know you can, you understand it, and for me that point is the most sure because there’s not as much stress. … Your mind  is most in tune, and there’s no doubt, and that carries into physically completing it.

***

I basically learned this method of how to break down these incredibly high, difficult things that at first glance people are incredibly scared of. I love when I look up at this high, hard thing, and it takes your breath away … because I know I have this method to get to the end.

***

Straight Outta Squampton [5.13+, Squamish, British Columbia, 2005] was the same kind of experience. My friend Jeremy Smith showed it to me. It had been done once. I said, you’re crazy, there’s four bolts on it, and the landing’s downhill. I said, you’re crazy, maybe not really [laughs]… You taste it and then you got to keep trying.

***

At a certain point [the highball] persona kind of caught up to me. … I probably did more than I would have. There were times I just wanted to climb and do normal stuff, and people would say what about this, and then you try it and it gets you and you know you can.

***

I’m more calculated now. I’m not bombing off the tops of things anymore. I’m older and want to save my bones. It’s a longevity thing.

***

Highball is cool because you can’t have a negative thought. If you do, you should step off immediately. If you don’t, then you know. And don’t do anything for photographers, ever!

 


This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 255 (January 2019).


 

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