Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Young and the Fearless

It seems that the more our sport progresses, the younger our prodigies get. 10 year olds are climbing v13 and redpointing 5.14a while 11 year olds jug up El Capitan and redpoint 5.14c. The pool of strong young climbers continues to grow, making it difficult for up-and-comers to stand out.

But when a 19 year old climbs something like Too Big to Flail, it's hard to ignore his age. Too Big to Flail gets a v10 grade (or 5.13d depending on who you ask), which by todays standards is a pretty standard grade. It just happens to be a v10 that is 50 feet high, with precarious feet and slick, small handholds, some of which are very far apart. This means that a climber must not only be physically strong and technically proficient, but also mentally collected and immensely courageous. Located on the Luminance boulder in the Buttermilks, Too Big to Flail has captivated boulderers across the globe with its aesthetic patina and gargantuan size since its first ascent by renowned soloist Alex Honnold in January 2012. Its second ascent was seen by Lonnie Kauk, a climber who has begun to make quite an impression himself in the last few years within the soloing community. Both Honnold and Kauk acknowledged the intimidating and precarious nature of the line.

19 year old Steven Roth, a mechanical engineering student at UC Berkeley, is a recent addition to the Touchstone Climbing athlete team but is otherwise unsponsored and largely unheard of. Largely unheard of, even though he has made ascents, as well as established some of his own lines, of some of Bishops most stout highballs, such as Ambrosia and Footprints. Steven was born in Richmond, Virginia and went to high school in Florida before coming to the Bay Area to go to college. He made the third ascent of Alex Honnold's 50 foot monster-highball Too Big to Flail (v10) on February 9th, alongside Bay Area native and veteran climber Ethan Pringle, who nabbed the fourth ascent shortly after. I was able to ask Steven a few questions last week via email about his impressive send and what he has his eyes on next.

How long did it take you to project Too Big? Had you scoped out the climb before? Tell us about your send experience.

I spent two days at Too Big to Flail. On the first day of the weekend, Ethan and I headed out to the Luminance boulder to check out the climb. After the top rope was set up, Ethan lowered me as I brushed the holds, cleaned off some of the lichen, and started to unlock some of the harder moves. Thirty minutes later I had more or less done all of the moves and it was Ethan’s turn. He did the moves as well but was unsure about the smeary feet. It was getting dark but I managed to send the problem on top rope before it was too dark to see. After a good night's sleep I headed out early the next morning  to This Side of Paradise to check it out. The wind was insane! I was getting up to the higher moves but the pads were getting blown everywhere, and the gusts were pushing me off the climb. It was chaotic. The howling wind made it really hard to stand, let alone climb. We decided to meet up with Ethan and Georgie and go out to Too Big. It was much calmer but the weather was warm, a little too warm for any serious send burns. Tim Steele met us out there and we hiked a little less than 20 pads up the hill. At first I was a bit anxious to have more than a couple of people watching me climb but everyone was mellow so that was refreshing. Ethan and I were back at working the climb, this time in the heat. Ethan had "greasy sausage fingers" (his words), and my skin was thin, so climbing in the middle of the day was not ideal. But we got the moves really worked out and sent the climb on TR a couple of times using pretty different beta for the lower hard moves and the upper insecure moves. Ethan was able to figure out really long reaches at the very top while I had to use a couple of small holds that Alex and Lonnie used. It was getting cooler; the dark clouds were rolling in and completely covering Mt. Tom. After my third time sending on TR Ethan lowered me, and I said I was ready. We shuffled some pads, I put on my Solutions and within a couple of minutes I was standing on top. While I was climbing the wind was pretty strong and it sprinkled a little but the conditions were perfect. I was super excited and having Ethan's support was great! He seemed uncertain but after one last TR burn and a warm-up jog he cruised it too!

Steven Roth on To Big To Flail. Photo by Anthony Lapomardo.

Lonnie Kauk called it "next level". Was it intimidating to have solo legends like Honnold and Kauk as the first and second ascensionists?

Knowing that Alex and Lonnie, two greats in technical climbing, had done this climb didn't affect me too much since I really love vertical to slightly less than vertical climbing. It feels amazing to be comfortable on tiny feet, trusting the rubber, without a worry of pumping out.

Photo by Jessica Wan. 

How do you know Ethan? What was it like to work such a heady problem with someone else?

Ethan is an athlete for Touchstone Climbing where I work so I met him at the gym where I work with his girlfriend Georgie.  I’ve never worked a highball with someone else before this, but I don’t think it’s any different than working a normal boulder problem with someone.  It was nice to work out the moves with Ethan but for the crux sections we both ended up climbing them quite differently since he’s a bit taller than me.  Compared to being alone for hours like when I was working Ambrosia, climbing with a friend was more rewarding because I got to see his success as well.

Did you come to Bishop with Too Big in mind? Did you train specifically for it?

I didn’t go to Bishop specifically for Too Big, Ethan and I were just excited to go climb some highballs, but Too Big was certainly something we were planning on checking out.  I didn’t train for it; I’d actually say that it served as good training for a project I recently bolted here at a local coastal crag.  As far as the expectations to climb Too Big, I try not to have any expectations when working on a highball because I don’t like the pressure.  But after working it on a rope I was confident that I could do it.

Roth on "Rise"--a Shawn Diamond v9/10 on the southwest arete of the Luminance boulder. "I was able to figure out a wild, over the head drop knee for the crux move. I've never encountered a move like that in Bishop. The movement is brilliant and the rock quality is great." Anthony Lapomardo photo.

You've also completed Footprints and Ambrosia--that makes three ascents of arguably some of the most famous highballs in Bishop right now. What gets you psyched on highballs? Would you say that highballs are your passion in climbing?

I think that highballs are the most aesthetically pleasing lines to climb. They’re kind of like giant sculptures.  Too Big and Ambrosia are by far the most impressive boulder problems I’ve ever seen.  When I’m bouldering, highballs are indeed my passion, but I’ve also been zealous about bolting new routes lately.  Highballs and putting up tall first ascents is awesome but those climbs aren’t accessible to most of the climbing community.  Despite this, I have recently put up a new line on the Grandpa Peabody boulder and a stunning arĂȘte highball (The Air Up There, see picture) in the Pollen Grains. I’ve also been passionate about bolting routes since it’s so rewarding to have someone else come up to me and say they loved my route.

Roth on the first ascent of The Air Up There (Pollen Grains). "It's got some small crimps and committing heel hooking high off the ground", he said. Roth gave it a V7/8 grade, although he claims he's "not too good at grading things". Photo by Anthony Lapomardo.

How much time have you spent climbing in Bishop? Do you have other projects in Bishop you'd like to come back to?

I’ve only been to Bishop four times so far, but I plan on spending a lot more time there ticking all of the other highballs.  Ethan got me psyched on The Beautiful And Damned which I’d really like to suss out despite the fact that some pretty key holds just recently broke off, so it might not even be possible anymore. 

Do you have any before-climb rituals or mental preparation you find helpful before trying something tall and potentially dangerous? What sorts of things psyche you out? What do you do to quell the fear? How do you prepare mentally for a big-risk climb like Too Big to Flail?

Well when I’m sussing out the route on a rope I try to work everything out to the point that I’m totally confident I could do it even without any pads.  That way there’s no doubt in my mind, and I treat it like a free solo.  It’s weird; I feel more in control without a rope.  I don’t have any pre-climb rituals or anything.  I definitely feel the pressure when a bunch of people are watching or it’s a big deal to get all the pads together (which is why the solo mentality is convenient).  As soon as I know that I can do it without a rope I don’t think about when I’m going to do it, I just put my shoes on and start climbing, regardless of whether or not anyone else is ready.  That way I don’t psych myself out.

Thanks for taking the time to talk to us, Steven. Best of luck to you, and congratulations on the new sponsorship. Bishop looks forward to seeing you again!

Words and interview by Sasha Turrentine.

For more Anthony Lapomardo photos, see the latest DPM article here:


mark tilburgs said...

I love that sequenced picture!!!

Joe McLoughlin said...

Great article, keep up the good work!

michael said...

I came through Bishop in March from wintering in Az. I met some climbers from Washington in a coffee place in town the morning I was leaving. They turned me on to this site. I am blown away. I climbed here in the seventies while living at Tahoe. I lived in camp four three seasons and climbed here in the winter months. I almost never saw anyone else when on the rocks here. Maybe it's time for me to come back for awhile. Thanks to everyone here and to those wonderful kids who hugged me and awoke a new chapter in my life. When you see this older guy struggling on a problem, think, I hope that's me one day. Send it! Michael