When climber Nina Williams first stood beneath the boulder face that features the route Too Big To Flail, she was instantly awestruck. She’d seen the 55-foot line once before in the Sender Films documentary Honnold 3.0, its razor-thin ripples crimped by Alex Honnold’s gnarled paws as he established its first ascent, but the achingly sheer face loomed much larger in person than it had on the big screen.
“There was just something about it that touched me spiritually,” says Williams. “I wasn’t thinking about Honnold or anyone else that had climbed it. I just wanted to be on that rock.”
Williams worked the imposing line until it felt like home. Then she removed the rope and chalked up.
The Buttermilks area of Payahuunadü (the original name for these lands near Bishop, California) is a boulder lover’s paradise, known for its extremely tall, committing routes that flirt with the fuzzy boundary between highball bouldering and free soloing. An unroped fall from high on a line like Too Big To Flail carries with it the risk of injury—or death; even Honnold, someone seemingly unfazed by the burden of mortality, stacked 34 crash pads to provide a thin illusion of safety for his own attempt.
Like free soloing, highball bouldering is a subset of the sport practiced by only a rare breed of climbers with the skills and the head to stay on the right side of the fall line. Williams, who has also notched ascents of steep Buttermilks classics like Evilution Direct and Ambrosia, is one of these climbers. After being completely shut down in spring 2018, the first time she roped up to puzzle out the moves on Too Big To Flail, Williams worked the imposing line until it felt like home. Then she removed the rope and chalked up.
Only five others had repeated the exceptionally difficult line before Williams locked onto Too Big To Flail, and her inspiring, if squirm-inducing effort is documented in The High Road, a film short, directed by Sender Films’ Peter Mortimer and featured in the current REEL ROCK 14 tour, that’s as much a study of Williams’ measured determination and mental acuity as it is about her impressive physical agility and strength.
Zachary Barr, the film’s producer, says that Williams came to Sender’s attention several years back during the filming of High and Mighty, a documentary about the pursuit of highball bouldering. While that film focused on boulderer Daniel Woods, Williams did make a brief appearance—and left a large impression. When she sent Too Big To Flail earlier this year, Sender came calling.
“It’s the least we can do for someone like Nina who has spent a decade or more getting to the point where she is now,” says Barr. “When she does something like Too Big to Flail, the TV cameras aren’t there, there’s no arena stadium full of people watching, so we want to honor what she’s done, celebrate her, and celebrate climbing.”
The REEL ROCK film tour comes in the middle of Williams’ first semester at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she’s studying communications. While she’s grateful for the opportunity to share her story, Williams laughs about the timing of it all, admitting that she’s not quite in Too Big To Flail shape at the moment. But as it turns out, she’s still wielding that same tenacity that’s displayed on the big screen.
“I always told myself that I wasn’t really meant for the classroom and that school wasn’t for me. There were so many things I told myself I also wouldn’t do—like, I wouldn’t climb hard boulders and I wouldn’t do highballs or big wall or anything like that. And I ended up doing all of that,” she says. “It just made me realize how many lessons there are in climbing that can be paralleled to life through processes of self-development and growth. So sort of to spite myself, I was like—I’m going to go back to school. To show myself that I can.”
Here, Nina talks about her rebellious streak, first female ascents, and the importance of reaching for the big stuff.
What drew you into the world of highball bouldering?
If someone—myself included—tells me that I can’t do something or that I shouldn’t do something, it makes me want to do it even more. So when I would see these highballs, something inside of me was like, You really shouldn’t be up there; that’s obviously a dangerous place. But knowing that I had the physical capability to be up there, then why not? Why shouldn’t I just go and try for it? Another part of highballing for me is just purely aesthetics. I’m really into cool, beautiful, intimidating lines, not just because they’re big, but because they look amazing.
I think about being told as a kid, Don’t do this, don’t do that—it’s too scary. And I think this happens far more to girls than it does to boys. Is this something that you’ve experienced?
Definitely. I heard that a lot growing up. My dad—who’s one of my biggest supporters now, of course—thought climbing was just a phase and he was like, “No, it’s dangerous. Girls shouldn’t do this. You should just play tennis.” This idea that young girls are supposed to be quiet and maybe a little more bookish or just not so adventurous or risk-taking—I rebelled against that. I think maybe that was just part of my nature; I was like, Well, I’m going to do the opposite of whatever you say.
What have you learned from highball bouldering or what has it brought into your life?
Climbing, in general, has brought a lot of structure and purpose into my life. But at the same time, a phrase I’ve been telling myself lately is: climbing giveth and climbing taketh away. It gave me a sense of identity and purpose and community and friends. It’s such an amazing sport in that sense, but I’ve given myself so fully to the sport that it’s taken away other opportunities for growth, which is one of the reasons why I’m going back to school.
I guess highballing has also given me structure, but in a way that makes me appreciate my friends and my family and my life a bit more because I know how dangerous it is. It really forces me to look at my relationships with my friends and family and think: Okay, I have this goal that I really want to achieve, but at what cost? What would happen if I ended up in the hospital or died, um, from doing this? There are a lot of climbs that I’ve backed off of or decided not to climb because, you know, this isn’t really worth it at the end of the day. I’m an only child, so I’m pretty close with my parents. My parents are a really, really big reason why I’m so careful and methodical with my highball climbing because I never want to put them through the experience of me getting hurt or dying.
Have you ever thought about free soloing trad routes?
I don’t really even like to call myself a soloist. Well, actually, that’s kind of a lie. I guess I have thought about soloing some trad routes. For instance, I’ve thought about soloing Separate Reality and the Rostrum in Yosemite. They have both been soloed before and they’re both very classic routes. I guess part of the reason why I thought about soloing them is because these people that I look up to—like John Bachar, Peter Croft, Dean Potter, and Alex Honnold—have soloed those routes, and it would be cool to sort of follow in the footsteps of these people that I look up to. But then I reconsider that thought—is that a good enough reason to risk my life? Do I actually want to do that or is it just because I see other people doing it? The fact that it’s based on other people doing it is an external motivation; internal motivators are: Do I think it’s really beautiful? Do I feel that immediate draw and desire to climb it? No. I’ve learned that external motivators are not good enough reasons to risk my life. As of right now, true free solos are not internally motivating for me.
You’ve knocked out some pretty stellar climbs besides Too Big Too Flail, including Evilution Direct and Ambrosia, which are of course dubbed “first female ascents” because you were the first woman to climb them. What do you think of that phrase? Has your relationship to it changed now that you’ve notched several first ascents?
It definitely has changed. If you’d asked me this five or six years ago, I probably would’ve said, “Yes, female first ascents are completely notable and inspirational and they should be talked about all the time.” And to some degree, I still feel that way because personally, I’m inspired by other women’s accomplishments and I want to hear more about what women are doing. But now I’ve grown to a point where I don’t want to hear about it in the context of—oh, it’s cool because it’s a female first ascent. No, it’s just cool because a woman did it, period. It’s just a cool accomplishment in and of itself. I do think that some accomplishments should be noted as first female ascents, but it shouldn’t be the main focus. For me, I’d rather it be a side note. I’m more proud of the fact that I’m the seventh person to climb Too Big To Flail versus the first female.
The film is definitely very personal to you, but is there a greater message you hope people come away with after watching it?
These feats that athletes do, like The Nose speed record [on Yosemite’s El Capitan] or climbing Too Big To Flail, they seem like these really big objectives, but they didn’t happen overnight. There’s a lot of work and time and effort that go into accomplishing these things. I hope that people are inspired on a visual level, but I also hope people are inspired in their own lives to go after goals that they think are out of reach. Really, they’re quite close, but we just can’t think about them as being “too far” or “too close.” We just have to focus on getting it done, step-by-step.
Top Photo: Lowell