Nina Williams’ Way

Nina talks about her path from competition climbing and plateauing at V8 to ticking Ambrosia, a 55-foot V11 in Bishop.

On February 28, 2017, Nina Williams became the first woman to climb the 55-foot Ambrosia, a V11 on the black-streaked, east face of the Grandpa Peabody Boulder in Bishop, California. With this ascent, she completed the “King Line Trifecta” on Grandpa Peabody, having ticked Footprints (V9) in 2015 and Evilution Direct (V11/12) in 2016.

While Bishop is famous for its concentration of highballs from V0 to V-hard, Ambrosia stands out for being difficult, steep, and sustained, with multiple cruxes and big moves on small holds. First put up by Kevin Jorgeson in 2009, the climb blurs the line between V11 highball and 5.14 free solo.

The Grandpa Peabody has captivated my attention ever since I laid eyes on it. I climbed Footprints during my first #Bishop trip in 2015. I climbed Evilution Direct during my second trip in 2016. Now, on my third trip, I climbed Ambrosia: the final problem of the Grandpa Peabody king line trifecta. These trio of lines have represented, to me, the essence of the #Buttermilks: a frontier for facing personal barriers. I definitely had to face mine during this process. Still realizing that it really happened ? #wasitjustadream ?? HUGE thanks to pad donators Greg Locker, @naytonrosales (?!!), and the @hostelcaliforniabishop. Props to @etteloc @pangtastic and @naytonrosales for documentation. And a special thanks to @james_lucas ? for believing in me and spotting me even when I was 55ft off the deck ??? You guys are awesome. Now to enjoy my @blackboxwines #CabSav celebration TREAT!! ??#climbing #bouldering #highball

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A few days after her historic ascent, we sat down with Williams in Bishop to talk about her approach to highball climbing.

Tell me about shifting your focus from indoor to outdoor climbing.

I started climbing 15 years ago at the gym in Rhode Island, splitting my time evenly between climbing indoors with the youth competition team and climbing outdoors at nearby Lincoln Woods. Eventually I attended University of Rhode Island, but lost my focus and got bad grades, switching my major four times and quitting climbing for eight months. After two years at school, I moved to Colorado to focus on climbing. Finding a psyched and supportive community in the Front Range helped me tick my first two V10s.

Competing every year at Bouldering Nationals [formerly called ABS Nationals], I had this idea in my head that I wanted to make finals, but I never did. It was a thorn in my side because bouldering was my specialty. One year I got so close: They took seven women in finals, and I finished 8th. I just cried.

Then I took my first trip out of the country to Rocklands, South Africa. I felt an immediate deep connection to the place. It was incredible, and getting that taste of travel, I realized this is what I can do with climbing. It can take me to all these amazing places, give me these incredible experiences, and it’s all outside of the gym. Every climbing area, every culture, every trip—they are all so different, but every competition is the same routine. Go to the gym, redpoint round, finals, stress out, do well, don’t do well, and then it’s over and everyone forgets about it. Who even remembers who won the 2009 Portland Boulder Rally? It was probably Alex Puccio; it definitely wasn’t me!

At what point did you start thinking about climbing highballs?

I never sought them out, but I learned how to deal with them through my six-year project, Speed of Life, a V10 in Farley, Massachusetts. It’s this overhanging, 30-foot boulder that’s not necessarily a highball, but it was a dangerous fall. I had to have at least 8 to 10 pads, and I had to learn how to fall on that climb. I wanted to do it because it was aesthetically pleasing. I would fall and fall and fall, and because the falls were crazy and weird, I had to learn how to position my body and how to land properly. Finishing that in 2014 was emotional, but I still wasn’t thinking about highballs. I never wanted to seek out scary climbs. I don’t think of my climbing in this broad way, like way far into the future. I think about it in tiny increments, so all I was focused on was simply, What’s the next climb?

You went to Bishop for the first time a year after sending Speed of Life and ticked Footprints. What was the process of sending that initial highball?

I had seen a photo of a friend on Footprints, but when I stood underneath it, I couldn’t help but think, It doesn’t look as big as it did in the photo. The first day I tried it just playing around; there was a dyno move I hadn’t figured out. I sold myself short, just assuming I probably couldn’t do it. Mason Earle had a rope up on it, so I jugged up to work the headwall and did it once with no falls. It felt casual on toprope. I hopped on it the next day and bypassed the dyno by figuring out my own high-heel beta; that was the first spark that maybe I could do it. I got lazy about putting a rope back on it and doing the top again. In retrospect, I would do it differently now.

I got back on and made it through, and once I pulled the lip, I was so far off the ground I just decided to take it to the top. I got through the lower two-thirds casually, but there’s one move I had forgotten about, a cross with smeary feet. I felt the fear in my limbs, felt myself freezing up a little bit. This was not a place to be feeling that, so I had to slowly shut it off. Once on top, I started shaking, this physical release of all the emotion and a huge adrenaline rush.

After ticking Evilution Direct the next year, did you feel like you had to do Ambrosia?

The question of Ambrosia did pop into my mind, but I wasn’t going to go for it on that trip. When I get my one highball done on each trip, that’s usually my highball for the year. But it was the third “king line,” and the BIG one on the Grandpa Peabody. I put a rope on it, and couldn’t do a couple of the moves above the hueco, which isn’t even the hard part, and I felt scared even on a rope. I realized that I have to also be OK not doing Ambrosia, because for me safety is always the priority. I don’t want to hurt myself or end up in the hospital. I’m also not trying to be scared up there. Then it became this thing of denial, where I wasn’t going back to Bishop any time soon, so I focused on other things. When this 2017 trip started coming up, I was spending a lot of time in the gym training for Bouldering Nationals, and the question of Ambrosia came up. I had a lot of people asking me about it, and I’d say, “I don’t know. I’m gonna check out the moves and see how it goes.” That’s what I did for Evilution too, very blasé and non-committal. When I got out there and figured out all the moves on the first session, that’s when it became a reality.

On your fifth day of working it, you went for the send. What was going through your mind while you were climbing?

The first thought that infuriatingly came to mind was that I noticed my pocket was unzipped. The OCD part of me was cursing zippered pockets.

When I got to the hueco rest at 17 feet, my first thought was that I didn’t want to do the hard part again; those crimp moves are heinous and painful. When I was shaking out at the hueco, I didn’t have any running thoughts aside from what is happening in that present moment: how my body feels, what my breathing is like, just how I’m feeling right then. I definitely felt pumped and my fingers were cold. I had those thoughts, but more as statement of fact and not a worried “Oh no, I’m pumped!” There was no emotion whatsoever; it was super-mechanical. I turned into this machine.

After I rested for 90 seconds, I started to feel warm again. Then I started getting that energy back, like the runner’s high when you break through that wall. I think, I’m mentally here, and I’ve done this top section 10 times without falling. I’m not gonna fall now.

After working a climb like this for a while, when do you know you’re ready to go for the send?

A lot of people say, “You’ll know when the time is right.” But I didn’t really know. I knew the facts: I had climbed the top part 10 times. I knew I had the physical capabilities to climb all the moves. I knew what had already happened, but I didn’t want to predict the future and say, “I know I’m going to send Ambrosia today.”

It’s so step-by-step, I only think about the next 15 minutes on any given day.

There were times when I did get nervous, like lying in bed, thinking about the beta, my hands would start to sweat and I would get anxious. I was really scared the morning of the send, and I asked myself, “Why am I scared? Why am I feeling this anxiety?” It’s not the height or the consequences, so is it because other people think I should be scared? The more I thought about it, the real reason I was scared is because I didn’t know if I could do that bottom part. That was the pure unknown for me because I hadn’t done it in one piece. I didn’t have that fact to draw on.

I’ve always felt more connected to my mind than to my body, so I had a lot more trust in my mental strength than my physical strength. There’s always the unknown of my foot slipping, a hold breaking, my tendon snapping, and I have no control over that whatsoever. But I have every control over my mind.

How has your mental approach changed over the course of these three highballs?

It’s something that has evolved. On the send-go of Speed of Life, I was having these active thoughts, and I wasn’t inside my bubble, as I put it. Same with Footprints, when I had that moment of fear at the top, and I was outside the bubble talking to myself. On Evilution I had that voice, “OK, you have to go for it, you have to commit.” When I hit the move, it went away. On Ambrosia, I didn’t hear the voice. My first thoughts when I hit the jug at the top were, Wow, it’s over. Did I really climb that? Did that just happen? When I checked in to see what my emotions were on top of the boulder, I still didn’t feel anything, and it was almost disappointing. I shouldn’t be surprised because I had removed emotion from the very beginning of working the climb, but when I got to the ground, I got a stomachache. I think I had been suppressing anxiety and nervousness throughout the whole process. I had avoided seeing photos and videos of myself on it while I worked the problem, but after sending it, I watched the footage from Colette [McInerney], and was like, “Holy shit. I just did that!”

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