On a bright spring day last March, Nina Williams stood below the tallest face of the massive Luminance boulder, in the Buttermilks outside Bishop, California. The problem she was there to climb, Too Big to Flail (V10), towered above her—a monster even in a place known for huge boulders. At 50 feet, the climb was nearly ten times as tall as her five-foot-three frame.
Though a stack of foam crash pads lay neatly arranged at the base as an insurance policy, no spotters stood ready to assist—if she fell from high on the problem, they couldn’t help her anyway. After pressing both palms to the wall, Nina blew the excess chalk from her fingers, grabbed the starting holds, and began climbing.
Today one of the country’s top female climbers, Nina has established herself as one of the few women to pursue the niche discipline of highball bouldering—tall, difficult, and ropeless ascents that often blur the line between bouldering and freesoloing. While highballs often require top-level strength, they always demand the mental tenacity to confidently execute moves while facing massive groundfall potential—something few have a taste, let alone a talent for. For Nina, possessing both the strength and the mindset to start up one of the world’s tallest, most infamous highball problems hasn’t come easy.
Nina started climbing when she was 12, in the gym in Rhode Island. After dabbling in traditional sports, climbing came naturally. Within a year she was competing on a youth team and traveling to regional and national events, even making it to the podium in several local competitions. But her quick success and encouragement from coaches and adults soon turned into intense internal pressure to win.
“I was basing who I was off of what other people thought of me—as a teenager this was kind of a dark place to be.“
During a regional qualifier event in 2004, Nina forged a signature saying she’d completed a climb that she hadn’t. The forgery went unnoticed and she went on to take second place at nationals. Several months later though, she forged another signature, and this time was caught. She was banned from competition for a year, and her national team jacket and trophy were revoked. For a young up-and-coming climber who relished in the praise of her coaches and peers, it was devastating. But in retrospect it became a focal point in her young climbing career.
“I recognized that relying on validation from other people made me distrust my own abilities,” she wrote in an article about the incident.
“I became so wrapped up in climbing for everyone else that I had forgotten to climb for myself.”
Returning to climbing and competition with a fresh perspective, Nina moved to Colorado in 2010, where she found a dedicated community of climbers and quickly broke the double-digit barrier, sending her first two V10’s. Structured training and travel continued to open new doors, and in 2015 she climbed Ray of Light (V13) in South Africa’s Rocklands, making her the first woman to send the problem, and among a short list of women to have ever climbed the grade.
Around that time, she also began taking an interest in not only climbing hard, but climbing higher.
“For highballing, it really was visually driven at the outset—there’s just something about tall boulders where you look up and just say, wow,” she says. “And then that feeling of insecurity and fear but pushing through it was appealing…I think it sort of tied into wanting to do things other people told me I shouldn’t do.”
Over the next three years and several trips to the Buttermilks, a bouldering Mecca known for tall problems, Nina earned her stripes when it came to the high and hard. In 2015 she climbed Footprints (V9), then in 2016 and 2017 made the first female ascents of Evilution Direct (V11) and Ambrosia (V11), respectively, making her the first woman to complete the Grandpa Peabody Trifecta (all three problems are on the same 50-foot boulder).
While some of her ascents have been tall enough to be labeled by some as freesolos, and she recognizes the ambiguity, Nina doesn’t see herself as a soloist at all. But at what height is the line between highballing and freesoloing?
“My personal rule is that it’s a highball as long as there are pads underneath me,” she jokes.
Though the consequences can be stiff, with countless top-roping sessions preceding a send attempt, her difficult highball ascents are more reminiscent of a perfected gymnastic routine than an attempt at a hard boulder problem.
“With soloing there’s a bit of the unknown, a lot more factors out of your control,” she says. “I’m doing all I can to mitigate the unknown by rehearsing the moves and having this confidence and trust in myself. I would never try a highball without the rope unless I felt fully confident that I could send it.”
With calm, deep breaths and hard-earned confidence in her abilities, Nina flawlessly danced her way up Too Big to Flail that sunny March day, becoming only the seventh person, and the first woman, to send the climb. While it was a pinnacle achievement in highball bouldering and her climbing career, it was part of a broader transition that Nina has been going through—a personal evolution that includes not only being a well-rounded climber, but a well-rounded person.
“I have a more long-form mindset with climbing [now],” she says. “I’d really like to climb for the rest of my life.”
Over the last few years, Nina has taken an interest in multi-pitch trad climbing, and has already ticked two big, difficult lines in Yosemite—Final Frontier (5.13b) in 2016, and the 2,000-foot Father Time (5.13b) in 2018, where she led all the crux pitches over six days on the wall.
“In order to stay connected to climbing, I have to stay healthy, and not get injured, and I need something other than climbing to stay motivated,” she says.
Throughout high school and her first run at college, Nina says she was generally a poor student. “I just didn’t want to put in the effort,” she says.
But after taking an interest in coaching and completing a year-long program to become a certified coach, Nina challenged herself to back it up with a degree and returned to school.
Now a full-time student at the University of Colorado–Boulder majoring in Communication with a minor in Leadership Management, Nina is applying the lessons gained doing hard moves way off the deck to something that can help sustain her love for climbing indefinitely.
“It’s a chance for me to put all these things I’ve learned in climbing—like overcoming [negative] voices, and insecurity, and fear—toward a real-life application.”
To see more of Nina in action, check out the short film The High Road, featuring her ascent of Too Big to Flail, in this year’s Reel Rock Film Tour: www.reelrocktour.com.
Photography by: Brett Lowell, James Lucas and Courtney Sanders