posted by dpm on 01/10/2014
Photo by BearCam Media
Among the camera flashes and ecstatic cheers of a huge audience, Jimmy Webb stood atop the winner’s podium at Salt Lake City’s first annual Psicocomp, his hair and beard still wet from the high-speed splash into the pool from the finals route. Next to him stood Daniel Woods who he’d narrowly defeated in the final moments of America’s most anticipated and highly-publicized climbing competition of the year. Almost without exception, every professional American climber had shown up for the event including Chris Sharma, Daniel Woods, Dave Graham, Tommy Caldwell, Carlo Traversi and even some international superstars like Nalle Hukkataival.
Jimmy stood above them all, his beaming smile and outward humility capturing more attention than his Tennessee Thoroughbred physique. Reflecting on his win, he attributes his success to “being lucky” and adds that “on any given day it could have been any of those guys on the podium.” But if luck alone is what it takes to climb at the highest level of the sport, then Jimmy’s the luckiest man alive. In the past year he’s established two V15 first ascents and become quite possibly the best flash boulderer of all time with six V13 flashes, three of which were originally graded V14. Jimmy’s rise to the top seemed to happen overnight and it all started by applying an unwavering desire for improvement in Chattanooga, Tennessee’s smallest climbing gym.
Photo by BearCam Media
The Tennessee Bouldering Authority (TBA) is where Webb slowly transformed from good to great. It’s a small, core-climber’s bouldering gym, free from the plague of top-roping birthday parties, where the focus is on climbing hard. Positive energy emanates from the devoted circle of regulars and at the center of it all was Jimmy who moved to Chattanooga in 2005. He became such a fixture in the joint that Jimmy’s training partner, gym-owner Luis Rodriguez, quickly handed over the T-nut wrench and Jimmy became the head route-setter. Within the year, Jimmy’s good friend Brion Voges moved to Chattanooga and as Jimmy remembers, “It was the perfect scenario I think for both of us. Brion was super strong at my anti-style and vice-versa. So it became easy to work on our weaknesses. I would set thuggy pinch blocs for him and he would set crimpy blocs for me. We would session these problems till we were dead. It was so motivating to be able to go in there every day and push myself to the limit and really begin to see progression. We were obsessed. Without Brion there, I'm not sure if I would have become the climber I am today.”
If there’s one constant in Jimmy Webb’s climbing career, it’s progression and he recalls his send of Gangsta (5.12a) at the Obed, Tennessee as one his most memorable benchmarks. He grew up in Maryville, a suburb of Knoxville, Tennessee, and started climbing during his junior year with the high school climbing team. On his first day on the school’s tiny wall, he top-roped a 5.10 and the team coach, Jack Pipenbring, immediately saw his potential saying, “Damn man, I think you might be good at this!” It was Jack, who worked as a Park Ranger, that took Jimmy on his first outdoor climbing trips to the Obed where he worked. With his good friend Jeremy Walton, Jimmy worked through the grades. “Gangsta was just the coolest route for me at the time,” he says. “It was bouldery and sustained and just perfect in my eyes. You know that feeling when you're really young and everything is just so new and exciting. Gangsta was like that for me and I really loved the process of sending it. I think it was actually the first time I began to learn how to project a route, just going through the motions and eventually putting it together. I recall the feeling of clipping the anchors like it was yesterday. It's that process and end result we all climb for. It's that feeling of something being so impossible and eventually solving the puzzle that’s one of the best feelings in the world.”
Jimmy’s no slouch at sport climbing, now having onsighted 5.14a and redpointed 5.14b/c, but even back then it was the puzzling aspect of individual sequences and moves on boulders that drew him in. “I was completely obsessed,” he says. “I would sit in class thinking about climbing and instead of taking notes I would be drawing up different routes, trying to think of the coolest movements you could do.” He pauses and adds with a laugh, “There were a lot of dynos.”
The dream sequences played out in class were immediately followed by whirlwind drives to the Obed’s Lilly boulders, a small but quality field of short sandstone cliff bands. Some of the Southeast’s hardest problems can be found at the unlikely location mostly due to development by James Litz, who lived in Knoxville at the time and was the strongest boulderer in the region.
“James’ problems seemed impossible,” says Jimmy. “I would always look at Chinese Arithmetic (V13) and just laugh. The holds seemed nonexistent and I just couldn't believe that it was actually climbable. Tilted World (V13) was like this mythical creature lurking in the woods that nobody had really seen before; some fairy tale that you had heard about but just didn't quite believe in. I climbed at Lilly for almost three years before I even saw the boulder. I remember the first time I actually walked down there I couldn't even tell where the problem started or finished.”
It was on a return trip to his home turf Lilly Boulders in 2011 that Jimmy finally slayed the mythical creature and he remembers it going down fairly easily. “I was pleasantly surprised and it actually suited my style very well,” he says. “It was for sure an amazing feeling though. My confidence went up a lot after that and so I started to set my eyes on Chinese Arithmetic (V13). That one is absolutely heinous for me and still to this day I have yet to climb it. I got really close a few sessions but in the end the thing bit me and I would always walk away with split tips. I think there was like a three-month period there where I had cuts on my fingers.”
Jimmy had transformed into the Southeast’s strongest boulder and, aside from his nemesis Chinese Arithmetic, sent nearly every hard problem in the region. He won the Triple Crown Bouldering competition three years in a row from 2009 to 2011. By 2011, competing was just a formality and everyone knew it; the results were almost guaranteed. Jimmy could run his circuit of ten of the hardest boulder problems at Hound Ears, Horse Pens 40, or Stone Fort, by noon and spend the rest of the day encouraging others and sharing beta. He’d run out of hard problems to repeat and his pace of exploration picked up, developing new problems that would stand as test-pieces for the next generation, much like Litz’s problems had for him. Daniel Woods visited the Southeast and he and Jimmy worked together to establish the region’s first V14, Aggravated Assault at Griffin Falls, Alabama, a problem that capped a long string of V13 first ascents like Gross’ Roof Sit, Sharpen Your Teeth, Tall Tee, Half Moon, and Private Selection.
Jimmy on a flash ascent of Thunderdome (V11) in Leavenworth, Washington. Photo: Aaron Matheson
Jimmy’s rampage wasn’t isolated to the Southeast either. He’d taken trips to Hueco, Bishop, and Colorado, sending hard classics at every area he visited. Perhaps it was after his ascent of Jade (V14) in Rocky Mountain National Park that his true ability and devotion to hard climbing became apparent. At the time, Jade was considered one of, if not the, hardest boulder problem in the States.
“I trained so hard for that boulder,” he recalls. “I probably spent about five months prior to that trip just training in TBA, going 25 days on with Voges and taking just 1 day off. It was a bit ridiculous and I have no clue how we didn't get injured. I knew that it was my anti-style so I spent a lot of time training crimps. We even set a Jade simulator that we tried all the time. When I got to the boulder though I felt in amazing shape. I felt really light and my fingers felt stronger than they ever had. When I topped out the boulder I felt on top of the world, like anything was possible. When you climb things at your limit, no matter what the difficulty may be, it just puts you in another realm. You begin to believe in yourself and have confidence that you can climb stronger. Progression at that point seems simple and your motivation pushes you through to that next level.”
The next level was to travel overseas to test himself against the world’s hardest problems like Kheops Assis (V14) in Fontainebleau, France which he sent within an hour during his first day climbing outside of America. The Island (V14) fell next on that trip, as did many more during return trips to Europe like Off the Wagon, a possible V15, and his own addition to Switzerland: La Rustica (V14). Maybe more noteworthy from that Swiss trip was his flash ascent of Kings of Sonlerto, a V14 made famous by Dave Graham’s battle for the first ascent which was documented in the climbing film Dosage: Volume IV. Jimmy suggested V13 for the problem which made it his second V13 flash proving that his first, Roses and Blue Jays, was no fluke.
Months later Jimmy found himself in Rocklands, South Africa doing some of the areas hardest problems first try. “I have always been a firm believer in the fact that if you can do it, you can flash it,” he says. “It's all about being on that level and zoning in on that first attempt. There's a lot of things that come into play when flashing boulders and it’s not always about skill. There is a good amount of luck in flashing and sometimes things just work out. In Rocklands, I knew that these problems were very much my style and suited the bigger climber. This already gave me the advantage and all that was left to do was execute.”
Execution is exactly what he did. Jimmy went on to flash The Vice (V13), Sky (V13), and Cape Town’s A Simple Knowing (V13). One of these flash ascents might be the hardest flash ever accomplished considering Sky’s original grade of V14 and A Simple Knowing’s originally proposed grade of V15. Jimmy suggested the V13 grade for both and noted that The Vice was probably the most difficult to flash. But how can you know how hard something is when you send it first go?
“Grades are important I think and I believe in trying to be honest when grading anything,” he says. “A lot comes into play while grading a problem and every problem is going to be different. I always ask myself if it's my style, or if it suits my body type; like if I were to establish some heinous crimper problem that felt like 8C (V15) to me I would most likely call it a grade, or maybe even two, lower. Because in the end I know someone like Daniel (Woods) or anyone who is small and loves edges would come and think it's much easier. Then, when I establish a big boy problem, I take into account the average-sized person and take a guess at what the grade is. It's really strange this whole grading thing and obviously there's no real right way to do it. I just give my honest opinion and that’s it. People may or may not agree and that’s okay. Climbing is so personal and all climbers are so different it's just impossible to settle this. There will always be a grey area. In the end all that matters is climbing and pushing your personal limits. No matter the grade, if you climb something that was hard for you, then that's sick.”
“With the flashes in Rocklands, everything flowed perfectly and somehow they felt simple. When you flash a hard boulder it basically feels the same as if you did it your 50th try. The flow is perfect and you execute flawlessly. So really, for me at least, the feeling is the same and just the number of tries is different.”
Webb works the moves on Defying Gravity (V15). Photo by BearCam Media
With a total of six V13, or possibly harder, flashes under his belt and over fifty V11 and V12 flashes, it’s not a stretch to consider Jimmy the world’s best flash boulderer, and it’s no secret amongst his peers. His friend Daniel Woods says that, “Jimmy is one of the strongest climbers I have ever sessioned with. He is a really powerful climber and can do moves that I can only dream of doing. He’s a hard worker, approachable, and very motivated. He is the best flash boulderer that I have ever witnessed.”
Returning to the sweltering heat of the Chattanooga summer after his trip to Rocklands, Jimmy and his girlfriend, Kasia Pietras, made the difficult decision to move to Boulder, Colorado. “The Southeast will always be my true home,” he says. “The rock is incredible and the community is so laid back but we decided to move to CO mainly due to opportunity. There's so much climbing and the climbing season is much longer than in the Southeast. Also, for me personally, I knew that it would be a great opportunity to grow as a climber. It's like a big training plan and I think in the end I will become much stronger because of it.”
The move paid off as Jimmy immediately joined forces with some of America’s best boulderers, Daniel Woods and Dave Graham, to work on establishing one of the hardest problems in Colorado. It was Webb that first claimed victory on The Wheel of Wolvo at Lincoln Lake, the first problem he’s proposed V15 for. Within a week, he’d also ticked off the harder variation finish, Delirium, surely one of Colorado’s toughest.
A month later, Jimmy found himself coming full circle at Castle Rocks, Idaho. He sat at the base after a failed attempt on Warpath, a V14 boulder problem that he calls, “the best he’s ever seen.” Like his nemeses long ago at the humble Lilly boulders, this problem had also been established by James Litz. His first trip to send the problem ended in failure and had him retreating to warmer climates after repeatedly falling from the last move with numb fingers. This year, the weather was perfect and he was still falling at that last move. The problem had become mental and he tried to stifle erratic thoughts of success and failure. For Webb, the ability to execute resides in his love for the sport and the places it takes him both physically and mentally.
“I sat down at the bottom of the problem,” he recalls. “I rehearsed my beta, took a deep breath, and just let it all go. I climbed the problem with no intentions and no expectations. I hadn't felt as good on a boulder ever. Things fell into place perfectly and when I finally connected with that heartbreaker last move, I knew it was done. I topped out in awe and it was probably the best feeling I have ever had in climbing; like the world was off my shoulders and I could breathe again. It's really strange how we get so attached to climbing a single piece of rock but I think it's so amazing at the same time. It's not every day you get these sorts of feelings and though they are strange and maybe occur in your 'selfish' pursuit, they are genuine. Its moments like this I feel so happy to have climbing in my life.”