In 2012 Paul Robinson returned to South Africa for
the fourth time, but instead of staying within Rocklands’ bouldering haven like he’d done on previous trips, he drove south, tracing the Cederberg
mountain range. Along the way he noticed areas that, to his knowledge, had never been climbed. “Not just boulders,” he says, “but full areas.”
He thought to himself, “Well, why spend an entire season climbing where everyone else was climbing and not just try to discover new areas?”
Each season that Robinson’s returned since 2012, the 28-year-old from Boulder, Colorado has dedicated his time to developing the valleys south of Rockland.
In three seasons, Robinson put up over 150 new boulders from V0 to V15.
Rock and Ice caught up with Robinson after his most recent trip to South Africa, where he established a new V15 The Dragon’s Guardian and upwards of 30 new routes.
Q&A with Paul Robinson
You’ve already been to South Africa a handful of times, what keeps bringing you back?
This was trip number seven. In 2008, I went for the first time to Rocklands. I was totally blown away by the potential that Rocklands had to offer, just the rock quality alone was amazing. [At first I] was going back to Rocklands, but from there I started branching out.
Basically every season that I’ve gone back, I’ve been spending [my time] 80-100 kilometers south of Rocklands proper in this big valley that hosts a lifetime’s worth of climbing potential.
Do you have a name for this valley?
The valley is called Driehoek, and that’s Afrikaans for “three corners,” so I named the area Three Corners.
I spent all of this trip there. Basically there are three zones, and I’ve developed one zone per season … This year I went on the right side of the valley (in previous years I’d developed along the left side), which hosted an insane amount of climbing. And that’s probably where I’ll spend next season as well.
Is it easy to put a number on the new lines you’ve put up?
I would say in the past three seasons I’ve but up more than 150 boulders. This trip, I’d say 25-30, somewhere in there. Definitely around 30.
What’re your new boulders like? Are they all around the same grade range?
For me, it’s all about aesthetic. What’s happening [when I’m scouting new boulders] isn’t that I’m going up there looking for the hardest line … I do like to look for those hard climbs, and I like to climb them, but when I’m warming up, I’m also establishing other lines, anywhere from V0-V3. Maybe there’s an amazing line that ends up being a V8 that I’m doing. It’s really a range. So within those 150 [routes that I put up] it really ranges from V0-V15.
What’s the process like when you’re out looking for new boulders?
A lot of trial and error really. There aren’t too many trees [in Three Corners] so from on top of a boulder you get a really great vantage point. What I tend to do is hike up these valleys, and I’ll see specific boulders out in the distance that I want to go check out. A lot of time there aren’t holds or for whatever reason I don’t end up climbing them. If I find something specific that I really like, but it’s just a day when I’m out recon-ing, I’ll take a picture or a mental note and say “I have to come back for that one.”
But usually I tend to try and make somewhat of a sequence to see if it’s feasible and when I come back, I’ll bring a rope with me and I’ll rap in and clean all the holds and make sure the landing is right and all of that, and then I start to try it, and hopefully it’s possible.
Is there ever a point where you decide to move on from a new boulder because it’s unrealistic or too hard?
There have definitely been things that I’ve tried and haven’t done. For me it’s all about progression. And for some people, they have a hard time with small progression. But for me, I go out to the boulder and if it’s really, really hard, I try it and keep trying. At the end of the day, if I can say, “Oh I moved my foot slightly better than the first day,” that’s progression. But if I keep trying day after day with nothing, no progression, not even a minute amount of progression, I think, “Okay, either I need to create some new sequence or start trying something else.”
On The Tanooki Myth (8A V11), you describe an intense “no fall zone.” What was it like establishing and climbing that route?
It’s definitely one of the better lines I’ve ever done, and one of the best first ascents of my life … I knew the bottom was going to be difficult, and then the last 15-20 feet had [a] rail of super, super thin jugs that were spaced pretty far apart. To myself I thought, “There was no way those are going to be solid.” At the time I was trying a bunch of other things, so I just decided I would come back later.
When there were only two days left in my trip, I thought, “I have to go back up and I have to just see if that thing can be climbed and if those holds are strong enough to climb on.” And so I went back up and I rapped in and I was just mind blown. The holds were so solid … I was so scared because you can take a really bad fall, so I was pulling on the holds to make sure it was super solid. And they just wouldn’t budge, they were so solid.
What’s crazy is that you have the beginning sequence, which is more or less the crux, the first 12 or so feet, and once you get passed that first section, the landing drops away all the way down towards the bottom of the valley. So if you fell, you’d not only take a 50-meter fall, but you’d probably roll another 100 meters down to the bottom of the valley. So not only was it scary because of the fall potential, but you’re also holding onto these paper thin holds, just looking down like “Oh my god if any of these break that would be so detrimental.”
How did it feel to finally send it?
Oh it felt really, really incredible to top it out. I’d tried the crux sequence a couple times and I fell a couple times, and the first time I got through the crux I was at the point where I could drop back towards the pads, and so I kind of just sat there for a second and thought, “I really don’t want to have to do that sequence again.”
It’s really cool because you get put into a very different mindset. When you’re climbing something difficult, or doing a hard move and you’re not worried about the fall, the mindset fully switches when you have to calm yourself down. You get to the point where you can’t really think about the consequence because if you start freaking out up there then you’re going to be really tense. So I had to switch my mind from “hard climbing” to “relaxed climbing” and just get myself to the top. And I definitely felt a great sense of jubilation. “Okay, I’m off of these terrifying holds and I’m over the top.”
You established a new V15, The Dragon’s Guardian, this season. Nalle Hukkataival just repeated the climb and mentioned that it’s “Perhaps not quite V15…” Thoughts on that?
I guess [Nalle] thought it was closer to V14, that was his personal opinion on the grade. But again, I’ve only spoken to him for a quick second because I’ve been in Zimbabwe.
But you know how it is with hard grades. When something new gets put up you just have to give your personal opinion and see what the future holds in store for it. And with the second ascent too, you still don’t know what the third ascent is going to say.
Do you think V15 will stick?
I mean, it was definitely a very hard one to grade because most of the V15’s I’ve climbed have been either finger strength or powerful cruxes. This one had a technical crux. It had a weird toe hook sequence and, for me, it was especially difficult to grade because when I first started trying it I thought, “okay this is V14,” and then when I started putting all the sequences together, it was that toe hook that was really just creating so much drama.
I just kept falling there. I was like, “Damn this thing is freaking hard!” And really difficult to grade.
I didn’t want to say V15 unless I could actually say, “Yes this is V15.” So I started comparing it to other climbs of similar grades. I was thinking of a bunch of V14’s I’d done, and I though “Okay, well it feels harder than that for me.” I compared it to one V15 I’d done in Rocky Mountain National Park called Paint
it Black and that one actually has a very technical foot too. When I started thinking about that climb, I kept thinking that these climbs are very, very similar and similarly difficult in comparison to each other. So that was when I [decided to propose] the grade at V15.
I thought it was fair and I mean, we’ll see what the future has to offer.
You’re in Zimbabwe right now. What’re you up to there?
Yes I’m in Zimbabwe right now, and I’m with Jimmy Webb and a cool film crew. We’re filming for “Uncharted Lines” and this is the fourth section of the film.
It’s a film glorifying the development of new areas around the world. It’s been a super fun journey. We started last year in Australia and we’ve traveled to a bunch of amazing destinations around the world. We just finished shooting this morning. We’ve been kind of out in the middle of nowhere for the past two weeks, just developing insane new climbing areas, climbing some of the best rock with more potential than I could possibly do in a life time.