My childhood best friend, Jessica Marx, occasionally sends me a message to check in, asking questions about my climbing or showing me a picture of something that looks particularly sketchy, but in reality, is quite safe. To no fault of her own, Jess lacks knowledge or awareness in general about outdoor rock climbing. For example:
(As a side note, Jess will not be creating any cairns on any climber’s approaches any time soon, as I explained why she should not and she mostly resides and works in NYC and the most “outdoors” she will get will be the New Jersey shore.)
I find her bewilderment of the sport endearing as I carefully take the time to explain certain aspects of outdoor climbing. Like most of my non-climbing family members and friends, they are often in awe of the mere thought of scaling up a vertical face–meanwhile, most of my climbing compadres are like “NBD”.
A few months back, she heard about Alex Honnold and immediately called me to conduct an inquiry about “free soloing”, also known as “free solo climbing”, a form of free climbing where the climber performs without any ropes, harnesses, or other protective equipment. It’s a style of climbing without any attachment and relies solely on ability.
“I mean, it’s one thing to do it with a rope to keep you from plummeting!” Jess exclaimed on the phone to me. “It’s beyond fucked up.”
And she’s not wrong. Free soloing is its own beast.
I often wonder if how the majority of climbers feel regarding free soloists is similar to how Jess and my born-and-raised suburban parents consider free climbers. I’m fairly certain that there has to be an overlap of feelings with respect to free soloing and free climbing. Jess has made several points to express her feelings of reverential respect mixed with deep fear, but in the end she says, “I could never do what you do.”
I had never felt a strong desire to free solo anything in my first year or so of climbing. There was, of course, the general fear of being up that high without any kind of rope or safety net but I generally didn’t see the big hullabaloo about it. People do it for the adrenaline rush, was my first initial thought. They do it because it seems risky and cool.
And then, a few years ago, Matt O’Connor invited me to end our day free soloing Betty, a fun and easy 5.3 in the Gunks. It’s an excellent beginner climb for new leaders, perhaps one of the best at its grade. I was, perhaps, a little smitten with Matt at the time and probably would have followed him up anything. But the climb was amazing, abundant with face holds everywhere you looked. We scrambled up and then just as quickly scrambled down the Uberfall Descent.
I wasn’t necessarily hooked or anything, and perhaps I enjoyed the company more so than the climb, but I’ll admit that it was fun. I then revised my opinion: Okay, so people free solo things that are well below their limit. That makes sense.
A significant amount of time has passed between Betty and the present day, and during those years I have certainly found myself in similar situations. Although I have never made the conscious decision to free solo, I’ve done it plenty. I’ve put myself in situations where that’s basically what I was doing: running things out with scarce gear and putting myself in consequential ground fall potential, scrambling up fourth class pitches of things to get to the meat of a climb, bouldering (that’s basically the same thing, right?)
I have considered free soloing High Exposure (5.6) and even Son of Easy O (5.8) in the Gunks, and maybe one day I quietly will but then again, maybe I won’t. I’ve done both of those climbs an innumerable amount of times, paying attention each time to every crack, every hold, every toe on every ridge. Always, in the back of my mind, I think, maybe.
But I still don’t feel a strong desire to do it. And that’s just me, of course. That’s a decision that I make for myself because it feels right for my life and general happiness. Nobody is telling anybody who free solos not to–or at least they shouldn’t be. “Just because you can do it doesn’t necessarily mean you should!” I had declared long ago. I once thought that soloists climbed without a rope because of the high that came with the huge sense of risk. Was being that close to death what made them feel alive? Climbing has always been the opposite for me, very meditative and calming, and it continues to be that for me today. Perhaps, for my free soloing friends, this is their same motive.
Because how we feel about rock climbing is shaped so much by our own personal experiences and personalities, climbing means something different to each individual. It is important that free soloing be accepted among all climbers, though not without careful consideration.
Soloists are important to the sport because ultimately, they inspire us. They not only challenge themselves, physically and mentally, but they also challenge our own spirit. I have often said that those who accomplish the impossible change the world, as well as something within us. They show the world what is impossible and possible, and where they lie on that spectrum and that is what changes how we approach our own personal Dawn Walls.
However, the risk of free soloing goes far beyond our own mortality. We applaud Alex Honnold for his recent free solo of El Cap (which is considered the greatest pure feat of rock climbing to-date) but we are also unquestionably aware of the consequences had he not succeeded. As friends and family members of climbers and climbers ourselves, we are all very aware. The repercussions of high-risk climbing are not lost on any of us, and whether we are roped or ropeless, we all share a heavy responsibility.
It is a responsibility that encompasses loved ones, but also a generation of climbers we do not know and in all actuality, may never meet. Are we wondering if by glorifying free soloing, we are in some capacity encouraging younger climbers to blatantly risk death? Just like my friend Jess, naive to knowledge most rock climbers consider common, the younger generation relies on the words and traditions we pass down to them. What do the young minds think?
No, not every climber is going to run out and free solo because Honnold soloed El Cap. But he did an incredible thing that has never in the history of rock climbing been done before, and I think that it’s safe to say that left a lasting impression on all of us. Should even one young climber have the notion that they would, too, like to free solo and meet a fateful end, then it is one too many.
I read this on a Reddit thread the other day:
“For context: I’ve been climbing for 7 years, soloing for 3. I consistently climb 5.11 trad. I’ve soloed up to 5.10a, but generally keep it to 5.8 and under.
For me, the appeal of free solo climbing is not to push my boundaries, conquer fear, and stare death in the face. I free solo mainly to experience routes I would not otherwise do, to move quickly and efficiently over the rock, and for the meditative state it brings. Ask me to climb Cathedral Peak in Yosemite with you (5P, 5.6) and I’ll likely turn you down; being on the wall for hours on an easy route just doesn’t sound appealing. Take the rope away and suddenly that climb becomes one long pitch of beautiful climbing, no waiting, no fiddling with gear, just a calm dance up the wall, bottom to top in less time than we’d finish the first pitch on a rope.
I have been truly scared doing it. One day, early in my soloing career, I stupidly decided to summit a peak in the Yosemite back country that I knew nothing about. The line looked good from the base but I discovered halfway up that the rock was really loose. At one point, with a left hand jammed securely in the crack, my right foot and handhold both broke in succession, and for a moment my entire body was suspended by my left hand. It was a straight 60ft drop to the next ledge, and had that left hand slipped I would have died. My view on free soloing changed a lot that day. I still do it often, but I am much more cautious. I rather like being alive.
Free solo if you want. Done right it can be a very rewarding experience. Done wrong, you won’t be doing it long. Make smart choices, don’t be afraid to back off something, and never overestimate your abilities.”
Even a person who has been free soloing for three years admits: “I have been truly scared doing it.” Everybody makes mistakes. Inherent risks such as weather or rock breaking happen. People can get hurt, or worse, killed. If you become lax, it’s entirely possible to miss a step. We all do it.
While it would truly be selfish to ask somebody you love to quit doing something that they enjoy or feel passionate about, it can be just as selfish for an individual to continue doing exactly as they please despite their loved ones’ concerns. I’m not denying that we don’t take risks, because we do and they’re often big ones. If somebody asked me to quit rock climbing and pushing my own limits, I’d probably laugh or punch them. Maybe a combination of both. My own personal goals as far as climbing goes come with the inevitable calculated risk and I reflect on this constantly. However, to truly appreciate these risks we need to approach them with a level of maturity, more respect and less glorification, for posterity’s sake.