“What have you done?” Kyle Walker muttered to himself in his YouTube video.
On April 16, Walker began climbing up North Crack, a two-pitch 5.9+ on the Second Flatiron in Boulder, Colorado. Climbing the Second Flatiron as he has “100 times before” according to his now deleted YouTube Comment and having climbed “5.10 in hiking boots,” according to another YouTube Comment, he had decided to try the route free solo. It was a climb that, he said, another climber had told him was a potential 5.13. Wearing a pair of Saucony Kinvara’s, a lightweight running shoe, Walker prepared to onsight the obscure, lichen-covered climb. He scrambled up the 5.2 approach to the base and then headed up the steepening wall. As he neared the obvious right-trending flake system and more difficult terrain at 60 feet off the ground, he realized the danger he’d put himself in. He muttered to himself and began downclimbing. That’s when he fell.
Twelve seconds later, Walker lay crumpled at the base. Blood poured from his temple and road rash covered his body. His pelvis, eight of his ribs, and his wrists had broken. Through the remaining GoPro video footage, you can hear Walker moan while he wheezes from a punctured lung. He fell in and out of consciousness, as his blood pooled around him. The crater of a fallen soloist is truly a lonely place.
Walker is far from the only person to fall soloing and live. In the days of the Yosemite Stonemasters, John Yablonksi famously fell from the top of Short Circuit (5.11d), a 30-foot crack near Yosemite’s El Portal entrance, landing in a tree and walking away unscathed. Rick Cashner fell off the start of Spiderline (5.11d) in Joshua Tree, breaking his arm. John Bachar also fell soloing in Eldorado Canyon, just outside Boulder, Colorado, on Clever Lever (5.12a). After sticking the crux jump to a bucket at the lip of the roof on a rope, he returned to the climb to do it unroped. “Except when I finally went for the swing on to the bucket, I kept swinging and went flying into the sky over the edge of the ledge for a 30-foot flight,” Bachar wrote me in an email. Bachar landed on a slab and rolled another 20 feet. He hiked half a mile into the town of Eldorado, fainting about six times. His host, Pat Ament, brought him to the hospital in Boulder where he was given a tetanus shot. He didn’t solo for a few months afterwards. “I was shaken,” recalled Bachar.
While all three men survived their falls, they were all falls from below 40 feet. Shorter falls tend to be damaging but survivable. In the mid-2000s, Michael Reardon fell off Kim Chi, a 40-foot 5.11d in Malibu Creek Canyon, while filming with Peter Mortimer. In May 2017, Calder Davey fell 35 feet while attempting to free solo Espresso Crack (5.11c) in Little Egypt, Bishop. Davey broke his feet, had a compound fracture in his left wrist, had compression fractures, broke his coccyx, damaged his sacrum, and suffered a subdermal hematoma. In 2004, I pushed the height envelope by falling 100 feet off North Overhang (5.9) in Joshua Tree National Park, breaking my neck and back, suffering a compound fracture in my left elbow, and shattering my left ankle.
Other climbers have been less lucky. In 1987, the British climber Jimmy Jewel died while soloing Poor Man’s Peuterey (Severe; 5.7) at Tremadog, North Wales, in his trainers. “Is there anything finer than soloing a dozen routes at Tremadog?” Stevie Haston wrote in his essay The Axe Today, The Chop Tomorrow in the collection of short stories The White Cliff. “Just don’t wake up flying through the air, that’s all.” Derek Hersey, who had soloed extensively around Eldorado Canyon, fell soloing the Steck-Salathé (V 5.10b) on Yosemite’s Sentinel in 1993. In 2009, John Bachar died while soloing at the Dike Wall outside Mammoth California. In September 2016, my friend and UCSC classmate Julia MacKenzie died when a hold broke while she was soloing on the Evolution Traverse (VI 5.9) in the High Sierra. The list of injuries and deaths is exhaustive.
The Flatirons, with their easy access above an urban area and deceptively “low-angle” terrain on the east faces, tend to be a frequent site of accidents, deaths included. The formations attract thousands of extreme hikers and novice climbers every year. David Robert’s climbing partner Gabe died in 1961 while climbing unroped on the First Flatiron. Gabe had tried to free a stuck rope and decided to untie. More recently, in 2017, the 17-year-old Carter Christens fell to his death from near the summit of the First Flatiron. A few months later, Erik Kleiber fell from the First as well, and likewise perished. The nonchalance with which experienced climbers talk about soloing the formations, their accessibility, and the naivete of Colorado outdoor enthusiasts make them a magnet for accidents.
In dangerous activities like soloing, no one expects to fall. Still these accidents happen to the experienced, like Bachar, and the inexperienced, like Walker. It’s easy to rationalize away the accidents of the inexperienced as simply being “their fault.” Walker clearly had little idea of what he was doing—being unable to distinguish between 5.9 and 5.13 terrain falls into the dangerously inexperienced category. And thinking that a route is 5.13 and then attempting to onsight free solo it in tennis shoes is the definition of hubris. This high level of confidence is a requirement for soloing, though: You have to believe you won’t fall.
Walker received significant criticism online, particularly for his excessive confidence. However, it’s a relatable phenomenon amongst soloists of all experience levels. In 2004, I started soloing up the six-pitch 5.8 Diedre in Squamish. I followed a large corner system like in the topo I'd seen. After climbing two pitches that felt harder than Diedre's 5.8, I saw a bolted slab and a party rappelling. They informed me that I was lost, and on Unfinished Symphony, the 5.11b corner that parallels Diedre. I rapped and downclimbed with them, fortunate to be able to use their ropes. That same year, Alex Honnold attempted to snowshoe up Mount Tallac outside Lake Tahoe. Slipping on ice, he fell, breaking his ribs and his hands, and suffering face abrasions and a concussion. He was airlifted out. The former “extreme hiker” then began soloing more. The following year, he fell soloing twice in Owen’s River Gorge: once while downclimbing a 5.10 and another time climbing to the first bolt on Pippy the Zenhead (5.9). What if Honnold had fallen while soloing the Freerider? Would people say that he’d been too confident, that he’d gotten in over his head? Every soloing accident can be categorized as someone being “in over their head”—because if they weren’t, they wouldn’t have fallen.
An hour or so after Walker’s fall, Anton Krupicka, a staple of the Boulder running and soloing scene, heard Walker cry out for help. Krupicka found Walker badly hurt, called Rocky Mountain Rescue, and coordinated with them to get Walker to a hospital. While it’s easy to criticize the fallen soloist, the measure of the fallen lies not in how he fell but in how he gets back up. Fortunately for Walker, he still has this chance.