Ask Answer Man: Should I Free Solo?

He Knows climbing. And he KNOWS it.

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This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of our print edition. 

free solo illustration
Illustration by Brett Affrunti

Free soloing. It’s getting a lot of ink lately. What are your thoughts, and how would one try it out? Greg G., Buena Vista, CO

At first, I considered serving you with one of those “If you have to ask, you’ll never know” type platitudes that would blow the skirt right off Anna Kournikova. (Call me back, KoKo.) But then I thought, No, wait, here is a man who needs help. A man whose own ineptitude could become his demise.

Greg. Yes, free soloing is pretty badass. Answer Man does like it. But the first rule of free soloing is that whether someone else likes it or not is none of your goddamn business. Free soloing is perhaps the single most personal experience you can have as a rock climber. It requires every ounce of your mind, body, and soul—nothing less. If you want to free solo, that is your decision, and your willingness to engage in that activity should be predicated by no other’s opinion. Now, before you run off and hop on the first 5.6 you can find, think about how you learned to ride a bike. Training wheels, Greg.

A good friend once told me that too often folks free solo something at grades above what their mind is ready for. Don’t start with 5.5, not even 5.1. Start with class four. Climb a LOT of class four. Climb long class four routes. Learn how to move on unpredictable terrain in a situation that allows you to focus more on your surroundings than how hard the moves are. Don’t rush the process of climbing harder either. For avid free soloists, the ability to do so did not come overnight or even in a year. It is a lifetime of climbing through which they earned it. And with free soloing, your lifetime of climbing is literally what’s hanging in the balance.

Actually maybe you should not free solo.

My sport crag has a few routes with sketchy bolts. Can I tighten these or replace them? —Jacob L., Temecula, CA

Easy. We don’t want you out there pulling down janky would-be classics just because you felt a wittle scared! But really, I assume nobility. Careful though, you can seriously shear bolts if you tighten them too much. Find out what kind of bolt it is, bring a torque wrench, and address the situation in a fact-based way. And if you’re just trying to move past a bolt to feel better, tighten it down with your fingers then give the nut a small wrench pull to snug it down. These aren’t lug nuts, chief.

As for rebolting, find the first ascensionist, describe to them the situation and find out if you’re replacing their bolts or someone else’s. Consult locals to see what standard practices are regarding bolting in the area. Make sure you’re not breaking any rules relating to power drills. And finally for God’s sake, replace the bolts with something like a glue-in that no one will have to worry about for the next 30 years.

Are helmets in? I see more people wearing them, but I find them bulky. —Carolyn P., Nashville, TN

Like so many answers to the questions that grace this very page, this one is a resounding yes. And no. Are helmets “in” implies that they are potentially stylish. They are not and never will be. But neither are condoms. And better safe than sorry, right? I get it, though. It’s still a helmet, bulkier than your skull. The real truth, though, is that they’re not that bad. They won’t make you too hot. They won’t prevent you from climbing harder. Hell, the newest ones weigh about as much as a Clif Bar. And here’s what they will do: prevent you from suffering massive head trauma should a rock fall from above or you fall and slam into the wall dome first.

For local cragging, many climbers leave the helmet in the car, but I have encountered far more bad falls and broken rocks 10 minutes from the road than in the backcountry. Go to No Brainer: Why Do So Many Climbers Not Wear Helmets? to learn a LOT more about brain buckets. But I say their in-ness matters not nearly as much as their on-ness.

And other topics… 

Got any good climber diet tips? 
Literally eat just the tip of every piece of food in your diet. 

 C’mon, seriously. I need some ideas.
OK, yeah, well just tip back a cold one at least once a day. 

Oh, I see. Nothing but “just the tip” jokes? So juvenile.
What are you, 12?