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Free Soloing Sucks (And Why We’re Going to Cover It Anyway)

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In 1998, after the end of my first serious romantic relationship, I entered a period of active free soloing. It wasn’t that I wanted to die; it’s just that I was in emotional pain and wanted to climb, a lot, to exorcise that pain. Doing so without a rope seemed like the best, most efficient approach. No partners, no planning, no hassles. I was not influenced by videos or photos of free soloists, or campfire stories of unroped derring-do. It was my decision, and mine alone. So, at least in this case, we can set aside the age-old criticism that the “climbing media influenced me to go free soloing.” Because it didn’t. It never has. In fact, I’d warrant that it rarely does because free soloing is so committing, and so scary, that if you’re up there without a rope for any reason other than you want to be, you’ll likely turn tail and down-climb the minute you enter the no-fall zone. Or you’ll get a taste of it, sketch through, and never come back again. Or you’ll be one of those rare souls who seems to thrive on that energy, and if so, more power (and safe climbing) to you. Or you’ll find out just one moment too late that free soloing isn’t for you, and you’ll fall off and get very hurt or die.

I’d soloed on and off all my life, mostly on moderate rock and alpine terrain. But that year I soloed properly difficult vertical rock climbs in the Flatirons, Boulder Canyon, and Eldorado, often onsight, on grades up to 5.11.

One day I started up Back in Slacks, a 50-foot 5.11c in the Flatirons. This modest sport climb on the Hand formation has four bolts up a hueco’ed wall that becomes bald up high, with tiny crimps and a sloper-mantel lip past a pin (now gone). Not that I was clued into this beta as I laced up my rock shoes, or even felt that I needed to consider the terrain ahead. I had onsighted the route in 1992, six years earlier, on a rope and felt confident that I’d just walk up and climb it again. It never entered my head that Back in Slacks might feel different unroped, or that I’d forgotten where the crux was or how to do it, or that 5.11c sans cord was pretty fucking hard.

I reached the third bolt where the huecos ran out and chalked up on a jug. There was nobody around, just a few swifts circling in the ether. I looked down at the ground, 30 feet away, red with sandstone dust and dotted with Oregon grape. I had no premonition or twinge of fear in my gut. I felt fine: There I was, simply climbing, out on the rock on a warm spring day in the sun. No reason not to continue.

Above the jug, you enter the thin-face moves. As I pulled onto the sandpapery edges and rocked over a high foot, I realized my sequence was probably irreversible—and that I really had no idea what to do at the lip. I was committed in a way I hadn’t accounted for. Suddenly, it all began to fall apart: I trembled as I matched hands on the top of the wall and surveyed the slab above. Nobody had done the route in a while, and the lip holds had a thin veneer of pollen and pine needles. I alternated between two slimpers, brushing off the holds, chalking, up, eyeing a distant horizontal seam over the slab with a piton in it.

That was my target. But….how to get there? I had no real plan. The wall below me was smooth for the feet, and a small solution hole next to the pin was out of reach.

I looked down at the ground. I could almost hear the whoosh of air in my ears and feel the ground rushing up and then the brittle, electrical-shock impact of my legs jackhammering into the ground—it was tangible, bitter, like licking a spoon that has held coffee grounds. Maybe I’d survive the 40-foot fall and maybe not. I’d fallen that far before, but on a rope, generating so much force that the sheath burned running through the draws. I remember feeling like I was in the air for hours

This sucks, I thought. What the hell am I doing here? And: This is total nonsense. What a shit way to die.

“Area climber found dead below Back in Slacks,” the headlines would read. Try explaining that one to mom and dad….

Now, my forearms burned. I needed to move. Jittery, unsolid, acting on animal instinct, I hastily smeared my left foot on the smooth stone, jacked my right foot up onto the slab, pressed into it unsteadily and stabbed at the solution pocket, latching it with my fingertips just as I began to barn-door off. I choked up on the hold, seizing it with a fever-grip, and stood on my foot, surging over the lip. I’d been millimeters from falling, and I’m still not sure why I didn’t. I’d barely caught the slot.

Other soloists in similar situations have not been so lucky. Free soloists make mistakes and fall and die. Holds break. Storms come in. It happens. Often. Even the greats aren’t exempt: Jimmy Jewel, a renowned British soloist of the 1980s, fell to his death in 1987 while climbing unroped up a moderate route at Tremadog in running shoes and his backpack, taking a shortcut back to the local climber’s hut. Derek Hersey, who could more often be seen in Eldorado Canyon climbing without a rope than with one, died on Yosemite’s Steck-Salathé in 1993, likely the result of rain-slicked rock. And John Bachar, with Peter Croft perhaps the name most associated with free soloing in the 1980s and ‘90s, fell to his death in 2009 while climbing unroped at the Dike Wall near Mammoth, California, the exact cause of his fall unknown.

The bottom line is, free soloing sucks. It’s lethal, there’s no room for error, and your life can go from “Here I am having a great day out, moving over stone getting some mileage in, just me and the rock,” to “Oh fuck, oh shit, oh God, oh–” BLAM. DEAD.

It’s stupid.

Just like that. You make one little mistake, or a hold breaks, or you get distracted, or you get gripped and start making bad decisions, and you no longer exist. That’s not “cool” or “cutting edge” or “sexy.” It’s easy to understand why free soloing engenders such visceral reactions in climbers, including the standard criticism that the media shouldn’t cover it because of the extreme nature of the activity and the notion that it might inspire young, easily influenced climbers to take up the pursuit and risk an untimely end.

But here’s the thing: As dumb and selfish and potentially self-destructive as free soloing is, it is also part of our sport and has been since forever. And it always will be. Some climbers will choose to climb unroped, and they should be free to do so, just like the rest of us are free to choose how we climb. Before our modern era of safe, comfortable harnesses, shiny nuts and cams, bomber protection bolts, and stretchy ropes, the early climbers in the Alps and the UK and North America for good reason followed a “The leader must never fall” ethos—if you pitched on the sharp end, your rope was more likely to break than not. And even if it did catch you, tied around your waist as it was, it was likely to burst your organs. So, in essence, every time you led a pitch you were free soloing. (Seconds had it wayyy better back then.) Not to mention all the first ascents in the mountains—think of John Muir’s 1869 FA, all alone, of the lower-fifth-class Cathedral Peak in Tuolumne Meadows—that were simply straight-up free solos. Our sport has a legacy of free soloing. You can’t deny this. It’s not going away just because climbing has gotten safer.

And here’s the other thing: All climbing is dangerous. So should the climbing media just not cover anything lest it get someone hurt? I’ve known climbers who have died bouldering, leading moderate trad routes, and hiking down trade routes on Mount Rainier. And we’ve all read about fatal accidents at sport areas due to belayer error, sharp-edged permadraw biners, misassembled quickdraws, and so on. People even die in rock gyms when they forget to clip or tie in. Shit happens. Climbers die. Climbing is dangerous. It always will be.

I climbed a lot with Michael Reardon, another renowned free soloist, in the years before his death. Ultimately it was the sea that took him—a rogue wave breaking over him on Valentia Island, Ireland, after he’d just descended off a free-solo first ascent in 2007—but he certainly pushed the edge unroped. On a weeklong trip we took to the Needles, California, in 2004, Michael would wake up before dawn, run out to the granite spires, and start soloing while I slept. By the time I met him at the cliffs at 9 a.m., he’d already climbed stacks of pitches. One morning I came out and sat on a big boulder in the high, windswept col between The Witch and The Sorcerer, tasting the Ponderosa on the breeze and letting the sunlight warm my face. Michael was on the top pitch of the perfectly cleaved three-pitch crack line Igor Unchained (5.9+) on the Witch, and we chatted and made jokes across the void as he floated up the rock. Then, he got his fingers stuck in a fingerlock.

“Huh,” he said. “My fingers are stuck.” There was no fear or panic in his voice; only amusement. However, I began to notice that for me, as an observer, this was uncomfortable to watch, even though I knew Michael was solid and even though we’d free soloed a fair bit together, in Joshua Tree and the High Sierra. After five minutes of wiggling, he extricated his hand and climbed on to the summit, easily, naturally, joking about what had happened. Here was a man in his element. He was never nervous, but I certainly had been, illustrating one of the great truths of free soloing: It’s much more difficult to watch than to do. Perhaps this is because we dread seeing something terrible—a fatal slip—or perhaps it’s because, since we’re all climbers, we can all too easily imagine what it would be like to be on a given climb without a rope. And so we picture ourselves there, whether we want to or not, feel a cold rush of fear, and then instinctively, protectively lash out at the source of our fear: the soloist who has forced us to imagine said predicament.

How dare he? We think. That’s reckless!

But really what we should be asking ourselves is: Why am I having this reaction? Perhaps to be followed with a reminder: My reaction need not be binary. In other words, you are allowed to feel both admiration for and dis-ease with free soloing. We are allowed to be nuanced and conflicted in our thinking. Hell, in our latest reader poll, the majority (50 percent) of respondents said that Alex Honnold’s June 2017 free solo of El Capitan via Free Rider (VI 5.13a) evoked both reactions—more than had either reaction alone. (Some 39 percent were just inspired, while 6 percent were just queasy—and 6 percent said they were “turned off—the media should not cover free soloing.”)

Later in our trip, Michael took another lap on Igor while I waited at the base so we could head off to another route nearby. As he started up, a couple showed up to try Igor then realized he was soloing above them. The woman promptly pulled her sun hat over her face and hid beneath a rock, one arm raised to occlude her view of Michael, seemingly trying to will away what was happening. Not once during the 15 minutes it took Michael to top out did she look up or even speak. She was paralyzed, with something. Fear? Anger? Both? We never did ask her. But I’m certain that her reaction was like that of others who have criticized free soloing, and who often have the climbing media in their sights for running images of ropeless climbers: abhorrence, of some sort.

And I’m not saying that they’re wrong to have this reaction. I’m simply saying that it doesn’t change the reality that climbers free solo, and that it is a legitimate part of the sport we in the media would be remiss in not covering, at least to some degree. Should we just not cover it at all? Because if soloing goes, then alpinism goes. And if alpinism goes, then highball bouldering goes. And if highballing goes, then hard, sketchy trad climbing goes. And if trad goes, then hard aid goes. And so on, till all we’re left reporting on is people clipped into six different autobelays wearing padded sumo suits and triple-layered helmets bumbling up 5.4 jug ladders over a padded floor.

Doesn’t sound very interesting, does it? Not much of a story there.

Yes, the media should not “glorify” free soloing, but to my mind simply documenting it is not glorifying it. We are presenting one reality of our sport, even if it sucks, even if it’s lethal. Even if it makes us all feel a little bit queasy. (Even Alex Honnold has admitted he doesn’t like to watch free soloing.) And to anyone who would free solo simply because they saw it in a magazine or a climbing film, I’ll say this: Don’t. But I would say the same thing to a climber who wanted to take up hard aid or sketchy trad or highballing for similar reasons: Only do it because you want to. Only climb the things you want to climb because the desire is in you, not because of what someone else is doing or something you saw in the media.

I’ve since been back to Back in Slacks, always with a rope and a TCU to pop into the slot where the pin used to be. It was my wife’s project back before we had kids, and we’d hike up there and she’d try it. She came close, very close, more than once but always forgot some nuance at the lip. And so she’d fall, sagging onto the rope, caught by a fat 1/2” bolt. And I’d shudder a little each time, picturing myself there unroped all those years ago, plummeting to earth when I missed the move. Picturing what could have been. Picturing the unthinkable.

Film: How Matt Cornell Free Soloed One of America’s Classic Hard Mixed Routes

"The Nutcracker" explores the mental challenges of solo climbing and the tactics Cornell used to help him send the route.