Things We Shouldn’t Have Done: I Regret Ever Free Soloing

In the past I’d had the same concerns, but this time it all hit me again. That could have been me.

Photo: R A Kearton / Getty Images

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In the memoir End of the Rope, Jan Redford talks about attending the memorial of her longtime climber friend and fellow—though that’s a funny word for it—woman guide Niccy. “She’d been climbing an easy route beside her students as they learned to lead and she hadn’t roped up,” Redford wrote. Something had happened; Niccy’s student heard an exclamation. The exuberant and giving Niccy fell 300 feet.

End of the Rope came my way at this magazine in 2018, when the book was published. At the time I was busy and didn’t read it, though we on staff supported it, as we often do with mountain literature, with a quote and small photo in print, also a sizable excerpt on our website. Last week I picked the book back up—and whipped through it in three evenings. Redford is a great observer and scene setter, her book is well-paced, and she is almost shockingly honest about her own issues, fears, loves, dreams, and volatility.

The book is one of the best I have ever known for showing the savage effects of climbing deaths on loved ones, and Canadians—Redford is from Calgary—have had their share and then some in the mountains. Years ago I picked up the book The Fragile Edge by Maria Coffey with some trepidation and perhaps even huffy resistance: Coffey was not a climber, rather the partner of Joe Tasker, who disappeared with Peter Boardman on Everest in 1982. I put the book down, however, with huge admiration for her writing and insight, and the greater-context picture she gave, including a very honest and affecting rendition of what it is like to be the less visible romantic partner of a celebrated person, while her own career at the time was unfulfilling. I read the book at least 15 years ago and still remember that.

Niccy Code, climber and guide. Photo: Courtesy Counterpoint Books.

Redford, though, was a longtime climber, and experienced an equally earth-shattering loss as an active member of that—our—world. Her book shows how one event leads to others, and others, forward into the years and generations.

I had some connection with Niccy; I knew a little of that accident. It was on Castle Rock, Leavenworth, Washington, 1991, on a 5.4 named Saber, one I have done. I lived and guided in Leavenworth, sharing a small A-frame with my friend Katie Kemble, for a fun summer in the mid-80s, employed by Jim Donini and his outfit, Leavenworth Alpine Guides.

It was my third year of instructing, the previous season in Southern California, the one before that in North Wales. In the UK I had worked at the national mountain center as an international “voluntary instructor,” for room, board and a stipend, and had mostly taught rock courses. It was at that time (not now) customary there to teach students how to lead by soloing ahead, advising them and inspecting their gear placements. We instructors each carried a slim 100-foot section of 9-mil and a few nuts, not for us, but to bang in and set up a belay if the student needed it.

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Soloing was a long tradition in the UK, and that was the expectation, and I felt trusted as a climber, and did it. I was usually OK but expressed reluctance at least once that I can remember, in the rain on the long quartzy slabs of Idwal. One of my guide friends, though, ribbed me: “Oh, come on, Alison, sheep climb these things.” I remember soloing at least one other time in the rain. I shouldn’t have. I shouldn’t have done any of it.

At the memorial for Niccy, students stepped up one after another to say how strong and capable she’d always made them feel. Niccy’s mother asked for others to send her stories of her daughter.

“I wanted to get up and tell everyone I’d felt the same way when I climbed with Niccy,” Redford writes. “She’d brought out the climber in me. … But my voice wouldn’t work.” She could only sob.

Coincidentally, the day I finished the book I read a New York Times article on Maya Lin, the architect who designed the Vietnam Memorial and is overseeing a renovation of the library at Smith College. Lin’s mother, an international student, attended the college.

“If she had not gotten that scholarship to go to Smith, she wouldn’t have gotten out of China,” Lin said, “which meant she wouldn’t have met my dad. Poof! In an instant, I don’t exist.”

In the past I’d had concerns, but this time it all hit me again, both Jan Redford’s and Maya Lin’s words, and kept me awake that night. Niccy could have been me.

“This accident also demonstrates that even the most experienced are not immune from accidents,” an American Alpine Club accident report concluded. Niccy was 30.

All it takes is one thing to go wrong … for life-changing, lasting, exponential effects. Sound familiar in our pandemic world?

The next morning I told my son, who last year was living and working in London until returning when the pandemic hit, that one summer long ago in the UK I sometimes taught leading by soloing, and that the thought scares me now.

“I fall, and poof! You don’t exist.”

“Roy either,” he said, of his younger brother. He smiled and shook his head. “The world wouldn’t have Roy.”

He then asked, palms upturned in a faint gesture of impatience, “Why did you do it?”

I said I was 21 turning 22 that summer, and in fact did a very little more after that, on both the East and West Coasts of America. It was only two or three years later, after sometimes being pressured to solo easy approach or finishing pitches (practices common in that era), that I gained the conviction to refuse. That is a story I have told before, for this same publication many years ago, but it bears repeating. In those few years, I could have been Poof!


This article was originally posted May 17, 2021.

Below, an old but good video. I have watched it several times, thanking the guy’s lucky stars.

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