Editor’s Note: Free soloing, rock climbing without ropes and other protection, is inherently dangerous. Without proper training it is a deadly endeavor and should not be treated lightly. We recommend getting proper instruction in correct climbing techniques and wilderness first aid before undertaking any serious attempt at free soloing.
Some of my friends and family actually do think I’m a little crazy. Rock climbing without ropes or any gear beyond a simple chalk bag and maybe a helmet is not a hobby that most people casually take up. The learning curve for climbing is steep enough without throwing possible tragedy into the mix, but the growing popularity of variations like bouldering and deep water soloing have pushed the limits of the sport, and many climbers are looking for new ways to expand their skills — and, sometimes, to gain a little notoriety.
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It’s easy to point fingers and question the sanity of the man a thousand feet up one of the hardest climbs in the world. It’s much harder to really try and understand the motivations behind this all-or-nothing style of ascent. Not every climber is in the same league as Alex Honnold or Dean Potter, but for every athlete pushing farther into the unknown than ever before, there are legions of climbers out every day cranking up sport and trad routes that were impossible for them a few days or weeks ago. They know they’ll never be the professional climber, paid to climb in exotic places, or on the cover of Rock & Ice or Climbing. That’s not why they climb.
Ask that question, “Why do you climb?” to a dozen climbers and you’ll probable get a dozen answers. Some do it for fitness, others for the adrenaline rush and some may even find a bit of spiritual awakening in the mountains. Nobody does it because they have a death wish (although more than few have flirted with that line on some occasions). This summer I decided to really find out what drives me to climb, what pushes me to expand my own vertical limits. What better way to really connect with myself and with the wall than to do it like the early purists and those on the leading edge of the sport today — with no ropes and no worries?
My climbing group decided early in the season that our big free solo climb of the year was not going to be anything overly dangerous or stretching our abilities; I’m no pro, and I really enjoy living with all my bones and organs intact. With that in mind, we searched out popular local climbs that met our safety criteria: our selection needed to be easily climbable, have a reasonable escape route, and most importantly, be long and exposed enough to serve as a real gut check. We settled on the 1,100-foot West Slabs route up Mount Olympus, just a short drive from downtown Salt Lake City. At a 5.5 rating, it wasn’t much harder than climbing a rickety ladder (we see eight-year-olds regularly climb that difficulty at our gym), but the exposed face of the climb is enough to really give a climber pause. It’s not often you can sit on a ledge 200 feet up a cliff knowing that you have nowhere to safely go but up.
It’s easy to question the sanity of the man a thousand feet up without safety measures. It’s much harder to try and understand the motivations behind this all-or-nothing style of ascent.
We patterned our training to combat the gnawing feelings of doubt each of us dealt with; maybe we really were half crazy to attempt something like this. Long days of steep overhung climbing in the gym was punctuated with time at a couple of our favorite crags on very easy climbs with no rope or protection. These “easy” sessions on 30- and 40-foot walls cemented our number one safety rule: don’t push beyond your ability, because you don’t get a second chance. At the same time, my misgivings about this little expedition started to disappear. Free soloing lost its air of danger and mystique once we’d added it to our weekly repertoire. That doesn’t mean I stopped being careful or even hyper-aware of my situation; I just ratcheted up the concentration of every move, knowing that I had to trust every toe hold and finger pocket.
The morning of the big climb came, and like always, Mr. Murphy played his little part. We got turned around for fifteen minutes on our hour hike up to the wall, and that little extra anxiety had us on edge when we finally stood at the base of the cliff looking up. Despite preparation and meticulous training, I still get my own little brand of pre-climb jitters on a big day — they were doubly strong knowing that the summit was more than 1,000 feet above us and there would be no safe resting between here and there.
My subconscious took over once I got into my established rhythm: step up, test my weight, spot my hand holds and slowly, methodically pick a safe route. I left the shakes and jitters at the bottom and almost reached a meditative state. I know it sounds silly. I wasn’t after a spiritual or enlightening experience (and I don’t really recommend free soloing as a path to self discovery). I just reached a natural flow-state of effortless concentration, and it hit me: this is what climbing, and free solo climbing, specifically, is about. Instead of thinking how crazy I was for standing on the side of cliff, I was completely engrossed with the task at hand.
It’s not about how many vertical feet you log, or the difficulty rating you can send — okay, maybe it is about that for bragging rights over dinner sometimes. It’s about connecting with yourself. I may never be that professional climber, or skier, or triathlete, but now I know what drives me: to look inward and just feel right. It doesn’t matter where or when that happens for you. Just find that personal moment. For me it was a few hundred feet into my un-roped vertical journey that day, and there was nothing crazy about it.