First and foremost, I wouldn’t say that I am by any means a professional climber let alone an expert on free soloing. What I can say is that I have dabbled in free soloing a little more than I’d like to tell my friends and family (for fear that they’d tie me down to never climb again).
When it comes down to figuring out why people do it – solo that is – well, I won’t claim to understand it, but I can respect it and acknowledge that there is a certain attraction to it.
What is Free Solo Climbing?
To those that don’t know, free soloing (soloing for short) is a form of rock climbing that involves climbing a wall of rock from the ground to its peak without the use of rope or gear. In its simplest definition, soloing is being alone on the wall with just your thoughts and physical abilities for support. While sport climbing relies on fixed bolts, quickdraws, carabiners, ropes, and all sorts of other equipment to help with completing a route, soloing does not. When soloing – there is very little (if any) to aid with your climb.
My first time soloing was in Boulder, Colorado in 2016. I heard about a route that went up one of the Flat Irons. My roommate in Denver actually mentioned it to me like this, “Dude, it’s a 700 foot 5.5 of pure slab. You can almost run up it.” The numbers could differ to what the route actually is in height, but the fact remained that there was a 5.5 slab that went from the bottom to the top of the Second Flat Iron.
When I showed up and looked up the route it seemed safe enough – as safe as climbing hundreds of feet without a rope could be. The route was thin, maybe seventy-five feet wide, with access to a trail to hike down on the right-hand side. No matter how far up I went, I could always look to that trail for an easier and safer descent. So naturally I started climbing.
After about fifty feet I looked back down. The route was easy enough to get to that point but climbing back down looked more terrifying than climbing further up. I climbed on. By the time I reached the peak I was over looking the entire city of Boulder and I could see Denver shining in the morning sun in the distance and beyond that…. Kansas. More importantly, I could see the route down was an easy hike on a packed trail that lead to the parking lot where my car was.
I did a lot of thinking about the whole experience on the way home to Denver that day. I did more thinking about it the next day, and the day after that and so on until I found a 5.6 that I wanted to climb. It became my second successful ascent and afterwards I couldn’t stop thinking about soloing. My friends would ask me to go sport climbing in Golden and I’d bail to go solo a slab in Boulder. They’d ask to go bouldering in Morrison and I’d bail to go solo a wall in Clear Creek Canyon. I caught the bug and its name was “Soloing.”
I don’t condone soloing at all. I think it is dangerous and if you show up to a wall and look up and there is any doubt in your mind about the route or your climbing abilities, you probably shouldn’t do it. Even the top soloists in the world have walked away from a wall and when to walk away and when not to walk away is one of the most important parts to understand about soloing.
Now, as I sit and think about soloing my next route I am filled with a sense of wonder and excitement. Being alone on the wall, even just fifty feet up, there is a moment of lightness, a “high” if you will, that is almost indescribable. I can best associate it to a runners high when the adrenaline is flowing but not pumping, when there is an immense amount of focus but a sense of mental relaxation and comfort. Imagine when you first dive into a pool and you reach that moment of weightlessness, the same moment when you don’t feel the strain to gasp for air because you have just taken a large breath and you almost feel like you can stay there forever, that moment of utter tranquility and beauty – you, by yourself, alone. That is what is so attractive about soloing to me.
Note: Be safe out there. Climbing is inherently dangerous and soloing is even more so. Do not do anything you are not fully confident and comfortable with. But most of all HAVE FUN AND KEEP CLIMBING!
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