Podcast: Should I Free Solo?
I used to free solo, but I don’t anymore.
I was living in Wyoming in the early 1980s. It was a time when climbers did all disciplines. We climbed single pitches, multi-pitches, ice, mountains, boulders…
We did it all, including free soloing. John Bachar set the standard by pushing free solo limits in Yosemite and Joshua Tree. We looked up to him and we shared a certain understanding that all legit climbers did it to some degree.
We’d free solo in Fremont Canyon, WY. above the waters of the North Platte river, which gave us a feeling of safety. Water would be released from Pathfinder Reservoir causing high water to flow through the canyon. If we fell, we’d plunge into the river. But, we never fell and never tested it to see if the water was deep enough. And, we even soloed when the water was low, when it hadn’t been released to create high water. Simply seeing water below us gave us a sense of safety and we used it to our advantage.
One day I went by myself to Dome Rock, about 20 miles from Fremont. Dome Rock is in the middle of nowhere. It was a Wednesday and no one else was climbing there; I was all alone.
I decided to free solo a 5.9 crack route I’d never climbed before. I began climbing and reached a bulge about 40 feet up. It looked difficult, harder than 5.9, but I figured out a way to climb it. I continued and reached another bulge at about 80 feet up. It looked even more difficult, but I figured it out and continued.
Then, for the first time, I really looked in detail at the rest of the route; it looked even harder above. I realized I wasn’t on a 5.9 route; I was probably on the wrong route. I looked down and saw boulders and the hard desert floor.
Dome Rock doesn’t have water below it so the false safety I had at Fremont was removed. The full realization of my predicament hit me hard. The bulges that I’d climbed were difficult and would be even harder to down-climb.
I had to make a decision: continue climbing into the unknown or down-climb the difficult bulges risking falling off.
In the movie Free Solo, Alex Honnold said:
“…the free soloing mentality is pretty close to warrior culture, where you give something 100-percent focus because your life depends on it.”
I think he’s accurate when he equates the free solo mentality to that of warriors. However, we need to dig into it a bit more to understand our motivations.
Consider two samurai warriors locked in a deadly duel. The goal is clear: survive by killing the opponent. The consequence is also clear: you die if you lose.
How should they be motivated?
Goals are always achieved in the future. If the warriors are motivated by the goal—survive by killing the opponent—then their attention will dwell on their desire to win instead of what they’re doing in the moment.
Being motivated by their desire to fight shifts their attention into the present, focused on actions they’re actually doing. Additionally, however, they need to come to terms with the consequence: their death.
Death can advise and teach us to live our lives in meaningful ways. Death lays our lives raw before us and free soloing is an activity that does that better than most others.
Free soloing offers us the opportunity for difficult questions
Free soloing can offer us the opportunity to ask the difficult questions about why we’re here and how we’ll fill the content of our lives.
- “Is a long life better than a short life? If so, why? If not, why not?”
- “What’s important to me; how do I want to live my life?”
- “What’s important to my family and friends; what happens to their lives if I die?”
I don’t think there’s a right answer to any of these questions. Rather, it’s a personal choice that has consequences. We each need to come to terms with our choices and accept responsibility for the consequence and their effects on those we leave behind.
Free soloing does require a warrior mentality. It clarifies the goal: without a rope, we have to climb, and not fall, to succeed. It also clarifies the consequence: we die if we fall.
The stark clarity of both the goal and the consequence eliminates any gray area. Thus, it can heighten our focus on climbing well, to do the necessary work to prepare. Our motivation needs to drive us squarely towards training ourselves to climb well.
I interviewed Alex after his free solo of El Capitan. He said that doubt is the enemy. We can diminish doubt if we prepare well.
Alex used to think he needed “mental armor” to keep fear at bay. He applied this technique on his free solo of Half Dome. That tactic failed him when he reached Thank God Ledge three-quarters of the way up the wall. The mental armor couldn’t keep out the doubt. He told me he doesn’t believe that’s the best strategy anymore.
Rather, a better strategy is preparing well to expand our comfort zones, so much so, that they now include the risk we’re considering. And preparing well is exactly what Alex did. He spent years preparing himself for free soloing El Capitan.
Free soloists need to train as warriors
Warrior training addresses physical, mental, and spiritual aspects for fighting well. Our bodies need to be physically fit so they can withstand the demands of battle. Physical training also includes learning to fight, which addresses how warriors wield weapons to neutralize threats.
Free soloists need to train to create strong bodies for climbing with skill to wield weapons of how they move over stone.
Warriors train mentally so they’ll be able to focus their attention on the task of fighting. Learning this skill requires them to understand their motivation. If they’re motivated to bolster their egos, then they’ll be driven to achieve the goal at any cost and increase their chances of dying. If they’re motivated by learning, then they’ll examine the risk, the consequences, and their level of skill to deal with them.
Free soloists need to be motivated by learning how to focus their attention so they can be focused 100-percent on the task.
Warriors train spiritually also. They come to terms with dying for the nation they’ve committed to protect. They learn to value the whole (the nation) over the part (themselves). This value of the “whole”, over the “part”, shifts their attention toward connecting with and making sense of their place in the world. They will serve and risk the ultimate sacrifice: death. They may be religious and believe in God, or they may be atheists, but a focus on service shifts their attention to something larger, which is spirituality in general.
Free soloists need to love free soloing. That love allows them to express themselves in their own authentic way as they connect to and make sense of their place in the world.
Training creates an intentional way of living
All this training creates an intentional way of living. We’re motivated to be in the midst of the experience itself where we apply our training. This is the warrior’s way, the way we choose to live our lives.
I think a lot of climbers don’t approach climbing or life in this way.
Instead of being intentional, they use the seriousness of the situation to force them to focus. They may fear falling and use that fear to force them to climb. They rush to the next comfortable stance, being afraid the whole time.
This approach puts them into inappropriate situations where they could injure themselves if they fall and they simply climb to get it over-with. Their attention leaps from one comfortable stance to the next, devaluing the experience in-between, where living a meaningful life happens.
Paradoxically, free soloists, who have prepared well, could be safer than rope climbers who use fear to drive them.
Alex also said,
“This is your path and you will pursue it with excellence.”
To me, this points to Alex being driven by love-based motivation. Free soloing resonates with him, just as big-wall free climbing resonates with Tommy Caldwell, or bouldering resonates with Nina Williams.
Free soloing is in Alex’s DNA and he sees it as his path. His motivation allows him to pursue excellence because it’s driven by a love for the activity itself. He enjoys being up high, relying only on his thorough preparation.
Back on the Dome Rock solo
Back on Dome Rock, I had a decision to make to get myself out of the predicament I’d climbed myself into. While my weakness is a lack of thorough preparation, my strength is taking action. I made the decision to down-climb. Then, I focused fully on it and successfully made it down.
My lack of preparation caused me to take an inappropriate risk that I was lucky to escape. That experience shook my confidence. I haven’t done much free soloing after that. Perhaps that was all it took for me to realize my motivation for doing it was wrong. I realized my joy in climbing comes from being on ropes and in multi-pitch terrain. That’s what I love, so that’s what I do now.
I choose not to free solo because I don’t really see the benefit for me. I have a family, an important business, and feel those are much more important than whatever I could gain from free soloing.
Death is the great equalizer. It doesn’t care if we’re rich or poor, prepared for a risk or not, a nice person or an egotistical one. All the clarity of goal, consequence, and preparation might not keep death at bay.
We might do everything right and still die free soloing. Yet, isn’t that the predicament we’re all in? Some people are dying right now from sudden illnesses, car crashes, or violence, thinking they did everything right, and yet, they’re still dying. If it’s our time to die, then death will claim us.
However, we shouldn’t take that as an excuse to be haphazard in our risk-taking. Rather, we use the stark realities of our death to reveal what’s most important for living our lives, for what’s truly enriching for us and those we’re connected to.
Practice Tip: The Free Solo Decision
Many climbers question whether or not they should free solo at some point in their climbing careers.
Have you questioned yourself? Such decisions are personal and include serious consequences. Accept responsibility for your decisions and the consequences of those decisions.
If you do decide to do it, then train yourself like a warrior:
- Physically train yourself so you have a strong body for climbing. One benefit for being physically strong is the belief that comes with it. You know you’re strong. Train all the climbing skills needed for climbing in such situations so you can wield the necessary weapons to move over stone.
- Mentally train yourself by becoming intimately familiar with your motivation so you know what’s driving you. Make sure you’re motivated by the love of free soloing and the willingness to do the work to prepare yourself. Specifically, learn how to focus your attention so you can be focused 100-percent on the task.
- Spiritually train yourself to serve something. Free soloing needs to be an expression of what it means for you to live fully. It needs to give you a feeling of connecting with something larger, serving the world in your own authentic way. Know that death is a real consequence. Your death won’t just impact you. Weigh your decision against your responsibilities to others.