Free soloing is by far the most fascinating type of rock climbing. Nothing compares to the thrill of something with such high consequence. Free solo climbing is done without a partner and without a rope, or any other protective gear for that matter. With nothing to catch a falling climber, mistakes mean almost certain death. But this is only one of several styles of climbing, safer options exist.
The Whole Family
To the layperson, rock climbing methods and techniques can be hard to understand. But the basic differences between two of the most well-known styles, are not so hard to grasp.
Unaided free climbing can take a few different forms: sport climbing, trad climbing, free solo, top rope climbing, and rope solo. Trad climbing requires two people, who make their way up to a rock face one after the other, connected by high-strength nylon rope. Special pieces of protection, called chocks and cams, are placed into the features of the rock along the way.
If the first climber – the lead climber – falls, he will only fall twice the distance to the last piece of protection he placed in the rock. However, Trad climbers become somewhat used to these “whippers”, as falls are known. It’s just a part of the sport, and it sure beats the alternative.
Why even climb?
People are drawn to climbing for all sorts of reasons. It’s a way to escape the urban environment, to trade it for a more natural one. The remoteness of most climbs encourages people to explore areas they might not otherwise visit. And as a full body workout, few can compare to the strength and flexibility promoted by climbing.
Other reasons have more to do with psychological benefits. Like other forms of exercise, climbing promotes mental health and emotional well-being. But climbing offers something much more unique than that, something found in few other sports.
Free climbers can enter a type of “zen state” that is derived from the extreme focus on the present moment. The calculated moves and the extreme consequences of a mistake, require a climber to be hyper-focused and aware. This intense focus pulls them into close alignment with the present moment. The climber is able to find a meditative type of inner tranquility. Think of it like mindfulness on steroids.
For non-climbers, it’s hard to imagine finding peace within the fear of being quickly escorted back to earth by gravity.
Trad climbing is pretty equipment-intensive, it is moderately expensive. At a minimum, it requires a climbing rope, climbing shoes, a harness, a chalk bag, carabiners, chocks, and cams. You can find a complete list of what you’ll need in our Rock Climbing Essentials Checklist article.
What’s the danger level?
Trad climbing is thought to be one of the safer types of free climbing, however, it still has an element of danger. The most common injuries are cuts and scrapes associated with falls; broken bones are possible but far less likely. Catastrophic failure of equipment is a possibility, as is human error. These can lead to more serious injury or even death.
In fact, people die every year while trad climbing. But people within the climbing community know that the real danger is in free soloing.
Free soloing is the purest form of free climbing that exists, and with that purity comes extreme consequence. As with other types of free climbing, climbers use only their hands and feet to make their way up the rock face. Some are attracted to the clean style of using only climbing shoes and a bag of chalk. But this means that a fall – something which is fairly common in trad climbing – is always serious, but usually fatal. Climbing to a height of fifty meters means falling fifty meters in the event of an accident.
Who would dare?
Only expert climbers choose to free solo, and usually, they will only climb routes that they have climbed before, with rope protection. This guarantees a certain level of comfort and confidence with that route. They might even stick to climbs that are slightly beneath their skill level, just to add a measure of safety to an otherwise perilous endeavor.
Even so, the majority of expert free climbers will never attempt to free solo. Those who climb without protection are a different breed, and many of the sport’s original heroes have died while doing what they love.
With such inherent danger, it’s a topic of intense debate within the rock climbing world. Some climbers are vehemently opposed to it, they see it as irresponsible and foolhardy. Others find it intriguing while conceding that they would personally never give it a go.
The sport received a fair amount of attention from mainstream media and popular audiences recently, when National Geographic released the documentary film, Free Solo. The film tells the story of climber Alex Honnold and his attempt to free solo the massive granite face El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, California.
Yosemite is the hotbed of all rock climbing in America, and a mecca of the global climbing scene. Climbing routes have been solved elsewhere in the United States: the East Coast, the Continental Divide, and other parts of California.
Faster and Lighter
It’s a male-dominated sport, the well-known soloists have all been men. It’s hard to say why that is, some would argue that men are generally more attracted to high-risk activities.
The lack of equipment and the time saved by not having to place protection in the rock makes free soloing a lot faster than trad climbing. Alex Honnold was able to free solo El Capitan in four hours, something that usually takes three days, and requires climbers to spend the night on the rock face.
The lack of burdensome equipment, the increased speed of ascents, and the intense individuality of free soloing make it uniquely attractive to some climbers. And the sheer boldness and danger of the sport make it fascinating to non-climbers as well. Free Solo was one of the highest-grossing American documentary films ever produced. It went on to win an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, proving that the interest in free solo climbing goes beyond the climbing world and into the general audience.
Almost no one exclusively climbs this way. The free soloing community is small, and most guys who do it tend to do it here and there only. They use it to supplement the time they spend either trad climbing or sport climbing.
It tends to fill a certain chapter in a climber’s career as well: later in life, when extreme skill has developed. But no matter how good you are, it’s still really dangerous; most guys will stop once they have a family.
It’s probably safe to say that free soloing is a young man’s game. A peculiar pastime for young, expert climbers, who don’t yet have a wife and kids. You don’t need a death wish to climb without protection, but you must at least be acquainted with the idea of your own demise.