The process

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I’m starting a new blog, with a new purpose: To cover the entire step-by-step nitty-gritty details of my thought process and the mass of preparation that goes into preparing myself for free-solo ascents. This is my answer to the soul-searching which has gripped much of the climbing world in response to Alex Honnold’s prominence in the climbing media, and the popularity of his new film “Free Solo.” Many have come to speculate that this increased coverage will lead to foolhardy individuals rushing to the cliffs only to leap like lemmings to their inevitable doom in search of “fame” or notoriety like so many fallen Instagram selfie-shooters. The proposed solution by many: To hype the risk and danger to the point of hyperbole, and even outright falsification.

Alex Honnold soloing through “Freerider (5.13a VI)” on El Capitan (Stillshot from Free Solo)

Alex Honnold soloing through “Freerider (5.13a VI)” on El Capitan (Stillshot from Free Solo)

I don’t think this is much of a solution atall. As we’ve seen from the rash of folks falling to their doom from the wrong side of overlook barriers and tall buildings, the hype of danger is precisely what attracts attention-seekers to their untimely demise. After all, the higher the threat, the grander the reaction is bound to be #YOLO! And so they flock to the edge of the precipice, wherever they can find it.

During the film, they claim that “everyone who has made free soloing a large part of their life, has died,” and then display a montage of five free soloists who are no longer living. There’s just one problem: only two of them died soloing, and the other three were lost to non-climbing accidents. I was extremely disappointed in this because the filmmakers are immersed in the climbing world well enough to know better. Of the individuals listed as “Free Soloists” on Wikipedia, there are 18 climbers who were known for primarily soloing rock (rather than alpine, which is a whole ‘nother bag of worms) and have finished soloing, either because it simply is no longer part of their life, or because they are no longer with us. Of those eighteen climbers, only two died while soloing. Statistically speaking, Free-Soloing is less likely to kill you than what you’re holding at the end of your fork. Granted, two out of eighteen is hardly a statistically valid sample, but it goes to highlight the absurdity of the filmmaker’s statement that “everyone who practices this extensively dies,” when you consider that the majority of folks who practice this, in fact, survive. Which isn’t to say that this isn’t dangerous, mind you, it just goes to highlight what can be achieved with proper practice and preparation.

Personally, I believe that the only safety any of us has lies within our ability to make competent decisons, and that’s something we need to discuss more thoroughly. Frank discussions of risk and mitigation are what can offer a sort of “remote mentorship” in a climbing world that is rapidly expanding, and reducing the amount of one-on-one time that new climbers have with mentors. If we cover the process, and what it takes to be ready for free-soloing and other dangerous aspects of climbing, then it becomes less edgy and attractive to the pure attention seekers. If we cover the process and preparation, rather than approaching the cliff amped up to roll the dice of risk like they’ve heard on the headlines, perhaps they’ll walk up to the cliff, remember instead the words of their “heroes,” realize they aren’t ready yet, and then take a long hard look at life. There is no need to resort to falsification to explain the dangers of soloing

John Bachar soloing in Yosemite

John Bachar soloing in Yosemite

For yet another solution, an article on Fringes Folly shortly after Honnold's solo of El Cap suggested that we should all stick our heads in the sand and pretend this isn’t happening. The logic being that if we ignore soloing and stop reporting it, then maybe it will go away? I say that notion itself is folly. Soloing started long before anyone ever reported on it. And if you haven’t noticed, despite the glory certain articles claim is to be found in soloing, the internet comment machine is pretty damned negative, and even the Free Solo film was littered with quotes from Alex's peers giving admonitions that they wish he wouldn't go through with this. If you’re soloing for recognition, you won’t be doing it for long because the attention from your peers is fucking harsh. Especially when you first start doing it and don’t have a Honnold sized fan-club to back you up. At that point, everyone tells you how stupid you are and why you shouldn’t be doing this, which only feeds those who are looking for foolish notoriety. Ignoring it won’t make anyone safer because soloists are already told to quit incessantly, and they still go out to find peace on the wall. Just like you do after each conversation with your Concerned Family Member (TM).

“And I’m not talking about shaming or guilting that climber friend in your life. I’m just talking about reminding them how loved they are […]

Just maybe, we can help Honnold and some of our other brightest stars to finally rest in peace… Without having to die, first.”

–Fringes Folly, not using guilt tactics, and not at all sounding like that one friend or family member who says "I'm so glad you made it" after each of your own climbing trips

There is one big problem with the Fringes Folly article: Those same lines of logic have been used for decades by the friends and family of ordinary climbers and still hasn't stopped any of us from climbing, so why would they prevent anyone from soloing? If anything, all it does is convince them to stop talking to you. Think about it: if you had a friend who criticized your own climbing every time you met, you'd probably cut your level of interaction with that person. Clearly, this strategy is ineffective.

Furthermore, if we don’t comment on the subject thoughtfully, and if we do stick our collective heads in the sand while whispering “this isn’t happening,” then the tabloids will spray word vomit across the universe with clickbait titles unabated due to the lack of reasoned and well-thought counterpoint. Granted, there are some sorts of risk-taking that are utterly foolish, and those should be condemned. You know what type I mean. It’s the kind of thing that starts with “hold my beer and watch this,” then finishes on “Unbelayvable.” But what of Calculated Risk™? Isn’t Calculated Risk one of the most important fundamentals of climbing? Isn’t the rational calculation of risk one of the most valuable lessons gained from climbing?

Our society and our community have been exhibiting a truly bizarre relationship to the idea of risk in the last several years, and it’s cool to watch people grappling to come to terms with the fact that calculated and deep risk is not the same thing as rushed, seat-of-the-pants risk. Risk is complicated, and risk is inspiring.

-Steph Davis

If we want to change our reporting, we can start by reporting the calculation instead of just the risk. Yes, I’m looking at you, National Geographic, for breaking the story with a headline that reads like something from a trashy tabloid. “Exclusive: Climber Completes the Most Dangerous Rope-Free Ascent Ever.” I liked my title a little better: “Climber Sends El Cap After Reasonable Preparation.” In all seriousness, while I may quibble with the title, It’s just because they’re the big dog and the easy target. I do applaud Nat Geo’s coverage of Honnold’s process within the article itself. If we want to keep impressionable youngsters from soloing in a “hold my beer” moment, then it is vital that we mention process so that it becomes understood that we shan’t take these things lightly. To ignore or gloss over the notion of Calculated Risk is to limit the conversation a false portrayal of risk for it’s own sake. That’s a disservice to us all, since thoughtful deliberation of risk and it’s mitigation is a skill which is universally applicable to all humans, is it not?

Steph Davis free soloing on “Pervertical Sanctuary (5.10+)” The Diamond of Long’s Peak

Steph Davis free soloing on “Pervertical Sanctuary (5.10+)” The Diamond of Long’s Peak

On a personal note, I took to soloing nine years ago because it felt like the most obvious thing in the world to do. But I think initially I was on a crash course for something unfortunate, and I had a few scary moments. Luckily, I found the videos and blogs of Michael Reardon. I never met the guy, but I think he may very well have saved my life. Through seeing his videos and reading his words I realized there was a process that had to be respected if I wanted to live a long and happy life, and that preparation became my religion. Without that, I don’t know if I’d have made it. That is why I write this blog. From my own experience as a soloist and from watching others, I see that those who solo with regularity are drawn to it magnetically from something deep within their being, not because they want to endure the inevitable hate-storm of backlash from their peers. If one person saves himself from doing something foolish by reading my words, then it’s all worth it, including the backlash I’ve received myself, and the backlash that I know I’ll receive from a vocal few for writing this article.

Some would say that publicizing his solos or mentioning them in any way means that he is doing it for the wrong reasons. Does that mean Chris Sharma has been climbing for the wrong reason all of these years due to the publication of his sends? Is Sharma a narcissist and attention seeker for publicizing his send? Is your friend a narcissist for being happy about his first 5.10 toprope and posting it on facebook? Despite the terminology, soloing isn’t about being alone, we all are just humans in a network of other humans. Most soloists I know practice their craft as a path to freedom, rather than solitude, though often solitude pairs well. Do you expect Honnold to solo only when he’s verified that nobody is looking? The cycle is the same for all climbers: We go climbing, we have a fun time, and when we see our friends afterward they ask “how was your weekend?” For Honnold to avoid telling anybody about Freerider and his other solos, it would require a massive and sustained effort of outright bald-faced lies.

“Hey man, how’d it go today?”

-Oh you know, sat around, ate Cheetos and shot whiskey.

“But we all saw some guy alone on Freerider. That wasn’t you?”

-Oh, glory me! I wouldn’t do anything so reckless and crazy!

“But the guy we saw was wearing the exact same clothes as you.”

-Nope, not me.

“That chalk bag you just stuffed full of Cheetos and whiskey is the same one that I saw soloing El Cap.”

-Still not me.

“We had a telephoto lens, this picture shows your face.”

-What if it just looks like my face due to quantum microlensing? Einstein predicted things like this could happen.

Mike Reardon on “Romatic Warrior (5.12b 8p)”

Mike Reardon on “Romatic Warrior (5.12b 8p)”

Even if Honnold had no film crew, and went out wholly alone, hiding his sends would be devoid of integrity. If we don’t believe it is appropriate to lie about our sends, why would we pressure someone into lying to cover up his sends? For my part, if you ask me a direct question like “what did you climb this weekend,” I’m going to give you a straight and truthful answer. I absolutely refuse to look you in the face and lie, even through omission. That sort of disingenuous behavior is the exact opposite of the “Brave and Humble” attitude we claim to idolize.

Like the rest of you, I don’t want to encourage anyone to solo, but I can’t in good conscience ignore the fact that people are going to solo. There have been soloists since the beginning of climbing, and there always will be. That is a reality that we cannot escape. But lets think honestly for a moment: Free soloing has been popularized for decades with media coverage of folks like Peter Croft, Dan Osman, and heck .. John Bachar even starred in TV commercials. Alain Robert is one of the most publicized solos of all time having soloed numerous 5.13’s and scaled numerous of the world’s tallest buildings, often with TV coverage, promotion, and even a paycheck for the event. If media coverage inspires copycats, then we have to ask: where are the copycats falling off of skyscrapers who’ve been inspired by his media coverage? The truth is that the proliferation of safe styles of climbing and well-bolted sport crags, free-soloing is less popuar now than ever because there are simply easier ways to climb. Despite the popular characterization of the genre in films such as Masters of Stone, we have not seen a rise in the percentage of climbers free-soloing, or even of foolhardy copycats getting into trouble.

Given that, the most important story here becomes Honnold’s extensive preparation, rather than the risk he worked so hard to mitigate. Freerider goes at 12d/13a, but Honnold can onsight 5.13+. Alex has climbed El Cap seven times in a seven-day span and holds the current speed record on The Nose. The scoop here isn’t that a brash youngster survived a brush with death. The strongest headline is the notion that Honnold prepared himself so thoroughly that Freerider felt like little more than a morning jog. He was so fresh after his ascent that he went back to his van for an afternoon fingerboarding session.

The way we deal with risk as a community is awkward and sometimes backward. We laud mountaineers who court death as an old friend but lambast Honnold for the best prepared and most controlled ascent of his life. Life is an inherently dangerous sport, so I’ve always felt as long as the risks you take are commensurate with the preparation you make, then everything is copacetic. Even if your mom will never admit it. Actually, hold on… Even Alex’s mom is supportive of his climbing. How many of you can say that for yourself? If Alex’s mom is okay with his soloing, then who are we to judge?

Austin HowellComment