S1 E3 - Sport Soloing

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After “Twinkie” and “Beta-Vul Pipeline,” I’d checked the boxes on pumpy steep and bouldery steep. Time to branch out.

Typically, if I can onsight a route, then I can turn around and solo it. The nice thing about an onsight is that you either climb it like a trash can, or you spend so much time thinking that you burned yourself out. Glory to the onsight, because rare is the instance where you perform each move perfectly and without hesitation on the first go.

Back in the spring, I’d onsighted “Knuckle Sauce” at the Deep End with a rope, and I had a notion that it would be a good candidate with solid holds and solid moves to return for a solo. Meanwhile, during my week of beatdown disappointment before Twinkie, I’d dialed in “Check Your Grip” at Drive-By Crag after botching the onsight while climbing in crummy conditions

Both routes involved slopers, which usually give me anxiety, but as I’d been building my base at 5.12- this season, and already had two solos at the grade, I was already starting to feel like a more competent soloist and thought I could rise to the occasion.

Walking out to the Deep End alone felt empowering. While initially, I’d balked at needing a rope to lower-off of routes, I realized that having the cord allowed me to rope-solo the route to practice the movements so I could dial the climb and send same-day.

My heart is drawn toward endless circuits. Routes with top outs are the “traditional” sort of solo. You can just run round and round and round like a squirrel on cocaine sending route after route after route… to that end, I’ve had many marathon days. Hell, my first weekend of soloing ever involved sending 32 of my favorite routes at Enchanted Rock in two days.

Later in my soloing life, I soloed 50 laps in 5 hours at Sandrock Alabama.

I soloed 5700 vertical feet worth of laps on fifteen different multipitch routes between 300 and 450 each, a bit over a vertical mile, at Shortoff Mountain in North Carolina in the space of only ten hours. Up to 11d, including an 11d onsight.

While fun, Mega Milage days can be a bit taxing

While fun, Mega Milage days can be a bit taxing

This summer I had a day where I soloed 20 pitches in a single day at Devils Lake, half onsight.

This is how I’ve maintained a lifestyle where I’ve performed more pitches in the past 6 years without a rope than I have with one. That sort of freedom is why I enjoy Devil’s Lake more than The Red, at least so far.

How I’ve been soloing this season is so different compared to how I’ve soloed in the past, that I’ve adopted tongue-in-cheek terminology to separate the two. Circuit soloing, topping out, all finger-powered with no rope on both the up and the down… that’s Traditional or “trad soloing.” Sport Soloing is my semi-derogatory term for this style where I have to faff abut with ropes and gear to return my carcass to floor level due to lack of a topout or acceptable downclimb.

On the bright side though, sport soloing allows me to inspect and to rehearse moves by myself as well. So now not only is the ultimate send solo, but also the practice beforehand, and I’ve actually come to grow fond of the style. So fond in fact that I’ve joined a roped-soloing group on facebook, and ordered a new set of hardware specifically for the task.

So I felt pretty good about walking into The Deep End alone, even if I had a pack on my back, because I was still self-powered, and that’s what I enjoy about this game so much. Granted, the ultimate goal is to free solo circuits with human power alone, but soloing of any kind is still deeply satisfying. I think anyone who’s ever walked through the woods by themselves can understand that to a certain degree.

As previously mentioned, getting up is only half the battle. You’ve gotta find a way down too. While previous climbing indicated that Knuckle Sauce was a good candidate for going up, there was no topout, and the anchor ended 5 ft before a holdless mud-slicked bulge.

The best style I could hope for would be to hang a short bit of knotted rope from a tree, down to the anchor. In that way, I could return to climb the route as a trad-solo while leaving the hardware and climbing rope at home.

The easiest way to trad solo is when you can walk down from the top. So first I set about trying to walk up to the top with my webbing and hand-rope to see if I could find a suitable anchoring point. I walked a hundred yards to the right of the cliff, and only got myself lost. I’d learned after Twinkie though, and wore jeans to protect my shins. Which was fortunate, because I still had bloody hashtag marks all over my calves and shins from the walks up to the top and back down from Twinkie weeks prior.

There was another pair of climbers at the cliff. I’m absolutely terrible with names, in the future I’m going to have to take a notepad to make sure I give credit where it’s due. Anyhow, they suggested that there was a walk up far to the left. So I set off in that direction for two hundred yards or so and came up empty-handed.


The next best option was to find an easier solo which went to the top so that I could hopefully downclimb it after the deed. There was a 5.8 trad climb that would do the trick. Starting up the initial 15 ft was a sketchy and fruitless endeavor. While the climbing was easy, the rock was either brittle or slicked with moss and grime. There are loads of easy routes out there that you could likely do in high-heels which I wouldn’t be caught soloing on this side of hell. This was one such route.

Turns out it was fortunate that I didn’t waste any more time here. Those other climbers topped out adjacent and reported back that it wasn’t actually the top of the cliff line, but just a false summit.

Sport soloing it is.

So I returned to Knuckle Sauce with my knots, locking ‘biners and quickdraws. I rope soloed the route to practice the moves, tied a bight to the anchor, lowered off, and then actually sent the route on toprope solo while managing my slack one-handed in the Gri-Gri, chalkless, with my shoes untied. And even better… I ran into my own knee on one of those dicey moves up top and was able to reel myself in and continue without stress. I fucked it up, and still sent casually, game on indeed!

Pulling onto the route, I felt some small anxieties, just as I had with each route this season. Ordinarily, I’m able to warm up my mind as well as my fingers by soloing circuits around nearby moderates before taking down the mini-proj. Due to the tactical styles this season, psychologically I had to go from zero mode straight to hero mode. There was no warmup, I had to flip the switch and be on point instantaneously. That’s a helluva switch, and that’s what caused these silly anxieties I felt, not any actual hazard. So I took those anxieties and set them aside. I didn’t fight them, but I didn’t let them carry my attention away from my task either.



I fucked up the crux move a bit. I have to hit an intermediate with a very shallow two finger pocket and an equally shallow thumb catch. It’s not great, but it’s solid, and it’s enough to allow me to shuffle feet then bump to a three finger bucket. I forgot to shuffle feet though and thus failed the bump, reeled myself back into the intermediate, re-set my feet, then bumped casually into the Finger bucket.

For those of you keeping count, there ya have it! I made one mistake, and I died! Because you know, that’s how soloing works apparently. Good news! They have WiFi in hell so I can write this blog post! Unfortunately, the signal is based on a 56K dial-up modem, and you have to listen to the screeching ring tone through your entire session. There are services available at broadband speed, but those are only Facebook, Instagram, and a limited edition of Twitter which consists solely of the official Whitehouse feed as those that has been determined to be the most effective torture program.

So anyway, I meandered up the rest of the route, hitting the specific underclings in their specific manner, then moseyed through slimpers to reach the anchor. I wrapped my wrist in a sling and slipped my harness on to lower off.

There was plenty of light in the day, so I headed on over to Drive by Crag to see about “Check Your Grip.”!,

A few Chicagoans, including the infamous Greg, were already at the wall. I negotiated a couple belays to see if the route was still a good idea, and it was. So I left to rest for the night and returned in the morning.

Luckily, I was early enough to beat the crowds, mostly at least. I flaked rope and rope soloed the route. During this ascent, I re-rememberized a few of the sequences, found some more efficient betas, then fixed the rope to a bight at the anchors. After a short rest, I toprope-soloed the route and rigged to clean.

As I was rigging, Sam Romano, who’d showed me the route, walked by. “Hey man, you need a catch?”

“Nah, I’ve got this one!” “Rad man!” He gave me the ubiquitous head nod of understanding and continued on his day

The vibe was mellow. Most of the climbers were out of immediate eyesight and focused on their own tasks. A couple climbers were nearby, but they could tell exactly what I was prepping for and there was an unspoken agreement that they didn’t seem to mind. A short time after, I soloed the route, slipped into my harness and lowered off. Upon returning to the ground, that unspoken agreement was confirmed with a head nod coupled with the universal thumbs up for a send well earned.

While I believe this route has a topout, I didn’t have time to investigate it. Fearing that I’d encounter mud, sand, or loose rock… I opted to perform the safe activity and lower off from the anchor with a rope. More sport soloing. That topout is a project for another day. I’m optimistic, but it’s not certain. And the fact of the matter is that this is a busy crag. Unless I got myself a genuine alpine start and threw down my circuit before climbers arrived, things would get real weird, real fast. That just seems like an asinine thing to do to people. So I’m not sure that it’s even worth it to dial in the topout, or to dial in additional climbs at this crag to build a circuit. But this is a subject for future pondering. Who knows, maybe eventually I’ll make it work?

In any case, this particular weekend gave me my tenth and eleventh routes of the 5.12 grade in my solo resume. Only one more would take me up to a dozen dozens… success seemed like it was nigh, especially given that I’d just managed to solo TWO 12’s in this single weekend!

Austin HowellComment