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Life is like an onsight solo. You only get one chance, you can't see far ahead, you don't know what's coming next, and you don't have much choice other than to make it work. But the task at hand, on this particular day, WAS an onsight solo, and the next move seemed irreversible. As per the +rules of onsight climbing, I'd never been up here before and hadn't received any beta on the moves. Lohan, respecting my wishes, hadn't even told me where the crux was. So I had no way to even know for sure that these moves were the hardest. Maybe there was something harder above? If that were the case, I would be completely committed. No way up, and no way down. A man trapped in limbo, neither alive nor dead. Like Schroedinger's climber waiting to open the box and either unlock the crux or fall to my death. So I backed out immediately to contemplate life, lest I wind up committed beyond my ability. That's the fear. Biting off more than you can chew, with no way out. And thus began the nine most intense minutes of my life. Onsight soloing 5.12a, who the fuck did I think I was?

Years ago, I was the foreman on a cell tower crew. My nickname was "The Professor," and at this point, I wore it proudly. I was new in the industry. This did and still does, chafe at the folks who have more experience than I, but that's why I'm The Professor. Not because of what I know, but what I can figure out, and what I can teach.

The more veteran climbers were reluctant to listen to me, their way was the hard way. They believed in treating the new kids roughly like they were trying to chase them off. Almost a hazing ritual, they made them "earn" their way on a crew. Not surprisingly, they threatened a mutiny. So we restructured. The company man put all of the crusties together and gave me a team of entirely green-hands. The new guys were eager to learn, and since I was keen to teach, they respected me. They'd do anything I asked because they knew I'd climb up there and do it myself if they didn't know how, or didn't feel safe. I'd never ask them to do anything I wouldn't, and I'd take on the riskiest jobs when I knew the task needed a more creative skill set to make safety in unusual situations.


New guys would rotate in and out. Far from home, we were the only community each other had. Whenever the need came for me to climb, I only had one real firm rule on the tower-top, which was that we had to have music to make the day pass faster, but if Stevie Ray Vaughn was playing "Little Wing…" well.. you don't interrupt Little Wing. That's the only moment of zen we'd get all day in the hot summer heat of South Carolina.

My ground man radioed up, asking how much longer it'd take before we finished for the day. My newest guy picked up the radio and said "Hey man, it's Little Wing. You just. Don't. Interrupt. Little Wing." That was the moment I knew he was gonna make it!

Shortly after that, my phone tipped out of the pouch I'd placed it in for safety. I watched as it sailed down, struck a steel cross member, and kicked out into the cow-field from three-hundred feet up. That's a long way to fall, but somehow it was still playing through our Bluetooth speaker when it hit the ground. Well, on the bright side… Looks like we had a job to keep the ground guy busy for now while he waited for us to finish up!

So I sent him off to the field to search for my phone. Watching him make circles in the grass, I couldn't help but think… That sure was a long, long way to fall… long enough that you'd have time to think about your miserable life choices on the way down.


The world was silent, save for the wind, a bird and the occasional whoosh of a car passing above. They were infrequent, and irrelevant given that they rode on a tarmac in another plane of existence, parallel to mine, but not interacting with it. Like two alternate universes with a small portal between, where you can down-climb a few short moves from the parking lot to the cliff's access trail

I couldn't hear the sounds anyway. My mind was in that rarified sort of clear-minded turbo-drive that you can only access when the chips are down, and every iota of concentration is intrinsically essential to one's continued survival. If I made a bad choice here, I wouldn't have to worry about it for long. Over the years during my exploits in the high-lonesome, I've realized one particular lesson that has ubiquitous truth both on and off the wall: While there may be plenty of times in life where it's perfectly reasonable to come unglued and totally freak out, I haven't found a single one where it's productive.

So when my mind begins to enter that stress-state of adrenaline and panic, rather than let it carry me away, I've always paused to center myself, to control my mind, my breathing, my pulse, and my body. Over hundreds and thousands of repetitions, I've re-conditioned my stress response. Laid off at work? Sudden relationship problem? Car skids on an un-plowed patch of snow on the highway? Encountered more difficulties than I'd expected, high off the deck? Doesn't matter, my mind has recalibrated in such a way that my default state in high-stress is one of extreme calm and calculation, as suddenly those are the only things which matter. You can freak out, and nobody would fault you if you did, especially not once you've passed through the veil between life and death and left us all behind to speak fond remembrance, but if you don't want to pierce that veil, you'd better reign that shit in rather than get carried away by panic.

“Sweet Home Boltababama (5.11a)” - That was rather intense, but Tangerine was a whole new order of magnitude

“Sweet Home Boltababama (5.11a)” - That was rather intense, but Tangerine was a whole new order of magnitude

I don't like lowball solos, where the crux is straight off the deck, at least not when searching for a "personal best" performance. If a route is V4 off the ground with a 5.10 finish, that's 12a on a rope, but without one… That's a 5.10 solo with a V4 approach hike. Or maybe a V4 with a highball V0 X-rated finish. It feels like cheesing out, lying about your accomplishment, an affair born of vanity rather than some higher philosophy which deepens one's understanding of the universe. Those hypothetical 5.12 moves would be nothing more advanced in style than an ordinary and everyday boulder problem. Bouldering is respectable, mind you, it's just not a solo. When searching for a personal best, I avoid that grey area between the two. I want the difficulties to be high enough that there is no question. The difficulties of "Tangerine's" ninety feet begin about halfway up, at the fifty-foot mark. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't want to swan-dive into the boulders from that height. You're not limpin' away from this one.

This was onsight rock climbing. I had no idea what moves lie in wait above me, or what monsters crafted the dimples and edges in the rock above me. I only knew four things: Its name was "Tangerine" the grade was 12a, Lohan suggested it, and Lohan… he definitely doesn't want to kill my ass! To form a proof to solve this calculus problem, those were my only "givens."

Who the fuck did I think I was? I was The Professor, and to quote Descartes: "I am a thinking thing." Given that it is 12a, that means no move can be harder than V4. Given that the next moves felt about V4, that suggested this was likely the crux. Therefore, the moves above this point would probably be no harder than V3.

Given that Lohan doesn't want me to contract a slight case of "fuckin dead," that means the moves are likely secure and static. I sat there shaking and recovering as best as I could, eyeballing the line above to divine it's character, to understand it's soul and smell the air. Does this rock like me? Does it want to be climbed? Or does it host evil in its heart?

I saw a line of jugs, one everybody length. This changed the calculation. Now the question was no longer whether I could onsight unknown 5.12 terrain on command without failure, but rather the problem had become whether or not I could onsight this V4 in front of me, and then recover well enough a jug to continue onsighting repeating sections of secure V3 with recovery jugs in between? Given that I have tremendous recovery ability… this meant all I had to do was be able to reliably onsight three or four secure V3 sections.

“Tangerine (5.12a)” this The Move. The one that separates up from down that right hand is a not-awesome sidepull. I mean, it feels awesome for going  up , I just wasn’t too enthused about the prospect of using it for going  down

“Tangerine (5.12a)” this The Move. The one that separates up from down that right hand is a not-awesome sidepull. I mean, it feels awesome for going up, I just wasn’t too enthused about the prospect of using it for going down

There was no place to truly de-load the fingers. The wall was overhung with no real respite from gravity, and the place where I paused to think was *in that overhang*…. I had been sitting there in place, doing all the looking, thinking all the thinking, all while alternating my grip on the rock from one hand to the other, attempting to shake out and minimize fatigue. The fact of the situation was that I couldn't stay here indefinitely. Though the position was relatively restful compared to elsewhere on the route, it was slowly draining my forearms of precious fuel.

Despite all this, I knew the task which lay in wait above me was something I can do. All day, every day. The only question was whether I could *still* do it, after stopping to think and burn precious energy for so long. Nine long minutes, to be precise.

Twice already I had ventured up into the crux to feel the holds, twice already I had retreated with uncertainty. From this perch so high off the ground, retreat to the floor would be secure. But there was a third universe to contend with, and only one single move comprised the one-way boundary between this one and the next. After that one move, reversal would be extremely…. Unpleasant.

Logic can't tell you everything, you have to trust your instincts. When they say run, I run. When they say go, I commit. Fully. I made a deal, it's a baseball rule. I'd had two strikes already if I retreated a third time, I'm going down. Full commitment was necessary. On this next round, depending on how it smells, I will commit fully either to going up or going back down to safety.

I believe in having huevos. I believe in boldness. I believe in exercising the full capacity of the human mind. Retreating to the floor was perfectly acceptable because I had shown up, I had come to this specific place to test not only my body and mind but also my risk calculation and decision making. Reversing to the floor didn't feel offensive to me, because I knew deep inside that a failed attempt at glory would scar me far less than never having tried at all. And myyyy how I had tried on this one...

I launched back into the crux, one. More. Time.

Soloing 5.12 elsewhere in The Canyon

Soloing 5.12 elsewhere in The Canyon

It smelled good this time, the game is on.

The crux involved one powerful move, from a sidepull and large footholds. I stuck it easily and pulled onto the resting block, knowing full well that I had just committed myself entirely to the unknown. My spirit felt relief, as now there were no unsolved questions, but only one single task: up. Nothing else matters the world had simplified tremendously.

I don't remember much from the next three and a half minutes, I was in a primal state where memory and deliberation were meaningless, the world became nothing more than instinct, my thoughts were formed and executed before I could even ascribe words to their meaning. Silence. Complete and total silence.

I usually play music through earbuds while I'm climbing, I didn't notice it on the way up, but after I topped out, I realized that my brain had completely shut off the notion of auditory input, just as it had deactivated verbal processing during the execution of these moves. If the hold was bad, I didn't think "oh shit," I just felt an alarm signal, and automatically flexed the fingers and activated my core to increase sticking power and control of the in-flight mechanics. When my hands found a jug, I didn't sigh with relief and think "what good luck!" But instead, my brain devoted entirely to the task of monitoring the refuel rate in my forearm. As soon as I hit the point of diminishing returns, I was off again.

The final section was about 15ft of relentless 5.11 climbing. Or maybe it as 5.9. I honestly couldn't tell, all I knew was that it was most pumpy at the point where I was most pumped, but I also knew that it didn't matter. I instinctively moved faster and fired the moves as speedily as possible. When the wall is overhung, the secret beta is to "run like hell."

5ft before the topout was a ledge. I pulled onto it and smelled the canyon air as my body surged and it all hit my forearms at once. My mind knew they were busy, and that alarming me with fatigue wouldn't be helpful, so it stayed quiet. But once on that ledge, I relaxed knowing that I'd arrived somewhere safe, and all the pump hit me like a ton of bricks. Standing casually on two feet, my eyes were *just* level with the ground, and I could see the tires of my truck a few yards away. So much work, to have traveled so little distance…

After mantling to ground level, my auditory cortex came to life, and I heard Stevie Ray Vaughn's rendition of "Little Wing" playing through the aether, welcoming me back to the same plane of reality I was born in. I sat there on a picknick table, eyes fixed across the canyon, staring up and down at the sandstone rocks around me, just existing at the moment with no extremes of jubilation or emotion, and no thoughts of any kind. You don't interrupt Little Wing. I felt balanced

There is no substitute for peace and balance

There is no substitute for peace and balance

When I started climbing, 5.12 was mythical. If you could climb 5.12, what more could you want? To think that I'd ever onsight 5.12… at the time I didn't understand how wild the world was, that seemed a task for the rarest of the rare talents in the universe. I had no concept that people could climb that grade without a rope. To contemplate that someone could onsight a 5.12 free solo? Positively unheard of, that would've been something written in a comic book. A story to delight, but not something possible within the laws of physics. To think that I'd be able to do that? Ever? That was beyond even the most fantastical of written stories, to ludicrous even to pen down. And yet, here we are. I'd just done it. I guess that means I have to accept that I'm a "5.12 soloist, "indeed.

There are not many people in this world that have onsight soloed 5.12a or higher. Alain Robert has soloed sixteen 5.13's, but his max OSS was 5.11d. He told me so over facebook one day while I was inquiring for a little history project, and he's posted it on his social media's too. Mike Reardon did it. Alex Honnold may have done, I can't verify for sure or not. There's a rumor that he onsighted Time Wave Zero in Potrero, but beyond that? I don't know, I know there have been some hard solos on British gritstone, but it's often hard to tell between scary highballs and true proper solos down there. I don't speak "E-Grades."

This is my proudest accomplishment, and arguably the boldest. Folks will try to say that I'm a bold climber because of my solos, but Nah. Fuckoff. Soloing is a journey into the extremely well known and well rehearsed. There's nothing bold about that, it's just a damn party trick which requires all the physicality of toprope, and it's even easier still since you're deliberately seeking something well below your pay grade. But this? This was bold. Boldness is venturing confidently into the unknowable extremes of life, and this was undoubtedly unknowable and extreme. Looking back now, I was in such an altered state during the doing of it, that it almost feels unreal. Like a peyote dream, not something that actually happened. If I hadn't clipped a camera to an adjacent wall, I don't know that I'd even believe it myself.

Of all the things I've ever achieved… this is the one thing that sits at the top for me. It was the single most sublime moment of pure clarity that I've ever experienced in my life.

Well, that about wraps it up for today on this trip down memory lane… if you want to keep up with everything I've got going on… head over to TheFreesoloist.com/media to see some of the photos, videos, interviews, and articles that I've collected over the years, and feel free to follow the adventure as it continues to unfold on Instagram @freesoloist!

Until next time, don't forget to be safe out there! But if you find yourself incapable of being safe, due to some temporary or… more… permanent form of madness, be careful because life is an inherently dangerous sport!

And if you thought this had anything to do with big climbing, no way my friend! This couldn't possibly be any further away from the sponsorship, free gear, jet setting, paid travel, ripped abs world of big climbing! You could be tutoring your friend Jeremy fucking Carson on how to rappel from the end of a climb, and he throws the rope without separating the tails from the ball of flaked rope, while simultaneously missing the drop-off to the ground. You could pull that chunk of rope back up to the anchor only to discover that it has tangled itself into a figure 347 knot that resembles a living embodiment of our holy savior the "Flying Spaghetti Monster…" and it starts to sink in… you're stranded up here… no food, no water, no bivi gear of any kind, the sun is setting fast, and you are stuck… thirty feet off the ground… and you STILL wouldn't be as far away from big climbing as this is!

Austin HowellComment