In the beginning, there was one rule: Don’t let anyone know. Keep it hidden, and stay in the shadows. Who really cares that you’re climbing 5.9? Well, apparently a growing number care that I’m doing it without a rope, and they won’t hesitate to share their opinions and lambast me across any corner of the internet they can find.
Have you ever taken a photo or video of yourself while climbing? Most of you would answer yes, even if it’s a simple cell-phone selfie. I have to ask… What were your motivations behind that action? Almost sounds like a silly question, doesn’t it? There are some folks who see that I publish my exploits on this blog, or in video form on vimeo, and attempt to ascribe traits of narcissism, vanity, and fame chasing to my personality, because I do exactly the same things that most other humans of the digital age would do over the course of a vacation or climbing trip. What makes them assume that I am any different from the rest of humanity? I document these events for myself and my friends, because I enjoy it. I am not extremely prideful of my ascents, but neither am I ashamed of them. Why would I hold back from sharing something that brings me joy if I am not ashamed? Don’t we all enjoy documenting the process of achieving our goals?
They say that we dislike traits in others that most exemplify that which we hate within ourselves. The biggest irony for me is that most of the criticisms I’ve seen come from Facebook posts. Facebook’s entire purpose is essentially to allow all of us to spray about our lives, and this is the platform where the negative crowd chooses to attack me for sharing mine. The next time someone tries to judge me, perhaps they should look inside and consider their own motivations… I solo because it makes me happy. I mean really, if you look at it, every post on facebook could be viewed as some attempt to get a pat on the back from your peers, so it’s an odd choice of platform to criticize someone you accuse over-sharing.
I understand that some are worried that seeing images of soloing will encourage others to do the same, but really any image of rock climbing can have that same impact. There are far too few folks who actually know how to climb outside safely, and anyone foolish enough to be inspired to solo by an image or video on the internet is unlikely to be wise enough to take the time to figure out how to use their gear properly. They’ll likely wind up in the same spot regardless of whether they take their inspiration from you, or me.
I know a few folks who have soloed, one mentioned that he was inspired by images of John Bachar, and wanted to be just like him. Looking back decades later, he realizes that John probably saved his life. Without that guiding inspiration, he would have soloed anyway, only with no guidance on the “proper” way to avoid getting in over your head. I know that Michael Reardon probably saved my life. If I hadn’t watched all those videos of him soloing, I know for a FACT that I would have done it anyway. It takes a long time to develop that “pre-flight” checklist, and understand the “eight foot eggshell” that keeps a soloist safe. Without those guiding concepts that I picked up from watching others, I am certain I would have wound up in some very deep shit.
I do not advocate soloing. In fact, over the years, several climbers have reached out to me and asked me what I thought of their plans to solo. None of them had decided it to do it because of me, but they reached out because I was the only person they knew who engaged in the activity, and (ironically) they did not want to expose themselves to un-necessary risk, so they asked my opinion. Thus far I’ve managed to convince every single one of them not to go through with it. Ultimately, if anyone can dissuade you from going up there, you didn’t have any place being up there to begin with, and if you have to ask, it’s probably because you want to be talked out of it. Likewise, anyone who is going to solo will do it regardless of what you think. It takes a powerful intrinsic motivation to overcome the mind’s natural fear response and become comfortable at height. Without that sense of peace, one simply cannot sustain the activity. For that reason, I believe soloing for external reward is rare, for there are no rewards outside one’s own internal desires and motivations that can outweigh the negativity that will be incurred from soloing. Nevertheless, since it has become the personal mission of an outspoken few to question my motivations behind publishing/sharing my exploits, I will do my best to provide you a description of how I came to my current stance on the subject.
In The Beginning:
I started soloing at Enchanted Rock in Texas as a simple call to simplicity. I wanted to travel fast and light, and get a lot of climbing in with minimal hassle without lugging a gigantic pack all across the park. It wasn’t a big deal, no one knew. And I really preferred to keep it that way. But, a few of my buddies were curious about it, and I soloed a famous route in the area called “Fear of Flying.” So I decided to document the route and one of my circuits. The notion was “don’t EVER do anything stupid for a camera, but if you’re going to do it anyway, why not pack it?” I didn’t publicize the video, I didn’t even share it on facebook. In the intervening years it perhaps received 100 hits.
I tried my best not to spray about my climbs to folks, but I get excited about the things I enjoy. If anybody has heard me after something as simple as buying a new $30 pack from REI, they know I simply can’t shut the fuck up about something when I’m excited about it. Perhaps it’s a character flaw, but it’s a part of who I am and I prefer to simply accept it as it is. Years of beating myself up over that tendency never changed a damn thing. So, occasionally I’d spill the beans and let someone know that I soloed. I didn’t (and still don’t) think it was a big deal, but people tend to give me hell about it so I figured it was only fair to warn them if we were going to climb together. I had plenty of climbing partners at this time, but I still preferred to solo on occasion. It just appeals to me. We all engage risk and consequence in our own unique ways, and that’s a beautiful thing!
Back in the old days at enchanted rock, the climbs were spread out, and there was a fair amount of hiking to get from one to another. If there was a party on or near the route I wanted to solo, I would almost always move on and find something out of view. I rarely broke this rule unless there were simply too many people to avoid. I was only observed rarely, and no one ever recognized me. So I didn’t catch hell very often, but it was never enjoyable when folks did find out. If you solo, people want to judge you in a very negative light. So I kept it down, and kept it quiet. Fast forward a few years, I’ve still been soloing but I haven’t made any videos after those first two. The idea seemed stupid, superfluous, and vain. “Ooooh look at that guy! He’s so cool climbing a 5.9” fuckoff, that’s not how things work, and it shouldn’t be either. This is when I moved to Atlanta. That’s when everything changed.
New territory, a new home and new crags surrounded me and I was eager to explore. So explore I did, I toured the local crags scanning for anything that looked cool. Now I was in a new town, and didn’t know a soul. The only folks I knew were from work, and they couldn’t be less interested in climbing. So I went out alone to onsight solo whatever felt comfortable at Sandrock Alabama. The temps were a bit cold and that might have kept everyone away for my first couple trips, but there were a few folks climbing, and I tried my best to make sure I was soloing on the other side of the rock where they couldn’t see me.
On probably my third or fourth solo trip to sandrock, it was perfect spring-time climbing weather! I was warmed up and climbed three quarters a 5.10 named “Gravy Train,” when I stopped to hang out, shake out, and enjoy the view. “SHIT!” I thought as I looked below to a crowd of perhaps 15 folks from Stone Summit who were now staring up at me in expressions from disbelief to horror to excitement. Unbeknownst to me, they had driven up from Atlanta to climb at Sandrock for the weekend. Apparently I had terribly underestimated how popular this crag was. At this point, I’ve met some climbers at the gym and had a fair amount of friends up there, and I dreaded returning. I recognized several faces in the crowd, and returned to the gym on the following week with considerable reluctance. I simply didn’t want to deal with any social-circle shit-storm that would evolve from getting caught ropeless.
Fuck it. Cat’s out of the bag, and there is no way to stuff it back in, particularly not at a social hub like stone-summit, but fortunately it wasn’t a big deal. I thought it was awesome, nobody seemed to care! And so I continued training at the gym to grow stronger. That’s what I do. For whatever reason, I actually enjoy training hard. As I grew stronger, I could climb harder. As I climbed harder, I could solo more difficult routes. Soon I found myself soloing in the 5.11 range, and that’s when folks started to take notice. Slowly at first, then more fiercely, rumors began to circle. Everything from folks speculating that I had no will to live to rumors that I had been chased out of Texas by the local climbing community due to my penchant for soloing. I tried my best to ignore it and just continue climbing my way, unaffected by anything around me. But lets face it, I’m human. It doesn’t feel good to be attacked.
For a year, the climb “Dreamscape” (5.11c/d) had held my fascination. It was the king-line at sandrock, beautiful, fun, and hard enough to be interesting, but not hard enough to be terrifying. I remember climbing it at the end of a climbing trip and realizing “oh my god, everything feels right! Someday, I’m going to solo dreamscape.” Unexpectedly, I realized that It had passed every metric on my pre-flight checklist. I led the route at the end of the day, when I was already tired. It was my 12th climb, I didn’t use chalk, I used my worst pair of shoes that were worn-out and I left the laces untied. Despite these handicaps, the whole way up the climb, I was relaxed enough to hold a conversation with my belayer through hanging each draw, clipping the rope, and pulling the crux throws.
The route breaks down into two distinct sections, with a No-Hands rest in-between. There’s an easy slab, followed by 5.11 thuggish throws. I had those crux throws DIALED, but I’ve never done the bottom section the same way twice in a row, there are so many holds that I always seem to find a new way each time. The lower portion is only about 5.10a slab climbing and I still enjoy the benefits of my slab skills gathered from days at Enchanted Rock where I had redpointed notorious slabs such as “Gravitron” (5.11d X), “Real Gravy” (5.11c R), and “Clockwerk Orange” (5.11a X). I repeated them all on my second or third go, and I had them nowhere near dialed. I just understood the style of climbing very well. So 5.10- didn’t even register on my radar as difficult, that was well within my onsight-solo range. Given that I had led it with that level of comfort while climbing chalk-less in a worn out pair of un-tied Mythos, I knew it would be a simple order once I slapped on my brand new TC Pros and a bag of chalk. Sure, it wasn’t dialed. But I know slab. Slab is a chess game, you think 6 moves ahead and take your time. You aren’t going anywhere immediately because every stance is nearly a no-hands rest. You simply have to take your time and plot your move to the next stance. There is no pump. There is time to think, and be careful, there is no need for rush. Figuring out the moves was no big deal, I had onsighted slabs like “The French Route” (5.11a R) back in Texas. I knew I could figure the moves out on the fly at that grade, and this solo wasn’t onsight. I knew well enough how to do the moves several different ways; I just had to figure out how I wanted to do them this time. So I soloed the route, and we didn’t video it.
Six months and a lot of training later, I decided to go back and solo the route again. Some friends of mine wanted to watch, and offered to shoot film since they happened to be at the crag anyway. Why not? I had already planned to climb it. I posted my video on that same old vimeo account with a hundred hits thinking nothing of it. Whatever, plenty of people climb 5.11, it’s no big deal, but at least we got to document the second solo of this locally famous route. My friends were stoked, because it was a rock they were familiar with. At the urging of a friend, I decided to post the video on DPM’s video section. What the hell, why not? And I think that’s when EpicTV caught it, but I don’t know for sure. I’ve never talked to them. They created a Bio for me, and uploaded their own description for the video without any input from me, and titled the video something along the lines of “No hands free-soloist” to hype it because I used the no-hands-rest at mid height. That title and the bio have nothing to do with my words and motivations. It went semi-viral, and I long ago stopped watching the hit count. Watching the hits climb just weirded me out too much. It made me sick, and so did the commentary attached to it.
So that’s why I write now, and that’s why I continue to make videos. This is MY story, and I want to tell it. No more slander being spread behind my back, no more stories of being run out of my home (they were actually quite neutral, I moved away to take a job climbing towers… that rent won’t pay itself!), no hyped titles and bios. Just me. The cat is out of the bag, I can’t put it back in, and I refuse to let you or anyone else tell me how to live. I started doing this for me, if that wasn’t the case I’d have stopped a long time ago in the face of the backlash.
Perhaps the strangest part to me, and most unsettling, is that another subset of people find my acts inspiring. Not in the sense that I inspire them to solo (that’s the last thing I want), but rather that I inspire them to chase their own goals by achieving mine. It seems that documenting my goals and training can inspire others to achieve their own goals which have nothing to do with how I climb. That’s an incredibly powerful and positive thing. I remember a time when I was broken beyond what my imagination could handle, and it was hard for me to see the way out. My belayer had dropped me 35ft at an indoor climbing gym. I suffered two fractured vertebrae and a compressed spine, and in those times I knew two things: when I healed, I needed to be able to walk, and I needed to be able to climb. But recovery is a long thing and it’s hard to stay stoked.
About this time I started watching videos of Tommy Caldwell and his rad-sending on El Cap. That was the definition of climbing to me, and it blew my mind. I started walking laps around the house while squeezing a pair of “Grip-Masters” every time I saw that video. Tommy is truly inspiring. Me? I don’t know why anyone is inspired by me, I don’t feel like I’ve done anything inspiring. But if there’s one thing that I’d like to see folks take away from my climbing it’s this: I don’t believe at all that I am a truly gifted climber. It took me six months to tick my first 5.10a, in a gym, on top-rope. I wasn’t instantly talented, but I train like a masochist all week long to be able to climb like I do. It’s the result of dedication, and that dedication is hard to maintain in life’s toughest patches, but with the help of watching some very talented climbers on the internet, I’ve managed to keep the mojo rising for a good while now.
Ultimately, that’s the biggest reason why I’ve continued to produce blog posts, videos, and photos on my various pages. Not because I think I’m impressive, but because I feel fortunate to have received amazing inspiration in my climbing career. I still don’t even consider myself a “hard-climber” (Whatever THAT means), but if I have the ability to give that back to even a small few, then it’s all worth it.
Could you imagine having the ability to inspire someone through the tough times just by documenting a bunch of crap you were going to do anyway? I still can’t imagine it, but do I know rejecting that possibility would feel incredibly selfish.
I don’t handle the negativity well. It eats at me, I’m only human. Never for a minute have I considered quitting soloing because of a few assholes on the internet, but it has often made me re-consider posting and sharing. I don’t think I’m in the moral wrong, or right, just neutral. But the fact is that every facet of my climbing is governed by what I consider to be fun, and the fact is that making the media isn’t fun for ME. Its fun for others, and I just catch hell.
The biggest benefit is that possibility to inspire a would-be soloist to approach the cliff in the right mindset, just like those videos of Bachar did for my friend. Just like those videos of Reardon did for me. The thing is, I don’t see that message in my own videos. I’m not a good videographer, and I’m no good at telling my story that way. So I won’t. I’m done making my own videos. I just want to climb.
I’ll continue to write, as always, because it brings me joy just to put my words in writing. Plus, it really helps me keep my motivations in check to write it out. As far as my other media sources? I really think I’m going to pull back a bit. It’s too complicated right now and It’s dragging me down, so I need to simplify.
If someone else takes video of me, and does something cool with it… that’s fine. but I’m not going to push for it in any way. It’s time to get back to something simpler, more organic. Just climbing, Just fun. No internet circus. I will climb, I will write, and I will update my friends on what I’m doing and where I’m going (we don’t want any 128 hours kind of crap). Whatever happens from there, happens. Que Sera, Sera.
Cheers, and Happy climbing!