Once again I find myself out visiting my favorite routes, enjoying the day, cranking the tunes through my earbuds, occasionally singing along out of tune to the amusement or dismay of those nearby, when someone suddenly yells at me “Get down from there! You have so much to live for!”
Yes, I know. I’m doing it right now.
I am a free soloist, and I’m not the only one.
Climbing is inherently dangerous. We mentally hit “I accept” every time we see the big red warning in a guidebook or climbing gym, but it never feels real to most. At least it doesn’t seem real until you read a news story of a soloist perishing on a climb, or you meet me at the crag on one of my mojo missions. Now it becomes real. I frequently draw a mixed bag of reactions, from genuine concern to horror, rage, elation, contempt and simple confusion. Well intentioned folks try to point out all the possibilities that could lead to an accident: there could be loose rock, there could be bugs, there could be wet rock. These all have happened to me, and I expect them to happen again. But somehow these things never come up when a roped climber dies. Everyone stares at their feet muttering “how sad, what a tragedy,” but they never seem to get angry at the victim for climbing. What about all those times you’ve said “It’s okay, I’m not going to fall” in a sketchy situation, is that not the same thought for which many criticize soloists so angrily? You solo every time you get into a car and drive down the road with much more than your own life is at risk, you could kill someone else as well. Then that’s it, it’s over, and it had nothing to do with that person or their abilities. Life is inherently dangerous, and climbing is just a part of that.
Somehow the death of a soloist heightens climbers’ awareness of danger in ways that the death of a roped climber seemingly never will. When a soloist perishes I see an outpouring of rage and confusion. “why couldn’t he just be safe,” they say, “then he would still be here.” Unfortunately, it seems that we are not the ones you have to worry about the most at the crag. We assess and calculate risks frankly and coldly, for it is impossible not to see the potential consequences of mistakes without a rope, falling is death. Then, often, we walk away. No climb is worth my life, this is why I don’t climb for adrenaline, and stay off the rock if I ever feel adrenalized. The only one who feels a rush is one who truly feels life in peril and believes the situation has become dangerous. I don’t like danger, danger gets people killed, I like calm days of relaxed climbing.
How about you? How often have you contemplated the risks and consequences of your actions at the crag or gym? How often have you roped up with a complete stranger without a second thought (he has a belay cert, that means I’m “safe”)? What about the guy at the crag that loads his gri-gri backwards, another who isn’t practiced in lowering and thumbs the lever fully open, the fools guiding trips for their friends without proper understanding of anchor building, the unfortunate ones who think everything will be okay because the Cinch is an “auto-locking” belay device, the ones who climb for adrenaline ever seeking more and more thrill, and the ones who confidently spout unsafe information with an air of authority? And what about you for believing them without questioning, doing your own research, or testing the theory? Safety is no substitute for competency, all the gear in the world is useless if you don’t understand it’s uses and limitations
(no, the cinch is NOT an “auto-locking” belay device, particularly not on modern skinny ropes.) Do your self a favor, read John Long’s “Climbing Anchors” and extend your life expectancy. Oh, and just for the record, the man that wrote the bible on climbing safety? He was a soloist too.
What scares me is that there are folks who don’t know they’re soloing, because there was an idiot on the other end of their rope, their leader had built an incompetent anchor system, or they simply don’t have a full understanding of their equipment. Now that, this inherent trust we grant to each other, and this sense of entitlement to safety which makes us feel everything will be okay, is terrifying. Gravity is heartless. Gravity does not care if you wore a rope. Existing at height is dangerous, and can only be made safer through applying a certain skillset. Thinking otherwise is foolhardy at best, deadly at the worst.
To me, this is the biggest threat to our lives as climbers. The gym culture we live in has almost completely removed any understanding of calculated risk from an inherently risky activity. How hard do we think before trusting a new partner, their draws, their rope, and their competency? If the climbers yelling at soloists from the ground and the safety of the internet offered each other as much skepticism as they offer me, I think we would have remarkably fewer accidents and close calls. Perhaps Tito Traversa would still be alive.
It’s not a matter of me holding my life in my hands on the wall, but about every climber taking responsibility for their own and often someone else’s life, many without a second thought to the consequences of a mistake. We so rarely stop to contemplate the gravity of our situation on the wall that it has become routine for someone to hit the deck at the gym without anyone batting an eyelash. This is why I’m thankful when someone double-checks my equipment, and this is why I have an informal “pre-flight checklist” before leaving the ground with or without the rope.
There are people out there behaving dangerously on the wall. But anyone who is going to solo knows what they’re up against, and they will not be dissuaded through your attacks. If it were that easy to deflect my course, I wouldn’t be in that position of high-consequence to begin with. Accidents will continue to happen in climbing, but attacking the soloist is a poor way to prevent them. Save your anger and use it somewhere it can be helpful.
Life is an onsight, and there are no second chances. In the end, you’re not so different from me; It only takes one mistake, one false step and you’re gone. Calculated risk can never be eliminated from climbing, it is all part of the game of defying gravity. Nothing will prolong your life more than simply acknowledging and understanding the risks you take on a daily basis, whatever they may be. Life truly is inherently dangerous, and I think John Bachar nailed it when he said “You’re soloing right now.”
Thanks to Julia Watson and Philip Hutcheson for help editing, and to Jeremy Carson for allowing his face to show up at the top of the page!
PS: Though Jeremy looks confused on the Featured Image, he’s the most solid climbing partner I’ve ever had!