Free-Mojo Rock Climbing

If we’re lucky, we all have that one thing that makes the world disappear and you with it. Seconds fade into minutes, hours, and the days are gone in a blur. Where was I for the past few hours? Dancing, skydiving, mountain biking, skiing, free-soloing, bouldering, top rope, riding a motorcycle, calculus, gymnastics, working high on a steel tower in a beautiful day, could have been anything, really. Have you ever lost yourself in an activity so fully that you lost track of time? How about losing yourself in the moment so fully that you forget to eat?

Did you know that you practice meditation? That’s all it is: Single point focus and awareness of one thing. You don’t need to sit on a mat humming “Ommmmm” to achieve a meditative state, just look at the example of Yoga. Put simply, Yoga is a moving meditation that centers focus on the breath. As the body moves through the different asanas (poses), your mind becomes distracted and you gently guide it back to the simple act of breathing. With practice the strain fades away and only peace remains. Much like a dancer feels the music while flowing through the movements of choreography. As the awareness deepens, your attention to the body disappears and it appears effortless. You stop thinking, you feel and react on instinct as you flow through the next body position, grab the next hold, feel the stone on your skin, solid. The body flows into the next asana, the dance continues, as the music cranks loud and I’ve lost myself entirely. Trees rush by on the slopes, no time to think, only to react to the ground beneath your tires. Information flows in rapidly, and the body immediately converts it to movement. Man has become one with the machine and they flow together weaving a path through rocks, roots and obstacles. Twisting, turning, grasping are you breathing? Are you there? There is only music, there is only movement. Fingers move across the fret-board of a guitar turning the body itself into music. There is neither “I” nor fear, only peace, and the moving bodymind.


We all meditate, whether we realize it or not, every time we lose ourselves in the moment. We all have the stereotypical image of the meditator losing herself sitting with legs crossed in a serene retreat. But the fact is that everybody has something that can take hold of them that makes the world disappear. There is no action and there is no actor, they become the same. When you find your flow and become lost in motion or thought, the separation between body and mind blurs. That is meditation in a nutshell. Some folks haven’t found their Mojo yet, but it’s out there somewhere waiting for them.

Why do I solo? Probably the same reasons that you dance, ride a bike, go rock climbing, ride a motorcycle, or perform the activities you love. We really aren’t all that different, the only difference is where we’ve found our mojo. It’s just the one thing that I’ve found where my mind becomes still, and the world is at peace. There is no adrenaline rush, I hate feeling afraid. It’s simple meditation. Seeking Zen with a smirk. Perhaps a better question is this: How did I get into soloing to begin with?

How I found my Mojo
Climbing was fascinating to me. I think it’s summed up by one of the most common bits of vernacular that we never think of… Nobody calls it a bouldering “route” or a bouldering “climb”. It’s a boulder-problem. On my first time at a climbing gym, I got stuck fifteen feet off the ground on a 5.8. It wasn’t that I couldn’t do the moves; it was simply that I couldn’t figure it out. And that was the epiphany, suddenly it wasn’t a simple brute exercise and it had become a problem that I needed to solve. I can’t stand an unsolved problem!

The obsession was fairly immediate. I wanted to climb as hard as humanly possible, whatever that meant. Something like 5.12, right? So I started climbing regularly, seeking challenges to improve. I wanted to climb harder, and harder, while constantly seeking the next big thing. But there was one small problem. Top roping wasn’t real climbing. I wanted to climb outside, and you have to get the rope up there somehow; therefore, lead climbing is real climbing!

"What do I do with all these clippy things?" Photo Credit: Julia Watson
“What do I do with all these clippy things?”
Photo Credit: Julia Watson
Again, I was obsessed like it was a whole new sport that I’d never even heard of. I had to start all over again, working up the grades slowly. As it turns out, leading is HARD! And so I started all over again, back at the bottom of the grade scale. I sought out new challenges, attempting progressively harder and harder routes, constantly trying to improve. But then I discovered another small problem. I was only sport climbing. I didn’t just want to climb outside; I wanted to climb BIG things outside. If you want to climb BIG, you need to climb trad. There typically aren’t bolts in the wall stitching the high climbs together. On the high crag you have to make your own safety; therefore, trad is real climbing!

Again I found the obsession, the regimented training, the challenges, and the striving and straining for gains and improvement. At this point, those of you who know me well can probably guess what comes next, it seems obvious in retrospect. Sometimes I REALLY just don’t want to climb hard. Actually, I usually don’t want to climb hard. In a way you could say I’m lazy as hell, but I still want to get stronger so that my definition of “easy” becomes “harder” over time to give me access to more “easy” climbing. Everyone seems to forget the fact that no one solos on climbs they consider difficult, that would be insanity! Easy climbing… It’s peaceful, it’s meditative, you lose the struggle, and the fight. Whether it be on top rope looking at a wide swing into the trees, on sport lead feeling afraid of falling, or running it out through easy terrain on a trad-lead, we’ve all had this thought “meh, it’s fine; I’m not going to fall here.” It’s easy, why would you worry? When we climb on easy terrain, folks are generally more willing to forgo their normal level of safety. They skip clips, run it out longer before placing gear, and become less worried about the possibility of large swings on wandering routes.

One of my favorite climbs at my home crag is “Texas Crude” (5.10b) at Enchanted Rock. It’s one of my favorite climbs, I led it every chance I got, and was very familiar with the moves. It had become “easy,” and I was placing fewer and fewer pieces of gear with each repeated ascent. “Meh, it’s fine, I’m not going to fall on this one.” Eventually I was down to placing two pieces of gear on the 80 ft climb, and I couldn’t even pretend I was being “safe” anymore. At that point, the gear was too sparse to prevent a ground-fall on the majority of the route. The strain of stopping and hanging one-handed to place the gear, and consequent rope drag were the only factors that caused me to feel taxed and tired. Given that the effort of making “safety” was making me more likely to fall than the actual climbing, I decided to ditch the gear and take a solo lap. The gear made me feel like I was going to fall, if I removed that obstacle… Well, what could be safer than simply not falling?

"Meh, It'll be aw'right, just don't fall!" Photo Credit: Bibiana Diehl
“Meh, It’ll be aw’right, just don’t fall!”
Photo Credit: Bibiana Garcia Diehl
I tried the route on top rope, and it was casual. When climbing it on lead, I could carry on a conversation the whole time. I knew I was ready, and I went for it with full commitment. No harness, no gear, just a pair of shoes and a chalk bag. Bringing a harness, pro, crashpad, or helmet makes you think you’re allowed to fall, and that’s completely unacceptable. It doesn’t matter if you’re 10ft off the ground or 300; the calculus must be the same. I don’t use a harness when I solo, or any other gear because the presence of a safety valve allows one to think it’s okay to be less than 100% solid. It implies that there is a way out, and that is incredibly dangerous. The mind must be fully committed, and having the fallacy of an escape could get me into a scary situation. Don’t get me wrong, I always have a contingency plan, but it relies on good judgment and strong training. Full commitment demands full preparation and that is the ONLY way to stay safe, for any form of climbing.

And that’s basically why I solo. I love the simplicity, and the state of mind that it brings for me. I’m lazy, and I love easy climbing. When the climbing is easy I can drop the complications and just do more climbing! A few weekends later I came out to the park and soloed 16 of my favorite routes before lunchtime, and that was the point where I decided to commit to becoming a free-soloist.

Bringing it Full-Circle
I saw Cirque Du Soleil this weekend and the show absolutely blew my mind. Perhaps the thing that blew my mind the most was watching the aerial stunts performed by actors utilizing the theatrical fly system in the roof. The dismount platform was about 50 feet in the air, and they were performing stunts hanging from wires, poles, or rings and the only “safety” was a strap to wrap around the wrist for better grip. The audience hardly bats an eyelash, it was all choreographed so perfectly to the music that it was easy to miss how difficult and dangerous these stunts were. No one really stopped to think that there was a human hanging from a ring pointing face first at a 30ft drop.

When I solo, I have all day to make the movements, and I only climb when it feels right in the moment for me. Seeing folks performing on stage facing the same sort of consequences, in front of an audience, performing every move to the beat of the music in crisp choreography, and doing it every night for their profession was utterly mind blowing from my vantage point. There they were, soloing in front of an audience of hundreds, and nobody was up in arms. But if you strip away the music and add a cliff face, suddenly people get scared, and they lash out at the climber. Many will say that guy “obviously” doesn’t care about life. Many folks go out of their way to condemn me for my actions and make attempts at convincing me to stop, but here at Cirque Du Soleil those same people were forking over cash for tickets not only to see it themselves but also to ensure the show continues.

Photo: Cirque Du Soleil
Photo: Cirque Du Soleil
At the crescendo of the performance, there were as many a half dozen acrobats in the air and another twenty on the floor. The energy in the air was so powerful I could feel it resonating in my core. Every one of those people on stage were deeply synched in flow, it was their moving meditation. It was like watching an orchestra constructed of human movement instead of music, and the connection I felt was unmistakable. Everybody has Mojo. It’s that place inside where simply being clears your mind, and you lose all sense of time and the world around you.

Folks ask how to get better at climbing, and really it’s the same way you get better at anything; Find your Mojo. Let’s leave the fear based thinking behind and instead focus on finding how to bring ourselves peace. Fighting fear can help you to a degree, but it can only get you so far. That same fear you fight can come to define your climbing, and its caustic presence encourages some to interfere with the peace of others. Instead, if you take time to recognize those moments of peace in life and make an effort to seek them out, that’s something you can take with you away from the rock to enrich your life, and that’s some good Mojo.

Soloing is meditation, and everyone does it, it’s almost ordinary and that’s the trick. It happens so often that we don’t realize how profoundly common it is and this makes us think that this peace is some impossibly unattainable state for the enlightened. I’m no Zen master, but I find my peace, my mojo, while soloing because the climbing is easy and it frees my mind to simply rest in the moment. Those actors were doing it in front of me on stage. And you? You’re doing it right now, because you have no idea how long it took to read this article.

Cheers, and Happy Climbing!

Austin Howell – Atlanta Climbing Coach