How to solo 5.12

Step 1: Don’t.

Great, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, lets talk busines.

Soloing is dangerous; that’s evident as soon as you find yourself fifteen feet off the ground and look down, but many activities are dangerous, so what’s different about this one? To cite an overused comparison: Driving a car is dangerous. At freeway speeds, ramming a blunt object won’t end well for you or your passengers. Auto accidents are among the top ten leading causes of death in America almost every year. What if something unexpected happens, how will you manage to avoid a crash? You tell yourself that you’ll be okay, because you’ve practiced driving a lot, and know you can keep your car straight even if the unexpected occurs. Plus, you have the added knowledge that we’ve well-engineered cars to make them “safe enough.” Despite the engineering, I’d bet you were still terrified the first time you ever drove on the freeway. Despite that initial terror, I’d wager you feel incredibly comfortable behind the wheel on during that objectively dangerous activity.  It’s amazing what the human brain can get used to with a little practice, and practice is just training viewed through a different lens.

In the past two years, I’ve climbed more pitches outside without a rope than I have with one. That’s a lot of practice, and it’s just one year. I’ve been soloing for eight years now, the milage adds up fast.

Statistically speaking, BASE jumping is the most dangerous sport out there, with wingsuit proximity flying being the most dangerous sub-genre of BASE. In any sport, folks like to talk about “pushing the limits” of what’s possible, but that always entails something different. Sprinters must become faster, Olympic lifters must become stronger, Sport climbers need stronger fingers and more advanced technique. With proximity flying, the progression of the sport involves flying closer and closer to objects at high speed. Unfortunately, the only safety one has in BASE relies on having distance from objects so that you can maneuver away if the wind shifts. Because of this, progressing the pursuit of proximity wingsuit flying, by definition, is a practice of slowly eradicating one’s safety margin, a little at a time, until fate catches up with you, or you come to your senses and back off. It takes a lot of skill, but also a fair amount of luck. Pushing the “limits” of proximity BASE means inching closer to death in the most literal definition.

 

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Proximity Flying: Click the photo for more details

By contrast, soloists are all about solidity. I don’t “push my limits” in soloing the way that other climbers do. I push my limits safely in a controlled setting on the campus board and in the climbing gym. For soloing, I have to know that I have the ability to climb a route even should several things went wrong. Because it’s not a matter of if, but when. Because things do go wrong, but that’s not always a big deal. If it was a big deal, I wouldn’t be able to justify continuing. How many times have your feet slipped at the climbing gym, but you continued to climb to the top? How many times have drivers swerved in front of your car unexpectedly, but you didn’t crash? These are learned skills, and there are things you can do to stack the odds in your favor.

I’m talking about jugs! Let’s talk about 5.12 now. 5.12 is hard, and 5.12’s on slabs are utterly horrifying. If we keep the grade constant, steeper climbs yield bigger holds due to the endurance factor. Then it becomes less luck and more fitness. Steep climbs are the home of the biggest holds for any particular grade of climbing, and that’s why my hardest solos have been in the steeps of Little River Canyon. To contrast that point, there are 5.8’s on Looking Glass that you could send in high-heels whichI wouldn’t solo on this side of hell! In other words, my safety margin is a mix of fitness and route selection. The grade has surprisingly little to do with it beyond being a vague guide for which ones are “obviously impossible” because I can’t send them.

 

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Steep route, big comfortable holds! “The Lion” (5.12c)

Folks like to dramatize soloing with statements such as “Don’t you know that one mistake will get you killed!” Trust me, I think about the potential consequences of my mistakes far more than you do. If I was on a polished 5.8 slab devoid of holds, it really would only take a small mistake to send me pitching off the route. When the hands are so small and thin, the only thing pasting you on the wall is friction and a little shoe rubber. In the steeps, fingers have to be locked in hard to the rock to maintain connection. If I pick a route with solid in-cut holds, I don’t have to worry about my hands slipping by accident or without warning (or my feet, for that matter), because I have a reliable connection with the rock that I can feel and evaluate. Even so, things could go wrong in little ways, but if something does go wrong, I just grab harder and bear through it. Just like you do at the climbing gym. Foot slips? Grab harder. Hand slips? That’s why I have two, and I’ve made a deliberate point to train so I can do one-arm pullups on crimps. If one hand slips a little, I have trained to have the excess strength necessary to carry through.That need for excess strength is why my hardest solos are near to my onsight level, and not anywhere near my physical limits. 

Soloing done right isn’t a matter of “I can do this perfectly,” that would be hubris. Soloing done right means training well and selecting the right route so that one can say “I can send this with energy to spare, even if I make multiple mistakes.”

Speaking of mistakes, climbers love the onsight. Onsighting is impressive, because it means you can send the climb even while doing everything wrong and wasting energy while thinking. Often I’ll choose to solo routes I’ve onsighted, so once I’ve dialed in the beta and remove the effort of dragging a rope and draws… Well, at that point I usually have a built-in safety margin. Onsighting with a rope involves making mistakes on the route from guessing the wrong beta or burning excess injury while stalling and thinking about what to do next. After onsighting,  when I come back with the correct beta, I know I can climb it without falling, even if I make a few mistakes.

That’s the thing about soloing; it’s not a kamikaze mission where I’m willing to roll the dice and see if I can climb something perfectly without making mistakes. You can’t sustain soloing for adrenaline or cool-factor, that will catch up to you faster than wingsuit BASE. I solo because it’s the most relaxing activity on earth for me. Chosing to solo isn’t a statement of impulse or sensation-seeking. It’s a statement that I have prepared so well that I know I can control the climbing on a route, even when I screw up, and a dedication to training to make sure that rarely happens.

One great quote from the 80’s states: “Any asshole can get lucky once, second time’s the solo.” That quote really threw me off when I first heard it. It just rubbed me the wrong way, but I think I understand it now. If you come off a route thinking “wow, I’ll never solo that again,” then the preparation was incomplete, it was a risk. You were too close to the limit for comfort, and you simply got away with it. It was luck. On the other hand, If you come off thinking “okay, that was cool, I’d gladly go again!” That’s a much clearer sign that you’ve approached the wall with right mind and proper preparation. Soloing is about being ready to climb on command and having everything sufficiently in control to feel relaxed.

You want to know how to solo 5.12? Create a set of skills where soloing 5.12 feels like the most relaxed and peaceful activity on earth. Otherwise, pack in a rope!

 

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Atlanta Climbing Coach

 

Quantum Leap: A trip report

I still vividly remember when I started climbing, struggling on 5.8’s, and looking at folks on 5.12’s in amazement. How could anyone possibly climb that? In those days, the ultimate goal in our community’s eyes was to send 5.13a and onsight 5.12a… But that kind of ability just seemed so inhuman to me, how could anyone even climb 5.12, let alone onsight it!?

One year ago, eight years later, I climbed my first 5.13a, and onsighted my first 5.12’s. I still can’t entirely believe I did it. It seems too surreal, too superhuman for someone like me to achieve. That’s the kind of stuff reserved for strong climbers, not me… No matter how strong I get, it seems that kid struggling on 5.8’s will still be looking outward with a sense of awe and wonder: “How is that physically possible?!” I’m always surprised when one day, after a lot of training… It is! And then, a few months later, it becomes easy.

I felt dizzy just typing that last sentence. I’ve never felt like I’m special, especially not in climbing, so I’m always surprised whenever I achieve something. Climbing is maddeningly difficult, and yet… I’ve trained hard enough to develop these magic moments where it all comes together and just feels like the most natural thing in the world. Then once I realized that was possible, I trained specifically to lengthen those moments and live in them. When I was injured in Yosemite last spring, I thought I had lost that irretrievably. How could someone climb peacefully with no sense of equilibrium?

I hid in the basement and trained all winter once I realized my injuries were healed, and at the beginning of March, I returned to my old favorite haunts to take the fingers for a test-drive. Not only were they doing better than expected, but I was stronger than I’d dared even to hope. I managed to onsight “Thieves” (5.12a), and snake the redpoint on “Gas Chamber” (5.13a). I’ve never screamed with excitement after a send, but… Well…  Fortunately, it was a weekday at the crag, so nobody had to hear me!

Much to my surprise, It felt like my fingers were just getting started.


I had a notion that some old favorites might go as solos with my newfound security on the wall from this winter’s training, so I returned to Foster Falls and rehearsed “Bottom Feeder,” “First Offense” and “Satisfaction” about a half-dozen times each to prepare, and then it was just a matter of waiting for the right day. To train my mind, during the waiting period, I made a “dry run” at Sandrock by repeating every 5.11 I’ve ever soloed in a single afternoon and was surprised to feel solid enough on all of them that I could repeat the lines on command, even “Dreamscape”… Which held the title of my hardest solo at the time

Then, the day after, Lohan invited me out to Little River Canyon to run laps on local testpieces. I hopped on “Boy” and “The Lion” and they felt casual. The lines are crazy steep, but the great thing about steep climbing is this: As long as you hold the grade constant: the steeper it gets, the bigger the holds are! These routes were so steep that the holds were large enough to make the climbing felt even more secure than my Foster Falls circuit. Game on!


I couldn’t decide which set of climbs I wanted to go for… Boy and Lion? Or the Foster Falls Circuit? When the weather finally cleared enough, I realized I could have both and planned to do it all in a single weekend, starting in Little River Canyon.

I started with “Boy”, and it went smoothly. To me, it was slightly nerve wracking because I knew the crux was a boulder problem at the very top, and the last move of that bouldery crux was the hardest. I had that in my head the whole way up, but once I laid my hands on the holds, I felt completely calm and restful. In retrospect, I think that contemplating life at the base of the climb was the real crux! Next, I went for “The Lion”, which had a lower and more secure crux. I wasn’t as anxious, but I got excited once I fired the crux and had to collect my head to fire the finish smoothly. The routes don’t top out on the wall, so I traversed right and climbed down to the ground via a wandering path across the opening moves of a few 5.11’s. I managed to dodge any of the cruxy bits by traversing from route-to-route and the downclimb felt about 5.10.

After pulling off the solo of a 5.12c, I knew my lines at Foster Falls would go well, but the weather soured. Rain was now forecasted for 3 pm instead of the 5 pm I had planned. I was worried I wouldn’t have time to warm up, but then I thought back to the day I sent “Gas Chamber” and remembered that I had warmed up on “Satisfaction”, and it felt good… So I figured that would be a good way to start the day. My primary anxiety was about the possibility of having an audience; that’s just weird when I’m near the upper limit of my comfort zone… I just don’t want to have the distraction… I saw some other climbers walking towards the wall and glanced at my heart rate monitor. I spiked at about 150bpm because I was anxious about their affect on my performance and almost called the whole thing off… But they kept walking, my heart rate dropped, and now at least my body felt warmed up!


Satisfaction starts off with some moderate 5.10 into a stout 5.11 section, and then you’re in the crux. For me, the crux beta requires a lie back off a right hand-jam, to stretch left to a quarter inch crimp. Hike the feet, reach up right to another quarter inch crimp, then flow left hand into a BOMBER finger-lock. When leading the route, cross-clipping off of that finger-jam always felt like the crux. Soloing the climb felt like cheating since I was able to skip that stressful clip without worries. As soon as my left hand sunk into the finger lock, all the morning jitters disappeared, and I relaxed my way to the finishing ledge where “Satisfaction” ends and “First Offense” begins.

After sitting on that ledge for a while to contemplate life, I just trusted my abilities and executed the moves through the roof. “First Offense” is 70ft exposed from the first move off the ledge, which really got into my head while I was sitting there thinking about it, but once I pulled onto the massive jugs my entire face split into a giant grin: This is what climbing is all about! I topped out, slipped off my climbing shoes and walked the long way back down barefoot, stubbing my toe HARD in the process. I figure one day I’ll learn to walk straight, but it’s really not a high priority at the moment!

When I glanced at the readout of my heart rate monitor, the lowest intensity periods were while I was climbing, and the highest were while I was walking back down. Apparently I feel more secure on the wall than on foot!


For the last lap of the day, I swung into the layback at the start of “Bottom Feeder”, but in my head, I was scared by the crux deadpoint. It’s SUPER committing. When I got to the crimps at the setup of the move, I wasn’t feeling it at all. “Dreamscape” had a deadpoint, but you’re launching from good holds, so if you screw it up, you can just hold on with that hand and try again. “Bottom Feeder” doesn’t have this luxury, you’re launching from a really bad pocket, so you’ve gotta stick it. I don’t like to roll the dice on something like that, so I reversed the crux and climbed back down to the base. I was a little bit bummed about the climbing but happy that I made a good decision. There’s no room for ego up there.

As a consolation prize, I took a second lap on Satisfaction and First Offense… But this time, I clipped my cruzers onto my belt-loop for the hike down. Among certain crews in the stone master era, it was once said that “Any asshole can get lucky once, the second time is the solo.” And I have to say that the second time felt way better than the first! Once I knew how good the solo felt, all the anxiety disappeared and the only thing left was good climbing. In this case, the second time really was the solo, because that’s when I finally relaxed enough to enjoy it.

Looking back, I realize that I’ll be back to solo “Boy” and “The Lion” again someday, because it was just a super fun experience. If you like numbers and grades, it’s notable that on paper it looks like I jumped from soloing 5.11c to 5.12c in the space of a weekend… But the real quantum leap that I’ve experienced is one of feeling solid and secure. Now, when I solo my hardest climbs, there is no feeling at all of doing something special. Everything was locker; everything was secure to the extreme degree where I would gladly repeat it again, and don’t feel the need to wait for the mythical “special moment.” I’m one with those climbs now, and I can enjoy them on my terms.

Ten months ago I was supposed to be dead, and now I’m more alive than I could have possibly dreamed

Enjoy the video below!

QuantumLeap from Austin Howell on Vimeo.

Atlanta Climbing Coach