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.
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.
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!