Free-soloing isn’t cool, and neither am I

I’m worried this might come off as elitist, but my intent is quite the opposite. This post is born out of the fact that I have one single belief at the base of everything I do: There is only one thing which is more awesome than climbing, and that’s “More Climbing.” Climbing is supposed to be the most awesome and fun thing in the universe, as long as you hold on to that you’re doing it right!

In other words, the purpose of this article is not religious indoctrination, but rather a message that gravity is the great unifier, and we are all equals on the walls, boulders, and cliffs.

Despite that, those of you who know me well have probably heard me riffing on bouldering and boulderers to make fun of them. It’s not because I have some deep-seated hatred of bouldering. Actually, I consider myself to be a “multipitch boulderer.” We’re basically the same! It’s just that bouldering is an easy target for humor, and boulderers are usually good natured about it. I don’t make fun of trad climbers very often because getting hit in the face by a #6 Camalot really hurts.

You show me a climber who knows the “one true way” to life on the rock, and I’ll show you a climber who has missed the point. The point of climbing is to put a gigantic grin on your face, and the perfect route is one that makes you feel more awesome than you are. Just temper that with the fact that nobody feels awesome in the hospital, and you’ll have a great life!

I don't want anyone to slap me in the face with these items, that's why I avoid giving hell to trad-climbers. It's much safer to get hit by a crash pad!
I don’t want anyone to slap me in the face with these items, that’s why I avoid giving hell to trad-climbers. It’s much safer to get hit in the face by a crash pad!

Folks want to act like they know the “proper” way to rock climb and lambast folks for taking “unnecessary risk.” Every single rock climber is an unnecessary risk taker. The thing that matters is that the preparations you make are commensurate with the risk which you take. It’s not like you have to rock climb to catch food.

On the polar opposite side, once I was climbing along on another bout of multipitch-bouldering, and I heard this:

“DUDE! That is hard core! You’re so brave man! How do I get into that!?”
-Random Kid at the crag

Every word of that is terrifying. Not many things induce fear within me, but that scares the shit out of me. It’s precisely the kind of thing that I’m afraid of every time I go out soloing. I don’t want to inspire some kid to kill himself.

There are so many scary sentiments in that statement, and it really freaks me out.

On the point of cool-factor: It’s fundamentally impossible for anything to be cooler than rock climbing (except for MORE rock climbing), seeing as soloing is just a subset of climbing…. It is no more awesome than Top-Roping or Trad Climbing, it’s just significantly lazier. That’s the thing, well thought-out laziness is the driving force behind the majority of my climbing decisions. I like being able to climb hard, but I’m not the biggest fan of actually doing it. It’s just too damn hard, and I’m quite lazy. Most of the time, I just want to ramble around and climb loads of easy stuff. In reality, all of the crazy training that I do is designed to make my definition of “easy” into something quite ridiculous. I train like a masochist so that I can climb easy things, all the time.

Because of that, I don’t see myself as hardcore because there’s nothing hardcore about being lazy and sticking to easy stuff when you are capable of more. Maybe my training is hardcore, but by definition, I’m not allowed to solo anything hardcore because that would be suicidal. If you solo things to feel hardcore, you’re an idiot, and you are going to die. When you’re soloing, everything should feel absolutely chill.

I mean…. I don’t want to come across like I know the “one true way” on this, but there is some logic behind that statement: Human brains are amazingly adaptable. In much the same way that driving a car on the freeway once felt frightening to the student driver, and years later it comes to feel normal, if something feels hardcore now, someday it will feel like any other Tuesday if you do it enough. So if that “hardcore” feeling is what you were after, you’ll have to work progressively harder every day to find it, and someday it will bite back.

Art in Motion. That's climbing! Photo: Andy Toms, a true artist
Art in Motion. That’s climbing! Photo: Andy Toms, a true artist

Chill climbing isn’t scary. It’s just plain fun. So that makes me question the label of “brave.”

brave (brāv/ )
adjective
  1. ready to face and endure danger or pain; showing courage.
    “a brave soldier”

I’m deliberately avoiding anything painful, and courage can be defined as “the ability to do something that frightens,” but I’m not doing anything that feels hardcore, so I don’t feel frightened. We humans feel afraid and adrenalized when we sense that our life or wellbeing is in peril. Even though I frequently eschew the use of safety gear, I do everything I can to make sure my life is not in danger during those times. That goes back to ensuring  “preparation commensurate with the risk you take.” I’m not into that whole danger/adrenaline thing, so I’m never facing down something that I find frightening. Soloing is objectively dangerous, but so is the rest of climbing. So is driving your car, but we don’t call the other drivers on the freeway “brave.” Usually, we call them “idiots,” at least during rush hour. I suppose that’s something which drivers and soloists have in common: we’re both idiots! So it seems there’s more to “brave” than just the danger aspect.

To me, bravery is the ability to do what must be done, even if you’re terrified of it. It’s not fun. It’s scary. So I can’t see myself as brave because I’m out there soloing to have fun and avoid any sort of fear. When I see a climber out on their first trip, and they’re not 100% sure how all this stuff works, but they’re eager to face fears and learn, that’s brave. Coming out to your parents when you’re uncertain how they’ll respond, that’s brave. Leaving the house to relax on easy climbs without any sense of fear, I don’t think that’s brave at all. Maybe I am brave, but it’s not for soloing. It’s for coming back to climbing after my accident, it’s for climbing 5.6’s on toprope in the gym while I was utterly terrified. Overcoming obstacles to live the life you’ve dreamed, that’s brave.

And I suppose those points bring us back to the question at the end: Getting into soloing isn’t a goal that anyone should have. Especially if they think it’s cool, hardcore, or brave. It’s so utterly dangerous that there is no real concrete reason to say “hey, soloing, that’s something you should totally do!” But some folks have this moment where they wake up one morning and think “oh yeah, soloing! That’s the most obvious thing in the universe, why haven’t I been doing this all along?” That’s how you get into it. If you think soloing is hardcore, brave, or scary, then you’re inviting adrenaline. Adrenaline is the mind-killer. As soon as it enters your psyche, you lose the ability to make well-thought decisions, and worse… Adrenaline changes the chemistry of your body. It gives mothers the strength to lift cars off of their babies, but it comes at a perilous cost: Adrenaline removes your ability to process lactic acid and recover. This means you’re more likely to pump out and fall off. That’s why soloing can’t be hardcore, the moment it is…. you’re hosed.

Feeling hardcore, swimming through a sea of lichen, on toprope
Feeling hardcore, swimming through a sea of lichen, on toprope

Finally, this brings me to a critique of my own words; The title of this article is misleading. Soloing isn’t the most awesome part of climbing, but it is a part of climbing, and that makes it cool by association. What dictates whether soloing is cool to you or not is whether it puts a huge smile on your face and makes you feel at peace. If it does, then it’s cool. If it doesn’t, it’s not, and that’s okay too! It’s rather the same as any other type of climbing in that sense. And me? I don’t think I’m cool, but if I am, I don’t think it’s because of my soloing. Not for one minute. I’m just like every other climber out there. I have my preferred style, and when I set a new personal best I’m excited to share the psyche with others! Progress is cool! And progress can be found on any type of climbing! So get out there, enjoy your toprope, sport, trad, bouldering, multiptich, big wall, ice, and aid climbing! Climbing is the coolest thing in the known universe, that’s what makes it so awesome for all of us! As long as you hold onto that, you’re doing it right!


Post Script: Often I draft posts, decide they’re awful, and then let the idea marinate for a few months before I can figure out exactly what it was that I wanted to say. Such is the case with this article. So while the timing may make this seem like a commentary on the Katie Lambert article for Climbing Magazine, my initial draft was on Dec 19th, three weeks before the Jan 9th run of her article on Climbing.com. So these thoughts were not intended as a commentary on her article; however, The timing is awkward. It seems we have similar thoughts on our minds, but the timing is only a curious coincidence. I’ve had the idea to write this article for about a year now, but never could quite find the words to make my thoughts clear until recently.

This was not posted in response to any criticisms, either directed at myself or directed generally, rather it was written in response to my own fears that I could inspire someone to do something really unfortunate. To that end, I make sure leave poorly-executed moves in the final edit of any videos that I make, and I try to post about any mishaps that happen. I don’t censor any small part of the process, no matter how ugly. Even if that makes feel people uncomfortable. Especially if that makes people feel uncomfortable. I feel that’s important. Climbing isn’t always beautiful, and I won’t pretend that it is for a single minute.

It’s a conundrum. If I get back from a weekend out and someone asks me “how was your climbing?” It would be inauthentic, disingenuous and an outright lie to omit that I went soloing. When I was a kid learning to climb, I was always excited to share my adventures with friends. Nothing has changed in that regard except for the fact that it now is called “spray,” and some folks call me “inspiring” for whatever reason, which makes me fear that I’ll inspire something unfortunate.

Thanks for listening to today’s rambling, feel free to leave any questions/comments/hate-mail in the comment section and I’ll try to leave a thought out response! #DiaryOfAMadman

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