Some of y’all may have heard that I onsight soloed a 5.12a recently. Not gonna lie, I’m pretty stoked, and I’ve never been this satisfied with anything in my climbing career. Understandably though, this left a lot of you thinking “What. The. FUCK. Was that guy thinking!?” So I’m here to shed a little light on how I got to do something like this, even though it was never a goal of mine. It couldn’t be a goal of mine, actually. Onsight soloing is a formidable thing, if you want it, it’ll kill you. That’s how emotions work for me in soloing, I have to let them go, become a creature of pure logic, and trust in the process that I’ve crafted. Otherwise, things could get scary.
This post is for the nerds, it’s long, and it’s detailed. If you want a quick article on death-defying recklessness, you’re in the wrong spot. If you want detailed logical processes about what actually goes into the making of this sort of thing, then pour a scotch, sit down, and enjoy the read!
Some have pointed out the obviously reckless nature and idiocy of this feat, and that makes me wonder: would they have said the same if it was 5.2? What about 5.3? 5.4? How about you? What’s your threshold? 5.9? What about your belayer? When do they decide it is foolish? 5.11? 5.7? We all like to say that “grades don’t matter,” but something about it leaves folks triggered in this instance.
There is nothing inherently safe about any climb, and the danger has nothing to do with a grade. If you make a mistake and get killed on a 5.2 or a 5.15, that’s not the climb’s fault. The wisdom or folly of an achievement is not derived from the grade of a chosen objective, especially since grades don’t matter. Right? The safety comes from your code of conduct and how you choose a goal that’s “safe enough.” After all, at the end of the day, climbing is inherently dangerous. All any of us can achieve is “safe enough.” To deny that is to embrace folly with wholehearted idiocy.
The only safety that any of us has lies within our ability to make competent decisions. That’s what makes a climb safe. As the grade of a solo rises higher, it does not grow more dangerous, but rather it becomes more rare. As the grade of the climb increases, it requires more effort, so it’s much more difficult to find a route which passes the smell test and fits within the soloist’s code of conduct.
In soloing, if a move is sketchy, the solution is to apply more force to make it stable so that you won’t slip. The climb is easy, so you should have plenty of energy to spare for making safety. Even so, on some climbs, that just doesn’t work, so you have to skip them. There are 5.8’s that my girlfriend could climb in high-heels, that I wouldn’t dare to solo! You have to know when to back off. So as the grade gets higher and the climbing gets harder, you have less excess energy to devote to stabilizing moves. This means the percentage of routes which can be soloed decreases. So that’s the rarity of hard soloing, and of hard onsight soloing. You have to find a route that just really wants to be soloed. It has to be as close to perfect for the style as can be imagined, and that is rare.
So I could never have set this as a goal, to do so would have given my ego a foothold where it might kick me to my death. Wanting something in the soloing world introduces the possibility of overreaching. If you want something badly enough, you might be willing to try anything to achieve it, and that just isn’t acceptable.
I never let myself want this, I just realized one day that it was possible, and began the process.
Finding The Moment
Eyeballing the 50ft horizontal roof left me with a feeling that I’d never quite had before while staring at this type of terrain: it looked moderate. The crux was at the end, a couple positive but angled edges provided the set up for a big move, and then turning the lip was a simple matter of endurance.
I flowed up the route. Half-way through was a move which required cutting both feet loose and Tarzan-swinging from a single hand to catch the next jug. I took the opportunity to rest here and recovered most of my energy. At the end of the roof was an insecure stance which pumped me out again, but as I set up on those two crimps I just barely had enough ability remaining for the move, but I did have enough strength remaining. I knew latching that jug was a matter of sheer determination, and I’d need every ounce of focus and willpower to snatch that hold. Without a moment of hesitation, I dynoed all-out and latched the jug. Again I sat and recovered, alternating hands for a shake off while I contemplated life, then ambled out the roof, onto the face, clipped the chains, screamed TAKE and lowered back to the padded gym floor.
This story starts in the climbing gym because that’s when it hit me: I had recovered energy in a roof for the first time in my life! I’m not sure what grade the route was, ratings are always a bit odd in the gym, but if you climb in a gym long enough, you start to get familiar with the holds. I was resting on holds which before would have pumped me out. Woah. This whole training thing is paying off!
Now my fingers were ready for something next-level. I had no in-progress projects to try, but that kind of recovery ability meant my onsight game would be on-point. Being able to stop and get energy back in difficult places is the most important physical attribute for onsight soloing. Maybe I could use this ability for something special, and deeply personal.
The crux of that style of climbing is fear of the unknown which lies above you. The higher you climb, the more tired you get, and retreat becomes more complicated with each passing move. It is possible for the psyche to get locked, afraid of the unknown above, but also afraid of the retreat. Knowing that I had the ability to recover in these roofs meant I could keep my calm better than ever so that neither the unknown nor the retreat would be as scary. I could just stop and rest for as long as I needed to at any point in the steeps to think calmly and make a competent decision.
With a rope, I had onsighted both “pumpy” and “bouldery” 5.12c and sent 5.13a second-go. This all suggested that the 5.12d onsight is near. Therefore, 5.12a was a decent bit below my maximum onsight ability. This spring I soloed my hardest at 5.12c with “Dalai Lama,” which has a V5 crux at 70ft and a V4 pump-crux body-length roof at 90ft. Later I re-soloed some “Satisfaction (5.12b)” and “First Offense (5.12a)” a few times each for practice. Both felt even more mellow than I remembered. My soloing game had reached next level status as well. Since everything else in my climbing had reached “next level” status, maybe my onsight soloing would too? Previously, I had onsight soloed up to 5.11d, so perhaps it was time for 5.12a?
It just felt like the logical next step, so logical that I at least had to give it a proper try.
Finding The Line:
Unfortunately, I was leaving in only two weeks, so I didn’t think it would happen. That’s just too short a time frame. I needed dry rock, moderate temps, and time to scout, but I was stuck in the middle of moving houses! Luck was on my side, however. With one week left, the weather report turned perfect for a full five-day period! That gave me time to prepare for my move out of town, and invest time into asking friends for route suggestions. I didn’t want to leak my plans and feel any sort of pressure, so I started asking around carefully on the back-channels, but even beating around the bush was risky… “Heyyyyyyy…. do you know of any routes that fit this list:”
- Fairly static
- Mostly incut holds
- Very solid rock
- Feels “secure”
- Has a “topout” after the chains
Such an inquiry would definitely give my intentions away so I couldn’t ask just anybody. Luckily, I know Lohan. Lohan has known me for a good while, and he’s seen my climbing. He trusts me to make proper judgment calls, and he knows that I won’t blindly trust any of his route suggestions. He and I met on a day that I was soloing, and it was a full year before he ever saw me tie in on a rope! As a result, he and I have a funny relationship where each of us insists the other is “actually the strong one.” For the record, Lohan is definitely the strong one. I’m writing that down for everyone to know. And now, since it’s in writing, he can legally no longer dispute the fact. I called up the strongest guy I knew, who’s sent loads of 5.12a, and just laid it out there. “Do you know of any good 12a’s to onsight solo? I’m thinking about Toomsuba, but I’m not sure if it’s a good idea or not. You’ve been on the route, you know how I climb, what do you think?”
The more we talked about Toomsuba, the less confident I became. Finally, I asked him for all the beta. I was sad to miss the onsight, but flashing 12a would still be amazing. Unfortunately, as we talked about the specifics of beta, we both became less sure that it was a good idea. Actually, we became quite convinced it was a bad idea. One day later Lohan breaks the news “I’ve got it! The route is called ‘Tangerine.’ The climbing is secure, and I’m pretty sure it tops out, but I’ll have to ask around first.” I couldn’t find any info online about the route as to whether it was soft or sandbagged, but it was the most positive lead that I had so I decided to head out to the canyon and give it a go. Nevertheless, I searched around and found a few alternates, just in case.
Finding the Mojo
At the base of the wall, I flipped through the guidebook and found a positive ID on the route. I counted bolts, looked for the top. The line passed a bulge and went out of view. Lohan had heard back from three people that it “probably” had a topout, but “probably” isn’t good enough when your life is on the line. I scrambled back out, hiked to the top of the cliff, and peered over the edge: BOLTS! Anchor-bolts galore! There was a ledge only 6ft below the lip which ran the length of the wall, and there was a good crisp edge for the whole length that could be mantled! And if the top of my route was overly gnarly, I could just traverse that ledge to find a better spot. Gorgeous!
Once back at the base, I could see a “make or break” point halfway up, where the route suddenly got harder. 50ft of jugs was followed by a major decision point which looked to have a good resting stance. I knew the top out was good, I knew that I could bail from half-height, so I decided to swing up the route and see what happened. Thanks to my experience in the gym, I knew I could sit at that resting stance for ages, contemplate life, scout for beta, and make a decision that felt right in my own sweet time. Reversing from that point would’ve been no big deal.
After about one minute of climbing, I reached the mid route jug, and I was fresh, so I swung into the next moves. Right-hand slot, left hand on a poor crimp, right hand on an okay side-pull, and holy shite that’s a big move! I released my left hand and hovered to decide how easy bailing would be after this move, and then reversed to the jug. I rested there for a few minutes, then tried to see if I could climb the section without the poor crimp. It was too awkward. I thought that using the crimp wouldn’t be awesome for down-climbing, but now I could feel that skipping it to go straight to the next big hold wouldn’t be awesome either. Sure, I’ve downclimbed stranger things during training sessions in the gym, but it wasn’t pleasant, so I wanted to avoid that eventuality if at all possible.
I sat at that resting stance for nine minutes eyeballing the route above and thinking carefully. I spotted a line of jugs that followed the bolts. Since Lohan tipped me off that the holds were all positive and the climbing secure, I had enough information to know that I could onsight. The logic was thus:
I could see that the meat of the climb was 30+ft of 30-degree overhanging sandstone. I also saw that there were jugs about every body-length. This meant that there was no jug haul, so there was no sustained easy section. That meant it would be sustained instead of cruxy. “Pumpy” 5.12a doesn’t usually get above V3 for single moves, but I kept in my mind that I could find V4 if I were super unlucky.
Some folks will hear “sustained,” but what I hear is “easy.” The grade of a climb is composed of its total difficulty. Therefore, all other things being equal, if a route’s difficulties last for a long time, then the hardest moves have to get easier to compensate. Otherwise, the grade would be higher.
I knew from the gym that I could recover anywhere I had a good hold, so that meant I would be climbing V3 boulder problems separated by complete rest. Given that Lohan reported the climbing on the route to be “secure,” the calculation became simple:
How likely am I to fail on a section of “secure” and solid V3 in the rock of Little River Canyon? That probability is zero. I knew I could maintain peace of mind even on edges down to a quarter inch on this terrain.
I had a plan, I knew what needed to be done for success. One of my prerequisites for soloing is a belief that soloing done right is dominated by the feeling that there is nowhere else I’d rather be, so I made a plan. I would move from the block into the side pull to setup for the long move, just as I had nine minutes before. But this time, I made a pact with myself: I had to commit. To the top or the ground didn’t matter, both options were valid, but I had to commit fully to one course of action. The choice revolved around where my heart would rather be: in the crux, or on the ground.
That feeling was important. With an onsight solo, if you want it, it will kill you. Hubris will tell you to keep going “you’ve got this” until you hit that awful moment of paralysis where you can’t go down or up. Instead, you have to love it. If I didn’t feel the love of climbing deep down in my heart as I left the block, set-up for the crux, and looked at the steep climbing above… I would bail, immediately and without hesitation. Climbing without love is fear, and fear is fatal.
I pulled out of the resting block, my mind immediately cleared, and I was not even aware of the ground. All that existed was myself, the rock I was holding, and an eight-foot-eggshell of pure focus. Anything outside of that ceased to exist. The way to the top was clear. My body could have been four-feet off the ground, or four-hundred, and it wouldn’t have mattered inside my mind. It all would have felt the same in that moment.
With each passing yard of stone, I was surprised at how easy the climbing felt. Since the climbing felt easy, the shadow of doubt crept in my brain. The route felt too easy, maybe that meant something very hard was lurking ahead which I hadn’t thought of? I paused and rested at every block on the route, at every hold I shook off my other hand to rest as much as possible and make sure that I conserved my energy, just in case… But the dreaded crux never came. I did find a few quarter-inch holds, but I had planned for that. I pulled on a jug, mantled onto a ledge, and the anchor bolts stared back into my eyes and said: “you’ve done it.” Playfully, I poked the carabiner which someone had left in the anchor, then mantled over the cliff to find myself back at ground level.
The entire climb played out just as I had anticipated, and my plan left some room to be wrong. The hard V4 crux never came, so I had plenty of leftover endurance. There was one moment where my leg had the jitters. It was because I could see the end of the difficulties and thought “holy shit, I’m totally going to do this, how fuckin’ cool is that!?” Then there was one moment where I sat on a resting jug and thought “who the fuck do you think you are?” In both instances I simply remembered that the process is sound, let go of my emotions, turned my mind back to the business at hand, and then continued forward with relaxation.
I walked over to my truck, slipped off my shoes, and waited for the wave of emotion to hit me, but it didn’t. Instead, I was simply at peace, and completely relaxed. This was no act of daring, it was one of pure calm calculation, and it played out precisely according to the calculation. Instead of a wave of emotion, I achieved a rare state of extreme satisfaction. As I sit here typing, about a week later, that satisfaction and a new clarity of mind are still with me.
As I often do, I climbed with my headphones in to listen to music, but this time I didn’t hear it. On the way up this climb, I was so focused that I did not hear any sound. When I flipped the switch and committed to the top, nothing else mattered. I became nothing more than the execution of movement. I have no idea what songs were playing on my headphones during the ascent. For 14 minutes of climbing, my mind went to a new sort of heightened awareness that I didn’t even know existed.
Ordinarily, I downplay the spiritual significance of soloing as a truckload of hogwash, but this time was different. It was Transcendent. I feel calmer, more relaxed, and more at peace than I ever have. I don’t exactly understand why, but this solo was different than any I’ve ever done before.
While the Mile of Mojo was the end result of meticulous planning and training, onsight free-soloing “Tangerine” was just an expression of abilities already within me. This was never a goal of mine, I just realized that it was a possibility due to the way I’ve lived my life. It’s quite a thing to think you are capable, but it’s something quite a bit more to see the proof.
More than some fleeting tick mark on an 8a scorecard, more than another notch for the ego, more than the end result of meticulous planning, this is different. This marks the sound knowledge that I can walk up to a crag and just climb. All the training and practice, learning my gear and systems, all of it just led me to the ultimate simplicity:
No 50lb pack, no wiring my movement, no rehearsal runs, no begging for beta, I know that I can just walk up to a crag and go climbing. I’ll carry that satisfaction with me for the rest of my life. If I continue to follow the process, it will be a long life.
Finding My Way
This wasn’t the only climb I tried that day. In the morning I stomped around lost for an hour before finding that the route I was searching for was a chosspile. “Wave of Mutilation (5.12a)” at the Wrong Turn Wall, was a definite no-go, so I hiked uphill to the truck in the Alabama heat. For whatever reason, I send my hardest in The Canyon at 85 degrees with humidity, but the same can’t be said of my hiking ability! As soon as I reached the truck, I emptied a 320z Gatorade in a single push to quench my sweat soaked thirst. Needless to say, I felt super productive at this point.
After “Tangerine,” I was feeling pretty good, so I moved over to “Toomsuba.” Maybe it would go after all? I saw a jug-rail at mid-height that I could use to bail out to easier terrain halfway up, and by the crux holds there was a chain-draw that I could use to jug past the hardest climbing. In the end, that’s what I did. I just couldn’t recover well on Toomsuba, so I yarded past the crux with the chain draw, then scrambled up to the top of the cliff. Perhaps that counts as 5.11d A0?
At day’s end, I wandered over to Sandrock, AL and tried to solo “Vicious (5.12c).” I had onsighted the route months ago with a rope, dialed in the moves, and then just never gotten around to the solo. I knew I could bail before the upper crux by diving right into “The Price Is Right,” and I could also bail lower by doing the same and down climbing. Four moves in I wasn’t feeling it and bailed down and right on easier terrain.
The Mile of Mojo required months of preparation and years of training for one single day of perfect climbing. It’s easy to see the work that went into that one, for the onsight solo the work might not be as obvious were it not for these other little misadventures on the same day. That’s the moment of perspective that I want to take from this: On the day that I onsight-soloed my first 5.12a, I had one send and three failures for a success rate of only 25%. Nevertheless, I had one single transcendent moment that made it all worthwhile. It’s that pursuit which unifies climbers.
We might not always succeed, and we might spend a lot of time beating our heads against the wall, but when we find that one single moment, it’s all worth it. The more of those moments you have, the more you carry them with you to find peace in your daily life.