Update: Since I first wrote this piece and put it out, two things have happened which have made me revisit my writing.
Firstly, I realized that the thought which seeded this article hadn’t finished marinating quite yet. I proposed a problem, but due diligence requires more than complaining. It requires a call to action.
Secondly: Outside magazine put out a very thoughtful piece which really needed to be written, and Kelly Cordes raised a few interesting points that I’d like to expand on as they are pertinent to my own writing here
Well… yeah. ‘Climbing is inherently dangerous.’ Look, it’s posted on the wall next to the bouldering, right over there…
“But didn’t you bring a crash pad or something?”
“But why not?”
What exactly do you think a crash pad is gonna do from up there?
*a moment of awkward silence*
“Okay. You’ve got a point. But still. What if you fall?”
Well, I’m pretty sure the answer to that is relatively obvious. Not really much can be done for a 300ft drop.
“Well, aren’t you scared?”
Of course not! Think about it this way: If I were scared, I probably wouldn’t be doing it! After all, I’m not a really a lunatic!
I have this conversation a few times every month. I’m starting to get pre-rehearsed in my responses now. With this whole “speed record on The Nose” thing, I’ve been a bit more active and crusty than usual on internet forums. Folks just don’t seem to get it, which is understandable if I’m being fair. It’s pretty far out there, but that doesn’t justify the pushback from the comment threads. They know it’s dangerous, they understand it’s dangerous, but they put a lot of tactics, practice, and training into mitigating that danger as best as can be done considering their goal. That’s something which we all practice, or at least that we all should practice, every time we go out.
I used to think that speed climbing was fucked up. It just seemed so much more sketchy than soloing to me. The idea of moving deliberately fast was utterly anathema in my world. Now that I understand the systems better, that opinion has shifted a great deal. It’s incredible how your assessment of risk alters when you know a little more about the systems and training involved. I’m not here to tell you that speed climbing is “the way,” or that you need to try it, but I think that recent events offer us an excellent opportunity for learning as a community by investigating the way we discuss risk, and how often we don’t.
When it comes to speed, we sit down and think hard about the risk. I say we because I’m not just a soloist, I dabble a smidgen in speed climbing. There’s something satisfying about the fact that a 500ft wall used to take me all day, and now I can tackle 1700ft in 3.5 hours with time for a nice breakfast beforehand (Shout out to Mountain Man Dan for that great morning on Royal Arches!). Alternatively, we can run two laps on the 700ft face of Whitesides Mountain as a quick day trip from Atlanta (Many thanks to Evan Raines for that one!)! That feels a lot more free and easy compared to bivying nearby to get an alpine start for the sake of one single route and facing the fear of wondering whether we’d have enough daylight to top out without headlamps as we’d have done in the past.
Sometimes I still like to slow down and enjoy the view and marinate in the climb… but there’s something about being able to complete two of my favorite climbs instead of just one that’s really fun! Sometimes too, I project and spend all day working on a single climb. When we climb, we follow wherever the mojo leads us, and that’s different for each of us and different for each day and objective. There’s a time and place for everything if you’re stoked about it!
And that’s the key right? Climbing is supposed to be fun, right? When I see Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell sprinting up the nose… well… they have the HUGEST smiles on their faces! It doesn’t look like a competitive death race, it looks like the world’s best free-soloist and the world’s best big-wall climber are teaming up for a fun day and a quest for curiosity: “Hey, I wonder if we can go sub-2?”
That’s it. They’re not out to beat anyone; they’re climbing for the sake of it. There’s a goal out there, and they’re curious about whether they can do it or not.
It’s rather like your first lead climb. It’s a challenge, and you want to achieve it. You think it’ll go, so you train to handle it, but you don’t know until you really try. We all know someone who’s tried a large objective and been shut down because they got in over their head. It happens. It’s part of playing the game in the mountains. If you look at it one way, they took a risk, and they got shut down because they were in over their head. But they learned something! And that’s hugely valuable, but it is a risk.
Every single rock climber is an unnecessary risk taker. It’s not like we have to climb up there in search of food and a paycheck.
So who are we to judge? We pick lines, push grades, and sometimes wind up runout much farther above our last piece of gear than we had planned on by accident. On the other hand, these guys on The Nose deliberately chose the risk that they were facing. The runouts they took on were thoughtful, deliberate, and well rehearsed.
They didn’t have to ask “shouldn’t you have brought a crash pad?” They understand the risk in a very deep, broad, and intuitive manner. That’s how they can prepare for it.
That’s what I see missing from the internet comment machine and the media coverage. Just like the story of Honnold soloing “Freerider (V 5.13a),” there is risk involved. Obviously. “Climbing is inherently dangerous.” If you’ve ever signed the waiver at a climbing gym or perused the pages of a guidebook, this is something you’ve been asked to acknowledge in large bold letters. How often do you sit down and think about risk? How many times have we seen folks deck at the gym, or come damn close because they were thoughtless?
There was nothing thoughtless about this ascent. Not only did Tommy spend countless hours and laps practicing for the goal, but they also obtained the advice of previous record-holders on how to better their tactics. The atmosphere wasn’t competitive, but rather collaborative with Hans Florine, Jim Reynolds, and Brad Gobright not just cheering them on, but telling them how to improve and utterly smash the record without behaving in a manner that was too dangerous.
That’s the thing. Climbing is inherently dangerous. But when does it become too dangerous?
Risk. Let’s talk about risk for a moment. When does climbing become too dangerous? Risk is not the same as consequence. The ultimate worst-case-scenario consequence of climbing is death. It doesn’t matter whether you’re soloing, speed climbing, trad climbing, sport clipping, bouldering or top-roping. If you make a big enough mistake, you will die. There is nothing inherently safe about a human dangling from a cord high off the ground. Risk is not consequence, but rather risk is the likelihood that you will meet with this ultimate consequence.
Climbing truly is inherently dangerous, but we have ways of mitigating that danger. It can be made safe enough if we apply proper preparation and understanding to our goal. That goes for bouldering, toprope, for sport, for trad, aid, big-wall, speed, and soloing. The only difference for each of those disciplines is the sort of preparations that you make to create an atmosphere which is safe enough. It’s never fully safe, but understanding that and the truth that every climb is different can keep you out of trouble.
Maybe that’s why we have such an outcry about speed climbing right now? It’s unfamiliar. It’s way out there, and just like Honnold’s ascent of Freerider, folks don’t understand the steps and preparation, so all they see is the consequence, and they assume the risk is high because they don’t understand the steps which can be taken to mitigate that risk.
I see a lot of folks chiming in with the comment “these guys are basically free soloing with a rope!” Which is so demonstrably false that it boggles the mind. The statement defies logic. Case and point: Tommy took a 100ft whipper on a training run, and he only had a few minor scratches. That alone tells me a lot about the safety which they employ on the route. You don’t get to take whippers when you’re soloing. For sure there are stretches where the consequences would be grave if they fell, but they take to climbing more carefully on those. These guys are running it out, and locking horns with dangerous climbing; however, they have a rope, they have gear, and they can choose to put more gear in the wall if something goes wrong and they need to reign it in a bit. There’s a world of difference between having gear and not wanting to use it compared to not having the gear when you want desperately need it.
If you’ve ever opted to climb to the first bolt of a sport route without a stick clip, then you’ve engaged in making a choice based on expediency over safety. You chose a higher consequence method when a safer option was available. You were “basically soloing with a rope,” right up until you clipped the first bolt. You said, “its okay because I’m not going to fall.” That is the same thought which folks criticize on this ascent, despite the fact that we’ve all said it at some point or another. Everybody says it at some point. “It’s fine, I’m not going to fall here.” That was a risk too, one where someone could argue you “were basically soloing.”
We made a calculation. We knew the climbing was within our ability and in control. We knew as long as we were careful we’d be okay. That calculation the most important thing we can learn as climbers. The only safety any of us have lies in our ability to make competent decisions, We do this based on the consequences we see, the abilities we have, and the difficulties in our path. As long as the choices we make are commensurate with the skills we take up the wall, then we’re being “safe enough.”
Speaking of “safe enough,” we know that there is no such thing as a “perfect” anchor when trad climbing. Every anchor could be made more solid by adding additional pieces, but at a certain point, we have to estimate that it’s safe enough for our purposes so that we don’t spend an hour building each anchor and run out of time to actually climb! Safe enough is a familiar game to anyone who’s really sat down and thought about the dangers of climbing.
I see a lot of hand-wringing that this will inspire folks to play copycat and run like lemmings to the cliffs we enjoy only to fall and die. It didn’t happen in the late 90’s, and early 2000’s when the speed climbing rivalries were red-hot, so why would that suddenly happen now? If there’s any surge of speed climbing tactics, I’d say it’s due to the availability of information. If you want to know how to simul-climb, you can google it! Unfortunately, that won’t tell you if you’re ready
So if we’re really so worried about it, why don’t we cover the preparation more heavily? With risk often comes glory in the minds of the foolhardy, but if we talk on that preparation, folks will understand better whether it’s a bad idea for them to try, and that’s an incredibly valuable lesson. I’m not a fan of the vilification of risk, but I’m also not a fan of clickbait titles and the glorification of risk either. I feel the two achieve the same goal.
When folks say “that’s dangerous,” I worry for their safety. It’s obvious that it’s dangerous because all climbing is dangerous. If you’re wondering whether it’s dangerous, then you’re asking the wrong questions and avoiding engagement in critical thinking.
How many times have we seen folks “just go for it” when they get their first trad rack, and start climbing without finding peers or a professional to guide them? When the skills you possess are less than the challenge you have chosen, that’s when the risk begins to escalate to unacceptable levels. Now that’s dangerous. But we knew that already right? You didn’t learn anything when I said that, and now Jerry is heading off with three hexes and a tricam because he’s even more determined to prove us wrong!
When average folks set an average time, nobody worries. When advanced parties set a fast time, nobody worries. So why do we suddenly worry when the world’s best big wall climbers set a world’s best time? And why do we suddenly worry now, when we weren’t worried about Honnold’s speed solo of Lover’s Leap? He ran out the entire climb without any gear whatsoever!
To me, it just seems logical. They have the most advanced skill set so they can control and mitigate risks that we can’t. Instead of teaching “that’s dangerous,” and drawing a line in the sand which tells folks “It’s okay to stop thinking riiiiight HERE!” Instead of that, what if we thought long and hard about the skills and the challenges that we, our peers, and the climbers we look up to truly face? There’s an excellent opportunity for learning here, and it would be a shame if we missed out on it. Even if speed climbing is pretty far out there, there are still universal lessons that we can internalize and bring back to our own climbing to make us a bit safer. But to do that, we have to think about danger.
Learning might be a bit uncomfortable. I suppose that should be expected since we only learn and grow outside our comfort zone. That discomfort is the very feeling of learning itself, and I think that’s a lot more valuable and substantive than screaming “that’s dangerous” in the hopes of getting a few facebook likes or a bit of Reddit Karma while your peers affirm your already established and entrenched mindset.
Ultimately, that’s why I lay out my logic on this blog, and why I engage folks who disagree with soloing. I want them to make me feel uncomfortable and challenge my assertions so that I can think critically about the climbing that I do. I think it’s intrinsically essential to my survival. I feel we should all think that way. Thinking critically about your climbing and your motivations is intrinsically essential to your survival!
So please understand if it seems like I’m firing back at you on the Internet forums, I don’t have anything against you. I find it valuable to take a long hard look in the mirror when it comes to the way we think of and engage in risk, and the mirror is all the more clear with those who disagree. Now, if I step over the line and act rude, call me out. I’ll appreciate it and apologize because ultimately that stifles discussion. Discussion keeps us all alive and safe.
A wise man once told me “Be safe out there, but if you can’t do that… be careful.” So I’ll end with that notion today. Think hard, and be careful my friends.
If you have any questions, comments, or hate mail, feel free to fill up the comment section!
Cheers, and happy climbing:
Obviously, this is a topic which our community holds as a great concern. But it’s not the topic of speed climbing, our community is having an evolving dialogue about the notion of risk, danger, and what is acceptable.
This raises the question: what can we do about it? And what has changed that this has crept up and bloomed so suddenly it seems? For sure risk has always been an important point of discussion in climbing, but the pushback against it seems to be a new phenomenon.
For one thing, with those of us who write, we need to speak thoughtfully of danger, what the parties involved felt, and how they got there. I don’t just mean professional writers for the magazines, but also bloggers, and anyone who writes up a comment on social media.
People die climbing. It’s important to realize that and to remember it. You have to stop and think about that for a moment when pushing forward into the unknown. Tommy thought heavily on that during this ascent, I think about it every time I prepare for a new solo, and anyone who intends to stay safe really needs to marinate in that thought from time to time. I know it’s not comfortable, but personal growth rarely is.
“While anybody who climbs El Capitan in a single day is elite, Tommy and Alex are the most skilled pair to ever tie-in together in Yosemite’s Mecca. They’ve honed their approach on The Hose to balance the risk. Quinn fell from high on the Boot Flake, a spot everyone who speed climbs the route knows is dangerous because many parties opt for a huge runout to save time for the follower. Tommy devised an ingenious solution that allows him to protect that section without slowing down the team. On the hardest technical portions, which come when Alex is leading, they’ve synchronized their timing so that Tommy has him on a real belay.”
-Kelly Cordes, Outside Magazine
How’s that for mitigating risk? What if we threw that all over the internet instead of brandishing statements such as “these guys are basically soloing with a rope!?” Maybe then, up and coming climbers would realize that there’s more to this than just soloing with a rope and risking your life with reckless abandon. It would be obvious that there’s a great deal of preparation involved which needs to be respected.
Take me, for instance. When I first started soloing, things got a little sketchy. Watching videos where Michael Reardon talks about his process and preparation and the notion of when it’s right and when you need to back down… That has always stuck in my brain and guided my climbing so that the wisdom of knowing when to back off is something I pride as much as the actual ascents. Coverage of Mike’s soloing didn’t inspire me to solo, I was already doing that, but rather it guided me down a safer way that involved a measure of sanity and safety that was missing from my early attempts.
Speaking of proper coverage of the preparation…. Folks, Tommy didn’t ascend the first half of the route with only 6 pieces. The truth is that he only placed 6 cams; however, there are bolts, anchors, and fixed pieces of gear that he *did* clip into. The first rule of climbing: take care of your follower. In simul-climbing, that means to have at least 2-3 pieces between you and your partner as sort of a “moving belay anchor” or some such. Simul-climbers are usually 70-120ft apart. That means a maximum average spacing of 30-40ft. Six pieces of gear would mean one piece every 250ft, and the amount of rope between them is much shorter than that. It’s mathematically ludicrous to state that they only put six pieces in, because then there would have been no point to having the rope at all.
To quote Kelly Cordes “They made it ‘safe.’ For them. Which may not be safe for others. It probably isn’t,” and that’s the point I’m getting at here. They did what was appropriate for their skill level, which isn’t appropriate for me, or most likely for you, and there are likely skills you have which allow you to do things that aren’t safe for me, but that doesn’t make it anathema. The key thing to understand is this: Did they feel like they were pushing it?
“That’s the thing, it doesn’t. We did a slow lap yesterday, just re-evaluating everything, working the bottom section to dial it in, and it actually felt really safe. Even when we topped out today, it didn’t feel out of control at all. Got a rope stuck, but that’s it[…] I truly feel like we’ve been analyzing every situation and making it safe”
-Tommy Caldwell regarding his previous run of 2:01:50
About the record lap, he stated: “It felt great, really, we did everything the same as before in terms of safety, and it always felt OK.” But even so, Tommy says he’s done with speed records now, and that he’s satisfied. And I think that’s appropriate.
As a rule in my own soloing, or when I face dangerous climbing… there are three zones I look at. Great, Okay, and “You need to think long and hard about why that felt shitty.” Okay is about as bad as you want it to feel. I mean, really, you want it to feel great, and that means feeling “okay” is the safety margin that keeps you away from a bad situation. If it just felt “okay,” then that means it’s about as far as you can push it safely. I think of it like the tachometer in your car. If you redline the motor, you’re gonna blow it. If you live in the little band of yellow before the redline, then any mistake will put you over the edge. But if you live in the green, sometimes you’ll wind up in the yellow by accident, but that’s manageable, and it informs you of when it’s time to hang up your hat and dial it back a bit.
So what do we do to combat this notion of unacceptable risk? Mentorship. It’s the one thing that the old crusties bemoan the most. Kids these days, growing up with no mentors! Learning everything from the internet! Why don’t we use the internet to mentor? Instead of getting on the comment thread ready to blast out with “how dare they! That’s soooo dangerous! He only put six pieces in!” Why not gain the facts of the situation, and comment in a manner designed to educate and inform your fellow climbers?
If you want to practice, head over to Reddit. Every Friday they have a “new climber’s thread” where folks are encouraged to be vulnerable and ask any questions they have about climbing. So grab your keyboard and join me, u/FreeSoloist, over there every Friday. Let’s really put out some good information that can help people, instead of just brandishing judgment. That’s what climbing needs now more than ever. Thoughtful mentorship. Sure, there might be a surge of recklessness in climbing because access to information through the internet makes it easier than ever to get in over your head, but the internet can be the solution just as much as it can be the problem. Now it’s easier than ever to ask a question of your peers and have it thoughtfully answered, as long as they’re willing.
As to information’s effect on our community, it’s a sliding continuum, and it could fall anywhere from immensely positive to immensely negative impacts. Ultimately, whether this ease of information is a solution or a problem on any given day… well… that’s up to you my friend.