The Outsider: The choice of free-solo climbing

Rock climbing is an inherently risky sport.

A vertical face of rock exposes climbers to the risk of falling, debris cascading down on top of them and even the rope systems used to mitigate fall risk can entangle hair and fingers. But through careful selection of appropriate anchors and placement of rope through protection devices, climbers can crawl up complex routes and manage most of those risks effectively. This is what is referred to as “free climbing.”

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But some climbers choose to extend those risks into a niche known as “free solo climbing” (or simply “soloing”). This is rock climbing with nothing but a pair of shoes and a bag of chalk, where the climber relies solely on their strength and abilities for their own safety. Unlike bouldering, which takes place at low heights above portable crash pads, free-soloists scale beyond safe heights where falling is not an option.

Opinions on free-soloing are divided within climbing communities, and the scene down the road in Squamish is no exception. Critics see it as a reckless and unnecessary pursuit, one that is permeated by action sports media and should be denounced by the greater climbing community. Defenders state that climbing is about freedom of choice and that climbing already comes with a laundry list of risks.

I personally don’t free-solo, though like many climbers, I have scrambled up short, easy routes without rope protection, just to see what it feels like. It felt pretty exhilarating, but I didn’t see the risk versus reward equation balancing in my favour. So I didn’t try it on harder routes.
Yves Chouinard, founder of outdoor brand Patagonia and one of the reasons the sport of rock climbing exists like it does today, famously stated, “If you take risk out of climbing, it’s not climbing anymore. It’s just an exercise.”

But in his wisdom, Chouinard also followed up in the same interview when recalling how he was brought up with a sense of responsibility. “Another lesson from climbing is that you don’t exceed your resources. If you’re a 5.10 climber, you don’t solo 5.10, because you’re going to kill yourself.”

Other companies in the industry have acknowledged the risk some climbers choose to take. In 2014 California-based organic energy food company Clif Bar withdrew sponsorship of five of its top climbing athletes — including speed record soloist Alex Honnold — citing: “We no longer feel good about benefiting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking in areas of the sport where there is no margin for error; where there is no safety net.”

Plenty of the world’s best climbers have perished in the pursuit of free-soloing. But for every one of those stories there seems to be another equally tragic story from the more responsible end of the sport. In 2013 the 12 year-old Italian climbing phenom Tito Traversa died while sport climbing, falling on incorrectly threaded quickdraw devices. Then there’s Patagonia’s 2007 video Stolby Style (check it out on YouTube) where people in central Siberia free-solo en masse on rock faces at a local nature reserve.

A small percentage of climbers are always going to exercise their freedom to free-solo, the question that needs to be raised is not whether it should be tolerated, but how and when soloing should takes place. A busy evening at the Smoke Bluffs in Squamish probably isn’t the best venue to attempt it.

Vince Shuley ropes up. For questions, comments or suggestions to The Outsider email or Twitter @vinceshuley.

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