American rock climbing legends, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell have been making international headlines for speed climbing 'The Nose' of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, about four hours drive east of San Francisco, in under two hours. It usually takes a good climber as much as two days to complete the classic route. Simon Madden discusses the irrepressible urge to forge new ground here in Australia, including the attendant thrills and dangers.
During summer at Mt Arapiles the transition of afternoon to evening is long and ill-defined. The east facing cliff falls into darkness first, the massif casting a shadow over the campsite that lengthens across the bleached plains, and though the burning sun is gone, the heated air lingers. The campsite is full but lazy, the air smells of dust, the pitch of the cicadas sits under the clanging of pots and climbing gear, distant shouts and laughter.
I had arrived hours earlier, chaperoning a school group not much younger than I, we were more contemporaries than a leader and his charges. Camp was setup, dinner was underway. Fearing three days of hand-holding city kids navigating fear and bravado on easy top ropes, I picked up my shoes and chalk bag and slunk off, unannounced and unnoticed.
Few parties were still out climbing and the Organ Pipes – a series of fluted buttresses with some of the best easy climbing in Australia – were deserted. At the base of Hornpiece (13) I made a pile of shoes, socks and sweat-stained t-shirt, slid into my climbing shoes, clipped my chalk bag around my waist and started up into the deepening gloom.
A quick unencumbered jaunt up 80 brilliant metres, pure like a moving meditation. I was headstrong as dismissive of risk as I was unsure about my place in the world. The mistake was not telling anyone but as I walked off the back, collected my things and sauntered into camp I never once thought, “What if?".
BLINDSIDED IN AN INSTANT
Early in 2018, a man arrived at Arapiles in the late afternoon having travelled directly from New Zealand – a long day when you leave Christchurch very early in the morning, fly across the ditch and drive five hours. He setup his tent among a group of mates who’d been there a few days already. The light was quickly slipping away and his group started on dinner but he was itching to climb so he slipped away unannounced, with just his shoes and chalk bag. He was experienced and had climbed at Arapiles a few times. He made his way to a big route, Dunes, a 120m high grade 12 – well within his capabilities. No one saw what happened but parties climbing nearby heard the scream as he fell, impacting the slab at the bottom and rag-dolling to the ground. The first his mates knew of it was seeing the chopper land.
The same story – easy route, late afternoon, impatience – but with different ends. Lots of climbers solo at Araps but soloing can go from having a great time to disaster in an instant – the difference nothing more than luck, a momentary lapse in concentration, a millimetre of misjudgment, a broken rock, a rain-sickened foothold.
Due to the serious ramifications of a mishap there is a vocal chorus who decry soloists as selfish, stupid, death-seeking and adrenaline-addicted. That given any error is likely fatal and at best life-changing, it cannot be justified.
Famously in 2014, ClifBar – long a supporter of daredevils – pulled their sponsorship from soloist Alex Honnold, BASE jumping climber Steph Davis and BASE jumping soloist Dean Potter. ClifBar wrote in an open letter, “that these forms of the sport are pushing boundaries and taking the element of risk to a place where we as a company are no longer willing to go… 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”. It is true the famous and great die. One of the most renowned soloists ever, John Bacher, fell to his death climbing ropeless. Dean Potter himself died in 2015 BASE jumping in Yosemite.
It can be worse to watch soloing than to do it. Before photographing Jed Parkes, who in a single month in 2018 soloed all 310 routes in the Arapiles Selected Climbs guide grade 16 and under, I had a week of fitful sleep and bad dreams and he was only soloing easy things. This betrays the complication where we feel both admiration and unease. These reactions need not be mutually exclusive and it’s okay if our responses are not binary.
The thing is though that soloing has been a part of our sport forever and it’s not going away.
Before modern gear, before harnesses, nylon ropes, nuts and glue-in bolts, back when in a fall a rope was more likely to kill everyone in the party than arrest the plummet, everything was effectively soloed. The ethic was the leader must not fall and this is the same for the modern soloist. Indeed all modern climbers are constantly assessing their relationship to the 'no-fall zone’. An awareness of potential consequences is intrinsic to climbing and that awareness can be a catalyst for transformation and transcendence. Danger is at the heart of climbing, sketchy trad is dangerous, highball bouldering, alpine climbing, even sport climbing is dangerous because we blindly trust fixed protection which can fail or – more likely – we make a mistake.
Jed said something interesting about this; “I feel in a lot of ways soloing is safer than climbing on a rope. You never get complacent. I’ve heard very few stories of people getting hurt soloing vs the number abseiling. The moment I start a solo I go into another place. So focused. Totally aware of my choices, actions and consequences."
BANISH THE MIND MONSTER
Alex Honnold has made mainstream headlines for ropeless ascents of some of the world’s biggest hunks of rock. Rebutting accusations of adrenaline-addiction Honnold says his solos are “meditative, calm, and relaxed. It’s almost serene.” When soloing you’re not “crushing’ – the en vogue term for success – you are reverent and humble. Soling isn’t ego affirming, it’s ego shattering.
Whereas Jed and I have soloed well within our abilities, on ground where any catastrophe is so remote as to be incalculable, Honnold is famous for rehearsing hard climbs with a rope, learning the moves, laying down engrams for the body positions until it is dialed and only then soloing them.
This was his methodology for his greatest solo yet, what some believe the greatest ever climbing feat – soloing El Cap in Yosemite. Freerider is a 900m grade 27/28 route that most parties take four to five days to do. It still seems almost fathomable that in four hours he was done. And what did he do afterwards? He trained, he spent the afternoon hang boarding (specialist finger-strength training).
Here is the tell behind Honnold’s magic, to succeed he had to stop it from becoming a monster in his mind. Monsters are unpredictable, they haunt you, they hunt you. Instead he looks past. "It’s been a strategy the whole time I’ve worked on El Cap is to think about what’s beyond… So this just feels like a semi-normal day.” If he let the enormity rise up it would have cruelled his ability to do it safely.
Perhaps this contributes to him not being amazing at introspection, having said, “I don’t like risk… I do it because it’s so much fun… There is no adrenaline rush, if I get a rush, it means that something has gone horribly wrong.”
Perhaps this is no satisfactory, unified answer as to why solo and as an outsider it’s hard to fathom someone risking their life for a rock climb. People do it for enjoyment, joy, heightened focus, to dial up the meditative aspect, push themselves and also feel connected to the history of bold climbing. Jed and Honnald have been developing not only strength, skill and movement but an understanding of risk as they have cultivated a physical, mental and emotional relationship with the no-fall zone.
Deaths soloing are rare. Deaths during any climbing are rare yet everyone who solos should deeply question themselves – is it worth it? It's possible that not all do and not everyone understands the risks. Soloing does bring up the human fascination with cheating death and the symptomatic heightened sense of freedom. But geologic time includes now – rocks break, even on popular climbs that have seen thousands of ascents. A hold rips and you plummet without a rope to bounce onto the end of.
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The full feature appeared in the July/August 2018 issue of Outdoor Magazine. Subscribe today for all the latest outdoor adventure, travel news and inspiration.