The Dangerous Allure of Free Solo Climbing

Ropeless Solo Climbing is a Deadly Game

Free solo climbing is a dangerous and deadly climbing game with death the consequence of a fall.
The great German solo climbing Stefan Glocwacz hangs ropeless on the lip of a roof at Arapiles in Australia. Photograph copyright Uli Weismeier/Getty Images

Free solo climbing, which is climbing without safety equipment, is sheer foolishness in the estimation of not only most people but also most climbers. If you are climbing without a rope and partner and you fall, then you will probably die. The death zone is considered to be any place above 30 feet above the ground—you climb higher than that unroped and fall and the outcome is not good. You fall. You die.

Media Glorifies Free Solo Climbing

It seems that the media, including climbing magazines, often focus on free soloing, an extremely risky part of rock climbing. Much of the press glorifies free solo climbing and the interviews with climbers who are able to successfully solo are filled with platitudes about controlling the risks of climbing, that they feel more solid without a rope and belay, and that they feel more alive when risking everything.  These are, of course, empty thoughts after the fall, after a climber slips, loses his grip, slides out of a jam, and plummets to his death at the cliff base.

Climbers That Died Soloing

Consider some of the climbers that have died free soloing:

  • August 2015: Veteran climber Brad Parker from Sebastopol, California, died while solo climbing the classic Matthes Crest Traverse (5.7) in Yosemite National Park. The 35-year-old man fell 300 feet from the ridge to his death, only hours after proposing to his girlfriend on nearby Cathedral Peak. He told her before setting off on the solo that it was “the happiest day of my life.”
  • June 2012: Michael Ybarra, a talented journalist and climber who wrote about climbing for the Wall Street Journal, died in a fall from the Sawtooth Ridge on 12,279-foot Matterhorn in Yosemite National Park while soloing. The 45-year-old Ybarra fell at least 200 feet down steep granite cliffs.
  • July 2009: John Bacher, a 52-year-old American climbing icon, died after falling while free soloing a short route on the Dike Wall near Mammoth Lakes, California. Bacher was well known for extreme unroped solo ascents during his long and storied climbing career. He once said, "Soloing is a serious business because you can be seriously dead."
  • May 1993: British climber Derek Hersey, a 35-year-old solo climber living in Boulder, Colorado, fell off the classic Steck-Salathe route (5.9) on Sentinel Rock in Yosemite Valley in late May 1993. Hersey, an experienced soloist, was called "one of the world's great extreme free-solo climbers" by the New York Times in 1991.

The Fatal Consequences of a Mistake

The list of good climbers that have fallen while free-solo climbing and died goes on—Jimmy Ray Forester (fell soloing at Potrero Chico), Tobin Sorenson (fell while attempting a solo both with and without ropes on Mount Alberta in Canada), Jim Adair (fell after getting off-route on the 3rd class approach to Sentinel Rock in Yosemite), and many others. There have been hundreds of solo fatalities worldwide, although no specific statistics are kept. The fact of the matter is that free solo climbing, that is climbing without a rope, safety gear, or a partner, is extremely dangerous. The consequences of a mistake and a fall are usually fatal. That said, experienced climbers who free solo have great climbing skills, understand risk, and rarely fall. Most fatal accidents happen to inexperienced and novice climbers who attempt routes that are beyond their skill level.

Cheating Death Until Another Day

It is cool to think about climbing without being fettered by a rope and a partner and without placing gear for protection or setting up belay stations. For some climbers, the free-soloing ethic is the essence of rock climbing. It is just a person, alone on a rock wall wearing only climbing shoes and a chalk bag, relying only on their climbing skills and a calm head to safely get up the route. At the top of the cliff, they can bask in the thought that it was a job well done, that death was cheated once again, that their skills, strength, and control of fear kept them alive to climb another day. The harrowing almost-falls and close calls are usually shunted to the back of the mind while the relief of survival and the joy and fulfillment of being so close to the edge of death wash over the soloist.

Free Soloing Is a Dangerous Game

Free solo climbing, despite its attractions, including the freedom of movement and the possibilities of spiritual and psychological transformation, is a dangerous game. To most people, just the thought of climbing without essential climbing safety gear is madness. Who would risk their life for a rock climb? It is difficult to know what goes on inside another person’s mind, what drives them to take extreme risks. Some recovering solo climbers that I’ve talked to about their soloing addiction admit that they were in over their heads, that the exhilaration of success and the thrill of the void lured them into climbing hard routes unroped and close to their limit.

Climber Almost Falls Off On-Sight Solo at Shelf Road

One climber, who asked not to be named in this article, told me about his soloing days when he was young and dumb. “I was climbing hard back then,” he says, “doing lots of 5.13 routes at Rifle and even some 5.14s. I started soloing easy routes at first but found that they were, well, too easy. So I started doing harder stuff, repeating 5.12s I had done before. The last time I soloed though was at Shelf Road. I was trying to on-sight a 5.12 route that I had never climbed before. I got to the upper part of the route, trying to figure out a very technical sequence, and just about came off a couple times. I couldn’t down climb either. I looked down and saw rocks at the bottom of the face about 50 feet below. Your life starts to go through your mind at that point. I really thought I was going to fall, but I promised myself that if I could get up the climb I would never solo again. I managed to finally do the crux, all shaky and pumped and got to the top. I’ve never soloed again.”

How to Live Long and Prosper

Solo climbing has long been an important part of climbing lore and history. Soloing also gives the best climbers like Alex Honnold or the late Dean Potter immense rewards. Soloing also brings up the fascination with cheating death and a possible heightened sense of freedom. Despite the dangers and deaths, climbers continue to free solo up routes…and they continue to fall off them and die. If you want to live long and prosper, it is best to leave the free solo exploits and adventures to others. Learn essential climbing skills like leading, placing protection, belaying, and rappelling; buy a rack of climbing gear and a sturdy rope; find yourself a good climbing partner, and then go climbing. Have fun, be safe, and always tie into your rope. Your mother, life partner, and children will thank you for not soloing.