Free solo climbing

Last updated

Free solo climbing, or free soloing, is a form of technical rock climbing where the climbers (or free soloists) climb alone without ropes, or other protective equipment, only using their climbing shoes and their climbing chalk. Free soloing is the most dangerous form of climbing, and unlike bouldering, free soloists climb above safe heights, where a fall can be fatal. Though many climbers have free soloed climbing grades they are very comfortable on, only a tiny group free solo regularly, and at grades closer to the limit of their abilities. [1]


Some climbers' profiles have been increased by free soloing (e.g. Alex Honnold and John Bachar), but some question the ethics of this, and whether the risks they are undertaking should be encouraged and commercially rewarded. [2] [3] "Free solo" was originally a term of climber slang, but after the popularity of the Oscar-winning film Free Solo , Merriam-Webster officially added the word to their English dictionary in September 2019. [4]


Free solo climbing (sometimes referred to as soloing in the UK, or third-classing in the US), [5] is where the climber uses no climbing protection whatsoever (or any form of climbing aid, or even a climbing rope); [5] they may only use their climbing shoes and their climbing chalk to ascend a single-pitch, or a multi-pitch/big wall climbing route. [5] Free solo climbing is a form of free climbing, but different from sport climbing and traditional climbing, both of which use climbing protection. In theory, bouldering is free solo climbing (i.e. it also uses no aid or protection) but is usually not referred to in such a manner, except in the case of highball bouldering, where falls can be serious. [5] Where a free solo climber carries a rope, just in case, it is sometimes referred to as rope soloing (some only consider it rope soloing where a self-locking device is used for protection). [5]

Many early 20th-century rock climbers who began to free climb (i.e., avoiding any form of aid), were often practicing free solo climbing (or rope soloing), as the effectiveness of their climbing protection (usually a rope around their waist) was minimal. In the history of rock climbing, the first ascent of Napes Needle by W. P. Haskett Smith in June 1886 – an act that is widely considered to be the start of the sport of rock climbing – was effectively a free solo. [6] Early leaders of free climbing such as Paul Preuss, were also strongly interested in free solo climbing as being ethically purer. The 1958 ascent by Don Whillans of Goliath, one of the world's first-ever E4 6a routes, was effectively a free solo (with a rope around his waist). [7] [8] By the 1970s, when climbing protection was sufficiently developed to be effective, the discipline of free solo climbing began to stand apart. [5]

Public view

Many climbers praise free soloing, while others have concerns regarding the danger and the message the ascents send to other climbers. [9] Many companies have taken these views into account when working with free soloists. Clif Bar, the nutrition bar company with long ties to climbing, dropped the sponsorship of five climbers in 2014, citing the risks they take and stirring a debate about how much risk should be rewarded. [10]

However, The North Face and Red Bull have promoted free soloists and helped the free soloing community grow. [11] [12] In addition, Alex Honnold, a free soloist who was previously dropped by Clif Bar, [13] was featured in the 2018 documentary Free Solo , which was met with critical acclaim and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The director of Free Solo, Jimmy Chin, talks in the film about the ethics of undertaking the documentary, and the effect that his film team and project could have had on the outcome.

Even in the climbing community, free soloing is controversial. In 2022, when Climbing did a major feature on free solo climbing, they caveated their series of articles with "This article is not an endorsement of the practice", and emphasized that in their research amongst climbers, it was only practiced by a very small minority, with many telling Climbing: "I have in the past but not anymore". [5]


Bryan Kennedy solos the "Kennedy variant" direct start to Battlements Organ Pipes Mount Wellington, Tasmania, 1977 Organ Pipes, Mt Wellington - Battlements, Bryan Kennedy.jpg
Bryan Kennedy solos the "Kennedy variant" direct start to Battlements Organ Pipes Mount Wellington, Tasmania, 1977

While many rock climbers have free soloed routes (single-pitch or big wall/multi-pitch), at climbing grades well below their ability, a very small minority have practiced free soloing regularly, and at grades closer to their overall limits. The most prominent of this smaller group are those who have broken new grade milestones in free solo climbing, and gained a significant profile from their soloing: [5]

In addition to the above, a number of other free solo practitioners are considered historically notable, and include: Patrick Edlinger, Ron Fawcett, Brad Gobright, Dan Goodwin, Colin Haley, Derek Hersey, Jimmy Jewell, John Long, Dave MacLeod, Dan Osman, Dean Potter, Paul Preuss, Tobin Sorenson and Marc-André Leclerc. [5]

Free soloing is less common amongst female rock climbers, however, as well as Catherine Destivelle, the following female climbers are historically notable free solo practitioners: Steph Davis and Brette Harrington, both of whom who have free soloed single-pitch and big wall routes. [5]


Single-pitch routes

Heinz Zak [de] free soloing Separate Reality in 2005; Zak had taken the iconic photograph of Wolfgang Gullich in 1986 Heinz Zak, Separate Reality 5,11d, Free Solo, Yosemite-Nationalpark, Kalifornien, USA.jpg
Heinz Zak  [ de ] free soloing Separate Reality in 2005; Zak had taken the iconic photograph of Wolfgang Güllich in 1986

Big wall, multi-pitch routes

Practitioner fatalities

Michael Reardon - free soloing in Joshua Tree.jpg
Michael Reardon free soloing Lower Right Ski Track (5.10b) in Joshua Tree National Park, 2007.
Downhill Racer, Froggatt Edge - - 1156915.jpg
Derek Hersey, free soloing Downhill Racer (E1 6a), Froggatt Edge, 1979

A number of notable free solo practitioners have died while free soloing: [5]

Climbing notes that a number of prominent free solo practitioners died in related or other extreme sports, including: Dan Osman (died at age 35 while rope jumping at Yosemite), Michael Reardon (died age 42 while rock climbing sea cliffs when he was carried out to sea by a rogue wave), Dean Potter (died age 43 while wingsuit flying when he crashed at Yosemite), Brad Gobright (died age 31 while abseiling at Potrero Chico), and Hansjorg Auer (died age 35 in an avalanche at Howse Peak). [5]

See also

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Bouldering</span> Form of rock climbing

Bouldering is a form of free climbing that is performed on small rock formations or artificial rock walls without the use of ropes or harnesses. While bouldering can be done without any equipment, most climbers use climbing shoes to help secure footholds, chalk to keep their hands dry and to provide a firmer grip, and bouldering mats to prevent injuries from falls. Unlike free solo climbing, which is also performed without ropes, bouldering problems are usually less than six metres (20 ft) tall. Traverses, which are a form of boulder problem, require the climber to climb horizontally from one end to another. Artificial climbing walls allow boulderers to climb indoors in areas without natural boulders. In addition, bouldering competitions take place in both indoor and outdoor settings.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Climbing</span> Activity to ascend a steep object

Climbing is the activity of using one's hands, feet, or other parts of the body to ascend a steep topographical object that can range from the world's tallest mountains to small boulders. Climbing is done for locomotion, for sporting recreation, for competition, and is also done in trades that rely on ascension; such as rescue and military operations. Climbing is done indoors and outdoors, on natural surfaces, and on artificial surfaces.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">First ascent</span> Mountaineering and climbing term

In mountaineering and climbing, a first ascent, is the first successful documented climb to the top of a mountain or the top of a particular climbing route. Early 20th-century mountaineers and climbers were focused on reaching the tops of iconic mountains and climbing routes by whatever means possible, often using considerable amounts of aid climbing, or with large expedition style support teams that laid "siege" to the climb.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">El Capitan</span> Vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park

El Capitan is a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, on the north side of Yosemite Valley, near its western end. The granite monolith is about 3,000 feet (914 m) from base to summit along its tallest face and is a popular objective for rock climbers.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Solo climbing</span> Style of climbing performed alone

Solo climbing, or soloing, is a style of climbing in which the climber climbs alone, without the assistance of a belayer. By its very nature, it presents a higher degree of risk to the climber, and in some cases, is considered extremely high risk. Note that the use of the term "solo climbing" is generally separate from the action of bouldering, which is itself a form of solo climbing, but with less serious consequences in the case of a fall.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rock climbing</span> Sport in which participants climb natural rock formations

Rock climbing is a sport in which participants climb up, across, or down natural rock formations. The goal is to reach the summit of a formation or the endpoint of a usually pre-defined route without falling. Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport, one that often tests a climber's strength, endurance, agility and balance along with mental control. Knowledge of proper climbing techniques and the use of specialized climbing equipment is crucial for the safe completion of routes.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Fair Head</span> Dolerite mountain cliff, Northern Ireland

Fair Head or Benmore is a 5-kilometre (3.1 mi) long, 200-metre (660 ft) high, mountain cliff, close to the sea, at the north-eastern corner of County Antrim, Northern Ireland. The cliff's sheer and vertical 100-metre (330 ft) high dolerite rock face is shaped into distinctive vertical columns like organ pipes, which formed 60 million years ago when a sill of igneous rock was injected between horizontal Carboniferous sediments.

<i>Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome</i>

The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome was the first Grade VI climb in the United States. It was first climbed in 1957 by a team consisting of Royal Robbins, Mike Sherrick, and Jerry Gallwas. Its current aid climbing rating is VI 5.9 A1 or 5.12 for the free climbing variation. It is recognized in the historic climbing text Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and considered a classic around the world.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Long (climber)</span> American rock climber and author

John Long is an American rock climber and author. His stories have been translated into many languages.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Rope solo climbing</span> Type of solo climbing with protection

Rope-solo climbing or rope-soloing is a form of solo climbing, but unlike with free solo climbing, which is also performed alone and with no climbing protection whatsoever, the rope-solo climber uses a complex self-belay device and rope system to protect themselves in the event of a fall.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">History of rock climbing</span> Key chronological milestones

In the history of rock climbing, the three main sub-disciplines—bouldering, single-pitch climbing, and big wall climbing—can trace their origins to late 19th-century Europe. Bouldering started in Fontainebleau, and was advanced by Pierre Allain in the 1930s, and John Gill in the 1950s. Big wall climbing started in the Dolomites, and was spread across the Alps in the 1930s by climbers such as Emilio Comici and Riccardo Cassin, and in the 1950s by Walter Bonatti, before reaching Yosemite where it was led in the 1950s to 1970s by climbers such as Royal Robbins. Single-pitch climbing started pre-1900 in both the Lake District and in Saxony, and by the 1970s had spread widely with climbers such as Ron Fawcett (Britain), Bernd Arnold (Germany), Patrick Berhault (France), Ron Kauk and John Bachar (USA).

<i>Hard Grit</i> 1998 British film

Hard Grit is a 1998 British rock climbing film directed by Richard Heap and produced by Slackjaw Film, featuring traditional climbing, free soloing, and bouldering on gritstone routes in the Peak District in the North of England. It is considered an important film in the genre and regarded as a historic and iconic film. The film starts with a dramatic fall by French climber Jean–Minh Trinh-Thieu on Gaia at Black Rocks. Hard Grit won ten international film festival awards.

<i>The Nose</i> (El Capitan) Rock climbing route in Yosemite National Park, USA

The Nose is one of the original technical climbing routes up El Capitan. Once considered impossible to climb, El Capitan is now the standard for big-wall climbing. It is recognized in the historic climbing text Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and considered a classic around the world.

Catherine Destivelle is a French rock climber and mountaineer who is considered one of the greatest and most important female climbers in the history of the sport. She came to prominence in the mid-1980s for sport climbing by winning the first major female climbing competitions, and by being the first-ever female to redpoint a 7c+/8a sport climbing route with Fleur de Rocaille in 1985, and an 8a+ (5.13c) route with Choucas in 1988. During this period, she was considered the strongest female sport climber in the world along with the US climber Lynn Hill, however, in 1990 she retired to focus on alpine climbing.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Alex Honnold</span> American rock climber (born 1985)

Alexander Honnold is an American rock climber best known for his free solo ascents of big walls. Honnold rose to prominence in June 2017 when he became the first person to free solo El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, a feat that sports writer Daniel Duane described as "one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever." Honnold also holds the record for the fastest ascent of the Yosemite triple crown, an 18-hour, 50-minute link-up of Mount Watkins, The Nose, and the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome. In 2015, he won a Piolet d'Or for the Moonwalk Traverse in Patagonia with Tommy Caldwell.

Ron Fawcett is a British rock climber and rock climbing author who is credited with pushing the technical standards of British rock climbing in traditional, sport, bouldering and free soloing disciplines, in the decade from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, and of pioneering the career of being a full-time professional rock climber. At the end of the 1970s to the early 1980s, Fawcett was widely considered the best and most notable rock climber in Britain.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">David Lama</span> Austrian sport climber and mountaineer (1990–2019)

David Lama was an Austrian sport climber and mountaineer. He won the European Championship in bouldering in 2007 and the European Championship in lead climbing in 2006. He is known for his first free ascent of the Compressor Route on Cerro Torre. In 2018, in a solo expedition, he was the first to reach the summit of Lunag Ri in the Himalayas. In 2019, he was posthumously honoured with a Piolet d'Or for this first ascent.

Nina Williams is an American professional rock climber based in Boulder, Colorado, best known for her highball bouldering.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Hansjörg Auer</span> Austrian mountaineer (1984–2019)

Hansjörg Auer was an Austrian mountaineer, noted for his free solo climbs, and particularly of Fish Route in the Italian Dolomites, the first-ever big wall solo at 5.12c (7b+). National Geographic described him as "one of the boldest and best climbers in the world", and he won the 2019 Piolet d'Or for this free solo ascent of the Lupghar Sar West. He died in an avalanche while climbing on Howse Peak in the Canadian Rockies.


  1. Taylor, Will. "Why We Won't See a Rise in Free Solo Climbing Deaths After Alex Honnold's Story Won an Oscar". The Inertia. Retrieved 1 July 2019.
  2. Green, Stewart (20 July 2017). "Free Solo Climbing is Dangerous and Deadly". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  3. "Gale - User Identification Form". Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  4. Berry, Natalie. "'Free Solo' enters Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Film Scoops 7 Emmys". UK Climbing.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 Osius, Alison (4 June 2022). "Free Solo Rock Climbing and the Climbers Who Have Defined the Sport". Climbing . Retrieved 26 November 2022.
  6. Zhu, Beifeng; Chen, Ruizhi; Li, Yuan (9 August 2021). "The Origin and Early Evolution of Rock Climbing". Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research. Proceedings of the 2021 5th International Seminar on Education, Management and Social Sciences (ISEMSS 2021). Atlantis Press. 571: 662–667. doi:10.2991/assehr.k.210806.124. ISBN   978-94-6239-414-8. S2CID   238693283.
  7. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Oviglia, Maurizio (23 December 2012). "The Evolution of Free Climbing". PlanetMountain. Retrieved 4 January 2020.
  8. Erikson, Jim (19 April 2022). "Cleaning Up Climbing History. The Truth Behind 13 Pivotal Ascents and Events". Climbing . Retrieved 9 December 2022.
  9. Corrigan, Kevin. "Opinion: The Free Solo Documentary Addressed Some Uncomfortable Truths, But Ignored Others". Climbing Magazine. Retrieved 6 May 2019.
  10. Branch, John (14 November 2014). "A Sponsor Steps Away From the Edge". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 1 July 2019.
  11. "Alex Honnold". TheNorthFace USA – English. Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  12. "The Most Mind-Bending Free Solo Climbs in History". Red Bull. Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  13. "Climber Alex Honnold wrote an op-ed after Clif Bar dropped him as a sponsor". Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  14. "Hansjörg Auer Fish route solo on Marmolada 15 years ago today". PlanetMountain. 29 April 2022. Retrieved 1 January 2023.
  15. Slavsky, Bennett (12 March 2021). "Alfredo Webber, Age 52, Free Solos 5.14b". Climbing . Retrieved 4 January 2022.
  16. "Being Bachar". Rock & Ice . March 2008. Retrieved 3 January 2023.
  17. "Exclusive: Alex Honnold Completes the Most Dangerous Free-Solo Ascent Ever". National Geographic Society . 3 October 2018.
  18. "This is Still a Gripping Free-Solo Video – Alex Huber on a 20-Pitch 5.12a". Gripped Magazine. 2 November 2021. Retrieved 16 December 2022.
  19. Johnson, Scott C. (15 July 2012). "Michael Ybarra's Death Underscores the Allure and Dangers of Solo Climbing". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 9 October 2015.
  20. Pilastro, Eleonora (6 December 2022). "The Real Spider-Man: Alain Robert climbs the world's tallest buildings". Guinness Book of Records . Retrieved 30 December 2022.
  21. "A History of Mallorca Deep Water Soloing". British Mountaineering Council . 8 March 2011. Retrieved 21 December 2021.
  22. Thomasma, Melissa (13 August 2008). "FreeBASE: Dean Potter on the Eiger Nordwand". Alpinist . ISSN   1540-725X . Retrieved 30 December 2022.
  23. Bisharat, Andrew (18 May 2015). "How Dean Potter Reinvented Climbing, Jumping, Flying". National Geographic . Retrieved 30 December 2022.
  24. Edwards, Pete (November 2020). "Is it Highball Bouldering? Or should we be calling it Free-Soloing" . Retrieved 30 December 2022.

Further reading