The most dangerous climbing game. The big showdown. You fall, you die. The idiots game. The game of the perfect people.
Two years ago I started rope soloing seriously (and four years ago for the first time) because I thought free soloing (climbing without any rope or protection) was too risky. It is very simple, if you fall from over 30 feet in the air chances are you will die. Tuesday I did my most risky free soloing yet. There is a little 500-600 foot tall rock near the place I live called the Piz Badile. The North Ridge is a simple 5.6 four pitch climb. My friends and I have climbed it numerous times. Rumor has it one of my friends free soloed the whole thing. Now if you known what you are doing the whole thing can go at 5.4. So Tuesday I went up on it with the intent of soloing it, part with a rope, and part without.
The first part of the ridge is generally the crux, but if you climb the left side of the ridge it goes at maybe 5.0. I free soloed that in my running shoes. At the first belay ledge I switched to rock shoes and roped up. About one regular pitch farther I unroped and free soloed some more. Then I roped in for a little more. Finally where the ridge flattens out I unroped and cruised the traverse to the hill. The exposure on that last part was maybe 200 feet down or 300 feet on each side of this three foot wide ridge of 5.0 climbing. It sure got my heart pumping.
The reason I decided to climb without a rope holding me in is that I have realized how much faster it is to free solo something. There is no stopping to put protection in. There is no rope management. There is no belaying. Less gear is needed. Climbing shoes are about it. Dean Potter free soloed the Casual Route on Longs peak car to car in 3:59. Two years ago it took my friend and I 20:15. Five times as long.
However, this post is not about how much faster it is or why it is dangerous. This post is about what it feels like. I have read other climbers descriptions where they talk about nirvana or an ideal faultless state. They feel like they will not make a mistake. I didn't feel like that at all. The first pitch I felt fine because I've done that section several times. However, above that it was terrifying. My fingers did not stick to the rock magically. I didn't feel more secure than when I climb with a rope. My heart was beating hard and fast and my hands were sweating. When I free soloed the ridge above I had to take a break after about 150 feet because I was out of breath. Without stopping to put in protection or belay I was moving very fast over technical terrain. I had to sit there for 30 seconds on this tiny ridge to get my breathing under control.
It was not exactly a liberating experience. It was scary.
When I climb I do not spend much time looking down. I am always looking up or to the sides to figure out where to go next. That being said the two seconds here and there where my gaze happened to drift downward really got my attention. There is no lying to yourself when you are free soloing. It is very honest. You fall, you die. Derek Hersey and John Bachar died free soloing. In the Himalaya, Karakorum, Alps, Rocky Mountains, and elsewhere around the world dozens of people have died from "falls" while the terrain they are on may only be third or fourth class or grade two ice the result is the same. I say "falls" because I have taken falls in the mountains. Falls that, without a rope, I would not be here. However, I have not taken any of those "falls" that each person can only take once.
There is a video of Dean Potter soloing El Capitan in Yosmite that just scares me and inspires me. He free solos stuff really far off the ground. No margin for error. Another video is of Alex Honnold soloing Half Dome. A full page picture was featured in Outside Magazine (I think) recently of him at the end of the traverse on the Regular Northwest Face. I have read of that traverse. It scares people. Watching him do that in the video, when he freezes half way across... my palms were sweating even though I knew he made it.
Scary, fun, dangerous, rewarding, and scary about describe it.