Monday, March 22, 2010

In Defense of Soloing

It's a common enough site. A young man pulls on his rock shoes and clips on his chalk bag. The next thing you know he's blasting up the wall without a rope or a harness.

Someone nearby says, "that guy's stupid."

And someone else disagrees.

And then someone yells something at the soloist. "Hey!" the person shouts. "Don't you know that's stupid?"

And so it goes. People argue the value and the dangers of soloing on the ground. Eventually someone irresponsibly tries to get the soloist's attention, which makes his position far more precarious.

When in the field it's common for climbers to ask me what I think about soloing. Most expect me to universally condemn it. But I can't. It's hard for me to dictate to someone else what their climbing should or should not be. This conversation exists throughout the internet. Here is a great thread on the subject.

One of the main points of contention is the question of exactly what soloing is. Is it soloing if you do a highball boulder problem? Is it soloing if you climb a third-class ridge? What about a fourth-class ridge? What about a 5.0 ridge?

At some point each of us has to decide what soloing is for ourselves. And there's the rub. A person who is a non-climber might see third-class movement as the epitome of danger, whereas a climber might not even think about it. In the mountains, climbers commonly solo "easy" terrain to move fast. The question is what is easy ground? It's going to be different for everybody.

A soloist who falls is likely to die. But if you're riding a motorcycle fast and you fall you're likely to die too. Some might see soloing as akin to riding a motorcycle. Falls are uncommon because the rider/soloist stays in control. But when they happen, they are very serious.

It's hard for me to universally condemn soloing because for some the reward is worth the risk. Most soloists don't see what they're doing as being that risky because they're on terrain where they feel extremely comfortable. Does that mean I'm going to solo 5.10 or even 5.5, at this point in my life, probably not. Each of us has to make our own decisions about the risks that we take while climbing. And it is not really our jobs to dictate what's right and what's not right to those outside our parties who are unlikely to impact anyone else.

One might argue that if a soloist falls while you are in the mountains, that you will then be impacted by their decision. You will be responsible for administering first aid or calling for help. This is true. But will telling somebody -- especially a young male soloist -- that you think what they're doing is stupid, change the individual's perspective or will it harden it? I suspect that it will harden it.

Climbing is a very personal sport and we all have opinions about how it should be done. But I feel like those opinions, especially where soloing is concerned, are best left to the ground. Soloists have every right to explore the mountains just like everyone else. And indeed, I believe that they should be left alone while doing it as responsibly as they can...

--Jason D. Martin

1 comment:

Michael Stanton said...

Really interesting! As a student of alpine climbing, I came to believe years ago that soloing, or the ability to solo was an important skill. So many strange things can happen, and there are so many instances of unprotected loose gullies, approaches with moves a bit harder than expected, "no falls allowed," whatever, that it seemed to me that a seasoned alpine climber will need to be comfortable soloing 5.4 or so.

Not that he'd have to make a habit of it. But when he does do it, he can move in a solid way without excess adrenaline. Cultivating that skill a bit helped me tremendously to climb some personal "testpieces" like the North Ridge of Forbidden in a day, NR Stuart, Goode NE Buttress, Fury NE Buttress, Sir Donald and lots of stuff over here in the Dolomites. Lots of easy ground on those climbs where static pitching doesn't make sense.

Frankly I would be afraid to try to climb bigger objectives if I didn't hold to the basic mental stance described above. I _can_ and _should_ be able to solo low 5th class. Describing "soloing as out" whether to yourself or others puts you in an untenable position on many classic or modern ascents. You'll inevitably have to break your rule...better to be mentally prepared for that moment. (BTW, I'm also thinking of situations with 0 or rotten pro even though you have a rope as soloing).