Monday, August 18, 2014

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


Michael Stanton said...

Good post. Another motivation for doing the occasional solo rock climb is mental training for alpine climbing, where the smartest option is sometimes to "3rd class" vast amounts of terrain edging into 5th class. Your abilities should be well-tested and your mind steady.

Anonymous said...

Soloing is legit. Soloing at a crowded crag on the weekend is a problem.

Unknown said...


I think this is one of your better posts. Great perspective.

Amorfati said...

I went Top Rope Soloing this last weekend to a small but well known local spot that I call my “climbing lab” (short, easy routes, you can walk to the top to set your anchor—I usually go there with climbing friends to practice new things).
Since it was just me, and my goal was climbing conditioning, my plan was to just “run some laps” on things I knew I could accomplish and as always, take in the mountain scenery, the sky.
I wasn’t expecting the reaction from the other groups that showed up that day. They had strong opinions about my top rope soloing. I was interrupted to answer questions about myself and my experience (I have been climbing off and on for over 10 years). It was as if they were offended by it, and wanted to know why I didn’t just come out with friends.
I can see where soloing of any variety may be offensive to the spirit of climbing. I can also understand that if there is a death at a site, the whole local climbing community suffers.

Ultimately, I don’t feel like what I was doing was so controversial (especially while not doing anything higher than a 5.7). I would prefer to climb the hard stuff and be with friends, but sometimes a climber just has to climb.