Free solo climbing
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A climber free soloing at Red Rock Canyon, Nevada
Free solo climbing or free soloing, is a form of technical ice or rock climbing where the climbers (or free soloists) climb alone without ropes, harnesses or other protective equipment, forcing them to rely entirely on their own individual strength and skill. Free soloing is the most dangerous form of climbing, and unlike bouldering, free soloists climb above safe heights where a fall would result in serious injury or death.. Though many climbers have attempted free soloing, it is considered "a niche of a niche" reserved for the sport's elite, which has led many practitioners to stardom within both the media and the sport of climbing. "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 the English dictionary in September 2019.
Many climbing communities praise the ascents, while others have concerns regarding the danger involved and the message the ascents potentially send to other climbers. 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.
However, The North Face and Red Bull have promoted free soloists and helped the free soloing community grow. In addition, Alex Honnold, a free soloist who was previously dropped by Clif Bar, was featured in the 2018 documentary Free Solo, which was met with critical acclaim and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
High-profile climbers have cited simplicity and speed with which one can climb as reasons for free soloing, as well as the intense concentration required which brings a Zen-like state of being in the moment. The most successful free soloists also become well known in the climbing community and in rare cases attain notoriety outside the small circle of rock climbers.
The practice is mostly confined to routes familiar to the climber, whose difficulty lies well within the climber's abilities. However, inherent risks such as loose rocks or sudden change in weather are always present. Some high-profile climbers have died while free soloing, including John Bachar, Derek Hersey, Vik Hendrickson, Robert Steele, Dwight Bishop, Jimmy Ray Forester, Jimmy Jewell, Tony Wilmott, and John Taylor.
The sport has produced a number of well-known practitioners, made famous by photos of them totally alone and unprotected on sheer cliffs. In June 2017, Alex Honnold made international news with the first free-solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite, on a route rated 5.13a in the Yosemite Decimal System.
Some climbers who are known for their regular practice of free solo climbing include: Hansjörg Auer, Jim Erickson, John Bachar, Patrick Berhault, Thomas Bubendorfer, Matt Bush, Renaldo Clarke, Peter Croft, Steph Davis, Bill Denz, Tim Deroehn, Catherine Destivelle, Patrick Edlinger, Eric Escoffier, John Gill, Brad Gobright, Dan Goodwin, Mike Graham, Wolfgang Güllich, Colin Haley, Derek Hersey, Alex Honnold, Alexander Huber, Jimmy Jewell, Eric Jones, Kevin Jorgeson, Ally Law, Matt Lloyd, Dave MacLeod, Dan Osman, Dean Potter, Paul Preuss, Andreas Proft, Herbert Ranggetiner, Michael Reardon, Alain Robert, Tobin Sorenson, Will Stanhope, Ueli Steck, Slavko Svetičič, Miroslav Šmíd, Akihira Tawara, John Yablonski, Maurizio Zanolla, Jim Reynolds.
Some climbers who have occasionally or rarely free soloed, but have been influential to the practice, include: Pierre Allain, Henry Barber, Lynn Hill, Ron Kauk, Jean-Christophe Lafaille, John Long, Dave MacLeod, Reinhold Messner.
Difficult free solo ascents
There are few climbers who have free solo climbed in the 5.14 grade range. This list does not include "highball" boulder ascents because the climbers here did not use any padding or spotters. There is some debate on the blurred line between "highball" bouldering and short free solo climbs.
- 5.14b (8c) - Darwin Dixit (50 ft) - Margalef, Spain - Dave MacLeod, March 2008.
- 5.14a (8b+) - Kommunist (22m) - Tyrol, Austria - Alexander Huber, 2004. The first 5.14 free solo.
Free soloing buildings
Some free soloists scale buildings: Alain Robert ("The French Spider-Man"), and Dan Goodwin ("Skyscraperman"), have scaled dozens of skyscrapers around the world—a sport known as buildering—without any safety equipment.
- Paul Preuss (3 October 1913) died during an attempt to make the first ascent of the North Ridge of the Mandlkogel (in the Gosaukamm range) free solo, in a fall of more than 300m.
- Jimmy Jewell fell to his death (31 October 1987) from Poor Man's Peuterey (Severe) at Tremadog, North Wales. He was using the route as a shortcut from a local pub to his climbing club hut and it was well below his usual grade and capability.
- Derek Hersey died (28 May 1993) while free soloing the Steck-Salathé Route on Sentinel Rock in Yosemite National Park.
- Dwight Bishop fell (19 July 2004; age 49) while climbing alone and unroped along the Grand Traverse route on Grand Teton peak in Wyoming.
- Jimmy Ray Forester fell (24 November 2006; age 43) while free-soloing in El Potrero Chico, Mexico. Forester, an experienced, talented climber, failed to return to camp after setting out on The Scariest Ride in the Park, a 40-pitch 5.9 ridge route known for loose rock. He was found the next day at the base of the wall.
- George Gardner fell to his death (25 July 2008; age 58) while free soloing in Grand Teton National Park.
- John Bachar died (5 July 2009) in a free solo accident at Dike Wall near Mammoth Lakes, California.
- Akihira Tawara died (13 September 2011) while free solo climbing the Directissima 5.8 route on Yamnuska.
- Michael J. Ybarra died (July 2012) climbing solo on The Matterhorn Peak in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.
- Brad Parker fell (August 2014) about 300 feet to his death while attempting to climb Matthes Crest Traverse in Yosemite, CA.
- Andrew Barnes died (12 June 2015; age 46) falling 50 ft (15 m) free solo climbing in New York's Shawangunk Mountains.
- Angus Moloney died (27 September 2015; age 22) falling 100 ft free-solo climbing from the Fifth Pinnacle above the Gregory Canyon Trail, Boulder's Open Space and Mountain Parks.
Different types of climbing include:
- Free climbing with the use of ropes to catch a fall.
- Bouldering: climbing at heights low enough that a fall would normally be safe, typically making use of a bouldering mat to cushion a potential fall.
- Deep-water soloing: climbing over a body of water.
- Free BASE: a combination of free solo climbing to ascend a structure, and BASE jumping with a parachute to descend.
- Speed climbing: Climbing discipline in which the goal is to complete an ascent of a sort in the shortest amount of time possible.
- Top Rope Climbing: With use of ropes anchored to the top of the climb
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