Free solo climbing

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

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 preparation, strength, and skill. Free soloing is the most dangerous form of climbing, and unlike bouldering, free soloists climb above safe heights, where a fall can very likely be fatal.[1][2] Though many climbers have attempted free soloing, it is considered "a niche of a niche" reserved for the sport's elite,[3] which has led many practitioners to stardom within both the media and the sport of rock climbing.[1][4] "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.[5]

Brief History[edit]

The History of Free Climbing began at the beginning of the 20th century, primarily in Germany and Great Britain. It started to gain traction in the United States in the 1970s in Yosemite, thanks to climbers such as Jim Bridwell, John Bacher, John Long, and Ron Kauk.

Public view[edit]

Many climbing communities praise the ascents, while others have concerns regarding the danger involved and the message the ascents potentially send to other climbers.[6] 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.[7]

However, The North Face and Red Bull have promoted free soloists and helped the free soloing community grow.[8][9] In addition, Alex Honnold, a free soloist who was previously dropped by Clif Bar,[10] 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,[11] 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.[1][12][13][14][15][16]


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

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.[17]

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, Ron Fawcett, John Gill, Brad Gobright, Dan Goodwin, Mike Graham, Wolfgang Güllich, Colin Haley, Derek Hersey, Alex Honnold, Alexander Huber, Jimmy Jewell, Eric Jones, Marc-André Leclerc, 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, Sya Cao,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.

Hardest free solos[edit]

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.[18] In December 2019, little known Italian non-professional climber Alfredo Webber, became the first person to free solo at grade 8c (5.14b), by ascending the 15 metres (49 ft), Panem et Circenses, at Muro di Pizarra near Arco in Italy; he was aged 52 at the time.[19] Other notable free solos which pushed the technical grade of what could be achieved were Alexander Huber's 2004 ascent of Kommunist, and Dave Macleod's 2008 ascent of Darwin Dixit, both of which were at a grade of 8b+ (5.14a).[19][20]

Free soloing buildings[edit]

Alain Robert free soloing Tour Franklin in 2002

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.

Notable fatalities[edit]

Michael Reardon free soloing Lower Right Ski Track (5.10b) on Intersection Rock in Joshua Tree National Park, 2007.
  • Paul Preuss (3 October 1913; age 27) 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 300 m.
  • Oriol Batallé (11 September 1985; age 20) died during an attempt to make the first free solo ascent to Sánchez-Martínez route (7a) on Diables wall (Montserrat). He was found dead in the third belay, at the ledge after the chimney.
  • Jimmy Jewell fell to his death (31 October 1987; age 34) 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; age 36) 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.[21]
  • George Gardner fell to his death (25 July 2008; age 58) while free soloing in Grand Teton National Park.[22]
  • John Bachar died (5 July 2009; age 52) in a free solo accident at Dike Wall near Mammoth Lakes, California.
  • Akihira Tawara died (13 September 2011; age 27) while free solo climbing the Directissima 5.8 route on Yamnuska.[23]
  • Michael J. Ybarra died (July 2012;[24] age 45) climbing solo on The Matterhorn Peak in California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.[25][26][27][28]
  • Brad Parker fell (16 August 2014; age 36) about 300 feet to his death while attempting to climb Matthes Crest Traverse in Yosemite, California.[29]
  • Andrew Barnes died (12 June 2015; age 46) falling 50 ft (15 m) free solo climbing in New York's Shawangunk Mountains.[30]
  • Angus Moloney died (27 September 2015; age 22) falling 100 ft (30 m) free-solo climbing from the Fifth Pinnacle above the Gregory Canyon Trail, Boulder Open Spaces and Mountain Parks.[31]
  • Austin Howell died (30 June 2019; age 31) after a fall while free soloing at Shortoff Mountain in North Carolina.[32]


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 with a body of water at the base of the climb.
  • 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 in the shortest amount of time possible.
  • Top rope climbing: climbing with the use of ropes anchored to the top of the climb.


  1. ^ a b c Green, Stewart (20 July 2017). "Free Solo Climbing is Dangerous and Deadly". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  2. ^ Nadkarni, Nalini M. (February 2017). "After the Fall: The Tapestry of Disturbance and Recovery". Critical Care Medicine. 45 (2): 348–355. doi:10.1097/CCM.0000000000002176. ISSN 0090-3493. PMID 28098631.
  3. ^ 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.
  4. ^ "Gale - User Identification Form". Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  5. ^ Berry, Natalie. "'Free Solo' enters Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Film Scoops 7 Emmys". UK Climbing.
  6. ^ Corrigan, Kevin. "Opinion: The Free Solo Documentary Addressed Some Uncomfortable Truths, But Ignored Others". Climbing Magazine. Retrieved 6 May 2019.
  7. ^ Branch, John (14 November 2014). "A Sponsor Steps Away From the Edge". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 1 July 2019.
  8. ^ "Alex Honnold". TheNorthFace USA – English. Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  9. ^ "The Most Mind-Bending Free Solo Climbs in History". Red Bull. Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  10. ^ "Climber Alex Honnold wrote an op-ed after Clif Bar dropped him as a sponsor". Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  11. ^ Honnold Free-Solos Half Dome's NW Face Archived 29 December 2010 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Perrin, John (2006). The Climbing Essays. Neil Wilson Publishing Ltd. p. 320. ISBN 9781903238479.
  13. ^ Pearsons, Neil. "Abandon all rope part 2". The Guardian. Retrieved 18 August 2012.
  14. ^ "Jimmy Ray Forester Killed in Solo Fall". Rock and Ice. 2009. Archived from the original on 14 April 2015. Retrieved 17 January 2015.
  15. ^ Ghiglieri, Michael Patrick (2004). Off The Wall: Death in Yosemite. Puma Press. p. 608. ISBN 9780970097361.
  16. ^ "Dwight Bishop, 48". The Montana Standard. 25 July 2004. Retrieved 18 August 2012.
  17. ^ Vasarhelyi, Elizabeth Chai, film director, film producer. Chin, Jimmy, film director, film producer, director of photography, on-screen participant. Dill, Shannon, film producer. Hayes, Evan, 1978- film producer. Honnold, Alex, on-screen participant. Caldwell, Tommy, on-screen participant. Wolownick, Dierdre, on-screen participant. Beltrami, Marco, composer (expression) Popkin, Clair, director of photography. Schaefer, Mikey, director of photography. Eisenhardt, Bob, editor of moving image work., Free solo., ISBN 9786317729421, OCLC 1091996953 {{citation}}: |last= has generic name (help)CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  18. ^ "Kevin Jorgeson Sends Ambrosia and Blurs Line Between Highball and Free Solo". 11 January 2009. Retrieved 13 December 2017.
  19. ^ a b Slavsky, Bennett (12 March 2021). "Alfredo Webber, Age 52, Free Solos 5.14b". Climbing. Retrieved 4 January 2022.
  20. ^ McDonald, Dougald (7 May 2004). "Huber Solos 5.14". Climbing. Retrieved 4 January 2022.
  21. ^ "Jimmy Ray Forester Killed in Solo Fall". 30 November 2010. Archived from the original on 14 April 2015. Retrieved 9 October 2015.
  22. ^ "Did Gusty Winds Cause a Fatal Climbing Accident at Grand Teton National Park? - National Parks Traveler". Retrieved 13 December 2017.
  23. ^ "Local climbers remember Japanese enthusiast". Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  24. ^ As Ybarra set out on Saturday, 29 June, and was alone at the time of his death, there is uncertainty about the exact date of this fatality. Like the Daily Mail, and the Union Democrat, the New York Times says it happened on "the weekend" of 29 June to 1 July. Huffpost intimates that his fall occurred on Sunday, 1 July.
  25. ^ 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.
  26. ^ Miles, Kathleen (5 July 2012). "Extreme Sports Writer Falls To His Death". HuffPost. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  27. ^ "Climber falls to death by Yosemite". The Union Democrat. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  28. ^ Hevesi, Dennis (6 July 2012). "Michael J. Ybarra, Author and Extreme-Sports Reporter, Is Dead at 45". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 28 October 2019.
  29. ^ Barmann, Jay (20 August 2014). "Experienced Rock Climber Falls To His Death in Yosemite Free Climb After Proposing To Girlfriend". SFist. Archived from the original on 11 January 2016. Retrieved 9 October 2015.
  30. ^ "Schenectady County rock climber dies in fall at nature preserve". Retrieved 13 December 2017.
  31. ^ Gugala, Jon (7 October 2015). "Free-Solo Climber Falls to Death Near Boulder - Outside Online". Retrieved 13 December 2017.
  32. ^ Levy, Michael (1 July 2019). "Austin Howell, 31, Known For Bold Solos in the Southeast, Dies in Free Soloing Fall - Rock and Ice". Retrieved 13 November 2019.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]