The free solo conundrum: Climbing safely, without a rope

Hey Senders, Aimee here! I am so excited to introduce our first non-Aimee editorial. Here goes…

When the Send Space set out to interview Allister Fenton, I was expecting an episode all about trad, beta, and his hiking hacks. Having been on various adventures with this living legend, I know Allister as someone with great beta up his sleeve, from gourmet camp-cooking, to keeping warm in a hammock, to placing pro like a pro. I also trust him as a safe leader. Sure, he may occasionally throw you in the deep end, but he knows you can swim (even if you don’t think you can).

So, I was somewhat surprised to hear Allister regaling us with his free solo stories. Free soloing is something I thought was reserved for idiots (then again, I also thought this about trad at one stage). Of course, in true Allister fashion, he went on to explain how free soloing can be used as a tool to in fact make you safer on the wall, as an exercise in trusting yourself so that you don’t panic on your next run-out trad pitch, for example.

Listen to the episode to hear his thoughts on free solo, and whether we should be encouraging it or regulating it. In the meantime, our producer here at the Send Space was INSPIRED. I am pleased to give you, dear Sender, Matt’s first blog:

My First Free Solo Experience

By Matt Chapman

On Wednesday 30th June 2021, we decided to get to Strubens to get a few hours on the rock before all going back to our day jobs and the mid week slump.

We were the only four people there and headed up to the crag to get our two warmup routes done, Urban Unrest (16) and Gang Warfare (18).

I got into my harness, loaded up my draws, dropped the rope bag, tied in and hurried my partner Amy along to get on belay.

We did our safety checks and I headed up the route, barefoot.

I’ve spent the better part of the last three weeks thinking about the podcast we recorded with Allister and the discussion we had on how he got into climbing and his mindset behind free soloing.

I’ve realised that my experience of gym climbing as an introduction to the sport has limited me to a narrow perspective on which I set my climbing goals and hopes for my engagement with the sport.

I’ve now started to view climbing differently, realising the scope of the sport, the varying styles of climbing, the history, the culture, my relationship to my body and its capabilities and also the rock that I am climbing. 

I have seen how mental fortitude and its development has been an integral part of why I climb. I want to strengthen my grip on my mind, my thoughts and my body.

Free soloing seems like an opportunity for me to really put my money where my mouth is and ultimately trust in my body and my ability.

I tied in and began climbing the first few moves of Urban Unrest with the usual banter being fired around by Josh, Shandre and Amy.

I wasn’t thinking about the climb, so much as allowing my body to feel its way around, bare feet smearing onto the cool rock, fingers gripping onto the jugs, skin, rock, metal, rope, the ping of the metal draw closing piercing the calm. All the while my mind is trying to find smart ways of ragging on Josh.

After a wonderfully smooth belay down, when asked how the climb was, I lightly threw into the conversation that I was sure this route was easy enough to free solo. After we all had a go on the routes, I decided I was going to do the route and skip the first and second draw and clip the third draw only.

I tied in and had convinced myself that the crux was on the third bolt and if I passed that, I might as well continue to the top.

While usually I enjoy some belayer banter throughout a climb, everyone went silent as I started my ascent. I noticed a certain fluidity of mind, a lack of thought and a piercing clarity that was attained.

I climbed past the first draw, moving smoothly and with intent, acutely aware of each muscle engaged in the motion. Eyes sharp, observing each hold, I moved past the second.

I reached up and moved above the third draw, convinced I didn’t need to clip it and prepared to move through when my belayer shouted that I missed the draw.

Like the unsuspecting shattering of a plate my thoughts came rushing back, doubt laden, they elevated my heart rate. I realised I was now out of it and decided to clip the draw to be safe. I continued the climb but felt my usual mental chatter had returned.

I got to the chains and sailed down smoothly.

At the bottom we had a chat about the climb while we all tucked into some snacks. I wasn’t down there long when I took three big breaths and walked up to the rock and just began climbing.

I had a single moment of thinking, “There is no rope attached so remember not to think you can lean back and rest at any point”, but I was quickly drawn into the moment and into what I can only describe as flow state; a blissful experience of observing myself, feeling the senses, awareness of breath, silence and a deep trust.

Time felt slower and each move was like moving through a gentle liquid that allowed the precision movement of every muscle.

I got to the top. 

The glinting metal of the chains brought me back to the rock and that moment. 

The wind, the sound of the road in the valley, the reassuring hollers of friends and my partner.

I had done it. My first free solo. It was exhilarating and everything I’d wanted it to be.

Safe, thought out, within my capabilities and now DONE!

Then it dawned on me: I had forgotten to bring my sneakers up and faced a gravelly walk back down!

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