I just got back from two weeks in Spain climbing at Margalef. Sorry I wasn’t able to blog from there this time. I got some interesting climbs done.
I like to keep my level as high as possible in lots of climbing disciplines, and this means doing each of them as often as I can manage. But one I only do very rarely is free-soloing. In fact, I’ve only soloed two routes in the past nine years. I explained why here.
Right now I am preparing for a very special project I am trying on Ben Nevis and I already completed one or two of my training climbs which I saw as benchmarks for a prerequisite physical level. But it’s obviously just as important to spend time doing some psychological skills training for a climb where the seriousness of a fall could not be higher. For this climb I need to be able to climb 8c+/9a in an unprotected position. So I must have great confidence in my ability to make good decisions in a situation close to my physical limit but under a lot of psychological pressure.
So I decided to try to make a small increase in my free soloing top level; from 8b to 8c. 8c solo seemed like the right level to test and develop my control. The necessary ingredients were a climb at a high enough level that the moves would be totally committing, and one where the random objective danger of loose rock would not enter the risk equation.
Last spring I did the third ascent of an 8c in Margalef called Darwin Dixit. I remember having one of those amazing days when you just seem to climb a grade harder than normal and everything feels easy. I remember locking off on the crux mono and chalking up on a move that was previously a slap and thinking to myself in the moment – ‘I would be ok soloing here’. That feeling planted a seed that rumbled in my mind throughout 2007 and grew into something significant when I was searching for good training climbs for my Nevis project.
Claire enjoying hanging out in a chilly Spanish morning
On March 4th I soloed the route at 9am. I wrote a diary of my feelings about the preparation and ascent of the climb, which is a bit long for this blog so I’ll probably publish these elsewhere. But I can say that it was a very relaxed and positive few minutes at the crag. Claire filmed the ascent for the film we are making this year and she seemed very relaxed too. I felt utterly focused, and in the classic performance paradox of extreme effort but feeling effortless at the same time. I also felt the large margin of reserve I was looking for.
I guess it’s cool that it might be the first 8c free solo (i.e. not highball bouldering and climbed without any mats or spotters). I just did a bit of googling on soloing and came up with two articles criticising the glamorisation of some other free-solo ascents in the media. What I have to say about this is as follows:
I feel that everyone should be encouraged to find and extend their limits. I agreed and was inspired by Alex Huber when he talked about finding his limits in soloing after his free solo of Kommunist 8b+ a couple of years ago. But anyone should think carefully about why they do something as potentially dangerous as soloing a hard rock climb. Your motivation should always be to extend your own limits in this arena, never to compare against anyone else’s. And you should use your mind to extend this limit by knowing yourself and your ability before you leave the ground, never by letting your ego get you into a situation where you must fight for your life! Free soloing must be done perfectly or not at all – you owe this to the people who care about you. But this area of great understanding of one’s own mind and body forms the attraction of soloing. And if you know you have that understanding, then soloing can be rewarding on a deep level. If you ever find yourself at the foot of a solo climb, wondering if you do have that understanding, you almost certainly don’t. Solo climbing is about really knowing, and when you have this feeling it will stand out in your mind so much that you will not have to wonder whether it’s real or not.
Can soloing be safe? Yes. Is it always safe? No! Even for the few who can be in complete control of their body and mind on a solo, they cannot be in control of the rock or the weather. That said, soloists awareness and anticipation of these is exceptional because of their experience and huge dedication to their chosen task. Is soloing worth the risk? Sometimes. As I’ve said before, the risks of doing things in life have to weighed up against the risks of not doing things. Balance of risk and reward is for everyone to think hard upon and then take the right path for them.
Claire’s pictures of the solo of Darwin Dixit and her thoughts on filming the route are on her blog.
PS: After the solo was completed I had a great few days on the cliffs of Margalef and felt reasonably fit with some 8a onsights, my first 8a+ onsight (and almost an 8b arrgh!) and I could consistently climb 8b+ and 8c in a day. So I have made some progress in my training although my body is still a little heavy. Some pics of these below and more on Claire’s blog. Dave Redpath blogged about the trip here.