The Fight over Free Soloing

Has Alex Honnold’s free solo climb of El Capitan sparked more daredevils? At least one free soloist has fallen to his death since the film was released.

Duane Daniel, author and journalist, wrote in The New York Times that I believe it should be celebrated as one of the great athletic feats ever, after Alex Honnold completed his free-solo ascent of El-Capitan in 2017.

A record-breaking 3.1 million viewers watched the premiere of the highest-rated National Geographic documentary on the National Geographic Network. “Free Solo,” which grossed $21 million at the box office, also won an Academy Award. The intense preparation and ropeless ascent of Alex Honnold, climbing a 3,000-foot vertical wall in just four hours, were captured by the documentary crew.

Honnold has already become a well-known figure in the climbing community, earning him celebrity status. His death-defying feat has captivated a wide audience, who are mesmerized by the raw and intense spectacle of his daring endeavors. The documentary on extreme sports and climbing has also enticed viewers from outside the community.

It was an exercise in existential voyeurism, and freesoloing, the most taboo, dangerous and controversial styles of climbing, reached the mainstream vernacular.

Will the current surge of fanfare towards freesoloing cause climbers to leave behind their bolts and ropes, as members of the Southern Appalachian climbing community asked for?

Austin Howell

Climber Austin Howell clarifies, “You cannot afford to lose your footing when the rope is not in use.” Mainly as a free-soloist, Austin Howell engaged in rock climbing for a span of 12 years, with 10 of those years dedicated to this activity. He was the individual who would climb the tallest tree during games of hide and seek, and he would never be discovered. He began rock climbing at an indoor gym while attending college. Following his graduation, he worked jobs that required him to ascend 300-foot cell towers, often in harsh weather conditions. This experience allowed him to become skilled at leading climbs, as he had to go for extended periods without reaching a safe point.

Austin’s climbing companion transferred the equipment to him and he effortlessly detached himself, sensing the burden of the cumbersome sack of fasteners and lines on his rear, while scaling a steep cliff. It was a pragmatic decision, rather than a revelation, to detach the rope for the initial occasion for Austin.

People in Pueblo, for centuries, built houses into the tall sides of cliffs without any safety devices such as belays and carabiners until 1933. Essentially, he free-soloed back down and up to the top of that cliff. John Muir, speaking proudly in 1888, explained that free-soloing is the most obvious way in which one can experience the universe.

“From a personal perspective, there is no security linked to it. There is danger and there are consequences. The consequences are quite apparent,” he declared.

At Linville Gorge, Howell, who was 31 years old, tragically plunged 80 feet to his demise while attempting a free solo climb, merely a month following his conversation with BRO.

Austin Howell free solo climbs in the Linville Gorge. Photo by Jess Daddio.

Sasha DiGiulian

I would not want to put those close to me through the heavy weight loss, but I can handle my own death because it would be selfish to do this to my loved ones and family. Incidents can occur out of my control and rocks can break. Sasha DiGuilian, a renowned professional climber from Virginia who spent much of her youth climbing the Red River Gorge, says, “I do not solo free.”

The 26-year-old woman became the first to free climb Mushroom Magic (7c+) on the north face of Switzerland’s Mount Eiger in 2015. She is known for her free soloing, which involves climbing difficult routes without the use of any protective equipment, in order to protect against injuries during falls.

I am in a situation where soloing free is the only option to reach the summit, but it is not a safer way. There may be an occasion for me to embark on that, which is something I should not seek out.

Sasha DiGuilian on Free Solo: Sasha Digulian wrote this on Instagram the night Free Solo won the Academy Award for best documentary film.

“Last night Free Solo won an Oscar! First of all, huge congratulations to Jimmy Chinn, Alex Honnold, and all of the crew involved. Needless to say, an accomplishment of a lifetime and I know this came with a lot of hard work and perseverance. It is momentous for me to see a climbing film recognized at the highest of high regards.

With all the hype and attention that is sure to come from this, I felt it was important for me to speak about the very specific differences between this form of climbing (free soloing) and the approach the vast majority of climbers take to the sport itself.

What Alex does when free soloing is by nature, very risky. And while in my career I have had instances where a form of this has been necessary it has also been a choice that came as a last resort and has happened less than a handful of times over my 20 years of climbing.

Free soloing is a style of climbing that a very small percentage of climbers partake in as there is no higher level of risk: life or death. I say all this with the caveat that it is not the sole form of climbing that Alex does.

While I am so excited by the recognition this film has received, I also feel like I have spent a big portion of my career trying to educate people unfamiliar with climbing about our sport. A goal of mine has been to demonstrate that anyone can do it, and that it is a safe and welcoming activity.

In my opinion Alex is one of the greatest climbers of all time to have the capacity to realize all that he has accomplished. However, I also just want to make it clear, which I do feel like this film has done a good job of, the separation that free soloing has from the general form of climbing that I encourage all of you to experience at some point in your life. But when you do, especially if it your first time: please be sure to seek out guidance from a trained and knowledgeable climber at your local gym or local crag. Take a course in how to enter the spot safely and with the proper training and equipment.

This is an incredible and inclusive sport that, when approached correctly, is safe and fun for everyone.”

Jesse Anderson

However, Jesse Anderson, 32, has never performed as a free soloist. He has been working as a park ranger at Pilot Mountain State Park for six years and has been involved in climbing for twelve years.

Anderson said, “I understand the mantra with the connection, the rock silencing the mind, but it is not me.” After watching the documentary “Mountain Pilot” on Honnold’s solo free climbing, he hasn’t seen an increase.

“Regardless of the level of readiness, the unfortunate reality is that mishaps occur, and that’s why individuals rely on ropes.”

The soloist who is free has the freedom to leave the ropes behind and climb the same crag day, witnessing unexpected risks and potential loss that no one else but climbers would experience.

The most risky sequence of climbing, the Problem, was chosen by Howell’s close friends to pull the crew from Boulder Huber in advance. Howell’s close friend, who is an advanced climber, also decided to act as the principal shooter and advanced climber of the Solo Free.

Caldwell informed Men’s Journal the previous year, stating, “Alternatively, he most likely would have ascended it without ropes in 2009.” “It took Alex nearly ten years to feel at ease with it. The Boulder Problem is the sole factor why nobody had ever contemplated free-soloing the Freerider route on El Capitan.”

Chin didn’t want to have a videographer witness Honnold falling out of frame, and the most likely place for this to happen would be Problem Boulder.

If you decide to free solo without informing others, they might witness your demise right there at the crag. It is unjust to the people present, especially if you are a free-soloist.

Zachary Bopp

Zachary Bopp concurred. He serves as the Outdoor Program Supervisor at REI in Chattanooga and instructs climbing courses.

Bopp states, “particularly when considering their background as an instructor,” Bopp explains. “It can be challenging for other climbers to determine whether they should voice their concerns. When you come across a free soloist on a rock face, you are uncertain if they have meticulously prepared for the climb like Honnold did for El Capitan, or if they simply made the decision impulsively.”

From the very beginning, we establish rules to manage the risk and ensure that everyone knows and follows our expectations. We tell the daredevil-like student to address and correct any rules that don’t align with our standards.

The majority of free soloists, who are potential climbers without ropes, tend to weed out the fear of falling. Once a climber reaches about 15 feet, they proceed without ropes. The current boom in indoor climbing gyms has led to the debut of climbing in the 2020 Olympics, but free soloing remains a smaller and growing community on the fringe. There is a consensus that regulating free solo climbing is seen as a moot point due to its rarefied nature. However, there are inherent risks associated with free soloing, which may unintentionally witness fatal falls for both the climber and those who may be present.

Beyond the worries about similar concerns, Lesch-Huie had the ease of thinking that future work could alleviate the popularity and recent death concerns of Howell’s Austin. According to Zachary Lesch-Huie, the regional director of the Southeast for Access Fund, an organization dedicated to conservation and advocacy in climbing, this climbing style is truly a televised phenomenon. It presents us with an opportunity to educate and emphasize the point that climbing without ropes is a style that even potential land managers should bring back, similar to the movies.

“We haven’t seen an increase in climbers out there trying to be Alex Honnold,” he says.

The Carolina Climbing Coalition (CCC) was formed in 1994 following the tragic death of a climber. Concerned about the potential closure of climbing in state parks due to the incident at Crowder’s Mountain, climbers in Charlotte mistakenly believed that a park closure was imminent. However, after a meeting between state park officials and climbers, it was established that there were no plans for a park closure and that a coalition would be the most beneficial solution for both climbers and park officials. In January 1995, almost 100 local climbers unanimously voted to establish the coalition with the aim of preserving climbing access in the Carolinas.

Mike Reardon

We’re not the climbing police telling people how they should go climb.

—Mike Reardon, Carolina Climbers Coalition

Mike Reardon was appointed as the Executive Director of the CCC in February of last year. He described the charitable organization’s primary goal as preserving trails and ensuring access to different regions by managing them and replacing bolts. In addition, they work together with landowners to expand climbing opportunities in new areas.

When it comes to climbing, we should definitely inform the police about the individuals who are going on the climb. If there is something that affects access, we should take a stance on it.

He was never found, and a rogue wave took him away, causing him to fall into the cold water. In 2007, Mike Reardon, a solo free climber, fell to his death off a cliff in Ireland. Mike Reardon shares the name of one of the most revered free soloists.

Howell considered Reardon to be a sort of spectral guide. Howell, who was 31 years old, mentioned and wrote about Reardon frequently.

Howell had accomplished numerous free solo ascents throughout the country before making it onto MTV’s Ridiculousness with one of his videos, in which he documented a completely nude free solo ascent while wearing only a cowboy hat and boots.

He had started discussions with a potential filmmaker who wants to make a documentary about his exploits. He has also started attracting a larger following within the booming danger-sport landscape by taking perilous selfies on the edges of cliffs and atop towering skyscrapers, following alongside Free Soloists and paying attention to the growing trend of being paid as a Free Soloist.

Howell got into climbing through a gym-wall during college. After participating in a raffle during an exhibition climbing event, he quickly became a certified lead climber and his life took a new turn. He told me how this led him to discover a whole new world of outdoor climbing. He began going to the gym regularly during that time and excelled, winning safety equipment and a rope.

It was acquiring safety gear that led him into outdoor climbing. It was putting aside that gear that took his life prematurely.