Risk Tolerance- a free solo story
Last weekend I met a man who lived on the edge. He lived just like he climbed, free solo, nothing to hold him back.
Freedom in the fast lane. Full speed experience and no extra gear to weigh him down. He just lived.
This is the story of how it all went terribly wrong.
I had known Mike for a day when I first saw him free solo. He didn’t just climb any rock, he went four pitches to the top of Icicle Buttress. It’s not a hard route, but it extends hundreds of feet from the ground across four rope pitches.
Mike arrived from his camp across the road and threw his pack down by my car.
“I’m gonna’ go warm up on this real quick” Was all he said before jogging up the approach trail to Icicle Buttress. He blew by the party who was unpacking rope at the bottom and quickly passed the climbers on the first pitch.
Mike moved fast and with a sureness of motion, almost like a wild animal who had lived there his whole life.
Free solo, he quickly passed roped parties who were fiddling with gear and belays. I had to squint to see him pull his way out of a chimney high up on the third pitch.
By now, every person on the climb and all of us below had stopped moving. We all watched. The whole valley had fallen silent. All of us held the same icy breath, tense to the awareness of what it would mean to fall from that height.
But Mike moved with certainty and showed no sign of fear or fault. As he pulled the final hand crack and disappeared over the top, all of Icicle Buttress let out a collective sigh. The trees started to sway again. The birds resumed chirping.
He jogged back down the approach trail minutes later. What takes most parties three to four hours, he had just climbed and descended in about fifteen minutes total. His smile was wide, his stoke was high.
When you see something done, it seems imminently more possible. After all, it really seemed only logical that on an easy climb, going solo is perfectly alright. After watching Mike take on four pitches, what’s one short pitch near the ground?
Mike certainly gained confidence from every route he soloed. He had the distinct awareness that he knew what he could and couldn’t do.
It’s easy to shift your margin of safety when someone around you is willing to go farther than you. We are all susceptible to peer pressure, whether it’s overt or not. How do you reality check what might happen, when all you see is what does happen?
He’s been fine so far, so who am I to say he’s not being safe? Today surely won’t be the day that he falls…
However, in a sport where the risk is that of life and death, poor judgment can easily lead to a fatal mistake. When we lose sight of what the risks are, they have a habit of reminding us. If you’re lucky, you’re reminded before it’s too late.
In the mountains mistakes, miscalculations, and misunderstandings can all lead to very immediate peril. In this sport, the line between life and death is a thin one.
It’s easy to forget that. It’s easy to say ‘today surely won’t be the day that he falls…’
Up to age 25 he had never left his state, never seen the ocean, never seen snow. But after taking what was supposed to be a brief trip to Joshua Tree, Indian Creek, and Zion National Monument, he decided he couldn’t go back. Now, he’s been on the road climbing rocks for two years.
He camps in the woods, builds his own tools, catches his own food, and hitchhikes to town whenever he needs something. He spends his days free soloing on the rock faces of Leavenworth and making new friends along the way. He’s one of the freest people I’ve ever met.
Freedom is a contagious quality. Just a breath of it makes you want more. We all let life hold us back in so many ways and when you meet someone who doesn’t, you want to be like them.
Mike has this quality. There’s something about his deeply soulful smile that’s downright inspiring.
It was midday and the sun was hot above us as we finished the ascent up the Mountaineer’s Buttress.
We had found an inspiring crack that split a granite face right up the middle. At the top, the crack shot out through an overhanging roof for several feet before arching up over the top of the climb.
I set down my gear and took a drink of water as Mike went to check out the climb. Without a rope and having never seen the rock before, he started upwards, carefully jamming his hands and feet in as he moved closer and closer to the roof.
Sweat beaded up on my forehead as I squinted through the sun.
With each passing moment we all grew more silent. The sounds of the mountain faded away as we watched intently. ‘Surely, today won’t be the day that he falls…’
We should have known when his left hand first slipped out of his hold as he tried the crux move. He should have known. But he jammed it back into the slippery crack, looking for purchase. It wasn’t working, so he brought his feet down and backed off for a moment.
He should have realized that he was past the limit, he should have heard a voice telling him to stop there and back off. We should have told him to come down and rope up. But none of those things happened.
He jammed his hand further into the crack and swung his left leg back up high over the roof. By now, he was completely horizontal and moving upwards over his handholds.
He lunged his left hand higher, searching for the next hold. It was incredible, he had managed it, his whole body was over the roof.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
His left hand slipped out, his weight shifted onto his lower hand. This put his shoulders behind his hips and tipped him critically off balance. His hand hold was too low and his foot was too high.
I saw it all in ultra slow motion. He started to tip backwards. He knew it. I knew it. Time stopped as though mother nature herself knew it.
He had gone too far.
Then Mike fell, from the highest point on the route. He hit the rocks right below the roof first and then picked up speed as he slid down the near vertical face directly at me. He skipped off of two more protrusions in the rock before free falling the final ten feet.
His feet took the final impact, directly into a rock at the base. Had it not been there, he might have fallen further down the side of the mountain.
It seemed like he had been falling for fifteen or twenty seconds in my awareness but the whole thing lasted only moments.
Just a split second’s difference between a daring accomplishment and a deadly mistake.
Mike was incredibly lucky, it wasn’t his day to die. He hobbled away from a fall that should have killed him. He got his slap in the face and then some, but he’s still alive.
Right now, Mike is down at his camp by the river. He built crutches out of sticks. There he’ll have plenty of time to heal in solitude, to think about what happened, and to consider his free solo career. Hopefully he thinks the right thoughts.
I certainly walked away with a new awareness of reality though. The choices we make can take us to wonderful places but they can also leave us there to die.
Every moment in the mountains is a responsibility, to ourselves, to our party, and to everyone else in our lives.
Choose your companions wisely. If one of you goes down out there, you’ll all find yourselves in the same boat. I was lucky and didn’t have to helplessly watch as my friend bled out in the mountains. But I certainly won’t be letting anyone go free solo with me ever again.
In the wilderness, we take care of each other, and sometimes that’s done by speaking up. I know that I have good judgement. The next time one of my friends doesn’t, I’ll tell them. Because now I know how it feels to stare death in the face.
We were all lucky to learn that lesson once. Once is enough, and it’s more than most get.
Stay safe this summer, wherever your path takes you. Exercise caution in the wilderness and be grateful for your health and happiness.
Don’t free solo. Leave that to Honnold.
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