free solo climb

Another day, another dollar. My boss tells me I can leave work an hour early. I am stoked. The air is dry, crisp, the day’s heat is gone, the rock is warm but not condensed, and best of yet, the crag is about to be empty.

The evening is perfect for an attempt at a personal project. I grab only shoes and a chalk bag from the trunk of my car. Running down the trail, I pass two climbers on their way back to the campground. They ask if I’m headed to the ‘gym’; a little bouldering cave. I nod my head and say, “Yup, just a quick session,” and duck away from their eye contact.

I’m a great conversationalist. Utter sarcasm there.

Internally, I’m embarrassed and glad there were no more questions. My plan for the evening is dumb. Like Ralston headed to the desert, I’m ready to cut my arm off.

Twenty feet off the deck, I ponder the ground below me. The landing is unfavorable but survivable. Roots, rocks, and earth slant away from the base with an awkward wooden fence poised to break either legs or ribs or both.

Exhaling a sigh of frustration, I tell myself it doesn’t matter, I am solid.

I rest easily on hand jams with relaxed body-positioning. I breathe deeply and tell myself I can do this. Security is a pleasant feeling. A move more, I lose all faith in my abilities. I freeze.

This is the turning point.

Stress pervades my being and my breathing hastens. Two moves more means down climbing will be uncomfortable, unpleasant, and unwieldy. Three more moves and I can be free of this anxiety. This climb is so easy, so controllable, so many bomber hand jams, but the level of risk I am able to accept is in question.

Months ago, while enjoying a chicken casserole dinner with family, my Mom asked me if I ever climbed without ropes. She had seen the recent news about Alex Honnold’s big wall feat and was curious. What I told her was mostly true; I don’t free solo.

What I didn’t tell her was that I have climbed without a rope. Numerous times. The terrain is always easy but I don’t consider it free soloing. I mean, how can I possibly classify running up Caver’s Route (5.3) without a rope at the Red River Gorge the same as a true free solo?

I’ve shimmied several chimneys, fondled giant chicken-headed routes in Arkansas, topped out tall hand crack boulders without a pad, balanced my way up low-angled slabby five point whatever routes, and more, all without a rope. My confidence in doing these is that the risks are so negligible that they are simple to accept. There is no practice involved, no dialing in the moves, I’m not memorizing beta, I don’t have to inspect for choss or brush holds; I’m simply in control.

We choose to accept risks every day in our activities, whether monotonous or absurdly intentional. Drivers text and Snapchat, seat belts are cast aside, some ingest drugs, drink copious amounts of alcohol, have sloppy unsafe sex, woof down fried foods, and binge-watch seven, ten, or fifteen hours of Netflix a day.

We relish in these despite knowing consequences are there.

Perhaps in the moment, these activities don’t feel as risky as they should. We tell ourselves lies to reward our behaviors. On this early summer evening at the New, I know the risk is there, but why can’t I have my cake and eat it too? This climb is well below my capabilities. I’ve lead it with gear an untold number of times. In this moment, locked into good jams and good feet, I should be able to do this, but perhaps this lie is too blatant.

So many feet off the ground, somewhere in my subconscious, I unknowingly lose control of my confidence. The What If’s appear; dreadful, annoying, and like a snake in the grass, doubt takes over. I’m tuned in but can’t tune it out. My breathing accelerates and that annoying little jitter shows itself.

“Shit,” I think to myself, “I’ve lost it.”

My body language reveals potential failure. Retreat. Humble retreat.

Safely on the ground again, I take stock of the situation. There is something in my mind that I don’t have the ability to control. Taking my climbing shoes off,  I console myself knowing that with more mental training, this solo might happen for me but perhaps not. I don’t free solo, because I can’t. Something in my mind won’t unlock and perhaps never will. I retreat to the bouldering cave for a quick ‘gym’ session and focus on being present in the moment.

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