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Free-Soloing for Profit: A Professor’s Take on Solo Climbing Culture

So, why am I down on Free Solo? Peter Croft nailed it in an interview on the Enormocast, saying that soloing was, for him, an intimate expression of skill and risk. “Too personal” to share and “too important to have it filmed”

Canadian rock climber David Keith is a Gordon McKay professor of applied physics at Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a Harvard Kennedy School graduate. His story “Free-Soloing for Profit” was published in a recent issue of Gripped.

I am pissed about Free Solo. Pissed that Alex Honnold now defines climbing for so many. Pissed that Free Solo made it to the multiplex (perhaps) sinking the film Dawn Wall’s chances.

But I’m not pissed off about soloing. Soloing can be a beautiful act—the pure expression of mental focus and skilled movement over rock. Everyone who’s done some trad or mountaineering has dabbled in soloing: it’s a sliding scale from runout to soloing when on loose 4th class or far above marginal gear. And many climbers, perhaps mostly men and mostly folks into trad or mountaineering, have done some deliberate soloing. I have vivid memories of soloing some 5.9 in the Gunks early one October morning in the mid-80s. I was gaining confidence as a new climber. I knew the route. I was fresh. The rock was dry bombproof quartzite. The chance of falling was essentially zero. That solo helped lock-in my confidence that I could move with smooth precision on easy ground.

It’s not about the risk. Lots of hard Alpine may be riskier than Honnold’s solo of Freerider. A few decades ago, the death rate for people pushing the limits of Alpine style on 8,000-metre peaks was estimated at about 1 in 30. (These ratios are fuzzy: the numerator is easy—we know who dies—but the denominator is impossible to estimate accurately as there is no crisp accounting of attempts). But I can easily accept that Honnold’s chances of falling off Freerider were less than 1 in 30.

It’s not free-soloing that gets under my skin, it’s doing it for profit. Soloing for eyeballs. For me, it’s personal. In ’92 I lived at Fran Bagnall and Crusher Bartlett’s house in Boulder along with Derek Hersey. Derek was a famous soloist of the day. It’s tempting to write that he was the Honnold of the day, but that comparison is all-but-meaningless given how climbing has changed as it exploded into mainstream commercial reality. My most vivid memories of Derek are over Christmas. With other housemates away, we drank beer whilst (if I can sneak in an appropriate British-ism) listening to Sex Pistols, Nirvana, and the Cure. Derek made us chips (aka French fries) from scratch in an old fry-pot. Derek, who had once soloed the Diamond on Long’s peak three times in a day, was working on a winter roped solo of that face and, on a whim, hiked up to the summit alone one icy day that Christmas week.

Derek died that spring soloing The Steck/Salathe in Yosemite. A rainstorm.

Almost three decades later climbing inspires me more than ever. I’m a 57-year-old workaholic professor. Yet it’s the life in the big outdoors that moves me most. And these days it’s climbing again. I’m stoked that I sent a bunch of 5.12s this summer. Though I came of age in the bolt wars of the 1980s when tee shirts proclaimed “Sport climbing is neither,” but I now like sport. And this year I am back to some multi-pitch trad on the big walls overlooking my house in Canmore. I like trad and alpine, but there is no avoiding the dice-rolling aspect, so sport might be more the old man’s game. Heck, there are folks over 60 doing 5.14s.

Derek’s death still burns me. Regret that even for him soloing was mixed up with fame and his shot at earning a living. A picture of him soloing the Diamond hangs on my wall as I write this. Later that spring Fran and I did an easy solo on one of the flatirons. No discussion, just a little memorial to demonstrate our respect for Derek’s choices.

So, why am I down on Free Solo? Peter Croft nailed it in an interview on the Enormocast, saying that soloing was, for him, an intimate expression of skill and risk; “too personal” to share and “too important to have it filmed.” Croft asks, “If you were getting together with the love of your life for the first time and someone says do you want to do a sex video? Are you good with that?” (Episode 81 starting at 62:00)

I am disappointed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Vasarhelyi, Solo’s directors. Their op-ed and op-doc in the New York Times obfuscated hard questions about their responsibly. Chin and Vasarhelyi argue that they simply documented without interference or encouragement. This is sophistry. In an Enormocast interview Honnold makes it clear that he did a repeat of the dangerous friction slab sequence to suit the film crew. It’s not possible for me to believe that fame, and fame amplified by film, didn’t influence his decisions. If you want a terrific mountain film, look at Chin and Vasarhelyi’s Meru.

What sets Honnold apart and what makes Free Solo, so watchable is not his skill as a climber but his willingness to take risks. It is an amazing mastery. I salute him for it. But if it’s just about the thrill of watching someone risk death, why not have gymnasts do bar routines over boiling oil? At least the wingsuit folks are doing something where there is no roped alternative. I am burned that the one climber that non-climbers ask about Honnold not folks like Ondra, or a Laura Rogora who just sent a 5.15b at 19 years old.

Maybe I’m just old, but I long for a world where people solo in private, and don’t talk about it much. That world is gone along with the world where seemingly regular folks didn’t post videos of themselves having sex. Maybe being pissed about Free Solo is quaint. An affectation of a social-media troglodyte. But, recalling the conversational pub-culture that Derek and his Brit friends imported to Boulder, I suspect something is lost. It’s a choice. We can’t go backwards, but climbing culture (and others) can still choose a different path.