Taking an extreme sport from obscurity to the mainstream media on your own is no easy task. However, that’s exactly what Alex Honnold accomplished with his jaw-dropping ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan, documented in 2018’s “Free Solo.”
Since the release of the film, free soloing has received a lot more attention. The risks associated with the sport are every bit as real as they were before Honnold’s incredible story was shared with the public, and for many new soloists, there’s a lot to learn.
Here are some of the most important things to keep in mind before trying it.
1. Break Down Your Weaknesses
Alex Honnold himself talks about his approach to training by focusing on the areas where he’s weakest. For example, he did a great deal of bouldering to build the massive physical strength needed to become a successful climber. Honnold might not be someone you think of as weak now, but early in his climbing career, physical strength was a legitimate weakness.
Having the foresight to understand how important it is to bring a full set of tools to a free solo means being honest about where you need to improve and then having the conviction to do it. A laser focus on the things you want to change will change your weaknesses to strengths.
2. Practice Makes Perfect
A free solo climb is the sort of thing you want to have down to muscle memory by the time you attempt it. That means you’ll want to climb the route many times with gear before you even consider a free solo.
First, though, you’ll need to begin in the climbing gym. You should boost the demands of your exercise by 10 percent each week. Developing a strong set of basic skills and good physical fitness is the first step before any climb and will be critical for a successful free solo.
3. Don’t Just Get to the Top
You’ve probably seen the colored tape that demarcates routes of different difficulties in your local climbing gym. These are important techniques to master that will make a free climb more accessible.
If you only focus on making it to the top of the route, you’ll be inclined to take the easiest way. A training gym is a place where you can improve yourself. Getting the most out of it means having the discipline to learn new techniques even if there’s a simpler way up.
Challenge yourself with more technical routes, work boulder problems and do your fingerboard training. Even by doing things as simple as eating right and getting enough sleep, you’ll be putting the pieces in place to have a successful free climb.
4. Know When to Go Down
Free soloing is extremely dangerous, in case you hadn’t already registered that. By the time you’re in trouble, there’s not much you can do about it. That means you’ve got to be courageous when you embark on a free solo climb, and that could mean deciding to turn around and go down.
Honnold himself makes a botched attempt at El Cap in “Free Solo” during a climb that appears to be going well. The scale of his solo route is more than anything you would begin your free solo climbing career on, but the dynamic is the same.
All it takes for a disaster to strike is a very small shift in your physical or mental aptitude, so if you feel that happening, go back. It’s not worth the risk.
Climb at Your Own Pace
The wisdom accumulated in the climbing community over decades could fill volumes. What we’ve gathered here are just a few helpful tips intended to get new climbers started on the right foot when they consider free climbing.
Don’t be in a hurry if you’re still developing your skills as a traditional climber, because there are lots of challenging routes and new skills to learn without the risk.