• Sarah Schlaefke

Free solo YOLO?

Topping out on bath Rock for the first time.

One thing I have noticed since I’ve moved west is the immaculate amount of resources there are for alpine safety and climbing learning opportunities around here. This was something scarce or looked over in the Midwest, sadly, since the big national organizations who care about these things don’t have the largest presence there. Another thing I have noticed since I’ve been here, is the vast influence of the climbers around me and how I’ve learned from my time climbing around with the people I’ve met.

This past weekend, I spent my Labor Day holiday in City of Rocks, Idaho with my new friend Fallon. Yes, she’s rad, but that’s a whole other story that I don’t have time to tell at the moment. She’s an Idahoan by blood and certainly would consider City of Rocks her second home. She was psyched to show me around and I was psyched to explore. The trip worked super well.

Upon arrival on Friday, though, she suggested that we free solo, climb without a rope, Bath Rock, which is this nice 200-foot-tall homebase in the middle of the national preserve. I took a look at it and thought, “Oh hell no,” at first, then decided to do some research and reading and looking for myself, only to find that soling Bath Rock is like, one of the most doable things ever. So doable that you can do laps on this thing. Only rated at 5.5, with solid-as-can-be chicken heads and dinner-plate-jugs for holds, Cowboy Route, which runs up the middle of Bath Rock, was easily a favorite route of mine for the weekend.

Upon topping out on my super-easy first free solo, I realized that it was something that I probably would never ever do again. Bath Rock is this odd case where everything is so solid and slabby that it’s pretty much the equivalent of running up the stairs like you used to when you were a kid where you’d use both your hands and feet (I mean, that’s what I did anyways).but thinking about soloing anything else just felt mentally stupid to me.

When pro-climber Alex Honnold talks about his free-soloing endeavors, he has a near-robotic mentality about it. I’ll never forget when he explained at the Reel Rock sneak peek this summer how he felt about the crux move on Freerider, his famously huge solo claim. He talked about being stone solid in every, and I mean EVERY, single move he pulled over the course of his 2900 feet of climbing. He was so solid, that he explained and demonstrated all 18ish moves of the crux section from memory, off the top of his head. He’s crazy talented, which is why free-soloing is ok for him. He has his solo routes memorized like I used to have to memorize Bible verses. And of the sketchier routes, Honnold thinks soloing them is psychotic and a death wish, which you’ll hear him say when you watch the upcoming Reel Rock about Brad Gobright.

Sasha Digiulian has totally different thoughts about this. Maybe. Depends on how you look at it. Anyway, when asked about her opinion on free soloing at a recent talk she did at Petzl here in Salt Lake, she said her stance was, “Absolutely not.” So at a point-blank stand, you can think that Digiulian doesn’t think that the pay-off of free-soloing is worth the risk involved. Or you could look at it that she doesn’t memorize her routes so therefore it’s just a no-way kind of thing. She mentioned that she would rather climb more and try harder with a rope and live than risk climbing hardish without a rope and potentially die doing so. She talked about how her time on the Eiger influenced this a little, too. Either way, she doesn’t free solo. And I can see why.

This kind of goes back to my “nature is bigger than us” argument I laid out a while back in a previous post. But back at City, the morning after we went and scrambled up the side of Bath Rock a second time with some new friends we made (shout out to the Bozeman boys), we got some Wi-Fi and learned that there had been minor earthquakes that shook some of southern Idaho, which is where we essentially were. We didn’t feel them, however, we could have. And we could have been up on the side of that rock without a rope when we could have. This hit me a little hard.

Nature is so much bigger than me. I can’t control how and when a rock breaks. I can’t control if a bat were to fly out at me and scare me. I can’t control if a little kid threw his or her shoe off the top of the rock, over the side and hits me in the head. I can't memorize rock routes. I can’t control when the Earth shakes or when tectonic plates move. Therefore, if I don’t want to die, I can’t free solo.

I’m not heartbroken about this. I’m actually glad I came to this conclusion. And glad that nothing stupid happened to me in the time before I made up my mind on this. I mean honestly, I would rather climb harder and thinner than jug-haul anyway, Al can attest to this. I would rather get stronger, not riskier, with my climbing. But to those of you who do solo, cheers, I’m just not going to do it with you. Because rocks are just bigger than me, I know that full-well.

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