Yearning Hearts: Inside the Minds of Free Soloists

Climbing
Matt Bush after making the fifth ballet position on the wall. Photo: Matt Bush

Climbing without ropes or a harness is not madness. Using only climbing shoes and magnesium, free soloing is the purest and most dangerous way to climb. Only a few are capable of it.

Matt Bush free solos in Rocklands, South Africa. Photo: Matt Bush

Pure Climbing

To free solo is to feel close to nature, attached to the rock, and to experience a whiff of absolute freedom. It is art. But it is a long learning process, involving both physical and mental training. The price to pay for the slightest failure is life itself.

Steph Davis free solos “Outer Limits” in Yosemite National Park. Photo: Dean Fidelman

What is happening in a free soloist’s head? How do they prepare? How do they manage fear? How are they able to stand on a vertical wall, where any slip spells death?

After the unforgettable movie Free Solo, where Alex Honnold took on El Capitan, free soloing has gained international attention. Here, we examine the experiences of three other excellent free solo climbers: Matt Bush, Steph Davis, and Alexander Huber.

Yearning for freedom

“For me, climbing solo is the most intense way to face the rock,” wrote Alexander Huber in his book Free Solo: Climbing without protection and without limits. “Evolving on the rock in such a free way is an incredible feeling. It is moving into another reality, in a space between being and not being, in which consciousness is so deep that one believes, out of sheer tension, to hear the air crackling. That is why climbing free solo has much more introspection than ascension.”

Alexander Huber on “Kommunist” in Schleier, Austria. Photo: Heinz Zak

Free soloing is a way of life. Climbing walls is beyond reason, but for many, it is a form of self-improvement and the ultimate release. Not depending on any protection is next level.

”My freedom means everything to me,” writes American climber, BASE jumper, and wingsuit pilot Steph Davis. “For me, that was the whole point of being a climber and disappearing into the itinerant lifestyle. I wanted to mind my own business and climb rocks. Eat some soup in the back of my truck at night with my dog ​​and wake up when the sun rose again.” Davis considers free soloing the ultimate in personal freedom.

Steph Davis climbs “Pervertical Sanctuary” on the Longs Peak Diamond. Photo: Brian Kimball

Personal choice

Within the climbing community, free soloing fascinates some and is a taboo subject for others. They think that it’s better not to mention free soling for fear of inciting others to take unnecessary risks. For this reason, many free soloists avoid discussing it. Their free solo climbs are deeply personal acts.

Some admire free solo climbing and dream of being able to feel the same sensation of absolute control of body and mind. The perfect harmony of purity and silence. But this does not mean that they are going to head out and do it too.

Matt Bush, the South African climber who free solos 80 percent of the time, does not want to offer free soloing advice. He prefers not to encourage others. He doesn’t want to be responsible for what other people do.

“I ask myself, what would I do if I lived my life without limits? The answer is, free solo,” Bush said of his decision to start free soloing.

Matt Bush doing the human flag in Cederberg, South Africa. Photo: Matt Bush

Steph Davis also views the danger as a personal choice, something she is happy to accept. She describes commitment and responsibility in her book High Infatuation:

”For me, the thought of getting hit by icefall or falling from a rock face are totally acceptable possibilities. The idea of being hurt by a person is not. It always surprises me to hear people talk about climbing being dangerous. I have always felt safest alone on the side of a hard-to-reach wall or a mountain. Although I understand that I could die in the mountains, I trust the hand of nature, and I know it will do me no harm.”

The point of no return

The point of no return is that stage of a route from which it is no longer possible to climb down. From here, there is only one option: climb to the top. Free soloists often pre-test their routes with ropes. But sometimes they increase the level of commitment and climb onsight, that is, they free solo on the first attempt. The height of the point of no return varies, it might be 10m off the ground, or it might be 80m.

At the point of no return, if the climber decides to continue, they have to be in a strong psychological state, free of fear, and with the self-confidence to finish the route. Managing fear is vital. If fear grips you after the point of no return, you can only save yourself if you resolve the problem in the moment.

Alexander Huber free solos the Hasse Brandler Direttisima on Cima Grande in the Dolomites. Photo: Alexander Huber Collection

In an interview with Mojagear, Matt Bush described dealing with pressure: “I listen to my feelings. If there is pressure, then I am not in the right spirit for free soloing. I reason with myself that there is no point of free soloing when it is not free.”

Alexander Huber stresses the importance of a calm mind when evaluating a climb: “The most important amulet is my brain, I always have that amulet with me, it was given to me by my parents and I will try to keep it until the end of my life.”

Two different types of fear

In his book, Fear: Your Best Friend, Huber suggests facing your fears and making them your allies. Fear can also help us to stop and can ensure survival.

Matt Bush defines two different types of fear while free soloing. First, there is fear that can appear from a sudden strong wind, from rockfall, rain, or a surprise wildlife encounter. This fear reaction helps you react quickly and can be used to control a dangerous situation.

The second, and worst fear, is when you get stuck on the route: ”[This is] the most dangerous [fear] because it exists only in the mind,” wrote Bush. “Once, I was free soloing and I had the thought that the rock was loose and could come down at any moment. This triggered the emotion of fear in my body and I became stuck on the wall. For a moment, the fear immobilized me…but then I realized it was all in my mind. I took a breath and commanded myself to relax and climb on.”

Matt Bush in Cape Town. Photo: Micky Wiswedel

While free soloing on Castleton Tower in Utah, Steph Davis almost lost her balance. Before starting to climb, she had forgotten to roll up her trousers. Later, already at a considerable height, this came back to haunt her.

”I crossed my left foot over my right leg, walking my body to the right, and my right foot stepped on my loose pant leg.”

She struggled to control her body but kept moving to get out of the position before it was too late. In her book Learning to Fly, she wrote:

”I sat down [on a ledge] and rolled up my pants. I felt drained. Two more hard sections awaited me, one of each pitch above. I could not afford to make any more mistakes like that. I sat for a long time, with my back to the wall, looking out at the desert towers and walls out in the distance. The sky seemed to be clearing slightly. I stood up and put my hands into the crack, stepped my feet off the ledge, and started up.”

Castleton Tower, a 120m pillar in the Utah desert. Davis free soloed the North Face in 2008. Photo: Krystle Wright

Alexander Huber had been preparing to free solo the ”Kommunist” route for some time (8b+ in Wilder Kaiser, Tirol, Austria). His first few attempts failed and he decided to climb down. He waited two weeks for the perfect moment to try again. But, when the perfect day arrived, a hiker appeared. Huber had not wanted a witness but approached the hiker and asked him to record the ascent. The hiker enthusiastically accepted. Strangely, the bond with the unknown hiker relaxed Huber. “I was convinced that I would not fall. But you never know 100%. That pinch of potential danger is the essence of mountaineering and climbing.”

Art and the flow experience

Free soloing is an art. Steph Davis says that it combines dance with power. When a climber begins to ascend, the outside world recedes and they only live in the present moment, reaching a state of maximum concentration. Steph wrote about this flow experience before starting a free solo climb:

“I sit below the crack. Red desert. I put a flower barrette in my hair, like an offering, and stand at the base. Ropeless, I feel naked yet free, as pure as the crack. I breathe deeply. I fix my eyes, hands, and feet into the stone and let my breaths lead me up. Everything becomes a perfect line, we move altogether. Fear is an unknown concept. I am not alone here. I am not even me. I am one more strand, weaving into the rhythm.”

Matt Bush describes his preparation and flow:

“Every route is a choreography for me, a creation, an art form, it is my creative expression. I see myself as an artist and I paint with movement on nature’s canvas. It can become very easy to be fixated upon a goal and to forget to enjoy the process to get there. Sometimes I just stop and take in the world around me…it’s breathtaking. On my journey, I am confronted with difficult sections on the rock and sometimes I feel it impossible…Slowly but surely, it all comes together like pieces of a puzzle.”

There’s an incredible picture of Matt Bush during a free solo. He perches, on a narrow ledge, with his back to the wall. We asked him how he got into that position.

Matt Bush after making the fifth ballet position on the wall. Photo: Matt Bush

Bush says that he first visualized the maneuver in his mind. Then, with careful balance and maximum concentration, while facing the rock, he did the fifth ballet position, turning one foot 180˚ to face out, then transitioned to both heels.

“And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music.” – Friedrich Nietzsche

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About the Author

Kris Annapurna

Kris Annapurna

@KrisAnnapurna reports about outdoor activities, current expeditions, and stories related to the history of mountaineering in the Karakorum, Himalaya, Tien Shan, and other ranges.

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Don Paul
Don Paul
1 month ago

Free soloing is addictive. I got into it for a while when I was climbing every day. Sometimes you can’t find a partner, but if you go soloing you’ll have the most intense experience you could want. No one ever took a picture of me free soloing and most of my friends didn’t like it. At some point I decided I was pushing my luck and it was time to stop. I’m glad I did.

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Last edited 1 month ago by Don Paul
Kieran
Kieran
1 month ago
Reply to  Don Paul

It’s addictive; however, for me, I stopped after I slipped while climbing on easy trad (HVS, 4C) that was 5x easier than the grade I free soloed (E6, 6b) – I thought to myself, lucky I never slipped free soloing. I honestly wouldn’t recommend it, even though it does make you feel alive and peaceful – just not worth it.

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Datong Lese
Datong Lese
1 month ago

I don’t understand the account of how Bush got into that position on the ledge. Can you please clarify it?

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Sheri
Sheri
1 month ago
Reply to  Datong Lese

I’m not entirely sure how he did it, but this is the position his feet were in facing the wall:
https://images.app.goo.gl/8AHLdtwWiAqnw8k98
It probably doesn’t help much but it’s all I got.

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Aardvark
Aardvark
1 month ago

Bold climbers or old climbers. Do they even teach that anymore?

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Arle anderson
Arle anderson
1 month ago

Years ago when climbing by myself in Joshua tree which I did a lot I free soloed many high Boulder problems and a few in other places. It was never planed , it happened when it felt right.

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