Climbing Alone: Self Reliance, Making Calls, and Bailing Solo
Hollow. Not the sound I wanted to hear as I tapped my palm against a giant block of granite teetering above me. The sound rang deep and flat, and I could hear it echoing behind the stone.
That’s not what solid sounds like.
I looked down, through my legs, and past my climbing shoes balancing on little edges. My eyes followed my rope through a few pieces of protection and down to the anchor that I was belaying myself from.
I was scared. The loose block, about the size of a mini fridge, would kill me if I pulled on it the wrong way, dislodging it and taking me with it. But it blocked my path up. I looked from side to side and the walls were blank. If I was going up, I’d have to commit to climbing the crack between the block and the solid granite wall.
“It’s during these moments I wish I had a partner,” I said, but nobody heard me. I was all alone, talking to myself.
There I was, on the side of Warbonnet Peak, in Wyoming’s Cirque of the Towers—a group of prominent granite spires rising over beautiful alpine meadows and lakes in the Wind River Range—all alone. I was using a technique called rope soloing, allowing me to climb alone with the protection of a rope in case of a fall.
Why? Solo climbing is an act that requires self-reliance, and I love that about it. It’s a demonstration of independence in a pure, challenging, and rewarding position.
Rope soloing added to the challenge of the climb by removing all the benefits of climbing with a partner. First, I had to carry all of the gear alone, without a partner to split the load. Then, I had to do each pitch three times—once to lead it while belaying myself off an anchor at the bottom of each pitch; then, after building a new anchor at the top of the pitch, I had to rappel to remove the bottom anchor; and finally, I had to reclimb the pitch, self-belaying up the rope fixed to the top anchor, to clean all of the protection I placed when leading the pitch. Physically, climbing alone is much more demanding than climbing with a partner. But the most challenging part, for me, is the mental aspect. Without anyone else to consult, all of the decision-making, in a rather high-consequence mountain environment, was up to me.
For some, soloing might sound like more work than it’s worth. For an introvert, like me, it’s amazing. The peace and concentration I find while alone in the mountains is unmatched.
The route I was attempting up Warbonnet had never been climbed before. If completed, it would have been an aesthetic variation to the first few pitches on the classic ?Feather Buttress?. But as I reached that terrifying loose block, I faced a difficult decision—either climb up the loose block and risk pulling it down onto me, or bail.
Two things have almost killed me in the mountains: lightning and rockfall. I learned my lesson about rockfall long before. The decision to turn around, though sad, made the most sense. I placed two pieces of protection and rappelled down.
I felt a heavy weight of defeat as I packed my bag and prepared to hike back to my car. It was the first week of September 2019, summer was drawing to a close, and I just had my fourth “unsuccessful” attempt at a big solo climb in a row. I had set some goals for that summer hoping to push myself on solo climbs. I had many successes climbing moderates alone in the past, and I was ready to go bigger. But the hardest part of pushing myself was accepting that I’d have to ride close to the line of failure to even have a chance at success.
It was a frustrating summer—I also bailed on a solo attempt at the East Face of Brenta Spire in Bugaboo Provincial Park when the snow on the approach was in a dangerous condition; I bailed off a solo attempt at the Diamond on Longs Peak when an old back injury flared up; I bailed off a solo attempt at a new route on Watch Tower in the Cirque of the Towers after I encountered seams that would’ve required very small pitons, which I did not have with me, to protect. Things kept going wrong. In a way, that’s what climbing in the mountains is about. It’s risky, but the challenge and the thrill comes from mitigating risk. When things go wrong, a climber needs to be able to solve problems. My experience after years of big adventures, some alone and many with partners, allowed me to face problems on my own. Even though I failed to complete those four climbs, I succeeded in managing hazards and getting down in one piece.
This isn’t a story about success in the traditional sense. I don’t have a story about making it to the top of the world’s greatest climb. But I’m well versed in getting scared, staying calm, and dealing with decisions that carry vital consequences.
As with all kinds of climbing, there are two approaches to soloing: through luck or through risk management and skill. Despite the risky appearances of my journeys into the mountains, I don’t like taking a lot of risk. I don’t trust my luck enough. That doesn’t mean I don’t take ?any? risks or face ?any? hazards. I take precautions to keep objective hazards—things like rockfall, avalanches,
or bad weather—far away from subjective hazards—like my ego, a lack of planning, or a lack of training. That’s risk management.
The alpine climbing scene is drunk on the “fast and light” Kool Aid. This style of climbing advocates carrying a minimal amount of gear, decreasing risk margins, to reduce chances of fatigue and move quickly through the mountains. But climbing alone should not rely on cutting the margin so thin that I’m left relying on luck up there. It’s about finding the balance between cutting weight so I can physically do something solo while also ensuring that I have the tools to survive if things don’t go as planned. That’s skill. It takes practice to master, and every time I make it down, even without summiting, is a day of practice that I’m grateful for.
I can’t measure my attempts at big solo climbs this past summer in summits, or first ascents, or personal records. But instead, I can measure how far I pushed my personal limits, and I can say I found big adventures but still kept myself grounded enough to have another shot at all of those routes in the future. That’s success.