Rock climbing has definitely hit the mainstream—a recent documentary about a skinny, socially-awkward climber with a death wish won an Oscar. A frickin’ Oscar. Which means either it was a ridiculously good documentary (it’s… fine), or documentarians are dropping the ball in a huge way. Seems like there are important global conflicts to explain, corrupt politicians to embarrass, greedy corporations to expose, but yeah… dudes climbing rocks without ropes is really important, too. The reason Free Solo captured the hearts and minds of critics and the mainstream, however, is easy to explain: scaling massive cliffs in total control of body, mind, and spirit looks super cool. But as we all know, looks can be deceiving. Here’s how expectations stack up to reality.
You’re 100 feet off the ground, with a gentle, refreshing breeze swirling and soft dusk light streaming across the high peaks. An eagle soars overhead. You feel engaged, but relaxed; challenged, but confident; thrilled by the exposure, but not scared by it; on the edge, but in the zone. You feel strong—like you could hang onto the wall for hours. You size up the moves ahead and formulate a plan as if playing chess; every move is considered, until the perfect sequence reveals itself. As you move up, you calmly clip your rope to conveniently-placed protection and savor each incremental success. Standing on dime edges and locking your fingers into improbable seams, you float elegantly up the wall, pausing only to take in the views and make witty quips to your attentive partner, who occasionally shouts back earnest encouragement. Climbing is the best!
You’re 100 feet off the ground, with violent gusts throwing off your balance and blinding midday sun in your eyes. There’s a vulture circling overhead. You feel rushed and panicked; overwhelmed by the exposure and terrified of falling—never have you been so out of your element. HUMANS WEREN’T MEANT FOR THIS! You feel the strength leaving your fingers, and both legs tremble with effort. Sweat drips from every pore, only worsening your tenuous grip on the greasy rock. You lunge for the next hold and hope there’ll be another. There’s no plan here, just desperation. You try to clip your rope to the next critical piece of protection, but feel as though the effort is going to pitch you into oblivion. Stiffly, you stretch for a new foothold—a movement that from afar evokes arthritis more than elegance. You slip and scream (just a little) and then swear (loudly), at which point your partner, who has been checking Instagram while inattentively feeding out ten feet of excess rope, shouts up that he’s bored, and to “hurry up, you whining little ninny.” Then you fall—which is exactly as terrifying as it sounds. The rope (eventually) catches you, but not before you slam into the rock wall. And the reward? A bloody knee and a chance to climb back up the impossible face you just fell down, and try again. Climbing is the worst…