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What in the F#&k Were You Thinking? – Editor’s Note #247

RI's editor Francis Sanzaro thinks about the effects on everyday climbing culture as free soloing has trickled into the mainstream and become more normalized.

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Free soloists atop the Third Flatiron, Boulder, CO. Photo: Michael Levy.

Third Flatiron, Boulder, Colorado. I think I was wearing sweatpants. The super baggy kind that slip below your shoes so when you high step on a sloping ledge you have a nice little friction surprise between your shoes and the stone—perfect threads for a 14-year-old to solo the Third Flatiron, in midday July heat, after climbing for less than a year.

“Hey Pete, how you feeling man?” Pete, my partner in crime, was just 10 feet or so below me. He peered up and shit-grinned, tossing his blond skater flop out of his eyes. Heaven, Pete indicated without words. We were both about 400 feet off the deck, crimping, crawling and reaching for one bad idea after another. Sean, the 20-something instructor who brought us here, was somewhere above, irresponsibly swimming around on jugs, not worried about us.

Apparently Pete felt solid, not sure why, and not sure he would have fessed up otherwise, but I know why I felt safe—I had a cam clipped to my sweatpants. I found it at the base. If I got scared, I would just find a crack and plug the thing in. I was invincible now. Pull the trigger, stick it in, and you’re good.

***

As the writer of our accident report, why am I recalling a teenage lapse of reason on the third flat, when, if you know me, I clearly could have chosen a more idiotic episode from my adulthood? … like that time I helped a stranger carry smuggled jewels out of Burma. The answer: I almost was an accident report.

Recently, the Flatirons have been the site of two unfortunate accidents. On October 26th, Erik Kleiber fell unroped to his death on the First Flatiron. On August 6th, 17-year-old Carter Christensen was found unresponsive, also unroped, below the First Flatiron.

Free soloing might be entering mainstream in a pseudo trickle-down effect, from Honnold’s National Geographic cover on the Thank God ledge on Half Dome to #yolofreesolo, with the results being (i) increasing participation of beginner climbers who are not ready to handle the demands of soloing; (ii) dulling of the perception that, at some point on any solo, you are playing Russian roulette; (iii) heightening misperception of it being a thing climbers casually do. And yet the publishing “we” have done little to censor its imagery. Not that we should.

Soloing is an open sore in the climbing community, whose red blood cells have to wrangle the parents whose daughters and sons discover climbing … the claim it is an essential (and historical) component to climbing … the romantic myth of the unencumbered climber … the people who have to (literally) pick up the pieces of a dead soloist’s life … the claim that climbing is freedom and soloing is freedom and we should do what we want. Multiple truths have no simple explanation.

***

Pete and I topped out the Third Flat just fine. But 20 years later, I keep wanting to ask the guy who brought us there—What in the fuck were you thinking? Clearly, his life had fallen apart, since the idea to take two novice teenage boys on a 1,300-foot soloing mission was an atrocious display of judgment, and if only he had made two more decisions like that, which I’m sure he did, he’d likely be in jail or the hospital … but that day on the flat got me hooked on climbing, for better or worse. Soloing isn’t wrong, just wrong when you aren’t ready.