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The Choss Pile: The Benefits of Climbing Alone

COVID-19 continues to give all of us a chance to embrace the solo life, which isn’t always a bad thing. There is lots to learn from climbing alone.

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I haven’t roped up with anyone since February. I’m taking COVID-19 relatively seriously, and I don’t know anyone that’s keeping as close a circle as I am (my parents and my girlfriend are the only people I’ve spent time around without a mask since March), so I’ve just chosen not to climb with anyone. I have health issues and other reasons for taking the virus so seriously, so I imagine not many folks are in my situation, but regardless, the pandemic makes finding climbing partners trickier than the usual post on Mountain Project or bulletin board at the gym.

When most of us think of solo climbing we begin to think of compromises in safety, and while it is more efficient and safer to climb with a partner, there are plenty of opportunities for relatively safe solo climbing, from rope soloing to bouldering. So in lieu of a partner I’ve been climbing alone, scrambling peaks and bouldering, and I’ve improved in ways as a climber that I don’t think I ever would have with a partner.

Climbing exists in a weird middle zone between solo and team sport. When you’re leading a pitch you’re climbing the wall alone, obviously, but a good belayer is still integral to success and safety. Most of us, I assume, don’t climb alone very often. We have a climbing partner or a few partners, and we rope up with them regularly.

When we’re with partners though, we can hide from ourselves without knowing it. Our thoughts and opinions can get melded in with those of our partner(s), and we can find ourselves halfway up a route we don’t feel comfortable on, running out a pitch we shouldn’t, or consequently, spending all day on climbs that bore us senseless. Furthermore, with partners we have a constant sounding board. Teams can discuss decisions, deciding on the most logical approach, the one that makes the most sense to the group. When climbing alone, all our choices have to be 100% sound. There is no one to bounce ideas off of.

Many climbing relationships (at least all the ones I’ve had) exist as a sort of yin-yang. There’s a bolder climber and a safer climber. There’s someone who does well in cracks and someone who does well on faces. One person who leads slightly more pitches than the other.

But in order to spend time in the mountains climbing alone, you have to cultivate both yin and yang inside yourself. A solo climber with a reckless ego will soon be a dead climber. A solo climber with a meek spirit won’t ever see a summit. Are you going to continue along the ridge line or turn back, as thunderclouds approach? Are you going to take the more exposed, easier line, or the less exposed, more difficult one? In being alone, many of us have to learn to make decisions in a manner we’ve never had to, if we’ve spent our entire careers with partners.

There’s no one to keep us from our thoughts, no one to raise our morale (or lower it), no one to provide aid if we get injured. Climbing alone is an exercise in self-sufficiency, both physically and mentally. It forces you to reckon with yourself, to be able to sit quietly in a tent or on a wall or on a crashpad and get your thoughts in check. It can lead to a more genuine climbing experience, too. There’s no one to impress, no one to disappoint. No one shouting “Come on!” or “I got you!” There’s just you.

I went up to traverse the Crestones and hike Humboldt Peak in the Sangres on Saturday, and I met a few guys at South Colony Lakes. We got to talking about the coronavirus (from a distance), and I mentioned how many people I’d noticed getting outdoors as a result. “Yeah,” one guy said glumly, pushing his hair back from his face. “I mean, what else is there to do?”

I looked around. The jagged mass of Crestone Needle loomed behind us. It was 70 degrees and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Rays of sunlight were sparkling off the surface of the lake like a thousand little diamonds. What else is there to do? Are you serious?

There are plenty of silver linings in the COVID-19 situation, if you take the time to look, and getting some quality time with yourself in the mountains is definitely one of them.

The Choss Pile is published every Thursday.

Owen Clarke, 23, is a climber and writer currently based in a hotel in Colorado. He also writes for The Outdoor Journal. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fish tacos, and is afraid of heights. 

Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.