My First Free Solo
By Owen Clarke
“Sup killa,” Flax said. He threw me a salute.
He was working a route to the left of mine, and was leaned back in his harness as I approached the fourth bolt. I clipped and called down to Red, who was sagging on the other end of the rope, his back against a tree stump, eating malt balls.
“Take!” I said.
“Lazy bastard!” he yelled up.
With Red holding your rope, climbing was at its most perilous. He’d catch you eventually (at least, he always had before). The question was how long it would take him.
“How’s it going?” I said to Flax.
The route he was on was 5.12a. Flax preferred spending his day working one hard route to knocking out eight easy ones.
“Bono,” said Flax.
“Means ‘good’ in Italian.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“My dad. He’s watched some programs on it. Reckons he can speak as good as a native.”
I peered up at the next section, which was slightly overhung. Several daddy long-legs crawled horizontally across the rock.
I called down to Red. “Alright Red, I’m rolling.”
I moved up the rock. I reached high, searching the horizontal seam above for something to jam my fingers into. A few daddy long-legs scattered from the opening. I cringed back, but found a hold as my left hand was about to give out. Boom. I pulled myself up over the lip and stuck my right leg out, trying to snag a heel hook on the edge. Higher. Higher. Inches from landing it. There was a ripping noise. I lost my grip and hurtled downward. The rope tightened and I hit the wall sideways. I hung there for a moment.
Red yelled up to me. I wasn’t sure what he’d said. I felt looser. Lighter. Breezy. That’s when I looked down and realized I’d ripped the seat out of my pants.
I was wearing a pair of my dad’s shoddy, canvas work pants. The material felt thick as hell, but I guess they weren’t made to stretch. And when I say ‘ripped the seat out’, I’m not talking little patch in the butt, I’m talking full fucking semicircle. It hit that seam and blew the damn thing wide open.
“To make matters worse, the plaid print of a pair of boxers wasn’t what was showing through the tear in my pants. As I often had lately, I’d left my underwear at home and gone commando”
To make matters worse, the plaid print of a pair of boxers wasn’t what was showing through the tear in my pants. As I often had lately, I’d left my underwear at home and gone commando. This was in an attempt to follow the advice of Tom Marks, a pock-faced kid in the grade above who’d told me not wearing underwear would toughen up my instrument and help me last longer in bed with girls. Obviously, I hadn’t come close to having a use for Tom’s advice yet, and part of me called bullshit, but I figured it couldn’t hurt to be ahead of the curve.
So, I was on full display for the audience below. Luckily, said audience was just my flabby friend Red and the guy belaying Flax, some French dude named Pony, who Flax had met online and who spoke very little English.
Red and Pony were laughing. Red was shrieking, actually. He had this obnoxious, braying-donkey-style laugh.
“Just lower me, asshole.”
“No way,” Red called. “This is classic, man. Too classic! I’m tying you off and going to get a camera from the car. Me and Pony got a perfect view from down here.”
“No!” I yelled. “Red. No. Lower me, dude!”
But Red had already tied me off to a tree and was heading back down the trail to the parking lot.
“Red!” I yelled again. “Red! Come back!”
He didn’t turn around.
“What’s the deal?” Flax called.
He was fifteen feet above me now. I leaned back in my harness so he could see the extent of the devastation.
He whistled. “Damn.”
I hung there for a moment, seething, but after a bit, I relaxed. Red was just screwing around, and nobody was here except the guys. After a while, I heard voices wafting up from the parking lot. Red must’ve reached the cars. Who was he talking to? Was there someone else coming? My stomach lurched at the thought of a random climber seeing me like this.
“Who’s that down at the cars with Red?” I asked Flax, who was lowering from his route.
He paused, then his face blanched. “Uhhh…”
“We need to get you down and covered up. Dude, I’m so sorry. I totally forgot to tell you.”
“Tell me what?”
“Veronica was gonna meet us here today.”
“Veronica?” My voice was a shriek.
“Yeah man, I told her we’d be out at the crag and she said she’d stop by. I figured with, you know, you having the hots for her and all, it’d be cool, her seeing you crush.”
“Veronica is coming here?”
The voices were clearer now. I could hear Red’s strings of words, belted out, and then another voice, softer. Veronica. They were still far off, but getting closer, coming up the trail. I had to get down.
“Let me grab you,” I said to Flax, almost manic. “I’ll climb over to you, then we can lower together.”
“Are you crazy?” Flax said. “Chill. I’ll get Pony to lower me, then I’ll get on your rope and lower you.”
I nodded, adrenaline rocketing through me. I had a spare pair of gym shorts in my climbing bag. I just had to get down and slip them on.
Flax lowered past me. Unfortunately, the rope Flax was climbing on hadn’t been flaked, and as he lowered, it rose up in a snarling mass and ensnared itself in Pony’s ATC.
“Dammit,” Flax said. “Pony, what the hell are you doing?”
Pony muttered something and made half-hearted attempts to untangle the rope from his ATC. The section Flax was in front of was slightly overhung, and he couldn’t easily get back onto the wall to unweight the rope. The voices were getting closer.
“Flaxie, man, what do I do?” I was hysterical.
Flax shrugged. “Dunno. Probably best shot’s to play it cool, cover yourself. Maybe she won’t notice.”
The voices sounded right around the corner now. I could hear Veronica’s bubbly laugh. It was a beautiful laugh. She was a beautiful girl. I fantasized about her daily. Us relaxing on a beach in Italy. Me fighting off five thugs in an alleyway to protect her. Her at my arm walking through a swanky nightclub. We were going to get married, travel the world. But that was the hypothetical future, this was now, and she was about to see my ass hanging in the wind. I was out of time.
I’d never had the desire to free solo. Sure, I watched Dan Osman and Alex Honnold on Youtube and thought they were badass, but not the kind of badass I ever wanted to be. But now, there was no choice. I had to get down, and fast.
I leaned into the wall and hooked my arm around a jutting horn. With my free hand I began struggling with my figure-8.
“What’re you doing?” called Flax. “Whoa man, don’t untie!”
The knot came free. The wind had picked up, and I could feel my pants flapping open. I grimaced. My hands were ferociously sweaty. I reached into my chalk bag, finding only a few crumbs. I wiped my palms on my pants. Flax was yelling something in my ear, but it sounded like gibberish amid the clamor of my heart. Hand down. Hand down. Foot down. Foot down. At the base of the route, the rock sloped outward, so if I fell, I’d slide along the rock, cheese grater-style. I tried not to think about this.
I reached the crack section about twenty feet above the ground. Blood was pounding in my ears, so I couldn’t hear how close Veronica and Red were, but I knew I had a couple minutes at best. The crack scared the hell out of me, but the thought of Veronica seeing me like this scared me worse, so I slipped my left foot down into it, twisted into a jam, and then brought my right foot down and smeared it onto the face. I pulled my hands down into the crack and got jams with both of them, right on top of left, just as my right smear blew off the wall. I barn-doored left and my foot jam lost its angle, slipping out of the crack. For half a second, I hung solely by my dual hand-jams. My body slapped into the rock, giving my defenseless gonads the worst beating they’d ever received.
I was hurting bad, but the adrenaline washed most of it away and I managed to get my feet back into the crack. I jerked my way downward. Near the bottom, I made the mistake of trusting a mossy foothold, and I toppled to the ground, knocking the air from my lungs.
“What’s the point of that rope hanging there?” A voice cut through the pain. “I mean, the rope’s to keep you from falling, yeah?” A laugh.
I groaned and staggered to my feet, covering myself with my hands as best I could. Veronica stood in front of me, next to Red, who was biting back a grin.
“That was kind of badass,” she said. “Kind of.” She glanced at my pants. “Wardrobe malfunction?”
My face was burning. “I guess that’s what you’d call it.”
She turned away to meet Pony, and I grabbed my shorts from my bag, hustling behind a tree to slip them on. When I came back, Flax was down from the wall, and Pony had Veronica on top rope as she messed around on the opening section of Flax’s route. I was out of the spotlight.
“Watching that was brutal,” Red whispered.
“Thanks a lot, dumbass.”
Red shrugged. “I didn’t know she was coming.”
“You could’ve got back here ahead of her and helped me get down.”
“You know how it is. She’s freakin’ intoxicating.”
I couldn’t argue with that.
“Could’ve been worse,” Flax said. “You did look kind of slick.”
“How slick can someone possibly be with their ass hanging in the wind?” I was still breathing heavy. “I don’t plan on doing that again.”
Flax laughed. “Bono, dude. Bono.”
Owen Clarke, 20, started climbing in rural Alabama at the age of 11.