Butting Heads: Free at Last

Roped: Coppolillo at Red Rocks. Photo: Courtesy Rob Coppolillo.

We asked our readers if free soloing—climbing without a rope or protection—was pure or stupid. You were mixed: 53 percent said stupid, 47 pure, many noting that it depended on the situation and the person. So we asked Rob Coppolillo and Timmy O’Neill to hash out the finer points of life on the edge.

On Belay

The litmus test, for me, is this: at the moment my foot skates or the rock breaks or the raindrops begin … will I say to myself, “This just wasn’t worth it”?

In imagining the instant I peel off the rock, I can’t escape the feeling I’ll hate myself for throwing away my life on something as utterly pointless as soloing. Climbing is already in-your-face enough, do I really need to drop drawers and spread my cheeks in the face of God, provoking her/him/it to smite me?

I soloed a bit in my 20s, before cams were affordable and the Sport Park existed—but only easy stuff like the Third, the First, and my halcyon ropeless achievement: the Wind Ridge (5.6). Gradually, though, as I grew up I saw a few people die and just as important, I saw their friends and family stumble onward without them. It takes little-to-no perceptiveness to recognize the damage inflicted upon those left behind–particularly parents–by nuking oneself, especially for something as self-serving as rock climbing.

Saving a buddy in combat, rescuing a child from a burning building, working oneself to death to get the family ahead—die for any of these and St. Pete will pat you on the back as you pass the Gates. Climbing? It’s an activity literally without benefit to anyone but the practitioner, which is to say, it’s self-indulgence to the extreme. Activities llike these are left to privileged, Western, white men, guys usually lathered in the “I feel so alive when I’m on the edge” delusion. If that’s what I need to feel alive, then maybe the rest of my life needs a little reinvestment.

I’m all for personal freedom, accountability, pursuing my life in the way I see fit, but it’s simply too narcissistic to risk it soloing, as if dying won’t affect those in my orbit. If a guy goes out and gambles away the family fortune without the wife and kids knowing, everybody calls him King Douche. If he splatters himself at the base of the cliff, then he gets the Bro-gnar Medal for Valor? Doesn’t make sense to me.

As Captain Yossarian might’ve said, “Anything worth dying for is probably worth living for.” Your kids, your parents, your minxy girlfriend, Michele Bachmann running for president, the Holy Grail of the manworld (I’m talking about a three-way!) … or just another bluebird day with warm rock to climb and Timmy-O to lead the hard pitches: I say stack the odds in your favor–tie in–and stick around, because life is pretty good.

Rob Coppolillo is a writer and climber living in Boulder—and he believes most of the above. Read his Master of None blog at ElevationOutdoors.com

On Your Own

Climbing outside with ropes exposes one to serious hazards—falling rock and ice (and, well, falling itself) being the deadliest. But those dangers are an integral part of why we climb. The paradox of a person feeling more alive by being closer to death contradicts conventional wisdom, and even amongst high-adrenaline junkies the free soloist is a mystifying creature. When I climb ropeless, I am not failing to heed some warning bell in regards to impending doom. I solo long, easy rock climbs as my expression of one of life’s greatest pleasures: moving fast and light in the physical wilderness on an immaculate expanse of stone matched with the intellectual, moral and visceral challenge of route-finding in the wilderness of the mind.

The difference between dating and marriage is a commitment centered on faith. That same conviction applies to the free soloist and his objective, except in this union “there is no death until we part.” The fundamental difference between using a rope or not is the value one places in heightening risk and the associated return on that investment. Is this perilous gamble symptomatic of a death wish or indicative of a rudderless, leisure class in search of meaning?

The crux consideration is simply this: Does free soloing, or for that matter climbing, have import to anyone other than the participant? The answer is personal. It is lived, not defined in a magazine column. It is determined by the degree to which you take possession of your own life and the measure of ownership that you sub-contract out. I do not disregard the potential loss of family and friends. The fact is we live different lives and the grief guilt trip is simply not part of my calculation. My life is about choices and I rationally believe all of them lead to more life, not less. Free soloing isn’t light fare, think more Turducken than Lean Cuisine, more Leo Tolstoy than Danielle Steel, and like a meal or a book it’s your personal choice whether to sink your teeth into it or not.

Timmy O’Neill’s life involves being very present in dangerous places, whether behind a drum kit, in front of a microphone or at the base of the First Flatiron for his 213th free solo.

Reader Response from the Web

Because in the world of anonymous online comments everyone has a say.

It’s actually a bit of both. The joy from a free solo is always weighed against the potential harm that might result from a single lost grip. As skills and bravado decline and sanity grows with age, I think the needle leans toward stupid.


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