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Free solo climbing, or free soloing, is a form of technical ice or rock climbing where the climbers (or free soloists) climb alone without ropes, harnesses or other protective equipment, forcing them to rely entirely on their own individual preparation, strength, and skill. Free soloing is the most dangerous form of climbing, and unlike bouldering, free soloists climb above safe heights, where a fall can very likely be fatal. Though many climbers have attempted free soloing, it is considered "a niche of a niche" reserved for the sport's elite, which has led many practitioners to stardom within both the media and the sport of rock climbing. "Free solo" was originally a term of climber slang, but after the popularity of the Oscar-winning film Free Solo, Merriam-Webster officially added the word to their English dictionary in September 2019.
Many climbing communities praise the ascents, while others have concerns regarding the danger involved and the message the ascents potentially send to other climbers. Many companies have taken these views into account when working with free soloists. Clif Bar, the nutrition bar company with long ties to climbing, dropped the sponsorship of five climbers in 2014, citing the risks they take and stirring a debate about how much risk should be rewarded.
However, The North Face and Red Bull have promoted free soloists and helped the free soloing community grow. In addition, Alex Honnold, a free soloist who was previously dropped by Clif Bar, was featured in the 2018 documentary Free Solo, which was met with critical acclaim and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.
High-profile climbers have cited the simplicity and speed with which one can climb as reasons for free soloing, as well as the intense concentration required which brings a Zen-like state of being in the moment. The most successful free soloists also become well known in the climbing community and in rare cases attain notoriety outside the small circle of rock climbers.
The practice is mostly confined to routes familiar to the climber, whose difficulty lies well within the climber's abilities. However, inherent risks such as loose rocks or sudden change in weather are always present. Some high-profile climbers have died while free soloing, including John Bachar, Derek Hersey, Vik Hendrickson, Robert Steele, Dwight Bishop, Jimmy Ray Forester, Jimmy Jewell, Tony Wilmott, and John Taylor.
The sport has produced a number of well-known practitioners, made famous by photos of them totally alone and unprotected on sheer cliffs. In June 2017, Alex Honnold made international news with the first free-solo ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite, on a route rated 5.13a in the Yosemite Decimal System.
Some climbers who are known for their regular practice of free solo climbing include Hansjörg Auer, John Bachar, Patrick Berhault, Thomas Bubendorfer, Matt Bush, Sya Cao, Renaldo Clarke, Peter Croft, Steph Davis, Bill Denz, Tim Deroehn, Catherine Destivelle, Patrick Edlinger, Jim Erickson, Eric Escoffier, Ron Fawcett, John Gill, Brad Gobright, Dan Goodwin, Mike Graham, Wolfgang Güllich, Colin Haley, Derek Hersey, Alex Honnold, Alexander Huber, Jimmy Jewell, Eric Jones, Marc-André Leclerc, Matt Lloyd, Dave MacLeod, Dan Osman, Dean Potter, Paul Preuss, Andreas Proft, Herbert Ranggetiner, Michael Reardon, Jim Reynolds, Alain Robert, Tobin Sorenson, Will Stanhope, Ueli Steck, Slavko Svetičič, Miroslav Šmíd, Akihira Tawara, John Yablonski and Maurizio Zanolla.
Some climbers who have occasionally or rarely free soloed, but have been influential to the practice, include Pierre Allain, Henry Barber, Lynn Hill, Ron Kauk, Jean-Christophe Lafaille, John Long and Reinhold Messner.
Main article: List of first ascents (sport climbing) § Free-solo
There are few climbers who have free solo climbed in the 5.14 grade range. This list does not include "highball" boulder ascents because the climbers here did not use any padding or spotters. There is some debate on the blurred line between "highball" bouldering and short free solo climbs. In December 2019, little known Italian non-professional climber Alfredo Webber, became the first person to free solo at grade 8c (5.14b), by ascending the 15 metres (49 ft), Panem et Circenses, at Muro di Pizarra near Arco in Italy; he was aged 52 at the time. Other notable free solos which pushed the technical grade of what could be achieved were Alexander Huber's 2004 ascent of Kommunist, and Dave Macleod's 2008 ascent of Darwin Dixit, both of which were at a grade of 8b+ (5.14a).
Main article: Buildering
Some free soloists scale buildings: Alain Robert ("The French Spider-Man"), and Dan Goodwin ("Skyscraperman"), have scaled dozens of skyscrapers around the world—a sport known as buildering—without any safety equipment.
Different types of climbing include: