Free solo climbing, or free soloing, is a form of technical rock climbing where the climbers (or free soloists) climb alone without ropes, or other protective equipment, only using their climbing shoes and their climbing chalk. Free soloing is the most dangerous form of climbing, and unlike bouldering, free soloists climb above safe heights, where a fall can be fatal. Though many climbers have free soloed climbing grades they are very comfortable on, only a tiny group free solo regularly, and at grades closer to the limit of their abilities.[1]

Some climbers' profiles have been increased by free soloing (e.g. Alex Honnold and John Bachar), but some question the ethics of this, and whether the risks they are undertaking should be encouraged and commercially rewarded.[2][3] "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.[4]

There are other types of climbing that can be done as free soloing, including in ice climbing and mixed climbing.


Free solo climbing (sometimes referred to as soloing in the UK, or third-classing in the US),[5] is where the climber uses no climbing protection whatsoever (or any form of climbing aid, or even a climbing rope);[5] they may only use their climbing shoes and climbing chalk to ascend a single-pitch, or a multi-pitch/big wall climbing route.[5] Free solo climbing is a form of free climbing, but different from sport climbing and traditional climbing, both of which use climbing protection. In theory, bouldering is free solo climbing (i.e. it also uses no aid or protection) but is usually not referred to in such a manner, except in the case of highball bouldering, where falls can be serious.[5] Where a free solo climber carries a rope, just in case, it is sometimes referred to as rope soloing (some only consider it rope soloing where a self-locking device is used for protection).[5]

Many early 20th-century rock climbers who began to free climb (i.e., avoiding any form of aid), were often practicing free solo climbing (or rope soloing), as the effectiveness of their climbing protection (usually a rope around their waist) was minimal. In the history of rock climbing, the first ascent of Napes Needle by W. P. Haskett Smith in June 1886 – an act that is widely considered to be the start of the sport of rock climbing – was effectively a free solo.[6] Early leaders of free climbing such as Paul Preuss, were also strongly interested in free solo climbing as being ethically purer. The 1958 ascent by Don Whillans of Goliath, one of the world's first-ever E4 6a routes, was effectively a free solo (with a rope around his waist).[7][8] By the 1970s, when climbing protection was sufficiently developed to be effective, the discipline of free solo climbing began to stand apart.[5]

Public view

Many climbers praise free soloing, while others have concerns regarding the danger and the message the ascents send to other climbers.[9] 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.[10]

However, The North Face and Red Bull have promoted free soloists and helped the free soloing community grow.[11][12] In addition, Alex Honnold, a free soloist who was previously dropped by Clif Bar,[13] was featured in the 2018 documentary Free Solo, which was met with critical acclaim and won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. The director of Free Solo, Jimmy Chin, talks in the film about the ethics of undertaking the documentary, and the effect that his film team and project could have had on the outcome.

Even in the climbing community, free soloing is controversial. In 2022, when Climbing did a major feature on free solo climbing, they caveated their series of articles with "This article is not an endorsement of the practice", and emphasized that in their research amongst climbers, it was only practiced by a very small minority, with many telling Climbing: "I have in the past but not anymore".[5]

Notable practitioners

Alain Robert free soloing in the Verdon Gorge
Onsight of No Self Control (7a) in 1991.
Pol Pot (7c) in 1996.

While many rock climbers have free soloed routes (single-pitch or big wall/multi-pitch), at climbing grades well below their ability, a very small minority have practiced free soloing regularly, and at grades closer to their overall limits. The most prominent of this smaller group are those who have broken new grade milestones in free solo climbing and gained a significant profile from their soloing:[5]

In addition to the above, a number of other free solo practitioners are considered historically notable and include: Patrick Edlinger, Ron Fawcett, Brad Gobright, Dan Goodwin, Colin Haley, Derek Hersey, Jimmy Jewell, John Long, Dave MacLeod, Dan Osman, Dean Potter, Paul Preuss, Tobin Sorenson and Marc-André Leclerc.[5]

Free soloing is less common amongst female rock climbers, however, as well as Catherine Destivelle, the following female climbers are historically notable free solo practitioners: Steph Davis and Brette Harrington, both of whom who have free soloed single-pitch and big wall routes.[5]

Evolution of grade milestones

Single-pitch routes

Heinz Zak [de] free soloing Separate Reality in 2005; Zak had taken the iconic photograph of Wolfgang Güllich in 1986
Heinz Zak [de] free soloing Separate Reality in 2005; Zak had taken the iconic photograph of Wolfgang Güllich in 1986

Main articles: List of grade milestones in rock climbing § Free-solo, and History of rock climbing

Big wall, multi-pitch routes

Main articles: List of grade milestones in rock climbing § Free-soloed, and History of rock climbing

Practitioner fatalities

Michael Reardon free soloing Lower Right Ski Track (5.10b) in Joshua Tree National Park, 2007.
Derek Hersey, free soloing Downhill Racer (E1 6a), Froggatt Edge, 1979

A number of notable free solo practitioners have died while free soloing:[5]

Climbing notes that a number of prominent free solo practitioners died in related or other extreme sports, including: Dan Osman (died at age 35 while rope jumping at Yosemite), Michael Reardon (died age 42 while rock climbing sea cliffs when he was carried out to sea by a rogue wave), Dean Potter (died age 43 while wingsuit flying when he crashed at Yosemite), Brad Gobright (died age 31 while abseiling at Potrero Chico), and Hansjorg Auer (died age 35 in an avalanche at Howse Peak).[5]

Related genres

See also


  1. ^ Taylor, Will. "Why We Won't See a Rise in Free Solo Climbing Deaths After Alex Honnold's Story Won an Oscar". The Inertia. Retrieved 1 July 2019.
  2. ^ Green, Stewart (20 July 2017). "Free Solo Climbing is Dangerous and Deadly". ThoughtCo. Retrieved 22 January 2019.
  3. ^ "Gale - User Identification Form". Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  4. ^ Berry, Natalie. "'Free Solo' enters Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Film Scoops 7 Emmys". UK Climbing.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak Osius, Alison (4 June 2022). "Free Solo Rock Climbing and the Climbers Who Have Defined the Sport". Climbing. Retrieved 26 November 2022.
  6. ^ Zhu, Beifeng; Chen, Ruizhi; Li, Yuan (9 August 2021). "The Origin and Early Evolution of Rock Climbing". Advances in Social Science, Education and Humanities Research. Proceedings of the 2021 5th International Seminar on Education, Management and Social Sciences (ISEMSS 2021). Atlantis Press. 571: 662–667. doi:10.2991/assehr.k.210806.124. ISBN 978-94-6239-414-8. S2CID 238693283.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Oviglia, Maurizio (23 December 2012). "The Evolution of Free Climbing". PlanetMountain. Retrieved 4 January 2020.
  8. ^ Erikson, Jim (19 April 2022). "Cleaning Up Climbing History. The Truth Behind 13 Pivotal Ascents and Events". Climbing. Retrieved 9 December 2022.
  9. ^ Corrigan, Kevin. "Opinion: The Free Solo Documentary Addressed Some Uncomfortable Truths, But Ignored Others". Climbing Magazine. Retrieved 6 May 2019.
  10. ^ Branch, John (14 November 2014). "A Sponsor Steps Away From the Edge". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 1 July 2019.
  11. ^ "Alex Honnold". TheNorthFace USA – English. Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  12. ^ "The Most Mind-Bending Free Solo Climbs in History". Red Bull. Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  13. ^ "Climber Alex Honnold wrote an op-ed after Clif Bar dropped him as a sponsor". Retrieved 21 April 2019.
  14. ^ "Hansjörg Auer Fish route solo on Marmolada 15 years ago today". PlanetMountain. 29 April 2022. Retrieved 1 January 2023.
  15. ^ Slavsky, Bennett (12 March 2021). "Alfredo Webber, Age 52, Free Solos 5.14b". Climbing. Retrieved 4 January 2022.
  16. ^ "Being Bachar". Rock & Ice. March 2008. Retrieved 3 January 2023.
  17. ^ "Exclusive: Alex Honnold Completes the Most Dangerous Free-Solo Ascent Ever". National Geographic Society. 3 October 2018.
  18. ^ "This is Still a Gripping Free-Solo Video – Alex Huber on a 20-Pitch 5.12a". Gripped Magazine. 2 November 2021. Retrieved 16 December 2022.
  19. ^ Johnson, Scott C. (15 July 2012). "Michael Ybarra's Death Underscores the Allure and Dangers of Solo Climbing". The Daily Beast. Retrieved 9 October 2015.
  20. ^ Pilastro, Eleonora (6 December 2022). "The Real Spider-Man: Alain Robert climbs the world's tallest buildings". Guinness Book of Records. Retrieved 30 December 2022.
  21. ^ "A History of Mallorca Deep Water Soloing". British Mountaineering Council. 8 March 2011. Retrieved 21 December 2021.
  22. ^ Thomasma, Melissa (13 August 2008). "FreeBASE: Dean Potter on the Eiger Nordwand". Alpinist. ISSN 1540-725X. Retrieved 30 December 2022.
  23. ^ Bisharat, Andrew (18 May 2015). "How Dean Potter Reinvented Climbing, Jumping, Flying". National Geographic. Retrieved 30 December 2022.
  24. ^ Edwards, Pete (November 2020). "Is it Highball Bouldering? Or should we be calling it Free-Soloing". Retrieved 30 December 2022.

Further reading