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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. Some climbers' profiles have been dramatically 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. "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.
Free solo climbing (sometimes referred to as soloing in the UK, or third-classing in the US), is where the climber uses no climbing protection whatsoever (or any form of climbing aid, or even a climbing rope); they may only use their climbing shoes and their climbing chalk to ascend a single-pitch, or a multi-pitch/big wall climbing route. 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. Where a free solo climber carries a rope, just in case, it is sometimes referred to as rope soloing (although some only consider it rope soloing where a self-locking device is used for climbing protection).
Historically, 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. 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). It was only in the late 1960s and 1970s when climbing protection was sufficiently developed to be effective, that the discipline of free solo climbing began to stand apart.
Many climbing communities praise the free solo ascents, while others have concerns regarding the danger involved and the message the ascents 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. 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".
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:
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, and Tobin Sorenson.
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.
Main articles: List of first ascents (sport climbing) § Free-solo, and History of rock climbing
Main articles: List of first ascents (sport climbing) § Free-soloed, and History of rock climbing
A number of notable free solo practitioners have died while free soloing:
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).