Reporter's Notebook

Stories of Free Soloing
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Readers discuss our profile of legendary free soloist Alex Honnold and share their own stories of rock climbing. Join them via hello@theatlantic.com.

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Women on the Rock

A female reader lends a new perspective to the climbing thread:

Although I am no longer a climber, due to work schedules and age factors, I did climb quite a bit when I was young and fearless. I was one of the few women climbing, let alone leading. I loved friction climbs, because after I learned to master my nerves a bit. It felt like dancing.

I never had a very bad fall, but I did do some sliding and dropping out of cracks onto protection, so I learned to master recovery a bit. It has helped me in my later life—to get a hold of fear and take on challenges other women might not think of mastering. But nothing beats the freedom and joy of being young and going on a good climb with friends.

I asked our reader to elaborate a little on her experience as a female climber, since the sport tends to be predominantly male. She writes:

As a teenager I climbed with a climbing school in The Balls, on Beasore Meadows Road in the Sierras, which was also used by some of the great climbers of the day as a teaching place. Short climbs, top roped mostly, but lots of options. I got very good, very fast, but was still a child. One of my favorite memories:

Another rock climber writes in:

Free-soloing is something a fair number of climbers do. To see it done by someone who’s the best in the world at it, like Alex Honnold, is certainly striking. It’s obvious that climbing fingernail-sized holds on an overhanging wall is beyond the ability of most people, but then you add “no rope” and jaws drop.

But really, free-soloing is just the same as what you do when hiking, just steeper. Fred Beckey, ancient Pacific Northwest climber and notorious sandbagger, rates the difficulty of many mountain climbs in the North Cascades of Washington as “class 4,” which is generally defined as “unroped climbing where a fall will kill you.” That’s free-soloing. None of those climbs looks anything like Honnold’s video, but people achieve the same freedom of movement, exertion, danger, and focus, in an amazing natural environment.

The above video is a good example of perilous class 4 scrambling. Says the climber in that video, “The scary stuff starts at about the 6 minute mark, when I get up on the knife-edged ridge.” Here’s a good video tutorial of the differences of class 1 through class 4.