Sunday, January 13, 2013

Refections of a Recovering Soloist

Me at age 18 on my first solo climb, RMNP, Colorado.     
Ropeless at Lake Willoughby, 2011.  Photo by Andy Tuthill

In Akira Kurosawa’s film Rashoman, four versions of the same story are told.  Different details are wrenched to the foreground, depending on the protagonist.  My friend Erik Eisele has written some well-thought out pieces for his new blog, Shades of Granite.  Most days, I am content to see a report made by a partner, look at photos someone has taken from a good day of climbing, and let their version of the story slide into focus. 
This blog receives very little traffic.  I like it this way.  Climbing is private.  No one should care what other people do, for the most part, and farnorth usually just stands as a small record for myself and friends.  But for that record, this is my part of the story.  Erik has just written something on soloing which will receive a lot more views than this one.  Consider this then, a futile reaction.
I moved to New Hampshire after going to Colorado College.  I knew literally no one.  My girlfriend had dumped me for a guy she went on a month-long trip with.  I was a wreck, I was alone, and I was liberated. 
I’d go to a climbing area and walk past local guides and put my head down; the scene here was so intimidating I didn’t dare ask anyone to climb with me, though I was young and eager and talented enough for my age.  I consider all the time I wasted by not doing so now and it makes me cringe.  But on the flip side of the coin, I leaned to solo.
I set rules for myself.  I needed absolute purity.  At no point during certain solos would I be able to bail or down-climb.  Climbing was to be done rope-less, harness-less, onsight, and ground up.  I stole food and lived in a room with no heat.  I became quite good at climbing moderate terrain quickly.  I spent so many days climbing by myself it became the norm.  I forgot how to tie in, I forgot that climbing could be a social thing, and I forgot partnership.
I onsight soloed the Black Dike with a water bottle.  The climb was hard at the time.  I was twenty-one and I refused to talk to other climbers.  After washing dishes all day I’d get into the car and solo Dracula, Standard Route, Pegasus and Chia in two hours in the dark.
I wanted utter, abject responsibility.  Most overzealous young men have art, music, what have you.  But how many were willing to die for it?  I could drop at any second, and for what?  I suppose my ideal was perfection..
The next year I went out west.  I drove for three days to Hyalite Canyon after having             trained all winter.  My goal was Mount Kitchener's Grand Central Couloir in the Canadian Rockies.  The idea of soloing it caused me to run up Thorn Hill at night, to skate ski ‘till I vomited, to starve myself.
At Hyalite people asked where I was from as I climbed their grade 5 classics alone.  “New England.”  It built my ego.  It still does.  Anyone who says otherwise is lying.  Soloing is cool if you’re good at it.  It’s a deadly, frightening thing that no one else but you can do…how cool is that?  People say all sorts of things about it but you bet your ass they’re glued to the screen when Alex Honnold comes on, that they’ve read Mark Twight, that they’ve put themselves up there in their own scared minds.  Non-participants, for the most part.  It takes a bold mind to really go for it.  I had that.  It propped me up to sprint by people with only ice tools.  It still does, and it always will.  I am weak and egotistical, but at least I can admit it.
I soloed Professor Falls faster than Twight.  The very next day I was on Polar Circus.  Lactic acid built in my legs.  No one knew I was here.  I made it to the crux pitches in 43 minutes with two double ropes tearing at my back.  My ice tools sunk in slush; I went down.  Now, I realize, I wouldn’t lead a pitch like that.  Then, it was just a race against the clock.
Out west reminded me there were girls, friends, quickdraws.  The north face of Mount Kitchener snowed over every day I watched it from the road.  I felt bad about not soloing the thing until Freddie Wilkinson told me his story of nearly getting the chop there from a hanging cornice.
The guys I was too afraid to talk to are now my friends.  I can call them, get a belay, banter without being intimidated, without being too afraid of screwing up.  I’ve got a cadre of solid partners (in fact, I’m always the worst guy climbing on whatever day).  I still solo sometimes.  The Last Gentleman, onsight, a few years ago, Fafnir.  But my head for it is shot.  I can’t do it full time anymore.  I don’t want to.  When I need a workout I dry-tool or Nordic ski.  The idea of an entire climbing trip alone, living in the woods, living with my fear, sounds horrible to me.
Sometimes I look back at all this and miss the ring of ice tools in the dark when it was the only thing I had.  When mastery of a specific, dangerous sub-discipline was all that mattered and I was prepared to die for this mastery.  Relatively speaking, no matter what I do in climbing I’ll never be as dedicated as the Canadian Rockies, or my first winter in New Hampshire.  I’ll never touch that again.  But I can look back with fondness only because I’m still alive.


  1. Hard to enjoy soloing if you are no longer alive. But then I am not sure you really are unless you have. Nice piece of writing Michael.

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  3. Great piece. I thoroughly enjoyed it.