Coming unstuck on a free solo

This is my last free solo story. Engraved in my memory like it was yesterday, though I am not sure what year it happened. Was around 1975 I think, though possibly a bit later. In those days, I was hanging around with a bunch of rock climbers and following them up easier climbs. I didn’t think of myself as a rock climber though, because I was content to follow as a second, belaying the lead climber leading the pitches. I occasionally led a pitch if I felt comfortable, particularly if it was a chimney or a good solid crack where I felt pretty comfortable that I could glue myself to the rock. Much less so on slabs where it was all about balance and using friction on tiny ledges and bumps in the rock.

Climbers on Hermes, Booroomba, ACT.

This particular trip was to Booroomba Rocks, not far to the south of Canberra.This has spectacular climbs on granite, and the main cliff line is up to 140 metres high.The photo above shows two friends climbing Hermes (Grade 16, 50 m high), one is visible climbing the crack in the middle of the photo and the other is belaying from a ledge below him. The climb continues up the crack just in the shadow and then towards the right under a big overhang .Someone died around 1971 attempting to free solo Hermes, He fell from near the overhang.

We camped in the valley below the cliffs and walked up to do various climbs. It may have been the trip on which the photo below was taken in 1975.One of the climbers decided to spend a few hours scrambling around on a lower cliff line doing some unroped free climbing. I foolishly decided to go with him.

Myself (middle holding book) with friends at Booroomba, 1975

Initially, we were doing little more than scrambling up some steep gullies and small easy climbs. Then we came to a larger face that was probably about 20 metres high with a well defined crack running up it. My friend assured me that it was a very easy climb and within my capabilities, so I followed him up the crack. However, the crack ended a few metres below the top of cliff, and the final stretch was on close to vertical rock with small holds. My friend was just above me, and we were climbing together. I moved up onto the small holds, and realized that I had got out of my depth and  no longer had the strength in my fingers to continue up the last couple of metres, and no possibility to retreat either as my strength was going. So I told my friend and said to him that I was going to come off the wall in the next 30 seconds. He said to hold on, and he moved up a few inches and grabbed a small tree trunk at the top of the cliffline with both hands, and then said “Grab hold of my ankles”. At that moment, I lost my grip on the small holds I had and as I came off the cliff I grabbed his ankles with both hands and swung free below him. I was probaby close to 20 metres from the base of the climb and would have probably died if I fell.  I climbed up his body and over the cliff edge. If this had happened even a metre lower on the climb, where my friend would have had no strong holds to use, I would have fallen. Utter stupidity on my part to attempt to free solo a climb of that height without ever having done it before to know what it involved. One of a few occasions  around that period of my life where pure chance saved me from my own risk taking. In retrospect, I was incredibly lucky.

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A “free solo” ascent of Federation Peak

Seeing Free Solo (mountainsrivers.com/free-solo-inspiring-and-disturbing/) reminded me of my “free solo” on Federation Peak years ago. Barely a rock climb, but the exposure was similar to that on El Cap. In Dec 1980- Jan1981, I did a three week traverse of the Eastern and Western Arthur Range in southern Tasmania with my then wife. One of our objectives was to climb Federation Peak (1,224 metres or 4,016 ft), whose spectacular summit rises like a spike in the middle of the Eastern Arthur Range (see photo below).

Looking towards Federation Peak from the Four Peaks.

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Free Solo – inspiring and disturbing

Last week I took my boys to see Free Solo. In case you haven’t heard of it, it is a documentary about Alex Honnold’s attempt to become the first person to climb the 3000 foot cliff of El Capitan without any ropes or other protective equipment. One slip or missed hold and he would die. The documentary not only looks at Honnold the climber, his mindset and attitudes, his preparations and the actual climb itself, but also has two other main threads, the process of filming the feat and the moral dilemmas the filmmakers faced, and the very substantial stresses his loved ones have to deal with.

Alex Honnold free soloing El Capitan. Photo credit: National Geographic documentary Free Solo.

I had actually put the DVD in my shopping trolley at Amazon because it did not seem to be screening anywhere in Geneva, when a friend let me know there was a one night showing at Pathe Balexert. So I deleted my draft purchase and took the boys to see it. If you have a chance to see it, I highly recommend it. It is a gripping account of one of the greatest athletic feats of all time, but is also very thought-provoking. It won an Oscar this year for Best Documentary, and has a critics rating of 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.

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