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.


A “free solo” ascent of Federation Peak

Seeing Free Solo ( 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.

Like most bushwalkers, we did the Southern Traverse on the far side of the mountain, then took the exposed Direct Ascent route to the top. My memory is that most of the Direct Ascent route is on moderately exposed ledges and sloping rock, fairly easy going, and then close to the top there is a somewhat tricky ramp (with limited handholds) that slopes upwards onto a final wall which is vertical but with fairly obvious holds. This wall is directly over Lake Geeves, 600 m below, and I could see it between my feet as I climbed it. It gives a sense of exposure unmatched by any other mountain that walkers can reach in Australia.

Me on the Direct Ascent to the summit of Federation Peak

The second photo (above) shows me on the last bit of the Direct Route, just below the summit. At this point, I had 600 m of air beneath my feet with Lake Geeves below. So though this barely counts as a rock climb (there are some much harder real rock climbing routes on the other faces), its my “peak experience” of free solo climbing. In fact, I did not find the climb up particularly difficult, probably because I didn’t look down, and the holds for hands and feet were reasonably good. Coming back down was a very different story. I spent some time on the summit before I could bring myself to down climb it. Psychologically, I found it quite difficult to swing myself over the edge with limited visibility of the footholds I needed to find, and 600m of air below me. But eventually we did it, as there was no alternative. I certainly can’t say that the fear centres of my brain were anywhere near as quiet as Alex Honnold’s.

One of my bushwalking friends has done a lot more walking in Tasmania than me, and has posted a video of the ascent of Federation Peak from a relatively recent trip on You Tube:
He comments that for walkers who have done a lot of scrambling in the Blue Mountains near Sydney, it does not really represent a technical challenge, the major problems are psychological due to the extreme exposure.

Sir Edmund Hillary declared Federation Peak “Australia’s only real mountain”. A Tasmanian tourist web site claims that only around 100 bushwalkers reach the summit each year. I suspect that may be an underestimate, but even so, the site’s further claim that it is fewer than the number who summit Mount Everest each year (around 500), is probably roughly correct. Apart from the intimidating nature of the summit climb, it is several days walk to reach the peak through terrain that is about as difficult as bushwalking gets in Australia. (at least when I did it, possibly there have been tracks bashed through it now but I hope not).

Looking east from Mt Sirius in the Western Arthurs towards Federation Peak (visible on the horizon to the right of centre). Traversing the Arthurs from east to west is a lengthy and challenging trip involving lots of scrambling and a little climbing, quite apart from the ascent of Federation Peak.

We had planned three weeks (or close to) to do the traverse of the Eastern and Western Arthurs. To avoid having to carry three weeks worth of food, I arranged for a plane to do an air drop of food about half way along. We packed non-perishable food into two large metal containers, carefully sealed and labelled. We arranged for them to be dropped on a flat open area of land in the valley below the transition point from the Eastern to Western Arthurs and I spent a day descending a ridge to find the canisters of food and return. When I got to the drop location, I found an area about the size of a football field covered in dense shrubbery about a metre high. I spent quite a few hours systematically searching the area without finding our food. I did find the mouldering remains of three other airdrops which clearly had not been found by other parties. I salvaged a tin of powdered milk and a jar of jam*. For the remaining week and a half, we walked and scrambled through the Western Arthurs and back to civilization on a ration of one tablespoon of powdered milk mixed with a small amount of jam per day. I came out of the trip almost 10 kilos lighter than when I started it.

My memory is a bit sketchy now, but I am fairly sure it was around a year later that someone fell to their death on the Direct Ascent, while on a trip with someone I knew. I took a look on the internet but could not find any mention of deaths earlier than the last 20 years,  in which there have been about 5 fatalities on Federation Peak. While some walkers do bring a rope and some gear, most climb it free, as we did. Apart from not wanting to carry the weight of gear for three weeks, there are not really a lot of good anchor points, and the time spent mucking around setting up belays may increase rather than decrease risk. For bushwalkers who are not also experienced rock climbers it remains probably the most challenging and iconic mountain in Australia.

*Our airdrop cannisters had dates on the outside, so if anyone found them later, they would know they could use them. The ones I found were so decayed, it was obvious they were quite old.


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.

Photo credit: National Geographic documentary Free Solo.

Honnold is an extraordinary and unusual human being, who has put his passion above everything else. He is shown in the film getting an MRI which shows that his amygdala (fear centres of the brain) do not light up like most peoples’ do when they see a frightening image. My older son thought he likely was on the Asperger’s spectrum like his father, and came across as a sociopath who cared nothing about other people. I disagreed, because I think what he does is get totally in the moment and totally focused on nothing else but what needs to happen here-now. Like the samurai he mentioned, or an athlete in the flow, but for extended periods like the 3 hours and 56 minutes it took him to complete the 2900 foot climb, where any distraction means death. To achieve the level of that ability to be in the moment and completely ignoring any thoughts (or fear) that come and go, is admirable but requires the sort of obsessive focus and training that he has. I’ve had a few moments like that (but measured in seconds or minutes rather than hours). The medieval Zen master Takuan refers to this state of mind as “immovable mind” meaning that his opponent cannot move Takuan’s mind by causing distracting thoughts (like “will this strike succeed”, “will I die”). It will be fascinating to see whether Honnold will (or can) move on to other phases of life, and whether his relationship with his girlfriend can survive and grow. I read one reviewer that said the big theme of the movie for her was fear, but not the fear of Alex or the camera crew, rather the fear of his girlfriend.

As for Alex Honnold, he explained why this was not an issue for him: “My friends are like, Oh, that’d be terrible, but if I kill myself in an accident, they’ll be like, Oh, that was too bad, but like life goes on, you know, like they’ll be fine. I mean, and I’ve had this problem with girls a lot, you know. They’re like, Oh, I really care about you, I’m like, No you don’t. Like if I perish, like, it doesn’t matter, like you’ll find somebody else, like, that’s not, that’s not that big a deal.” The film crew had a completely different attitude, they were living in fear he might slip, and one of the cameraman turned his back to it and refused to watch at certain crucial points in the climb.

Another shot from above. Photo credits: National Geographic documentary Free Solo.

I’ve looked at a few reviews online, and there are many who are seeing it as an inspiring tribute to the pursuit of greatness at all costs, or the pursuit of a passion to the point of supreme mastery. Others who see it as questioning the actual and potential costs of risking your life in such an extreme way, not least all the others in the film, not one of whom wants to see Honnold go through with the climb. And Climbing Magazine has published an article saying that many in the climbing community wish that he wouldn’t do these climbs, and delving into the issues involved.…/opinion-the-free-solo-documenta…/

Finally, I can’t neglect to mention a feminist review, which apart from focusing on his girlfriend’s fears, says that the film is a “geological ode to manspreading”. I did a little free soloing years ago in Australia (but in the wading pool, nowhere near the deep end  where Alex plays). The film also brought back some recollections of these, I will post them in a later post.