Free soloing the First: A story in which I make a few good and a few bad decisions, and ultimately am a little smarter.

Near the end of my twenty-third summer, I got it in my head that I should try free soloing. It wasn’t in a single moment that the idea came to me, but rather over the course of a disaster-style summer, punctuated by a series of nudges in that direction.

In early July of that summer, as I was en route to the Tetons for a week of climbing with my coworkers, a friend sent me a writeup she’d found about some research proving, once and for all, that climbers are insane.

“Studies have found that mountaineers tend to fall short in the relationship department, have difficulty describing their feelings and have less of a need for intimacy than others,” the article read, “They also tend to feel a lack of control in their everyday lives.”

“THIS IS YOU!!!!” my friend had added at the end of the email in which she’d forwarded the article, in case I hadn’t recognized myself in its description of mountaineers as socially inept risk-mongers.

Despite my outward insistence that climbing wasn’t an outlet for my internal struggles, though, I couldn’t argue with my friend. I’d more than once been teased for having a better relationship with my dog than with any person in my life, and when he was hit by a car at the beginning of that summer, I lost what was admittedly the most intimate personal relationship I had. My personal life was in shambles, and I had crawled from its wreckage just in time to hop on a plane home, where I hoped I wouldn’t have to face the unpleasant realization that I was incapable of properly connecting with other humans.

This is how I spent most of that summer: a little behind, not totally sure what was going on, but glad to be part of things, whatever disasters lay ahead. (Photo: Matt Stokes.)
This is how I spent most of that summer: a little behind, not totally sure what was going on, but glad to be part of things, whatever disasters lay ahead. (Photo: Matt Stokes.)

My companions on the Teton trip, some of whom I actually did manage to bond with in the three months during which we lived and worked together, were talented climbers, and it was their placid reassurance—“Of course you can climb that,” they’d say whenever I presented an apparently daunting objective—that planted in me a seed of confidence I’d never experienced before. When I wanted to learn to do something, my friends taught me how, and it was empowering. The climbing I wanted to do had always seemed like a far-off “someday” objective, the kind I might be able to do in ten years if I kept at it, and these people showed me I was stronger than I’d realized.

A week later, I was leading my first sport climb, a friendly 5.6 in Sinks Canyon. I hadn’t really planned to, but a weekend of nonstop climbing there and at Wild Iris, interrupted only by occasional visits to the Lander Bar, had inspired in me a newfound sense of grit.

My friend Pat, who is probably the most talented climber I personally know, led it first. As soon as his rock shoes touched the ground, he asked if I wanted to do it next.

And, for the first time since I’d started climbing, I did.

I clipped the draws shakily at first, hoping with all my might that I wouldn’t slip before I could clip the rope in.

“Don’t shit yourself!” Matt called cheerily from far below, and I flipped him the bird as I reached into the chalk bag at my waist.

My sweaty brow furrowed with determination, I was soon climbing with aplomb, and when I reached the anchor chains at the top and clipped in, I flashed a grin and a thumbs up to Pat. I felt positively elated as he lowered me to the ground, though my mettle was soon tested by the sandbagged remainder of the climbs at our chosen crag. Still, the seed had begun to grow.

Here I am atop the aptly named Knife Edge. Look Ma, no hands!
Here I am atop the aptly named Knife Edge. Look Ma, no hands! (Photo: Pat Brehm.)

The stars converged to aid my ambition to free solo during the last week of the summer. Our contracts had ended, and my friends and I headed to Torreys Peak, where we planned to climb the uber-exposed Kelso Ridge. It was mostly fourth-class climbing, but a few fifth-class moves brought us to the notorious Knife Edge, an aptly named fifteen feet of ridgeline, impassable except for a narrow spine, with fifteen hundred feet of exposure on either side.

I’d never been a wimp about exposure, but I hadn’t ever relished it, either. Standing atop the Knife Edge and peering down at the valley below, I felt exhilarated. Focused. Strong.

On the drive home from the climb that day, I learned my dad was in the hospital. He’d been experiencing an abnormally elevated heart rate and trouble breathing whenever he exercised, despite having lost thirty pounds that year. My-mother-the-nurse, who also happens to be his bicycling partner, had finally talked him into a stress test, the kind where you run on a treadmill like in American Flyers. The minute he was hooked up to a heart rate monitor, the problem was clear: he had an irregular heartbeat. He was admitted right away, and over the next few days, every time a doctor came in, there was a new problem: his ventricles were pumping weakly. He had blood clots in his calves. In his lungs.

I needed some outside time. My dad’s biggest complaint was that he was on the “cardiac diet,” which prohibited such favorites as biscuits and gravy. He said he felt fine, and Mom insisted it was alright if I left for awhile.

Pat wanted to climb the Third Flatiron, and for reasons I can’t explain, his ambition became mine. It never occurred to me in the four years I lived in Boulder that I’d like to climb the Third, but now, for whatever reason—I was sad the summer was ending, my friends were leaving, I was stressed about my dad—I couldn’t get it out of my head.

It was too late to head up the Third by the time Bix and I got to Boulder. I’d never climbed any multipitch before, and he knew it’d take hours, even with him leading. Clouds were rolling in. We bouldered a little to work out the kinks of sitting in the hospital, but I couldn’t focus.

The next day, we sorted our co-mingled belongings from Kristin’s and Bix’s cars—Pat had sacrificed his Outback to the Rockies after an unfortunate incident in Lander a few weeks before—and I watched as my friends drove away. My climbing partners were gone for the time being, but my thoughts of the Third lingered.

I did some research. The Third was pretty committing for my first free solo, but someone on Mountain Project described the Southwest Face of the First Flatiron as “excellent for the aspiring soloist.”

Something about the way my parents had gasped and exclaimed when they watched the infamous Honnold special on 60 Minutes really appealed to me. It wasn’t the Honnold part, so much, but the attitude he inspired in their generation.

“It’s so irresponsible,” our parents say, clicking their tongues and shaking their heads, “One mistake and it’s all over.”

Why did irresponsibility appeal to me at that point in my life? I can’t say, really. I had overcome my mountaineer’s inability to connect, or had at least found a person with whom to share my enthusiasm for risk-taking. My dad was in the hospital, and the possibility of adding to my mom’s stress and worry should have been enough to deter me, but it wasn’t. I had to do it.

I hiked up the access trail to the First with a liter of water, a Clif bar, and a chalk bag in my daypack. I wore my sturdy approach shoes, which had always served me well on fourth-class terrain, and as the trail spiked sharply upward, I felt confident. Focused. Strong.

Trip reports on Mountain Project and in various guidebooks had rated my intended route from a 5.0, the easiest imaginable fifth-class terrain, all the way up to a still-manageable 5.3. (If you’re wondering, free soloing is a fairly apt name for the activity: climbing, alone, without using ropes or gear for protection.) I found the base of the route more easily than I’d imagined, and, grateful for the illustration in Gerry Roach’s guide to the Flatirons, paused for a quick drink-and-drain before getting on the rock.

Colorado happened to be in the middle of a heat wave that day, and as I stripped down to my sports bra, I wished I’d brought more water.

I quickly banished the thought from my head. Would Anton Krupicka, in his split shorts and Ray Bans and nothing else, wish he’d brought more water? Certainly not. I started making moves.

The climbing was easy, and I didn’t mind the exposure. I felt comfortable, focused. Strong.

Suddenly, a rock the size of a toaster flew past, inches from my left hand. I looked up, instinctively, though there’s really nothing stupider you could do when a large rock has just narrowly avoided your cranium. Nobody had yelled, though climber courtesy (and common sense) dictates that one holler “ROCK!” should one loose an appliance-sized appendage on parties below.

This was enough to interrupt my reverie.

“Hey!” I called, and paused to listen. No response.

I could hear voices above me, and when I looked again, I saw I was close to the summit.

Another rock whizzed by, this time to my right. What the hell were these Griswolds doing?

I waited another minute. No more rocks. They had apparently stopped climbing, and I realized I needed to pass them or retreat. Anton Krupicka would have sped past them, no problem, but for me, it was a no-brainer: I started the downclimb.

Here things got a little dicey. Moves I hadn’t had to think twice about on the way up now required more precision, more thought. A couple of times I found myself slightly off-route, or at least I assumed I was because I couldn’t see another viable move. Each time, I found my way back to the line I’d come up, feeling a little less confident in my routefinding ability. Once I sat for five minutes, waiting quietly for a group of noisy CU freshmen to pass on the trail below, hoping they wouldn’t notice me and think I needed help.

Do I need help? I wondered.

I didn’t, I quickly determined. I reminded myself with false assurance that I was competent and unafraid, and continued downclimbing until I reached a narrow sliver between the rock itself and a gigantic, immovable boulder balanced atop it. I had reached the crux of my descent.

On the way up, I remembered, I’d fairly floated up it, using the upper boulder for handholds and finding good feet throughout the ten-ish foot section.

Simply walking down the way I’d come up looked impossibly tricky now. There was a nearly thirty-foot drop on one side, and I didn’t see the kinds of hand- or footholds that would have inspired in me the confidence to go up and over the boulder. I also didn’t relish the idea of climbing up the boulder only to find on the other side that it didn’t go, and then being stuck. I would have to wriggle through the narrow crack.

My waist would probably fit, I thought, but not my child-bearing hips and certainly not my voluptuous ass. I repositioned myself a half-dozen times, trying to determine how to best fit what now seemed my impossibly hefty mass through the tiny chimney. It was at about a fifty-degree angle, I estimated, and I finally decided I could downclimb it—Like you’re coming down a ladder, I told myself—rather than scooting down on my butt.

This proved more complicated thanks to my daypack, which had previously felt light and unobtrusive, but which now, even with my nearly-empty Nalgene, seemed as though I’d packed it for a weeks-long backpacking trip. I wasn’t going to fit through the crack with it on.

This photo, taken with my phone once I'd retrieved it, highlights my alma mater and the parking lot to which I'd ostensibly have fallen, had I lost my footing. (Kidding!)
This photo, taken with my phone once I’d retrieved it, highlights my alma mater and the parking lot to which I’d ostensibly have fallen, had I lost my footing. (Kidding!)

I peered over the edge. It was thirty feet to the ground, easy. I reasoned that my phone, the only breakable item in my pack, was in an apparently shatterproof case, and that in any case, it was better than breaking my femur or my skull. The wall below me was not quite vertical, so I could see that I wasn’t going to hit anyone. I tossed it over the edge—“ROCK!” I hollered, just to be safe—watched it disappear from view, waited for a thud, and tried not to think about how much fun it wasn’t going to be to retrieve it, if I ever got down.

When I got down, I corrected myself.

The narrow chimney was much more navigable without the proverbial monkey on my back, and I shimmied down it with relative ease. A few more moves and I was within spitting distance of the ground. I looked back up at the route I’d just downclimbed, feeling annoyed with myself for having become so shaky.

What would Twight think of you? I asked myself aloud. I felt sheepish then, both for supposing Mark Twight would have even enough interest to comment on my failed attempt at free soloing the First Flatiron—child’s play—and because I knew if he were made to express an opinion on the matter, it would be that I was a weenie.

Now, then. The matter of retrieving my abandoned pack. I scrambled alongside the base of the southwest face, desperately hoping to stumble across it by sheer luck.

My half-assed plan worked, and though a fist-sized rock had landed directly on top of it (probably the work of my friends up high), soon enough I had re-discovered the trail. I waited a few minutes there, thinking maybe I’d go back up just to get the First out of my system, but some clouds rolled in and it started to spit a little. Secretly grateful for the excuse not to retrace my steps up—and subsequently back down—I hoofed it down the trail.

I thought a lot about what I’d just done on the way back to the parking lot.

You’re such an asshole, I told myself at first. What if you’d fallen? What would Mom do, then? When the Honnold episode aired, my mom insisted on watching it with me, (reasonably, by any sane person’s standards) averting her eyes whenever they showed him halfway up Half Dome, unroped and unhelmeted and apparently without fear.

“I hope you don’t want to do anything like that,” she kept saying pointedly. I feigned disinterest in the idea, making an offhand comment instead about how real dirtbags aren’t in CitiBank commercials or something equally asinine.

I was still ruminating on the idea of my assholishness, swinging wildly between feeling stupid for having even attempted it and hating myself for not having done it all the way, when Bix called. It occurred to me that he’d been the only person who knew I was up there, and that—while he’d cautioned me to make sure I was in a good headspace before getting on the rock—he was utterly certain I was capable of doing it. That was big, to me, in that moment.

I told him the story and he listened calmly. I worried aloud that I wasn’t a real climber if I couldn’t even talk myself up this ridiculously easy 5.nothing, that I was chickenshit for turning around when those guys dropped a few lousy rocks.

I could practically hear him shaking his head patiently, the way he does when I’m being totally irrational, which is usually.

“If you don’t like it, don’t do it,” he said simply. “Now you know.”

He was right, of course. I had an itch to scratch, but when it came down to it, almost-soloing the First Flatiron was enough for me. I feel pretty strongly that female climbers have more to prove, whether or not that’s right, than do their male counterparts, but as it turns out, this is not an issue I feel the need to prove anything about.

I am not a free soloist, and I don’t think it’s because I’m a chick or because I’m smarter or have more common sense than anyone else. I’m just not, and that’s okay.


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