Phil Geng

Researcher, Climber, Mountaineer


(Un)justifiable risk?

As a passionate climber I enjoy a spot of soloing every now and then. For those of you unfamiliar with the climbing language, soloing refers to climbing usually roped routes unroped. This can range from single pitch routes of a few meters (also sometimes referred to as high ball boulders) to multipitch routes in Yosemite reserved for the world elite.

But how can lovers of this purest form of climbing justify the inherent risk of a fall when climbing unroped? As with every other form of risk, our mitigating factors and defences are mere reductions of the risk factor. We can almost never reduce risk to absolute zero, but we can reduce it as far as we are willing to accept it. In climbing we constantly tiptoe along the edges of our risk acceptance be it with ropes or without. When deciding whether to climb a route roped or unroped climbers take into account a multitude of factors. Experience, ability, condition of the rock and daily form all play a part in the decision making process.

Why 'soloers' solo is largely down to the individual. Some see it as a mind cleaning exercise, others simply cannot be bothered with a rope. For me personally it is all about refocusing on the task in hand - getting up the wall. When climbing using the gear and protection I can find my mind wandering, while soloing that is simply not an option. But not all soloers are young careless daredevils. Out on the grit edges of the Peak District you will see soloers of varying ages and abilities on any given day.

So let's take a closer look at how the risks in soloing compare to those in trad climbing, since the venues for the two are often similar. My personal thought processes in solo and trad climbing are radically different. When trad climbing, I largely concern myself with the next piece of protection, the next "safe haven" so to speak. While soloing it is all about the current move and its successful completion. My pre-climb routine changes as well. In trad during the "racking up" I decide which items of gear I am likely to require where on the route, tie my knot, predict where I might encounter a struggle or require a rest and finally check my partner. In soloing I anticipate the required moves, consider safe spots and points of no return, clean my shoes, chalk up and - once my mind is focused - set off. Here lies the main difference between the two. In trad climbing we can allow for a margin of error due to the gear placed - if we fall we have a chance of the gear catching us. Therefore our risk assessment is often relaxed, as we almost anticipate that we might have missed something. In soloing if I do not feel 100% confident that I can complete or safely escape the route I simply walk away.

Soloing therefore requires an elevated perception of a climber's own ability - not only the actual climbing ability, but also the ability to say no. Ultimately soloing is a survival exercise which tests the most fundamental human instinct - fight or flight. For me, the gut feeling I have just before setting off on the route, the very moment before I leave the ground is the final deciding factor. This gut feeling is the only thought process that can override every thought process up to then, if the feeling is screaming at me to stop that is.

Justifying risks we take is always going to be a question of scope and perspective. If I solo climb myself then the only person I really need to justify my decision to is myself. When supervising others, allowing them to solo climb makes the justification scope much larger. Now consider telling someone explicitly to solo climb in order to "reconnect with the rock" or "find your focus". How could you justify the direct recommendation to take a potentially lethal risk? It's almost impossible to answer this. For this exact reason my standard response to people asking whether they should solo climb or not is to try it if they feel they can justify it to their parents. Not only was this the thought process behind my decision to solo climb, but I also managed to do exactly that - justify the risk I take to my parents. Not many people will care about you more than your parents - even if they sometimes seem to not care at all.

In the meantime my top tip for all aspiring soloers is to really get your footwork sorted out and test out your limits in a safe setting. There are not many things worse than discovering you have hit your limit while on the crux section of a solo climb with nowhere to go and your feet slipping.

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Categories: Opinion, Climbing

Tags: Soloing, Climbing, Opinion, Risk, Bouldering, Trad Climbing

Comments: 2 Comments



  • Posted by Martin on 03/11/15 7:43pm

    Nice post, though I can't say I agree with your approach and perception of the differences between trad and soloing, at least with the onsight mentality on trad that I adhered to at some point:

    'When trad climbing, I largely concern myself with the next piece of protection, the next "safe haven" so to speak. While soloing it is all about the current move and its successful completion.'

    I focus on both, probably more so doing the moves right, and if need be, scoping them out, and down- climbing while i work them out. If I was mainly focused on the 'safe haven' of my next piece I think I wouldn't be climbing very well at all!

    With regards to soloing, I think the two following points you missed are very important:

    1. Can you reverse/ down- climb the move?
    2. How much exposure or height are you capable of handing, and for how long?

    I think the main thing both trad climbers and soloists generally do is to climb within, and get to know their limits well, gradually building them up.

    Here is a good article from a soloist thats worth a read:

    • Posted by Phil on 03/11/15 9:22pm

      Re-reading the post after a while I'd agree that my point about trad climbing and the "safe-haven" of the gear doesn't quite get across what I was trying to say. Where in soloing I purposely focus on each and every move, relating it to the overall journey, I personally focus on a sequence of moves between gear placements in trad. So the focus remains on the moves, but the scope is broader for me.
      I don't like being caught out on solos and happily admit that I walk away from a fair few of them, or rather don't even consider them, because I feel that reversing or escaping would not be possible in places where I would really like that option as a last resort.
      In terms of height and exposure you're absolutely right. It's easy to look down a cliff face and not be phased, but to spend any amount of time roped or unroped on the face itself is a whole different kettle of fish. Exposure plays a big part in our perception of risk and the rationalisation of fears. It is because of this fear response that most of us will gradually build up their exposure tolerance and limits over time as otherwise the numbness Jules describes in his excellent interview and book can kick in and override every rational thought you require to keep you alive at that moment in time.

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