I promised my father I’d never free solo. I remember, as a young kid, how his voice rocked back and forth, not to scold, but to imprint the eternal warning to never climb without a rope. If it were ever my responsibility to teach others to climb, I would lead by example, since free soloing would potentially lead to others doing it as well—at least that’s how he saw it.
by Patrick Hodge (this piece is published in The Climbing Zine Book)
Banner photo by: Corey Flynn
Yet, these conversations were few and far between. Our climbing stories, rather, are of anchoring eight-year-old me to a tree so I could belay him up a route to establish the toprope, or of him witnessing the largest whipper I’ve ever taken to date in the Needles of South Dakota at thirteen—where I spun 360 degrees and was caught, dangling feet into my belayer’s face, whose knuckles were skinned raw from the quartzite. One of my dad’s old climbing partners, Matt Geumpel, even told me how, when I was three, we approached a wall in Giant City and I had said with eyes wide and in absolute awe, “Is this Debils Tower?” Climbing was undoubtedly born into me through the careful and studied hands of my father.
2012: I was twenty-six years old and surprisingly only had three years of newfound consistency to the sport of climbing despite decades of exposure. We were up in Boulder Canyon somewhere—it’s funny, I can’t even remember what climb I was on, but it may have been something at Animal World. I had just summited a single pitch, pulling beautiful granite and clipping bolts. I had untied from the rope as you normally would, busy setting up for rappel. Then Corey yelled up, “Are you still psyched to do some more climbing?”
“Hell yeah,” I responded, hollering down with my torso twisted and my hands cupped around my mouth. “Just let me finish up…” The next sixty seconds burned itself into my memory:
It begins with unclipping my personal anchor from the bolts, my last safety, and I start to lean back. My fingers softly grasp slopers while my toes rest on a thin rail only an inch in width. Time to go. I feel my body search for the habit—but this is different—and a shock wave radiates from my chest out, filling the entirety of my body, fingertips to toes. It is like a soundless concussion, as if some enormous thing has stomped itself into me, the vibrations reverberating outward like water ripples in the soft core of my being. Something is wrong. So I glance down to find that I had never actually set up the rappel at all. No ready ATC on my belay loop with the rope threaded through. No rope even through the rap rings themselves—it was still dangling in a knot tied to the side of my harness, as you’d do to prevent yourself from dropping it. I had disassembled the system as lead climber and somehow never reassembled anything for rappel.
So I breathe in as slowly as I can, lean gently back into the rock, pressing my chest against the hard surface. I unclip the personal anchor from my harness and listen to its metal as I attach it to a bolt. My ears ring. My palms erupt with sweat. That fast, Patrick. I would have fallen roughly one hundred feet and detonated on the jagged rocks next to Corey. Stunned, I finish what I was originally supposed to do, something that is so second nature, something that I have done over a thousand times and is so stupidly mundane that: I almost killed myself. I do it all with shaky hands and finally rap off the route.
When I reach Corey, who had been collecting his gear, completely oblivious to what had transpired, my body is afflicted from the rapid adrenaline hangover. Befallen by silence, I don’t mention anything to him. Yet, I know I have to communicate something. I’m embarrassed, traumatized. I express tiredness and a willingness to belay him on anything he wants but that I myself was done with trying hard. What had almost taken place up on the wall and beside him echoed inside my head. Why didn’t I set up the rappel? Hell, I wasn’t even questioning why my hand wasn’t on the brake before leaning back. Where did my mind go? All I know is that it came back in an awe-depressing haze.
Surprising or not, I am no stranger to near-death experiences. I got hit by a truck riding my bike when I was in first grade. As a teenager, I was almost pushed off the road on a motorcycle when an RV came around a blind turn on a mountain pass, in my lane. Then, at twenty-three, I did fly off a mountain off-roading in my Jeep when the engine suddenly stalled on a point of no return, and we rolled until a tree stopped us. A year later, I spent nineteen days in the hospital when I came down with Lemierre’s syndrome, something that, ironically, only affects young, healthy people and had a 90 percent death rate before antibiotics. I remember finding it hard to breathe, coughing blood while the doctors spent eleven days trying to figure out what I had. Suddenly, I was thrown over a table and punctured in my back by a metal straw to drain my lungs. The nurse eventually figured it all out, not the doctors.
In the hospital, I never once thought that I was going to die, no matter how grim everything, myself included, looked. I refused to go there. I was pissed off. Do you think this will slow me down? I lost more than twenty-five pounds and everything I had worked for. You’ll never be the same, doctors told me, in regard to my lungs. I had asthma when I young, so my lungs were once again a focal point in physical capability. When I was finally released, I went to the gym and lifted weights with a PICC line in my arm attached to a twenty-four-hour penicillin drip. In a compression bottle. In my pocket. I became rabidly obsessed with proving the doctors, and death, wrong. In a month and a half, I regained most of the weight and improved my lung capacity by 95 percent, despite smoking weed every fucking day.
Obviously death doesn’t care what we do, and all these near-death experiences growing up were the result of pure chance and circumstance, things unpredictable. This climbing incident was unquestionably my fault—avoidable, predictable, the effect of user error. I have never had a direct play into my own potential for death as I have had with climbing—actually, that’s a lie. When I was a young turd, I held on to the top of my friend’s car going over one hundred miles per hour. Maybe I’m just a little bit crazy. Nonetheless, when you’re close to death, you can’t help but feel all the more alive, right? I’m actually grateful to have had many of those opportunities, so many in fact that instead of survivor’s elation, it only resonates the over-used yet under-appreciated notion that life is finite.
The day following the climbing incident, Corey and I headed to Eldorado Canyon to climb again. He asked if I had any preferences: do we climb hard or do some easy free soloing? He even chuckled to himself at that last thought, aware that I had never free soloed and never would. But what happened the day before flooded me. I came to the realization that even though I had the confidence and the expectation that I would do everything safely, I nearly lost it, unbeknownst to myself. It was a stupid mistake derived from distraction; yet it further solidified I never had control over my death—that each day was another roll of the proverbial dice: snake eyes, you’re out. So for the first time, I let go and said fuck it. Corey’s eyes lit up. He was surprised, immediately psyched. We decided to start slow and easy, and he suggested that we climb the Wind Ridge, a casual 5.6. I knew enough from the people around me that free soloed often that you try to move only one limb at a time, static movement while maintaining three points of contact.
I found strange, intoxicating space in my mind, a back door almost, that was entirely safe from fear and panic. It was incredible. Every move was effortless as we floated up in tandem. Upon reaching the summit, I admitted to myself and to Corey how addicting free soloing is. It is so liberating to climb a few hundred feet in only ten minutes. Corey asked if I wanted to do more, and without hesitation, I said yes.
The next route we set our eyes on was The Bastille Crack, a classic 5.7+, which was taller than what we had just done. Nonetheless, despite having to pass a few parties, we made short work of the wall. I was entranced, absorbed with the freedom free soloing seemed to provide. So we decided to do one last route. Corey, having free soloed these routes in the past, was ecstatic to share the experience, and we fed off each other’s energy.
Hair City, 5.9R. About 150 feet off the deck, there is a short overhanging section, a roof more or less. I remember analyzing the sequence and feeling the air of exposure, but I was never afraid. I couldn’t do anything wrong. Each hand placement was solid, sturdy. Each toe, perfect. No slipping. No sweating. Safe. Absolute euphoria. For me, each route was a completely new experience; I had never been on these climbs before. And, to think, that we had climbed nearly one thousand vertical feet in only a couple hours, interspersed with time spent hiking from one route to the next. But those mere climbing minutes dominated the perception of the day. Still high off the elation, I told Corey that I would be psyched to do more free soloing in the future.
At home, I found myself reflecting on my life as a climber. I couldn’t help but confront all the conversations I once had with my father. His words spoke heavy and rattled shame. “There’re old climbers and bold climbers, but there’re no old, bold ones.” Then it occurred to me that he would blame himself for introducing me to climbing if I were to die free soloing. It hurt to imagine the memories of us climbing sewn with regret—us down in Southern Illinois, in the Shawnee, or at Devils Tower. I was challenged. I obviously wasn’t only risking my own life but the liveliness of those who loved me. Though I didn’t see it as risk, risk seemed to be an illusion, and roped up or not, I had no way of controlling it. Only if I was meant to die, and did, would it have been deemed risky. Thus, if I didn’t have enough sense to interpret appropriate risk for myself, I needed to at least do so for them.
I eventually made the commitment that I was done with it and convinced myself that it was only pure luck that I was able to do what I did and get away with it. However, it wasn’t more than a week later that Corey and I found ourselves back in Eldorado Canyon. Corey asked again if I wanted to free solo The Bastille to warm up for us tying in later. Knowing that it was well within my ability and that I had already done it, I decided, what the hell, if I can do it once, I can do it again. Being truly capricious on the matter, I ignored my pact, and we started up.
Yet, around the top of the second pitch, I began to feel lightheaded and could tell I was skirting the edge of something dark. I was knocking on some enormous dam that held back all the fear, and the promise not to do this again was spilling over with each hand placement. What the fuck are you doing? What are you trying to prove? Internal war erupted, and mixed suffering ensued in waves. I remember at one point Corey looking down at me, and I could see his eyes looking curiously into mine. “Are you ok?” he calmly asked.
My response was guided by the fact that I had gotten myself into this, so I had to get myself out. Admitting panic to Corey would perhaps only make him panic. “Of course, everything’s fine—let’s just keep going,” I peacefully asserted. But my climbing was shit. My feet would find edge and slip. My hands, jammed in the cracks, would steadily give way to mild desperation. I was fighting a constant pump of anxious sweat. The only thing that kept me going was understanding that the climbing was well below my limit. I am not going to die on this wall.
Finally, minutes having passed like hours, we found ourselves rounding the blocky summit. The instant my feet were on solid, flat ground, I told Corey that I was done and admitted to having almost lost it. “I knew something was wrong!” he exclaimed.
“Yeah, and what? Tell you? Have you freak out as well?” I jabbed. The day was over, or at least it was for me. So we hiked out and drove away.
I never told him about my initial motivation to free solo that one invincible day, where my body buzzed and the energy high was like a gift of perfection. I didn’t tell him for a couple years. My mind, all the logic, was messed up, and I manifested PTSD for a while.
Gave up climbing for six months, moved away from Colorado to work in different states, doing things that kept my mind far from the cliffs. I would come back and leave again, go home to Illinois or to Florida. I worked on a hog farm in California even, covered in pig shit, herding livestock, philosophizing with donkeys. Corey actually got me the job on that farm, and we worked together there, two years after the fact. And that’s when I finally told him all that happened. “Well it all makes sense now.” He connected the dots, and he felt ashamed for treating that day like any other day.
But why did I leave? I wanted to let life happen without climbing directing my path, and financial opportunities lured me away from Colorado. Despite intentions, I still thought about climbing all the time, but I wanted to try living a “normal” life. Not that hog farms are normal, but it was different, and after a while, exhausting. So I tried Seattle, but it rained every day. Needless to say, my summer gig as an environmental educator was still a sure thing in Colorado, so I went home. All my friends were climbers; there was no doubt I’d return to the rock, and I felt psyched. I could appreciate it more than before. I could look past grades and just love it, be absorbed in the beauty of it all, like how it was when I was a kid. Climbing returned to me as something awe-inspiring again.
It took a good year of self-talk to convince myself that I was safe when I was tied in, that falling was ok and just part of the experience, like before, when everything made sense. It was a slow process effectively assessing personal risk again. But I eventually found that relative balance and peace of mind and progressed. I finally broke the mental barrier into 5.12 and above, after, yeah, having been a climber forever.
To quote from Bernadette Murphy’s latest book, Harley and Me: Embracing Risk on the Road to a More Authentic Life, she summarizes research done by psychologist Michael Apter:
“[Apter] describes the appeal of risk taking as the ‘tiger in the cage’ phenomenon. Risk seekers desire the danger and thrill of the tiger, but they also want the safety of knowing the beast can be contained.…Though others imagine [risk takers] have a latent death wish, the truth is that they are actually passionate devotees of living life to its fullest. By taking part in activities in which they could be injured or killed, and then drawing back from the brink through their application of skill and discipline, they tap into a level of awareness and alert presence that can make life seem that much sweeter. Risk takers are not interested in dangerous activities, per se, but in experiencing danger that they can control and master to the utmost degree.”
Climbing obviously puts you in places and circumstances that are inherently dangerous, places that you wouldn’t otherwise find yourself, yet it helps prove self-actualization, reinforces the understanding of what you see as life and what is possible—and what could be more fun than that?
Admittedly, I have free soloed since but only on the Flatirons, where it’s seemingly an unspoken rite of passage into the Boulder climbing scene, and the climbing itself is like a ladder. I even shared the experience of free soloing the Third Flatiron with my then girlfriend, now wife, in 2015.
Yet I understand that free soloing is always a choice, a form of practiced minimalism, and is done by those who have, hopefully, thoroughly assessed themselves, the associated consequences, and as Murphy summarizes above, it’s done by those seeking a different (not necessarily better) awareness and mastery of this relationship between climb and climber.
Patrick Hodge enjoys his morning coffee and believes that humor is the best medicine. He can be found tending his vegetables, trail running, or sussing moves on the cliffs of Colorado, occasionally writing when inspiration strikes or when his wife feeds him chocolate and tells him to do it.