I went rock climbing alone tonight. Not the bonkers, ropeless, free solo (yes, that Free Solo) style. I had a rope, and my setup meant that I was arguably safer even than when I climb with a partner. But I was alone, and that’s kind of unusual for me when rock climbing. And in this case, it was pretty great.
I should be clear that one of my favorite parts about climbing is the community. In my experience, climbers have been the most welcoming, supportive, and quietly rad people to be around. Everyone trying their hardest toward an individual, yet still collective, goal: climb amazing rock. And, until recently, I always climbed with a partner because I needed someone to hold the other end of the rope.
But, it’s not always easy to find a climbing partner. Especially after work, in the fall, as light is fading, on a hot day. So what’s a guy to do? For me, I learned how to top rope solo. It’s a technique of setting up your rope so that it’s fixed (secured) at the top of the climb. Then you rappel down to the bottom and hook yourself onto the rope with a couple of ascenders (a primary one and a backup). Those are designed to slide up the rope, but, critically, not back down. For TR soloing, that means I can climb routes that I can set up from above, without fear of falling to the ground. If I need to rest, or if I slip off the holds while climbing, I basically just end up sitting back in my harness with very little slippage or loss of progress up the rock.
But I’m relatively new to TR soloing, and so far it had always been nerve-racking to set up and climb alone. Without the security of someone else to double-check me, it’s all on me to make sure I’m safe. I triple-check everything, but I’ve always been a bit trepidatious that it would all work as intended.
But tonight was different. I felt confident in my systems. I chose a route up the rock that I was already quite familiar with. I reveled in the ability to take as much time on the rock as I wanted. I could explore new movements and inspect minuscule rock features without feeling bad about making my belayer work harder. Without any sort of audience, I never felt self-conscious about my technique. I felt free, in tune with the rock, and at peace.
At one point, I popped in an AirPod and asked Siri to play my personal radio station. Apple Music served up the perfect playlist of relaxed vibe tunes that aided my sublime flow up the rock. At several points, I just stopped and looked in awe at the descending sun poking through the peak autumn leaves.
I climbed into the night and my world shrunk down to the small space around my body where I could just make out the tiny features of the rock to grip or perch on. Those little nubbins were the only important things in the world in those moments.
I think I’ll always prefer climbing with a partner. It’s wonderful to share those experiences, encouraging one another up the rock. But on days where there’s no climbing buddy to be found, or on days where I just need some time to myself to move and think, I’ll gladly grab my soloing setup and just climb by me, with me, for me.