Things to Do on a Solo Mountain Climb

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No travel buddies? No problem. Here’s how to plan a trip and meet people along the way.
This spring I was between jobs with a few weeks to kill. I wanted to spend some time climbing my heart out, but my partner had already used up all his paid time off for the year, so I’d be going it alone. International destinations like Castle Hill in New Zealand or Fontainebleau in France tempted me. But not wanting to deal with overseas logistics, I decided the next best option was to hit the road solo.
I’ve always prided myself on being an independent person. I went to New Zealand alone in 2015. I’ve driven down the Eastern Sierra by myself a few times to meet friends—and I even hate driving. I’ve backpacked alone once. But climbing is different; it’s a fairly social sport. Climbing safely usually means you need at least one other person there with you. If you’re climbing with ropes, you need another person to belay you. If you’re bouldering, or climbing smaller rocks, having a person there to direct your body onto your pads if you fall is extremely helpful. Additionally, having a good partner can make the climbing experience more enjoyable. You can bounce ideas and sequences off them and they can act as cheerleader.

The thought of being by myself on a climbing trip filled me with anxiety. My mind raced with possible scenarios: Nobody would spot me. I’d fall off a boulder and break my leg. Nobody would want to climb with me. I’d be relegated to wistfully watching other parties happily swapping leads on the wall. Or worse, I’d be filled with so much anxiety that I wouldn’t climb at all. But the idea of getting out of my comfort zone won out.

My rough plan was to head to Utah—St. George, Joe’s Valley and Moab—by way of Red Rocks near Las Vegas. I loaded up my car in San Francisco—where I’d met many friends while out climbing at my local crags—and hoped I’d find new partners at these farther destinations, too. I knew at least one person who would be in every spot, and each location had boulders, so if I couldn’t find someone to climb with, I could at least play by myself on moderate boulders with the crash pads that I brought with me.

At the end of my road trip, I headed home with tears of disbelief, gratitude and joy running down my face. Loneliness had only hit for a brief period of time. I climbed without breaking any body parts, and I made new friends with plans to climb together again in the future. I learned a few things about how to plan a successful solo climbing road trip. Here are a few tips.

Pick a popular destination with multiple activities.

A remote destination may sound exciting, but finding climbing partners far from more populous spots might be tough. Crags located near bigger cities and communities will increase your chances of finding or making a friend.

If you’re able to, be flexible with your plans and destination. Sometimes weather won’t cooperate. Are there other spots you can migrate to if the weather turns? How many days do you need to wait for the rock to dry if the weather is wet? Are there crags that stay dry when it’s wet? Are there other things to do there if the weather isn’t great, like hot springs, hiking or mountain biking? Is the town climber-friendly if you have to hole up for a day or two?

During my trip, a winter storm rolled through most of Utah. It rained two of the days I was in Moab. Waiting for the sandstone to dry, I killed time by checking out Arches National Park, hiking to Delicate Arch and catching up on life in the library.

Pack for self sufficiency.

My car, a Subaru Outback, was loaded up with three crash pads. If I had no spotters, I wanted to be as safe as possible, even if that would mean running back and forth to my car schlepping pads in Joe’s Valley or looking silly and staggering around with two pads attached to my back at Red Rocks. In Moab I convinced people to go bouldering with me, so they helped carry some of my pads.

In case I might find people to rope climb with, I tossed in some cragging gear too: harness, helmet, personal anchor system, belay devices and a couple spare locking carabiners. These came in handy. People I met in Moab wanted to climb at Wall Street, and I convinced someone to lead me up the famous route Ancient Art.

If you’re keen on getting on ropes, bring all the gear you have: draws, cams, nuts, slings and more. If you can supply everything you would potentially need, all that’s missing is a belay partner.

Use social media to find partners.

People rag on social media, but it’s a fantastic place to connect with people. Social media user groups are the new bulletin board for finding climbing partners. Most climbing destinations have partner-finder groups as well. You can post your plans, or you can lurk and see if anyone else is looking in the area. I am always hyper aware of finding a climbing partner who treats me with respect and makes me feel safe. Climbing with women makes me feel more comfortable, so I look to groups like She Explores and Women Who Climb.

I didn’t outwardly post about what I planned on doing. But I saw in the She Explores group that there were people who were on the road at the same time I was and in the same area, so I reached out privately and let them know our paths might cross. We exchanged numbers and said we’d keep each other posted. When I rolled into Moab, I found my first internet friend on a dusty dirt road. We became inseparable and soon included others to create a small group of people on the go.

Rely on your friend network or local climbers’ haunts to meet new people.

Have your friends been to a climbing area you want to visit? Do they know anyone who might be around? Don’t be afraid to ask for introductions and connections. A friend vouching for someone can feel a little safer than meeting up with a complete stranger. One of my friends alerted me that her friend was going to be in Moab. She passed me his contact info, and he met up with my small, but growing, group of climbers. We got along so well that he ended up caravanning with us for the rest of his trip.

Another way to meet climbers is to go where they hang out. Climbers need rest days, and they tend to gravitate to free WiFi. Are there places where people tend to gather on their off days, such as the public library in Moab or Black Sheep Coffee Roasters in Bishop? Are there campsites that cater to climbers such as Camp 4 in Yosemite or Super Bowl in Indian Creek? You’ll find no shortage of folks looking to partner up or hang out.

If all else fails, come bearing snacks—food is a great way to make a connection. On my second night in Moab, an acquaintance from the library rolled into the camp I was sharing with the small group of climbers. He offered to cook up some elk sausage and pasta. We were inseparable for the next week.

Keep an open mind.

You might need to get out of your comfort zone to meet new people. I’m introverted and not good at making friends in real life. Finding people to climb with took a bit of effort and opening up and talking to strangers. But I finished my trip with a new group of friends that felt more like family. Don’t be afraid to ask for a spot, if you can hop on a boulder problem, or for some beta. But exercise caution when climbing with new partners. Even if you can rope up and place gear in your sleep, don’t forget to check your partner’s gear, harness, anchors, knots, everything. If you’re not comfortable with someone’s safety practices, listen to your gut feeling.

Embrace solitude.

At Joe’s Valley I arrived well after dark and the people I knew were staying in a hostel in town. I was on a budget, so I opted to sleep in my car near the boulders. I found a little site tucked in the trees and made a quick dinner. Most people were wrapping up their evenings, dousing their fires and preparing for bed. It was the first night on the trip where I had nobody to talk to. Typically at a time like that, I would distract myself by playing on my phone, but cell service was limited, so I really had to sit with my thoughts. I chose to read until I was tired.

The next day, I met up with people I knew to boulder. They weren’t people I knew well, and I struggled to connect and motivate myself to climb, even though I was in one of my favorite climbing destinations in the whole world. I ended up only climbing on one boulder before getting chased out by snow. My takeaway: If you don’t hit it off with anyone right away, don’t fret. You may have lows as well as highs. Embrace the loneliness. Enjoy not having to worry about anyone else and having the freedom to do whatever you want, whenever you want.

Heading out on a solo climbing trip can be daunting. It’s like jumping into an alpine lake. It’s a little scary and cold at first, but once you’re in, it’s refreshing. Maybe even magical.

Solo Climbing

Solo climbing has been practice for as long as any other type of climbing, and a surprising number of famous routes were originally climbed solo, or were quickly repeated by solo climbers. Here are some notable examples:
Zmutt nose, Matterhorn – first ascent by Walter Bonatti
Bonatti Pillar – first ascent by Walter Bonatti
Everest – Reinhold Messner
‘The Fish’, Marmolada, Dolomites – Free soloed by Hansjörg Auer
Eiger North Face – Speed solo by Ueli Steck

There are two discaplines in the world of solo climbing:
1:Free-solo, this means climbing without any ropes or other protection against a fall
2:Roped-solo, as the named suggests, ropes are used in case of a fall

I have been solo climbing, both with and without ropes for protection, since the start of my climbing career 25 years ago. I started solo climbing simply because climbing partners were not always available, and I always wanted to do a lot of climbing! When I was younger I preferred to free-solo, that means climbing without a rope or any other equipment. Just your rock shoes, chalk bag and a strong nerve. Clearly the penalties for error are very high. But as with everything, what you can achieve is directly proportional to the particular skill level you have.
I still enjoy climbing alone but am not prepared to take the big risks I used to when I was younger, so in recent years I have been using various self belay techniques, to provide protection from a fall. I am still happy to free solo on climbs which are well within my comfort zone, but I don’t have any ambition to chase the famous free solo masters: Alex Honnald and Alain Robert.

This year I have trained hard for climbing and managed to solo climb several challenging rock routes in the Alps:
Le Ticket, le Carré, le Rond et la Lune (300m max 6b+) Aiguille du Peigne (free solo, with rope protected sections)
Voucher Route (600m max 6a) Aiguille du Peigne, (free solo)
Voyages Sellon Gulliver (500m max 7a+), Grand Capucin (mainly rope protected)
Temple of the Sun (300m max 7b+), Maladiere (rope protected)

Why do it?

Simply for the love of climbing, the challenge and for the solitude. Or when you want to climb but haven’t got a partner. Also for the speed, the solo climber moves a lot faster through the terrain than a roped team.

Is it safe?

Free soloing is extremely dangerous for obvious reasons. Roped soloing isn’t as safe as climbing with a partner, but if rigged properly it can be done with a fair degree of safety.

The principal risks:

Firstly there is no buddy to keep an eye on your rope work, so there must be strictly no mistakes. Secondly in the event of any type of injury or incident, there is nobody on hand to help.

How to lead using a self belay system:

Instead of the leader tying into the rope, the rope is tied of at the ground, or at a belay station on a multi pitch route. It is then up to the climber to ascend while feeding the rope out. Feeding the rope out can be done using numerous ways. My favoured way is with a Petzl Grigri, but there are other similar devices on the market. The simplest way is to a clove hitch on the harness and to keep moving up the rope, however this has the huge disadvantage of needing both hands to shift it! So not useful on hard or steep routes.

This diagram shows the basic system. The rope beneath the climber is tried of at the base of the pitch (a bow line into an upward loading anchor is perfect). The loop of rope is the remaining slack and at point ‘A’, the climber will need to ‘feed out’ the slack.

This picture shows how to use the Petzl Grigri for solo –roped climbing. I highly recommend using a small jamming device to hold the slack rope up. Otherwise, the Grigri will jam continuously when you are climbing- not desirable.

This photograph shows a similar system, only instead of the Grigri, a Reverso plate is used. This system is only possible when using a chest harness.
It is worth noting that whatever your level of expertise, these systems need a considerable amount of practice and fine tuning. Also the diameter of rope used makes a big difference in how well the rope ‘runs’.

How to retrieve your lead gear from the pitch:

Ah, the bane of the solo climber! There is no partner, to second the pitch to retrieve your gear. On single pitch climbs, its easy, just abseil down and grab your gear. On multi pitch, one has to abseil down and then re-climb the pitch using the top-rope for protection. The safety device I favour for this is a Wild Country rope man (with a back up knot every so often). However some people prefer to jumar the pitch (climb the rope).

So ultimately, whichever method you use, you end up climbing the route twice, that’s pretty strenuous.
Clearly solo climbing isn’t for everyone, but with slick rope work and good level of ability, it is possible to climb long and hard routes without a partner.