Im sure we have all seen Free Solo by now, El capitan is climbed without ropes by Alex Honnold.
It mad me wonder about how free solo climbers in generall get down, if they cant top out…
How do Free Solo climbers get back down? Free Solo Climbers can either walk off the top, Like El capitan where the top is accessible from hiking, or they simply ‘down climb’ going back down the way they climbed up to reach the ground.
There are a few more methods of reaching nice flat ground again, and which one you use depends on the climb and a couple other factors which I have developed further below!
How did Alex Honnold get back down from Free Soloing El capitan? In the case of Free Solo the answer is Hiking off the back of the cliff. Most of the big mountains like Half Dome and El Cap can be summited by Hikeing up the back of the Cliffs.
Funny story; apparently alex was walking back down El Capitan and people were giving him respect for hiking barefoot, Having no idea what a monumental achievement he had just done!
Some Free Soloists take a pair of flip flops with them so they can walk back down the cliff they summit in comfort and style. Flip Flops are light and can be attached to a harness or stashed on the summit for when you arrive.
Hiking Off is recommended when the climb you have done is long, intense or there are some sections that arent down climb-able. (more on this later). Its obviously less risky than climbing back down so its ideal if the climbing was further outside your comfort zone than you expected.
Some Cliffs dont have any Hiking paths or if the topout is loose and unsuitable for Free solo then downclimbing is your primary option. (There is another covered soon below.)
In some instances hiking off isnt possible, and sometimes its just not appropriate.
What is Down Climbing? Down Climbing is climbing back down a Rock Climb to get to the ground or reach your anchor and last protection in traditional climbing.
so down climbing is simply reversing the climbing moves you did, to decend the route safely, its a tool used commonly in trad climbing where uncertain terrain or gear promotes caution and retreat instead of taking fall. Its the same in free soloing, Down climbing is a magical skill for retracing your steps and getting yourself out of potentially dangerous situations.
Imagine your 30 feet off the ground, you passed a rest a few moves ago and not your looking at a section of the climb you dont know exactly what to do… since you have no protection or second chances you are likely going to down climb to the rest, or even the ground.
Solid down climbing requires you to have great footwork and trust in your feet, because you are going down, feet first.
Down climbing is often used as a Technique drill for climbers to hone there feet first movement, and develop trust in there feet not slipping.
Before you attempt Down climbing Free Solo you want to be very confident you will be able too. Starting with down climbing a route on a rope is your best bet to get started.
its basically the same movement pattern as regular climbing;
you establish your feet then move your body, then your arms but instead of starting with straight arms and bent feet, you move your feet down on bent arms, then lower yourself onto straight arms.
You can feel more secure downclimbing because you are never deadpointing hand holds like you would on the solo, your just lowering yourself onto lower feet,
you can keep your arms locked off on the handholds while you move your feet lower but this is still really ineficient and good trusting footwork will mean you dont need to keep locked off all the time.
If you dont enjoy exposure while you climb, you will want to familiarise yourself with down climbing before you attempt it somewhere high because you will be spending most of your time looking down.
I think down climbing is more intense than going up because your concentrating on your foot work and making sure there placed well to the backdrop of all the meters and meters between you and the ground.
Like mentioned previously, sometimes Down climbing is your only option.
If the topout is loose you would want to just stick to the secure rock your on and down climb.
Another example is if the cliff doesnt have a hike down. If this is the case, like on most sport climbing crags, you also will have to downclimb.
Alex Honnold, the most well known Free soloist had a curcuit of climbs he would free solo one after the other to quickly build up milage free soloing.
In a curcumstance like this where all your stuff is at the base of the climb, and you have more to do in that area, Down climbing makes the most sense.
However you dont want to try down climbing just because its convinient because getting to the top is only halfway, and lots of incidents occur on the down climb.
Downclimbing might not be an option however,
Its pretty common for climbs to have moves that cant be reversed.
Once you have done a move like this, like a deadpoint
The third popular option is Rappelling! However this isnt always an option an will need to be set up before the Free Solo.
You can stash a rope and rapelling gear at the top of your climb to make it back down if you dont fancy the walk down, or downclimbing isnt viable.
Sometimes, like in Alex Honnolds case, when he first attempted the el cap solo, he had a fixed line so he didnt have to try and downclimb the slabs at the bottom, because some of those moves were probably irreversible. Rappelling might be the only option to come down the way you came if a section of the climb is not possible as a downclimb. this actually happens quite frequently where a move cannot be ‘undone’ and your commited to climbing too the top.
An example of moves that cannot be down climbed is a dyno, i cant imagine many cases where you can down wards dyno and even subtle moves like swinging left into a new crack system maybe an irreversible move.
Finally, base jumping is the last and probably least common method of getting back down, as its a high risk activity in itself. It isnt a viable option for climbs under at MINIMUM 60 feet, acoording to This article on the Gaurdian. so this is only really option of your soloing a climb with great hight, at least a multipitch.
Its not legal to BASE jump in Yosemite valley (wiki linked here) so its not really an option here either unless your a rebel.
Imagine that though, you summit a 2000 foot big wall on a sunny day. take your shoes off and jump straight back down over the climb, soaring through the air and landing back where you began hours ago, in a couple minutes. Base jumping seems incredible and very convinient in these scenarios like Switzerland where theres soaring walls permited for base jumping, But it comes with its downsides. Most people regard base jumping as the riskiest and most dangerous of the extreme sports and rightly so. Base jumping is average ‘430 micromorts’ per jump. Micromorts is the chance in a million theres a fatality. general day to day life is given 1 micromort. for comparison a 100km motorbike ride is given 10 micromorts.
Rock climbing, Free Soloing, Base jumping and rapelling are all very serious activities, dont attempt anything without proper, professional guidance. this is simply a brief explenation, dont take any of what i say as professional advice!
Anyway, thank you if youve made it this far. i hope this article brought you some value as i really enjoy writing them. Thanks.