Monkey See, Monkey Do

posted by dpm on 04/11/2012

I was making my internet rounds this morning and UKClimbing directed me to this video and interview. The subject’s name is Matt Bush and he lives in South Africa. According to the interview he’s been ticking hard routes in the region up to 5.14a and onsighting as hard as 5.13c. He’s also been soloing quite a few hard routes including Switchbitch and Shad (both 5.13c), The Activist (5.13b) and many other 5.12 routes.


Click the image for video of Matthew Bush soloing 5.13c.

Watching the video impressed me. It’s not often that we get to see hard solos on film for two reasons.  1.) Almost no one is soloing 5.13c.  2.) When it rarely does happen there isn’t usually a camera around.  In fact, solos of truly hard pitches are very rare. Soloists like Alex Honnold tend to go for the super long impressive big wall solos like Moonlight Buttress (5.12d) or the Northwest Face of Half Dome (5.12a). Even the most celebrated soloists like Honnold rarely venture beyond the physical difficulty of 5.12. The Phoenix (5.13a) was an exception for Alex.

Honnold certainly represents the new generation of soloists and has made some groundbreaking progressions in big wall free-soloing. But for absolute pure difficulty we haven’t seen the bar get raised that much despite the tremendous level of progression in physical difficulty. John Bachar famously soloed Father Figure (5.12d/13a) in Joshua Tree in 1985. Scott Franklin soloed Survival of the Fittest (5.13a) at the Gunks in 1986. Patrick Edlinger was soloing some sick long routes in the Verdon Gorge of France in the 80’s.

In 1999, Austrian Beat Kammerlander raised the bar to 5.13c/d with a solo of Mordillo at Voralpsee, Switzerland. Personally, I view Beat’s solo as one of the most impressive solos of all time due to the style of the climbing. I’ve climbed on Mordillo which gives me a level of insight beyond just the number. It is one hundred feet of ½ pad edges that are glassy slick. The wall overhangs about 20 degrees and there isn’t a single place to stop and shake. His solo was incredible. I didn’t expect to find any footage of this ascent but there is just a little on Beat’s website.

A few years later in 2004, Alex Huber dropped the 5.14a bomb with a solo of The Kommunist at his home crag of Schleier Wasserfall in Austria. As the story goes, Alex was alone at the crag preparing for the solo when a hiker approached. Alex handed the camera to the hiker, had him record the ascent, and history was made. Alex’s nearly decade old solo still stands as the highpoint for difficult free soloing.

Click the image for video of Alex on the hardest graded free solo in history.

Guys like Peter Croft, John Bachar, Dean Potter and Alex Honnold all pushed the level of difficulty on big routes. Keeping your head in check for an hour, or hours, is arguably as difficult as the short burst of focus required by Huber on The Kommunist. But in the end, a fall from the top of Half Dome will probably have the same end result as a fall from the top of Mordillo or the crux of The Kommunist. It’s no wonder we haven’t seen solo ascents push into the 5.14 realm.

Will we see people push soloing to 5.14b or harder? We probably will, even if the person to do it hasn’t been born yet. Overall though, as climbing has become more (dare I say it) main stream, soloing has become less popular and even frowned upon by many climbers.

Media in particular dances around the subject with caution lest they ‘promote’ the act and someone dies as a result of their celebration of it. After Honnold’s solo of Half Dome, posted the news on their homepage while simultaneously stating that they do not promote soloing which I got a good laugh out of. I don’t see the need to disguise our genuine awe of these incredible feats when they happen. In fact, it’s the one facet of climbing that everyone, even non-climbers, can understand. Sixty Minutes hasn’t done a feature story on Adam Ondra but they have showcased Honnold’s feats on the big walls of Yosemite. Normal people just ‘get it’ when they see a soloist. They intuitively know that, “He’s really high off the ground and if he falls he’s gonna die!”

Click the image to watch the 60 Minutes episode with Alex Honnold soloing in Yosemite. 

I don’t currently have access to my collection of Masters of Stone videos, despite knowing I should never leave home without them, but I recall in one of them that John Bachar comments on the subject. His take was something to the effect of, “You don’t go watch a sword swallower at the circus and then go home and try the trick.” I think Bachar was right. Showing people soloing probably isn’t going to make them go out and do it. My buddy Tom related a story once illustrating Bachar’s theory. He was distraught over a recent break-up and headed out alone to the cliff looking for consolation from the inanimate stone lover that would never betray him. He booted up and slowly picked his way up a 5.12a which he’d done numerous times without falling. He got 20 feet off the ground before thinking, “What the hell am I doing?” He down-climbed and probably shed a few tears before taking his shoes off, though he left that part out of the story.

Then again, there is the occasional dumb-ass that just seems intent on winning a Darwin award. This video really sums it up and I have no doubt that Bachar would have rolled over in his grave had he heard his name mentioned in it. (Spoiler alert: the guy is fine. Don’t throw up when you see him fall.)

Sometimes Darwin gets proven wrong. Click for video. 

Unlike the general populace, when we as climbers see someone solo we usually revert to judgment. We think, “Why is he doing that?” or “He does not look solid” or “He’s not old enough to make the decision to solo.” Remember when 17-year-old  Greg Kerzhner soloed Bohica (5.13b) in the Motherlode at the Red River Gorge? I probably wasn’t the only one that had those simultaneous thoughts of “Wow! Sick!” and “What an idiot,” though not necessarily in that order. Greg’s a friend of mine that I have great respect for so it’s easy to see why I would want to pat him on the back and punch him in the face. Though again, I’d have to decide what order to do it in.

Bad-ass/dumb-ass defines Greg Kerzhner, shown here without a rope halfway up Bohica (5.13b) in the Madness Cave of the Red River Gorge. Photo: Dan Brayack

Does linking to this awesome video on DPM ‘promote’ soloing and subliminally suggest that people go and do it? I sure hope not but I’m not afraid to link to this video of Matt Bush. It’s pretty bad ass that he’s doing what he is and I can only hope that the impressionable folks that visit this site see the “sword swallower” for what he is. Should soloists be filming their ascents and posting them online? Well, that’s not for me to decide, but I sure am impressed watching them.

What are your thoughts regarding soloing and climbing media? Does posting videos of soloing make it ‘cool’ and encourage others to take a stab at it? Or was Bachar right in suggesting that only the confident and intelligent will make the decision to cast off ropeless?