Soloing and Risk

This link came from the Climbing Narc. I find it funny that The Wall Street Journal has an “Extreme Sports” columnist, but I digress.   Here are some interesting musing on the death of John Bacher and soloing in general.

I first heard of John Bachar’s death just after I returned from a solo trip to the Stuart Range in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area of the Washington Cascades.  A trip where I got lucky and escaped serious injury.  When I read the news I paused for a moment and allowed myself to go into the darker thoughts that surround soloing.

Suddenly I could hear the sound of my nylon clothing sliding across the snow slope, rocks flashing by as I attempeted to arrest my fall without an ice axe.  I got lucky.  This, and what happened to John, are what most people think of when they think of soloing.  To quote Mark Twight: “These are the words [or thoughts (my words)] of non participants”.   It is hard for people (some of whom I love deeply) to understand why anyone would do something so dangerous and ultimately selfish.   What is quickly forgotten is the amount of risk they take in their everyday life.

The author of the piece, Michael Ybarra, touches on this briefly.

Some will say it’s selfish and irresponsible to solo, especially if you have children. Perhaps it is, but I don’t think climbers like Bachar are necessarily reckless. No one with such finely attuned skills as Bachar’s launches off heedlessly into the wild, no matter how wild their actions ­appear to the world. He soloed—at a very high level—for nearly three decades, after all.

Everything in life is a risk of some sort. Many climbers have been seriously hurt or killed driving home from the hills. Climbing holds can break unexpectedly, but lightning also strikes. Most people exist so swaddled against danger, measuring out their lives with coffee spoons, that those who reckon by a different calculation of risk and reward appear insane. Yet to survive a perilous situation is to love life more than the average person can imagine.

I will never claim to have the skill John Bachar had.  But I don’t think I need to in order to solo.  What soloing requires is a deep self knowledge, one must know their limits.  Bachar’s approach to soloing was to go ten feet and see how it feels.  He couldn’t account for the little variables outside of his control.  Be it a broken hold, getting swooped upon by a raptor, a slip on an easy or hard move but none of us can account for that.  I think we’ve all had, or witnessed close calls were if we were a second later or earlier we wouldn’t be here now.

For me and others who solo,  climb 8000 meter peaks in alpine or single push style,  BASE jump, or do any of the things that those who are “swaddled against danger” see as  insane, understand that these pursuits are an essential part of who we are, and allows us to be happy and present in the other aspects of our lives.

I spent dinner the other night talking about this with my friend Chris.  Chris’ acceptance of risk is much lower than mine.   Chris has often called me crazy for my practicing of the dark arts.  Its taken me a year to learn how to explain why I solo.  I haven’t sold him on the idea (which is fine, its not for everyone)  but I hope I managed to dispel the idea that I am trying to court danger.

What I get from soloing is a glimpse in my better self, it entails a level of personal responsibility which is often absent in everyday life.  It requires that I be honest with were I’m at as a climber and a person in this world in general.   To do so would result in death.

Like my pursuit of Alpine climbing, soloing was a part of myself that I tried to deny.  Once I accepted this part of myself  I reached a new level of self understanding and happiness that I am just starting to tap.  I think it has made me a better person, though some may disagree.

In the end I was saddened to hear about John Bachar’s death.  I will also admit to having a second thoughts about soloing, enhanced by my recent snow slope experience.  However, I know that this is part of who I am, to deny it would be denying part of myself.  Its not a tribute to say that he died doing what he loved or to call his death a tragedy.  He stepped off the ground that day, knowing full well what he was doing and what the risks were.

I think I’m done…time for a run.

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