Soloing and Risk. (Part 2)

South Ridge of Ingall's peak From:

I wanted to jump on this before yet another person found it and told me to read, only to end the conversation with “That could be you, you never know what can happen”.  The rant\ heart felt feelings below come via The Climbing Narc. You should read the post, then read Max Zolotukhin post on his accident, then I would suggest reading Jamie Emerson’s post on the subject, as always with blogs, be sure to read the comments section. Knowing the content of the above posts and comments is important to understanding the content below.

Some time back I posted about soloing and risk after reading an obit of John Bachar in the Wall Street Journal. My thoughts have not changed.  Normally I would have found this discussion interseting and probably would have linked to it on my facebook page.  Why am I writing about this again then?  Because I there is a dangerous dialogue going on in the comments section and in Max’s post it self.

One of the threads is to blame the climbing media for highlighting the accomplishments of Kevin Jorgeson and Alex Honold.  These are bold accomplishments, not only physically, but mentally as well.  The amount of mental control required to solo is huge and requires a huge helping of some thing that seems to be in short supply. PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY!!!!! It is a cop-out, often used by non-participants, to blame the media. If you are pressed to solo by the huge accomplishments of others then you should not be in the game. End of story.

From his post on the incident it seems that Max understands that his motivations were not pure. What I’m unclear on is if he got the fact that soloing is more a mental task than a physical one. One requiring the practitioner to be constantly checking his mental state. He is aware that he missed the subtle clues that his warm up burn gave him, but failed to notice that his rush to solo the line.

I also think that his friend who sent him the email is way off base. Here’s a quote:

My good friend Jake List sent me an extremely touching and insightful email several days back. The gist of it was that I deserved to be chewed out for doing what I did. “…so next time you free solo a route, let alone a 5.14 route,” Jake wrote, “think past yourself. Sooooooooo many people would have been CRUSHED if you had bashed your head and died, including me.”

I truly believe that one of the factors in this accident was the fact that Max was thinking past him self.

By this point the others were ready to go back up to other cliffs to try their projects again. I felt guilty. They were taking time out of their projects to make sure that I didn’t hurt myself. All this weighed on my mind as I sat trying to lose my pump but maintain the heat that had made itself into my cold fingers. As the minutes passed I sort of disassociated myself from the situation. “Just go for it” I told myself.

His rush to solo the route, along with his hubris, pushed him to do something that he wasn’t ready for.  It doesn’t matter that he managed to red point it in a couple of days.  When you are thinking of laying yourself out there like that, soloing something at or near your limit, you have to have that shit WIRED.  Jorgeson said this to me personally after a clinic I took with him at the Portland Rock Gym.  “When you’re soloing you have to know that your going to do it that day.  You have to show up and say today is the day”  It seems that all of Kevin’s highballs and solos are well rehearsed and planned out.  Max rushed and he’s paying the price.  Luckily he didn’t die and he managed to escape with a severely broken foot and a few more dollars short in his luck deposit box.

He goes on to say that his friend’s email gave him a minor epiphany.

The first time I read it I was a bit appalled; how dare he blame me for attempting something that would have brought me happiness! I took the risk, and now I’m paying the price, and no one has the right to tell me differently. But as I sat there reading it over and over I had a minor epiphany.

This is what set me off.  Max, you should be appalled.  It is no one’s place to tell you how to live your life.  What you should be berated for is not preparing fully for your goals and not checking in with your motivations.  There is absolutely nothing wrong trying to solo a beautiful line that inspires you, you just have to be prepared.   Yes, there are consequences for your selfish actions and there are people waiting for you to come home in one piece. However, if you are going to engage in these exploits you must be up front and honest not only with yourself, but those around you whom you love.

I was up front and honest with my girlfriend about what I do when we first started getting serious, all of my friends, family and climbing partners know what I FEEL I HAVE TO DO. They know that I am going to engage in these pursuits and that they are part of who I am as a person.

When I took my tumble down that snow slope on Ingall’s I was retreating from a solo attempt. I backed off near the top of the first pitch because I knew my head was not in the right space. Afterwords my friend Graham chewed me out. Not because I was up there all alone, but because I was not fully prepared. That was Max’s sin.

Don’t listen to the rants of non-participants and follow your own path. I’ve already talked about what I get from soloing so I won’t do it again. I don’t need to defend my actions either, because unlike most people, I take responsibility for them. I believe that one of the greatest sins someone can commit is to deny themselves joy in their own lives. I did this for many years and now that I’ve stopped I’m happier than I have ever been at any other point in my life. It was not until I got rid of the crutch of religion that I learned to be responsible for my own life, sadly it still took many more years to realized that I was denying a fundamental part of who I was as a person. I have chosen to follow my path and leave others to their own. All the delusional non-participants should do the same.

There is a small chance that this will cut deep for some people, others will just think me an asshole. That’s fine. Them comments are open and I’m up for civil debate. If you think differently please don’t be afraid to post.

3 thoughts on “Soloing and Risk. (Part 2)

Add yours

  1. Bob, if you ask anyone that knows me, they will tell you that i’m a strict believer in Rand’s objectivism and a harsh individualist. I consistently pursue what makes me happy, and many of the people closest to me, parents included, have not been happy about it.

    Up until 9 days ago, i would have fought a naysayer to the death to protect the views you’ve espoused in this post. Unfortunately, 9 days hence I am faced with the harsh reality of having to deal with the disparity between idealism and what actually happened.

    It seems to me that you are searching for the reason why i fell just as much as i was. The truth is that if i was to go back there again, i think the chances of me doing Supernova would have been pretty high, maybe 9 out of 10. I was not so ill-prepared as you seem to think. I’ve climbed the route top to bottom twice, the second time it felt fairly within my comfort range. I’ve also watched my climbing partner try the route close to a hundred times; i know the beta perfectly.

    Yes, there were several foreign factors that came into play that i should have paid closer attention to. Yes, I did mention that having a camera there and inspiration from the likes of Kevin and Alex were thoughts that passed through my mind. But no single thing can be blamed for me falling. The point is that you can never be certain, Bob. Do you suppose Bachar, Hersey, and others like my good friend Chris Hale who died soloing an easy route on half dome this summer were ill prepared and had impure motivations when they set off on their fateful climbs? We will never know, and the people close to them would not find any solace in it whether it was the case or not.

    Alex H. sent me an email today after reading my post. He mostly wished me well but also said that he hates the idea that his exploits would inspire someone to possibly hurt themselves, and added that even his motivations aren’t always 100% pure and that he also fears the thought of pitching off some day. Even those at the top of the game are not completely invincible and he knows this.

    So while its great to say “I am the only one paying the price for this,” I have to deal with things like not having health insurance, my roommate driving me everywhere, fucking up the routesetting schedule at my job for the next 3 months, and coming back to florida where my family can take care of me. Its easy to be an individualist when you don’t need anyone else, Bob, but for me i’ve been forced back to reality.

    And it sucks.


    1. Max, Thank you for commenting. I think one of the main points in your third paragraph is “The truth is that if I was to go back again…my chances would be 9 out of 10” . I believe the same. I wasn’t searching for the reasons. Its not my intent to attack you. I would also suggest that my motivations aren’t always pure. That was probably the biggest contributing factor to my accident in June. I’m sorry to hear about your friend. I don’t put Bachar, Hersey or any others above you and I. I don’t think that any of us are prepared for factors outside of ourselves. One of my climbing partners used to say “What if your soloing and there’s and earthquake, or a rock falls on you?” My response was always what if I was driving on a bridge and an earthquake struck, or if I got hit with a rock being on a rope wouldn’t guarantee that I would live either.
      Really, I don’t care for Rand that much. There has to be a line between doing your own thing and taking care of those around you. My girlfriend, close friends and parents know that I am a driven person. They may not agree with my choices. In fact I know they don’t. But they accept it as part of who I am. I have been injured and I have had to take care of myself. When I started climbing I broke my foot in a bouldering fall I was in a cast living almost ten miles from my workplace with no good public transit. While I took rides from time to time I never asked anyone for help because I had put my self in that situation. My independent streak was so strong that my Mom, who is a nurse, bitched me out when she found out that instead of calling for a ride I rode my bike the 18 miles round trip with a walking cast.
      I very easily could have died in June when When I fell. It was a close call, closer than I realized initially. When my leg and knee started acting up I had to hike the “difficult” trail 5 miles out then down the road to camp. Luckily my leg wasn’t fucked up. I also don’t have health insurance, if I were to get hurt (doing anything) I would also be in a bad way.
      Yes, hearing about Bachar and reading about Hersey and even hearing about your friend give me pause. Then the itch comes back and I start thinking about again. Then I remember that soloing is something that has been with me since I first found climbing when I was 12 years old (find and actually being able to start climbing are two different things). My motivations aren’t always pure and I’ve become concious of that at some very scary moments when I’ve already been over my head. In fact, when I actually started soloing the aim was to not come back.
      Having to rely on other people to get around and perform the daily tasks of your life sucks. I know. I’ve had plenty of non climbing accidents which left me laid up. I don’t shout from ivory towers. If I hadn’t had to deal with what your going through right now I wouldn’t have commented. But every one who comments without having ever been in that situation is preaching from an ivory tower.
      My main goal\beef with the comments surrounding your post was the blaming of the climbing media. If I didn’t make that clear I am sorry. Alex can’t control what people do with his actions. I find it sad that there isn’t enough focus on personal responsibility. Hope that clears things up. Feel free to respond or email me directly.

  2. Bob, in response to Max’s expression of regret, you wrote:

    “There is absolutely nothing wrong trying to solo a beautiful line that inspires you, you just have to be prepared.”

    You’re missing something critical, and I think Max’s original post was largely about that thing. Here’s his summation:

    “whether you like it or not, you WILL learn from your mistakes. My lessons were clear. DON’T be overconfident; DON’T assume that everything will be okay; THINK about the effect that your decisions will have on those closest to you.”

    As I read it, his critical point is precisely the thing that’s missing from your formulation: complete assessment of risk. Yeah, that includes busted legs and broken backs. But it also must include risks to things other than you.

    It’s well and good that you told your girlfriend up front that you engage in risky behavior. That fact does not absolve you of responsibility for her hardship if you’re hurt taking unnecessary risks.

    You may strive to climb in a bubble, but you don’t live in one.

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