Free climb vs. free solo, hm? How many times did you wonder what the differences between free climb and free solo are? This is a commonly asked question among people who are unfamiliar with climbing.
Even the mainstream media had a hard time during coverage of Kevin Jorgeson and Tommy Caldwell’s Dawn Wall scaling, and they used the words interchangeably, making it confusing for keen viewers. It’s high time we set the record straight and put this matter to rest.
Free climbing is a term used to describe any climbing whereby no aids are involved. Aids include skyhooks, ladders, or any other gear you can use to assist you with the climb. In Free climbing, a climber scales the wall using their power, and only protective gear can be utilized like ropes in case of a fall.
Free soloing involves climbing without the use of any gear or protective equipment. This type of climbing is considered the purest form of scaling, but it’s also dangerous since a simple mistake can lead to injury or death.
The differences don’t end there; there is more to know about free climbing vs. free soloing if you want to understand everything! Read on.
The History Behind Free Climbing
Free climbing started in the late 19th century, primarily in Britain and Germany. During the 1970s, Free climbing gained popularity in Yosemite USA, thanks to Ron Kauk, John Bacher, John Long, and Jim Bridwell, who were excellent climbers. Over the next few decades, climbers like Peter Croft and Lynn Hill continued to push the limits of free climbing.
Once modern recreational climbing started, tactics, inventions, and innovative technology pushed climbing into different directions. Today climbing is an international sport whereby competitors of the highest echelons want to compete in the Olympics.
Types of Free Climbing
There are four types of free climbing: bouldering, traditional climbing, free solo climbing, and sport climbing. Some people break it down only into two categories – traditional (trad) climbing and sport climbing.
Bouldering, just like its name, is climbing a short rock or boulder which is around 7 meters (23 feet) tall. Whether indoors or in the great outdoors, a crash pad is placed to protect climbers from falls.
Mostly when bouldering outdoors, climbers have another person (spotter) to guide them onto the soft pads in case of a fall. Bouldering is considered a popular form of climbing since it requires minimal gear to participate, and the risk of injury from a fall is limited.
So what is trad climbing? Trad climbing is a type of climbing where the lead climber puts protective gear as they climb. Generally, the following climber will remove the protective equipment after completing a climbing section (a pitch).
A harness and rope are the most common protective gears used while trad climbing. When climbing, the climbers attach carabiners to a protection piece. This technique will act as a last resort of protection if they fall.
Climbers use a traditional approach whereby they plan the route to place chocks and camming devices. Single-pitch routes usually go up to 40 meters tall, and multi-pitch can go even 800 meters high. Read our dedicated article on what is multi-pitch climbing.
There is no pre-inspection or overhead rope protection when scaling the wall, so extreme techniques, skills, and caution must be exercised. Although the gear and ethics have swapped over time with current technology, the basic principles remain the same.
Top Rope Climbing
In top-rope climbing, climbers set an anchor at the top of the wall they plan to scale and run a rope through it, which goes back to the ground.
A belayer takes the rope from one side to take up slack while the other person is climbing. This allows climbers to release their grip safely in case of a slip, and they will be caught assuming the belayer is doing the job correctly.
Top rope climbing is a good way for beginners to experience climbing, while advanced climbers can practice scaling a route.
As stated above, free solo climbing is a climbing technique where the climbers don’t use any protective gear. Free solo climbers have to rely on their mental preparation, skills, and strength (further reading for those of you who are still unsure if you can rock climb alone).
Without protective gear, a fall from high heights can cause fatal injuries; therefore, climbers take their time to chart a course. Since it’s the most dangerous form of climbing, the sport is reserved for climbing elites.
The term free solo was derived from the movie ‘free solo’ after it garnered fame from winning the Oscars. In 2019 Merriam-webster decided to add it to the English dictionary officially. High-profile climbers like Alex Honnold were featured in the documentary Free Solo.
Most free solo climbers say they don’t do it for the thrill but for total control when they are free of gear.
There Are a Few Twists to Free Solo Climbing:
This type of soloing involves climbing towers or tall buildings without using ropes. Alain Robert, nicknamed Spiderman, is among the first exponents; many have started doing it since then.
Involves free soloing on sea cliffs; the water can act as a safety net at low levels in climbing. The higher climbers go, they experience danger from jagged rocks or crashing waves.
This form of free solo climbing is when climbers scale walls while they wear a parachute. In case they fall, the parachute ensures they can land safely. Climbers state that this gives them the confidence to try bigger leaps or even more dangerous pitches.
While others say free solo climbing is a pure form, others say it’s pure insanity. Some climbers have lost their lives, including Austin Howell and Gobright, who both passed away in 2019.
However, the fear of fatal injuries has not deterred other climbers from attempting this sport. It’s a matter of no risk, no reward. Most climbers have stated that there is no better feeling than knowing they conquered such a task.
One Last Thought
As discussed above, free and solo climbing may share some principles, but they are two different climbing forms. It can sometimes be confusing to tell them apart, but the differences should be apparent after reading this article.
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