Today is the 23rd of June, 2014. Today is the day I almost died.
Until recently, the world of free-solo climbing was a world totally unknown to me. It was a world shrouded in mystery. For those who aren't familiar with the climbing jargon, free-solo climbing refers to the act of climbing rock considered class 5, a la dangerous enough to warrant the use of a rope, without the rope.
I had been climbing for just over a year, a trivial amount of time in the world of climbing. I was pretty confident in my physical ability and considered my mental control of fear a lot better than it actually was. I had also recently moved to the picturesque town of Boulder, Colorado, a relatively compact town based on the edge of the Rocky Mountain National Park, and at the base of what is called “The Flatirons”. The most prominent of the Flatirons are the first three, giant slabs of granite, seemingly propped up against the mountainside. Easily accessible from the downtown and ever present, these giant monoliths are observable from almost every part of Boulder. The town itself has even implemented measures to keep the heights of buildings to a minimum in order to preserve the breathtaking view that almost the whole town provides.
It was on the Second Flatiron that I got my first taste of what it is to free-solo a climb. After hiking the trail that runs between the first and second Flatiron to the summit and back, I got home and one of my housemates Matteo, a working astrophysicist and fellow recreational climber, suggested we free-solo the Second Flatiron. My initial thought was “That seems like a bad idea”, but the more I thought about it and looked into it, the more attractive it became. As well as the pure intoxication of climbing without a rope and acquiring the bragging right, the route that we were looking at, called Freeway, was 5.0, the lowest roped climbing grade in the book. According to the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) technical roped free climbing is graded in difficulty from 5.0 up to 5.15, with A, B, C and D further separating the grades starting from 5.10a, 5.10b, 5.10c etc, up to 5.15c. The grading numbers are still being pushed by the elite athletes of climbing today. While on belay (with ropes) I was pushing my climbing ability up to the grade of 5.11b without falling, so I figured 5.0 would be a cake-walk. I looked the route up on Mountain Project, a community powered website providing information (or as climbers call, beta) on routes around America and other select parts of the world. MP users claimed that Freeway was indeed the easiest route on the major Flatirons, and a beautiful climb. Many a picture was posted of others of all ages climbing the route without ropes, looking relaxed and fully in control. “Surely I can climb as well as these people”, I reassured myself. With my resolve firm, my research on the route complete, and the pro's and con's weighed, I was fully confident in my ability to complete my goal. I took my housemate up on the offer and we decided to climb the route the next morning.
We left the house a little later than we planned, but in the morning none the less. The sun was out and by the time we arrived at the bottom of the Second Flatiron, we were thirsty and sweating already. The hike to the base of the Second Flatiron is a moderately strenuous 20 minute walk uphill, that changes from gravel road to rocky path. My housemate hiked fast and I made sure I kept up. I wasn't sure if It was the altitude or just my general lack of fitness in regards to hiking up hills, but the initial approach was not an enjoyable experience. Staring up at the granite face I encountered a few thoughts along the lines of, “Is this going to be the last thing I do? Is today my last day in this life?”. I quickly pushed them out of my head as fast as they entered and started taking my shoes off in order to switch to my climbing shoes. “People had done this climb in tennis shoes before, this will be a piece of cake” I reassured myself, a slight feeling of nervousness still ever present in my stomach.
We started the climb. Much to my surprise I found myself extremely relaxed once I started climbing. The route itself is granite slab, slab meaning that the angle of the rock is less than vertical. For a majority of the climb, the angle was just a little over 45 degrees and the hands and feet were huge. Every move I made I felt confident, fear of falling didn't even cross my mind. I found this extremely satisfying. I was climbing up a 1000 ft face of granite without a rope and felt great! Soon we were relieved from the somewhat sweltering heat halfway up the route, when a slight breeze picked up and made the temperature very pleasant. We meandered on up the rock, stopping every now and again to drink water, take photos and just generally take in the amazing view. We got to the top of the route and decided to push it a bit higher, stepping over to a slightly more technical and steep slab section to gain a higher summit as the route we had chosen doesn't actually take you to the true summit. This climbing was probably around 5.4, harder than what we had signed up for, but I powered through it confidently and gained the (not true) summit, as high as we were willing to go without ropes or a guidebook. After admiring the view and hanging out on the rocks for a bit, we put our hiking shoes back on and rejoined the trail, which conveniently ran right past the end of our climb. I went home that day talking of future free-solos we could do on the remaining two Flatirons and finding a route that would take us to the true summit of the Second.