News, know-how, and opinion for the adventure conscious reader.

Free Soloing Life

Taft Point. Yosemite National Park, California.

Taft Point. Yosemite National Park, California.

Climbing El Capitan is an impressive accomplishment that requires skill, effort and commitment.  Free soloing El Cap is something different entirely. It’s astonishing. Alex Honnald ascended the Freerider route with absolute perfection, under a circumstance where one error ensured certain death.  Honnald wasn’t the first person to climb Freerider and he’s not the first person to perfectly execute that or one of the other routes on Yosemite’s iconic monolith. People climb El Cap without falling a lot.  Honnald himself sent Freerider several times in preparation for his historic solo. What was different about the free solo was, of course, the lack of rope.

Rope provides security.  Rope lets climbers take risk and uncertainties in stride.  Rope lets you practice, keeps you calm and gives you as many chances to succeed as your will allows.  Rope therefore, is a fitting metaphor for money and free soloing an apt metaphor for the financial precarity that millions in our country face today.

Today economic inequality has created a society of climbers with varied racks of protection.  The top 1% is decked out with 100 meters of the latest dry core 10 mm dynamic rope, cams of every size and plenty of top rope anchors should they prefer to phone it in (ie, trust funds).  The shrinking middle class is making do with fraying 6mm static cord and some nuts (decent income, maybe some income producing assets), while the majority of our population are out there free soloing, white knuckling a route for dear life.

For the well-equipped, failure is of minimal consequence.  Pitch after pitch, they can fail over and over, hangdogging for as long as they’d like until they’re ready to try again.  This leads to impressive talent, difficult and innovative first ascents and celebrity among the community. The worst off on the other hand, are relegated to low fifth class routes that involve the least amount of danger.  Those brave enough to step to something difficult, risk losing everything with the mildest error. They do not have the luxury that the lessons of failure endow on the privileged.

This disparity will inevitably affect outcomes.  A climber who’s never roped up will not venture very far above the base of their route.  They will not develop skills or experience necessary to climb high off the deck with confidence.  And the likelihood of them perishing while trying to achieve upward mobility is incredibly high.

Climbers born on belay will reach more milestones and greater heights than their peers not because of innate talent or guts but because of the rope.  There is no denying the summits they claim, or the skill and effort required to reach them, but we far too often fail to acknowledge the rope that got them there.

The wealthy minority among us are revered for the businesses they start, the art they create, the influence their lifestyles wield on social media and the power they amass.  The poor are scolded for mismanaging their lives, lacking ambition and complaining about an unfair world. Success is frequently associated with things like genes, morals and divine intervention.  We’re constantly being told that a Horatio Alger bootstrap mentality, hard work and dedication, will get you where you want to go.

But pulling oneself up by the bootstraps comes from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, where it was correctly cited as impossible. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps because you’re standing in your boots. The primary fulcrum of success is generational wealth, a fixed rope you can simply jumar up. The bootstrap myth relies on ignoring the ropes individuals climb with.

Within two years Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson free climbed the Dawn Wall and Alex Honnald free soloed Freerider.  Caldwell and Jorgeson’s route was harder yet Honnald’s accomplishment is widely regarded as more impressive. The difference is obvious: rope.

In climbing it’s easy to draw this conclusion.  In society, as wealth and security become historically polarized, the distinction of inherited advantages is admitted far less often.  The consequences millions face from free soloing through life needs to be addressed. If we wish to live in a country where all individuals are permitted to reach their potential and live meaningful lives that interest them and bring them joy, lives that instill them with many of the lessons, memories, skills and understanding climbing provides, we’ve got to talk about ropes. And make sure everyone ties in.