Free Solo Rock Climbing – It’s All in the Head

“Free solo rock climbing, also known as ‘soloing’, is a form of free climbing and solo climbing where the climber performs alone and without using any ropes, harnesses or other protective equipment, relying entirely on his or her ability instead.”


Many people are fascinated by the rock climbing world. The less you know, the more dangerous it can appear. Climbers were a rare breed in the early days of the sport; often described as insane, daredevils or just plain reckless. Of course you still get some people displaying those characteristics within the community now, as you would with any, but for the most part rock climbing now is extremely safe. The risks are very low, however the consequences can be high, which is what creates a perceived risk or a sense danger that’s not really there.

vintage climbing

Climbers are looking to challenge themselves. They are trying to push their personal climbing grade higher, set routes previously unknown and in general elevate the sport.

Losing the Rope

Free solo rock climbing is an entirely different ball game. And with Alex Honnold making history being the first to free solo El Capitan –arguably the most famous rock face on earth– it has brought new light to this subculture of climbing. As mentioned at the beginning, free soloing is climbing without a rope, harness or protective equipment. Just you and the rock. There is absolutely zero margin for error as you rely entirely on your ability and skill.

alex honnold free solo rock climbing el capitan in yosemite

When it comes to free solo rock climbing, the very fundamentals of the sport have been altered, so therefore the way in which you approach the climb must be too. Rather than pushing yourself to the brim of your physical ability, you need to be operating within the 3-6 /10 level. Each move needs to be thought out and you need to be 100% sure of it. There are no chances. This is how the risks are somewhat mitigated. 

The issue with working at a less challenging level is when you become complacent. Interestingly, many free solo climbers have had mistakes with serious consequences on climbs in which they have done 100s of times before. Like when you’re not paying attention walking through your house and stub your toe on the counter that has always been there.

Flow State

Alex Honnold – “I’ve done a lot of thinking about fear. For me the crucial question is not how to climb without fear-that’s impossible- but how to deal with it when it creeps into your nerve endings.” 

The mentality in which you need to be in is often referred to as ‘flow state’. This is your cruise control. Your Mr Miyagi, musuo mode, zenned out warrior focus. You are fully within your ability level whilst giving each move your full focus and attention. A deviation in that can be fatal. 

shaolin monk martial arts on mountains


My Experience


I entered this world by free soloing the slab face of Mt. Tenaya, Yosemite National Park (10,209 ft / 3111m), with the ultimate mountain Goddess and all round badass Fran (@frangarlick – check her out, she does cool stuff). This climb was done in preparation for running Mattes Crest, a famous ridge line in Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park.

The climb itself is a fairly cruisey grade, which is what you want when you’re going rope-less. The difficulty here lays within the exposure. Most people can haul themselves out of a swimming pool. But can you do that same manoeuvre on the edge of a 100m drop? The physical demands of the move have not changed, the difference here is knowing what’s under you (or not under you), and knowing the consequences of failure.

For the record, we did have a rope with us. We brought it along as a backup. As mentioned, this was my first time attempting something like this. If I was to freak out majorly and decide it wasn’t for me, we would be able to set the rope up and create a safety line in order to finish the climb safely. That was one way of removing some risk. I was pleased to know it was there, but also looking to go without.

the view of lake tenaya from mount tenaya
Game Time!

We started with a hike in and a gradual gradient increase. Switch-backs were no longer necessary as we moved higher, it was now about going straight up. Time to change from hiking shoes to climbing shoes for that extra bit of grip. 

We continued whilst scanning the rock for any imperfections in order to place a toe. Each move had to be made with the precision of a neurosurgeon. Fingers squeezed tightly on the pinches, moving one foot at a time. Points of contact had to be maximised. I was moving well until my left foot carelessly slipped out from under me. Fortunately, I was in a good enough position with my hands and the other foot that I didn’t go anywhere. I had a brief episode of cardiac arrest. My life did not flash before my eyes, which I was somewhat disappointed by. I was still here. 

I reminded myself of something an old climbing partner used to joke in these instances, ‘Are you a climber or a faller?’ It’s cheesy, but actually good advice. I took some deep breaths, got back into my flow state and continued.

free solo rock climbing mount tenaya

We moved at a snails pace up the slab. Tiny little baby steps, making use of every minute imperfection and outcrop of rock from the face. We kept going until things got a bit more vertical. About 50m from the top was a technical section that involved some jamming and layback action. It was also next to a corner that opened out to a steep drop, a reminder of where we were.

looking over the edge, mount tenaya free solo

The most exposed section was out the way. Next was a traverse across a ledge and then some boulder problems until the peak. This was the perfect spot to take in the views of Tenaya Lake, as well as looking over to the back of Half Dome and Yosemite Vally. 


Every peak bagged comes with a huge sense of achievement, which is increased with each step, hour or other hardship endured to reach the end goal. Overcoming the fear and conquering the mental challenges brought on by climbing mountains, in any form or size, is a huge accomplishment.  And after jotting our names in the guest book, we were on our way down and thinking about the next one.


If you were thinking of climbing Mount Tenaya, check out Mountain Project for the details.

route up mount tenaya
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