Free Climbing

The riskiest sport in the world

Free climbing is defined as “rock climbing without the assistance of devices such as pegs placed in the rock, large ropes or belays”. One of the most dangerous sports in the world, free climbing accidents lead to around 30 deaths every year, a large amount considering the number of people that attempt these ascents. Climbers aim to conquer some of the most difficult rock faces in the world, such as faces in Lappnor, Finland and El Capitan, California, the latter of which appeared in a popular movie titled “Free Solo”, released in 2018, which told the story of Alex Honnold and his attempt to climb the cliff face. Even as someone watching the movie, the climb was nerve-wracking and full of suspense. Honnold’s years of training seems unable to prepare him for the 915-metre climb up the vertical rock, without any ropes. One wrong move could be fatal.

In late 2019, skilled and famous climber Brad Gobright fell to his death in El Potrero Chico in the north of Mexico. He was descending the mountain with a partner when they both fell. Gobright fell 300m to his death but his partner Aidan Jacobson’s fall was broken by trees. He survived but was left with injuries. Do deaths like these make free solo climbers doubt themselves? Probably not - although losing a friend to the mountains must have been heart-breaking for many of Gobright’s fellow athletes, none stopped climbing. These athletes are aware of the many risks of this sport and attempt these climbs anyway.

The question that professional free-climbers ask themselves is ‘is it worth it?’. They are actively partaking in a sport in which has a worrying fatality rate. This figure gets increasingly more concerning as one focuses on the harder courses across steeper and higher mountains. Even though this is the case, more climbers are taking up free climbing, choosing to acknowledge the extreme danger in this sport. Free climbing is a level up from climbing, a sport where loose rocks, avalanches and broken ropes already could lead to catastrophic injury and cost athletes their lives. Professionals continue to push themselves to explore new courses and climb ever-dangerous faces which require intensive training.

When Alex Honnold is questioned about his love for the sport, he says he is always asked the same two questions. Firstly “why do you do this?” and secondly “aren’t you afraid you’re going to die?”. To the first he answers that he loves the elation that successful climbs bring him. His fear of death, however, is slightly more complicated. Honnold says that when he is on the wall he “doesn’t think”. Instead, he thinks only about the specific manoeuvres and lets muscle memory do the rest. When he does think about his fall or potential death, he tends to separate it from emotion and just visualise the scenario. His voice remains calm as he describes how he “saw [himself] bouncing off the ledge below and going all the way to the ground, fracturing most of [his] bones as [he] rag-dolled down the mountain.” He understands the risks, but prepares himself until he isn’t scared anymore. Honnold believes that the key to being as good as he is, is to separate emotion from the climb so that he truly feels no fear at all.

Isabelle VI