How I climbed a 3,000-foot (914 meters) vertical cliff without ropes
Hello. I’d like to show you guys 30 seconds of the best day of my life.
So that was El Capitan in California’s Yosemite National Park, and in case you couldn’t tell, I was climbing by myself without a rope, a style of a climbing known as free soloing.
That was the culmination of a nearly decade-long dream, and in the video I’m over 2,500 feet off the ground. Seems scary? Yeah, it is, which is why I spent so many years dreaming about soloing El Cap and not actually doing it.
But on the day that that video was taken, it didn’t feel scary at all. It felt as comfortable and natural as a walk in the park, which is what most folks were doing in Yosemite that day.
Today I’d like to talk about how I was able to feel so comfortable and how I overcame my fear. I’ll start with a very brief version of how I became a climber, and then tell the story of my two most significant free solos. They were both successful, which is why I’m here.
But the first felt largely unsatisfying, whereas the second, El Cap, was by far the most fulfilling day of my life. Through these two climbs, you’ll see my process for managing fear.
So I started climbing in a gym when I was around 10 years old, which means that my life has been centered on climbing for more than 20 years. After nearly a decade of climbing mostly indoors, I made the transition to the outdoors and gradually started free soloing.
I built up my comfort over time and slowly took on bigger and more challenging walls. And there have been many free soloists before me, so I had plenty of inspiration to draw from.
But by 2008, I’d repeated most of their previous solos in Yosemite and was starting to imagine breaking into new terrain.
The obvious first choice was Half Dome, an iconic 2,000-foot wall that lords over the east end of the valley. The problem, though also the allure, was that it was too big. I didn’t really know how to prepare for a potential free solo.
So I decided to skip the preparations and just go up there and have an adventure. I figured I would rise to the occasion, which, unsurprisingly, was not the best strategy.
I did at least climb the route roped up with a friend two days before just to make sure that I knew roughly where to go and that I could physically do it. But when I came back by myself two days later, I decided that I didn’t want to go that way.
I knew that there was a 300-foot variation that circled around one of the hardest parts of the climb. I suddenly decided to skip the hard part and take the variation, even though I’d never climbed it before, but I immediately began to doubt myself.
Imagine being by yourself in the dead center of a 2,000-foot face, wondering if you’re lost. Thankfully, it was pretty much the right way and I circled back to the route. I was slightly rattled, I was pretty rattled, but I tried not to let it bother me too much because I knew that all the hardest climbing was up at the top. I needed to stay composed.
It was a beautiful September morning, and as I climbed higher, I could hear the sounds of tourists chatting and laughing on the summit. They’d all hiked up the normal trail on the back, which I was planning on using for my descent.
But between me and the summit lay a blank slab of granite. There were no cracks or edges to hold on to, just small ripples of texture up a slightly less than vertical wall. I had to trust my life to the friction between my climbing shoes and the smooth granite.
I carefully balanced my way upward, shifting my weight back and forth between the small smears. But then I reached a foothold that I didn’t quite trust.
Two days ago, I’d have just stepped right up on it, but that would have been with a rope on. Now it felt too small and too slippery. I doubted that my foot would stay on if I weighted it. I considered a foot further to the side, which seemed worse. I switched my feet and tried a foot further out.
It seemed even worse. I started to panic. I could hear people laughing on the summit just above me. I wanted to be anywhere but on that slab. My mind was racing in every direction.
I knew what I had to do, but I was too afraid to do it. I just had to stand up on my right foot. And so after what felt like an eternity, I accepted what I had to do and I stood up on the right foot, and it didn’t slip, and so I didn’t die, and that move marked the end of the hardest climbing.
And so I charged from there towards the summit. And so normally when you summit Half Dome, you have a rope and a bunch of climbing gear on you, and tourists gasp and they flock around you for photos.
This time I popped over the edge shirtless, panting, jacked. I was amped, but nobody batted an eye. I looked like a lost hiker that was too close to the edge. I was surrounded by people talking on cell phones and having picnics. I felt like I was in a mall.
I took off my tight climbing shoes and started hiking back down, and that’s when people stopped me. “You’re hiking barefoot? That’s so hard-core.”
I didn’t bother to explain, but that night in my climbing journal, I duly noted my free solo of Half Dome, but I included a frowny face and a comment, “Do better?” I’d succeeded in the solo and it was celebrated as a big first in climbing. Some friends later made a film about it. But I was unsatisfied.
I was disappointed in my performance, because I knew that I had gotten away with something. I didn’t want to be a lucky climber. I wanted to be a great climber. I actually took the next year or so off from free soloing, because I knew that I shouldn’t make a habit of relying on luck. But even though I wasn’t soloing very much, I’d already started to think about El Cap.
It was always in the back of my mind as the obvious crown jewel of solos. It’s the most striking wall in the world. Each year, for the next seven years, I’d think, “This is the year that I’m going to solo El Cap.” And then I would drive into Yosemite, look up at the wall, and think, “No frickin’ way.” It’s too big and too scary.
But eventually I came to accept that I wanted to test myself against El Cap. It represented true mastery, but I needed it to feel different. I didn’t want to get away with anything or barely squeak by. This time I wanted to do it right.
The thing that makes El Cap so intimidating is the sheer scale of the wall. Most climbers take three to five days to ascend the 3,000 feet of vertical granite. The idea of setting out up a wall of that size with nothing but shoes and a chalk bag seemed impossible.
3,000 feet of climbing represents thousands of distinct hand and foot movements, which is a lot to remember. Many of the moves I knew through sheer repetition I’d climbed El Cap maybe 50 times over the previous decade with a rope.
But this photo shows my preferred method of rehearsing the moves. I’m on the summit, about to rappel down the face with over a thousand feet of rope to spend the day practicing. Once I found sequences that felt secure and repeatable, I had to memorize them.
I had to make sure that they were so deeply ingrained within me that there was no possibility of error. I didn’t want to be wondering if I was going the right way or using the best holds.
I needed everything to feel automatic. Climbing with a rope is a largely physical effort. You just have to be strong enough to hold on and make the movements upward. But free soloing plays out more in the mind. The physical effort is largely the same.
Your body is still climbing the same wall. But staying calm and performing at your best when you know that any mistake could mean death requires a certain kind of mindset. That’s not supposed to be funny, but if it is, it is.
I worked to cultivate that mindset through visualization, which basically just means imagining the entire experience of soloing the wall. Partially, that was to help me remember all the holds, but mostly visualization was about feeling the texture of each hold in my hand and imagining the sensation of my leg reaching out and placing my foot just so.
I’d imagine it all like a choreographed dance thousands of feet up. The most difficult part of the whole route was called the Boulder Problem. It was about 2,000 feet off the ground and consisted of the hardest physical moves on the whole route: long pulls between poor handholds with very small, slippery feet.
This is what I mean by a poor handhold: an edge smaller than the width of a pencil but facing downward that I had to press up into with my thumb. But that wasn’t even the hardest part.
The crux culminated in a karate kick with my left foot over to the inside of an adjacent corner, a maneuver that required a high degree of precision and flexibility, enough so that I’d been doing a nightly stretching routine for a full year ahead of time to make sure that I could comfortably make the reach with my leg.
As I practiced the moves, my visualization turned to the emotional component of a potential solo. Basically, what if I got up there and it was too scary? What if I was too tired? What if I couldn’t quite make the kick? I had to consider every possibility while I was safely on the ground, so that when the time came and I was actually making the moves without a rope, there was no room for doubt to creep in.
Doubt is the precursor to fear, and I knew that I couldn’t experience my perfect moment if I was afraid. I had to visualize and rehearse enough to remove all doubt.
But beyond that, I also visualized how it would feel if it never seemed doable. What if, after so much work, I was afraid to try? What if I was wasting my time and I would never feel comfortable in such an exposed position? There were no easy answers, but El Cap meant enough to me that I would put in the work and find out.
Some of my preparations were more mundane. This is a photo of my friend Conrad Anker climbing up the bottom of El Cap with an empty backpack. We spent the day climbing together to a specific crack in the middle of the wall that was choked with loose rocks that made that section difficult and potentially dangerous, because any missed step might knock a rock to the ground and kill a passing climber or hiker.
So we carefully removed the rocks, loaded them into the pack and rappelled back down. Take a second to imagine how ridiculous it feels to climb 1,500 feet up a wall just to fill a backpack full of rocks. It’s never that easy to carry a pack full of rocks around. It’s even harder on the side of a cliff. It may have felt silly, but it still had to get done.
I needed everything to feel perfect if I was ever going to climb the route without a rope. After two seasons of working specifically toward a potential free solo of El Cap, I finally finished all my preparations. I knew every handhold and foothold on the whole route, and I knew exactly what to do. Basically, I was ready.
It was time to solo El Cap.
On June 3, 2017, I woke up early, ate my usual breakfast of muesli and fruit and made it to the base of the wall before sunrise.
I felt confident as I looked up the wall. I felt even better as I started climbing. About 500 feet up, I reached a slab very similar to the one that had given me so much trouble on Half Dome, but this time was different. I’d scouted every option, including hundreds of feet of wall to either side.
I knew exactly what to do and how to do it. I had no doubts. I just climbed right through. Even the difficult and strenuous sections passed by with ease. I was perfectly executing my routine.
I rested for a moment below the Boulder Problem and then climbed it just as I had practiced so many times with the rope on. My foot shot across to the wall on the left without hesitation, and I knew that I had done it.
Climbing Half Dome had been a big goal and I did it, but I didn’t get what I really wanted. I didn’t achieve mastery. I was hesitant and afraid, and it wasn’t the experience that I wanted.
But El Cap was different. With 600 feet to go, I felt like the mountain was offering me a victory lap. I climbed with a smooth precision and enjoyed the sounds of the birds swooping around the cliff. It all felt like a celebration. And then I reached the summit after three hours and 56 minutes of glorious climbing.
It was the climb that I wanted, and it felt like mastery.