Bookmarks | All and Nothing: Inside Free Soloing

Enjoy an excerpt from Jeff Smoot's new book All and Nothing: Inside Free Soloing.
Placeholder Contact Profile Jeff Smoot
Climber and Mountaineers Books Author
November 19, 2022
Bookmarks | All and Nothing: Inside Free Soloing
Jeff Smoot soloing at Waimea Beach. Photo by Beth Harman.

The following is an excerpt from All and Nothing: Inside Free Soloing by acclaimed author Jeff Smoot. Once considered a fringe activity, free soloing - climbing without a rope - has entered the mainstream consciousness. Yet climbers have been free soloing all along, motivated by reasons as varied as the climbers themselves. All and Nothing delves into the cultural history of free soloing and explores the interplay between climbing and risk, as well as psychological theories, evolving climbing ethics, and the effect of media coverage. With a complex personal connection to free soloing, Jeff Smoot examines our relationship with risk, how we perceive our sense of control, and what it means to consider our mortality.

I had started free soloing easy routes years before. At first it was because I lacked a partner, but, as my skills improved, I began purposefully soloing more difficult climbs, higher off the ground. Still, I stuck to routes well within my comfort zone. Nothing bad happened, so I kept upping the game.

Then one day, while climbing with Peter Croft, one of the most accomplished free soloists in the world, something clicked. We were soloing laps on a 600-foot wall near Leavenworth, Washington, when Croft started up behind me, climbing directly below me as I pulled through a 5.10 crux. If I had fallen, I would have knocked him off the wall. My ego swelled. If Peter Croft had that much confidence in my ability, I must be pretty good. That afternoon I ran into some friends who were going to try an overhanging crack that seemed to spit everybody off. I’d tried it a few times with a top rope belay and failed miserably. This time, when I fell off, I hung on the rope and played around with the moves until I figured out a sequence. On my next try, I pulled it off.

“Pretty easy for a 5.12,” I told my friends, bragging a little.

“You made it look easy,” one of them said. “You could solo it.”

I wished he hadn’t said that, but it was too late - the seed had been planted. That night, I drew a diagram of the crack in my journal and wrote detailed notes describing each jam, each foothold, each sequence of moves. It became an obsession. You could solo it became You will.

The route was short, but if I fell off at the crux, I’d fall 30 feet and either land on my back and smash my head on the sharp granite blocks below or swing out of control and hit the ground face-first. Young and full of myself, I was willing to take that chance.

I put three fingers into the crack up to the second joint wrenched them tight to lock them in place, set my feet on tiny edges, and pulled off the ground. After several moves, the crack narrowed and bottomed out, allowing me to slot in only two fingers up to the first joint. Those four fingertips wedged precariously in the shallow crack held my body weight; the meager footholds offered little more than leverage against the pull of gravity. Focusing intently on each move, I made sure my fingers were locked in, my feet placed as securely as possible before making the next move. A thought crossed my mind: You could climb down from here if you wanted to. Then another: Once you make the next move, you can’t, but I dismissed them.

I reached my left hand high and stuck my index and middle fingers as far as I could into a slot, wrenching them tight to lock them in. Then I brought my right hand up to a higher slot that I could jam in using a thumbs-up position, with my ring and little fingers barely in the crack. Hanging off two fingers of my right hand, I pulled my left hand out of the crack and turned it over, stuffing my pinkie and ring finger in as far as possible and wrenching them tight. At precisely that moment, both of my feet slipped off the wall.

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All and Nothing: Inside Free Soloing is available for purchase at our Seattle Program Center Bookstore, online, and everywhere books are sold.