Free soloing is by all measures a contentious practice. Climbing without ropes at a height guaranteed to be lethal stirs up all manner of controversy among climbers and flatlanders alike. The main charge leveled against the free-soloist is that of irresponsibility. Specific critiques include:
The soloist does not really understand what he is risking. Here is the assumption that most soloists can’t truly feel or understand how close they come to death. The common image is of a person who is brave as long as his illusion of invulnerability goes unchallenged, but as soon as this bubble is burst, a fear and regret will take hold. If only they really understood the risk, they would not solo.
The soloist is suicidal or otherwise lacks respect for his own life. In this light, soloing is cast as an act of sadness, desperation, or (most condemnably) selfishness, disregard for the living who will be left behind to mourn.
The soloist makes trouble for the rest of us. If a climber gets stuck or falls to his death, search and rescue professionals will be dispatched. In the course of their job, it is possible that they also will be injured or killed, and even if they escape unharmed, just think of the financial cost!
The soloist sets a bad example. For the impressionable of all ages among us, the soloist (and the media enamored of such feats) offers a dangerous message: climbing sans protection is the purest form of the art, the most exciting, and the most impressive. The soloist’s actions, especially high-profile climbers like Alex Honnold, John Bachar, Peter Croft, Michael Reardon, Dan Osman, etc., entice others less skilled to give it a shot, often without a good understanding of what it is they’re actually doing.
But for all these complaints, many of which contain facets both well and poorly reasoned, the real source of free soloing’s taboo lies in the observer as much as in the soloist. The free soloist is a living memento mori, a reminder of our own mortality and the fine line that divides life from death. We are attracted to the spectacle of the free soloist as an act of freedom, but at the same time it’s easy to be offended by it — we picture our children, spouses, or friends similarly risking everything. We want to be safe. We want our loved ones to be safe. Mortality is something we are loath to face.
The Latin phrase memento mori can be traced to ancient Romans, who believed that awareness of mortality helped instill humility, important for a prudent life. It was adopted by early Christians as a way to warn us off sins of the transient flesh and keep us focused on the afterlife. In either case, contemplation of death was accepted as an important part of life. (Little wonder, considering life expectancy in those days was less than half what it is today.) Up through the 20th century in America, it was not unusual for families to keep close quarters with the deceased, washing and tending to their bodies and housing them until the burial took place.
Today, most of us are spared the sight of death and dying. The modern medical system transports the sick and elderly to sterile rooms as the end of life draws near. When an accident occurs, victims are immediately shuttled to the hospital or morgue. When my girlfriend, now wife, and I encountered the corpse of a fallen climber in the Flatirons of Boulder, Colorado, it was as if a curtain was pulled aside. A stark patch of drying blood and awkwardly twisted limbs lay before us. We had never seen anything like this firsthand. Later, it struck me as odd; surely people were dying — of old age, of disease, in accidents or homicides – around us every day. How was it they had been so effectively hurried out of view? Kristin and I were eager to move on and forget the incident at the time, but in retrospect, it seems somehow valuable — the original and once ubiquitous memento mori.
I choose not free solo myself; it grips me with an almost paralytic fear and offers little joy in return. And as someone who knows many climbers who free solo at varying levels of difficulty, I admittedly feel a sadness at the thought of losing my friends and acquaintances. But the memento mori reminds us of our shared and universal fate. When we lose sight of this, it becomes all to easy to imagine ourselves living forever, or that our success and wealth will somehow shield us from mortality. Death is the ultimate context, and we must live and act accordingly, whatever that means for each of us.
In the end, the motivations of the free soloist, just like the motivations of any individual in any walk of life, will vary greatly. It is certainly possible for a person to solo out of a desire to end it all. Or to solo without fully understanding the risks at hand. But it is just as possible to solo out of joy, because proximity to death makes the act of living all the more vibrant…or just because it feels right.
In Rome, the memento mori was meant to warn against hubris. In the Christian conception, it played a moralizing role. Perhaps in our time, one in which death is held, for as long as possible, at a “safe” remove, the image of the soloist — or anyone who risks his or her life for reasons not immediately evident — serves as a reminder not just of our own precariousness, but also that there is no time to waste. And like any concept, memento mori implies its own opposite — in this case it is the phrase memento vivere, “remember to live.” Remember to live particularly because we must die. It’s funny to think that we need such reminders, but we do.