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The scope of climbing is very large, and the word "climbing" means a lot of activities, whose common link is only the struggle against gravity. So is the significance of soloing. I will not go back to the "social" issues of this practise, because I have seen a lot of excellent postings regarding this matter (I have not read them all). I will just give (in extreme disorder) a few remarks who come from my personal experience or knowledge of alpine history. I have written in the past a couple of trips reports where I have tried to say what solo climbing meant for me, and I would be glad to send a copy to the folks who can read French (I can say what I mean much more better in that language, I think). I am not sure that some people understand at all what solo is about, and this posting is meant to provide hopefully some insight about this practice.
First, sport climbs have been soloed at an amazing level (french 8b). To my knowledge, there was no accident (who would have been fatal or nearly fatal). Amusing to see that solo is nearly as safe on these type of climbs than regular climbing ! The skills and mastery needed to complete these climbs are considerable. It may be more an acrobat's achievement than anything else. However when you speak to these cliff's soloist, they all tell about a rich and intense personal experience, above all. I know that some moments are stretched, but it is experiences that last some minutes, and where extreme concentration is more needed than anything else. This concentration may feel someone be alone, even if he climbs on a crowded crag, and it can be the explanation for some soloists misconducts.
Now it seems to me that the essence of mountain soloing is different: adventure, personal confrontation with the mountain, and spiritual quest. These elements have been emphasized in almost book I have read about solo climbing, and I believe they are the main reason why one choices to climb alone. I would always avoid to solo a route if there are other climbers aside. Being alone is the first thing. It adds a dimension to the mountain that one can easily perceive when he hikes alone. Have you ever enjoyed this sensation of freedom and communion with nature ? It is the same on high mountains, but in addition, you have purity of action, and the impression which is so well described by the term "going by yourself", not with any exterior aid. If you look of history of mountaineering, you will see that the trend is always towards more autonomy, less means. Solo is just the ultimate end of this trend. Note that moral aid (the mere presence of companions) is nearly as important as anything else, which show the prominence of mental factors in solo climbing. When soloing, you also climb for yourself, and this egoistic pursuit is the only thing that could be objected to in solo climbing. If you are not, then there is probably something wrong. Unfortunately, sponsoring, and the commercialization of mountain climbing have led to questionnable excess (mainly in the Alps I suppose), and solo has developed as a more spectacular and dramatic form of climbing, but I still believe that those who are followed by an helicopters enjoy their climbs as lonely climbers would. Otherwise it would be crazy business, regarding the risks and the earnings. I also like the resulting films...
I personnaly think that soloing is the quintessence of climbing, and that it multiplies the satisfactions given by climbing, as well as the dangers. However, some solo climbers are safer than most of parties, to my knowledge, it is just a matter of safety margin. Safety does not come from the rope or from anyone's presence in first hand, but from yourself above all. In solo climbing, you choice your own level of risk, as in any form of climbing. I would almost say that being able to solo is necessary for any serious mountaineer, as it is a situation that one is likely to meet one day or another (no real belaying possibility, accident, or some expeditions for instance). If you think about everything that you enjoy in climbing (except friendship of course), you will find that this satisfaction is even more intense when climbing alone. No secret: You always get what you bring in the mountains, should you bring nothing of your own, they would be mere rock and snow piles. Now it is no surprise that soloists concentrate the public reprobation, as their practice concentrate the essence of climbing. If you think about the reason why (some) other climbers condemn solo, you will see that they are just the very reason why non-climbers condemn climbing. To my opinion there are ambivalent feelings there which would be interesting to analyze in greater details.
Although I think of solo as an essential part of my alpine activity, I climb mainly roped. I always try to do a couple of solo climbs in the year. Not more, because I am aware of the danger, and also because I don't want it to become routine. And as it is an exceptional event, I always choice a mountain route which does mean something for me, and that I don't know already. I never do soloing on crags or small (less than about 1000 feet) icefalls, because for me it is just not worth.
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