The Difference Between Free Climbing and Free Soloing

Travel Sep 28, 2023

When it comes to the world of rock climbing, there are climbers who ascend great heights with ropes, harnesses, and an array of gear, and then there are those who ascend those same heights with nothing more than chalk on their hands and a heart full of determination. It’s a world where the lines between adventure and risk blur, and two distinct styles of climbing stand out: free climbing and free soloing.

The Thrill of Climbing

Climbing isn’t just a sport; it’s a passion that drives individuals to conquer towering cliffs, challenging rock faces, and breathtaking mountains. Whether you’re scaling an indoor climbing wall or embarking on an outdoor adventure, the allure of reaching new heights is undeniable.

Understanding Free Climbing

Definition and Explanation

Free climbing is a climbing style where climbers ascend natural rock formations or artificial climbing walls using their hands, feet, and physical strength. The term “free” refers to the freedom of movement, but it’s important to note that free climbers do use safety equipment to protect themselves in case of a fall.

Safety Measures in Free Climbing

Safety is paramount in free climbing. Climbers use ropes, harnesses, and various protective gear to minimize the risks associated with climbing. The rope, attached to the climber’s harness, is secured to anchors or protection points on the rock. This safety system, known as belaying, allows climbers to ascend with the assurance that a fall will be arrested by the rope and their belayer.

Types of Free Climbing

There are several variations of free climbing:

  1. Traditional Free Climbing: In this style, climbers place their own protection gear, such as nuts or cams, into cracks and crevices in the rock as they ascend.
  2. Sport Free Climbing: Climbers rely on pre-placed bolts and anchors for protection. This style is characterized by shorter, more intense routes.
  3. Bouldering: Bouldering involves climbing short, challenging routes (called “problems”) without ropes or harnesses. Crash pads are used to cushion falls.

Importance and Appeal of Free Climbing

Free climbing is about the joy of movement, the thrill of conquering challenges, and the sense of achievement when reaching the summit. It’s a physical and mental test that rewards climbers with a deep connection to nature and a profound sense of accomplishment.

Notable Free Climbing Achievements

Throughout history, climbers have achieved remarkable feats in free climbing. Iconic routes like “The Nose” on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park have been free climbed, setting new standards for the sport.

The Art of Free Soloing

Definition and Explanation

Free soloing takes the concept of free climbing to the extreme. In free soloing, climbers ascend without any safety gear whatsoever—no ropes, no harnesses, nothing but their climbing shoes and chalk.

The Absence of Safety Gear

Unlike free climbing, which employs a safety net in the form of ropes and protective gear, free soloists rely solely on their skill, strength, and mental fortitude. A single mistake could lead to catastrophic consequences.

Mental and Physical Preparedness

Free soloing isn’t a reckless endeavor. It requires intense mental focus, physical conditioning, and a deep understanding of the chosen route. Free soloists often spend years honing their skills and studying the rock faces they intend to climb.

The Unique Mindset of a Free Soloist

What drives someone to free solo? It’s a question that both climbers and non-climbers alike often ask. The answer varies from person to person, but it often involves a deep love for climbing, a desire to test one’s limits, and a unique connection to the mountains and cliffs.

Risks and Dangers

Free soloing is not for the faint of heart. The risks are undeniable:

  1. The Consequences of Falling: Without safety gear, a fall in free soloing can be fatal. The stakes are incredibly high.
  2. The Mental Challenges: The mental stress of free soloing is immense. Climbers must stay calm and focused, ignoring the ever-present danger.

Celebrated Free Solo Climbers

Despite the inherent risks, there have been celebrated free solo climbers like Alex Honnold, known for his jaw-dropping ascents of El Capitan’s Freerider route and Half Dome’s Northwest Face.

Comparing Free Climbing and Free Soloing

Safety Gear vs. No Safety Gear

The most fundamental difference between free climbing and free soloing is the use of safety gear. Free climbers employ ropes and protective equipment, while free soloists ascend without any safety gear.

Risk Levels Involved

The risk level in free soloing is exponentially higher than in free climbing. A fall in free climbing, while still dangerous, is typically survivable due to the safety gear in place. In free soloing, a fall is often fatal.

The Mental and Physical Demands

Both styles demand physical strength, but free soloing places a greater emphasis on mental preparedness. Climbers must stay calm and focused to mitigate the risks.

The Climbing Community and Culture

Free climbing has a thriving community with shared ethics and values. Climbers support one another, emphasizing safety and responsible climbing. Free soloing, on the other hand, is often a solitary pursuit.

Ethical Considerations in Climbing

Ethical concerns, such as respecting the environment and the climbing area, apply to both styles. However, free soloing can raise additional ethical questions due to its extreme nature.

Choosing Between Free Climbing and Free Soloing

Personal Goals and Aspirations

The choice between free climbing and free soloing ultimately depends on an individual’s goals and aspirations. Some climbers are content with the challenges of free climbing, while others are drawn to the unparalleled thrill of free soloing.

Evaluating Risk Tolerance

Risk tolerance varies from person to person. It’s crucial to assess your own comfort with risk and make choices that align with your values and boundaries.

Considering Ethical and Environmental Factors

Responsible climbing involves respecting the environment and the climbing community. Climbers should be mindful of the impact their choices have on these aspects.

The Importance of Mentorship and Training

Regardless of the chosen style, mentorship and proper training are essential. Climbing with experienced mentors can enhance skills and safety.


In the world of climbing, both free climbing and free soloing represent the pursuit of adventure and personal challenge. Each style has its own unique appeal, risks, and rewards. Whether you’re drawn to the camaraderie of free climbing or the solitude and intensity of free soloing, one thing is certain: climbing is a sport that pushes the boundaries of human potential.

As you navigate your climbing journey, remember that safety, ethics, and responsible choices should always guide your path. So, whether you choose to tie in with a rope or ascend without, climb on, and embrace the thrill of the ascent.

Additional Resources

Books and Films for Climbing Enthusiasts

  • “Alone on the Wall” by Alex Honnold
  • “Free Solo” (Documentary Film)

Climbing Organizations and Communities

  • The American Alpine Club
  • The Access Fund

Climbing Safety Guidelines and Training

  • Climbing Gym Classes
  • Outdoor Climbing Courses