Most people dabble with soloing at one time or other, generally early on in their careers, often because they aren’t good enough to impress anyone with their abilities, but are dumb enough to scare people with their stupidity.
Luckily most soloists grow out of it (they get better or realise that no one’s impressed, well not unless they are scaling the Empire States building), and the rest give up because they have:-
a: a nasty scare.
b: a nasty accident.
c: a nasty death.
I went through a soloing phase, primarily because it was hard to find a climbing partner mid-week, and so would get some mileage in on grit instead. What stopped me soloing was climbing Queersville on Stanage one evening and finding the tip of the crucial side pull, the one I had hung my whole life on, no longer all there. I didn’t want to disappear, like it, among the jumble of rocks below so gave it up… well gave up anything under 1000 metres high (it’s good to know your limits in soloing).
Yet soloing isn’t all bad – after all nothing foolhardy and stupid ever is (don’t listen to your mother). I’ve learnt many interesting things through my pants-wetting and underwear soiling adventuress; confidence in my abilities, the fact thinking about ‘not falling off’ still contains the phrase ‘falling off’, and that bravery is simply the act of controlling one’s fear.
The big difference came when I began soloing longer routes; first climbs that took an hour, then six, then six days, then two weeks. The longer the climb, the longer my exposure to myself. In a way, soloing can be like tough and dangerous psychotherapy, and often it’s this, not the act of climbing, that becomes addictive.
One of the things that I treasure above all is that through soloing I discovered my ‘others’. Consciousness is like an onion, and in times of stress, it begins to come apart, revealing other conscious selves buried beneath. The most common depiction of the others is the devil and the angel, the fire of a troubled consciousness made whole, and this is the bane of any climbers’ lives, after all, you never can tell who’s actually doing the talking. These others are often present in hard times but are mistaken for other things, like ghosts or god, or as ‘the third man’, that extra person you feel is missing. I also think this other is the stranger who appears and guides people in times of danger, then disappears once the mind begins to relax…or maybe that’s God fucking with us atheists. My others come in many forms, and through long and stressful contemplation I feel I know them well, each having their own part to play in a climb, and once identified and easily called up, in everyday life. The most important others are my future, present and past selves. These help to focus your actions before, during and after any activity. For example, when buying chocolate for a climb your present self may not take into consideration how much your future self may really want that chocolate, meaning when it runs out it will blame your past self for being so inconsiderate and selfish. This ability to place yourself in the now, like a man standing on one of those desert highways, is hugely empowering, and once mastered allows a much greater degree of self consideration, something I think many people could benefit from.
The downside of the others is that the stress of so many voices can sometimes be intolerable, and often the most important skill of all is to be able to turn them down, something that takes great skill. The turmoil and counter-question can leave you thought fractured, your thoughts exhausted, like having too many programs running at once on the same computer. The trick of course is to identify the key program, and Ctrl + Alt + Delete the rest.
When the silence eventually comes, and the others speak as one, it’s bliss, and sometimes I think it’s the main reason I climb. Soloing is dumb, but once you get to know your others, they grow to be friends, and so very often when you set out alone, you’re not alone at all. Perhaps this is nothing but schizophrenia, but a little voice in my head tells me that it’s more than that.