Toe the Edge
By Patrick Hodge
2012. I promised my dad I’d never free-solo, but so much has changed. I felt like I did everything right, but still I nearly died that day. We were up in Boulder Canyon somewhere – it’s funny, I can’t even remember what climb we were on. But I had just summited a single pitch, from pulling beautiful granite and clipping bolts. Busy setting up for rappel, I untied from the rope as you normally would. Then Corey yelled up, “You still psyched to do some more climbing?” “Hell yeah,” I responded, hollering down with my torso twisted and my hands cupped around my mouth. “Just let me finish up.” The next 60 seconds burnt itself into my memory.
It begins with unclipping my personal anchor from the bolts, my last safety, and I start leaning back. My fingers softly grasp slopers while my toes rest on a thin rail only an inch in depth. Time to let go, I feel my body responding to habit, but then a shock wave of emotion radiates from my chest out, filling the entirety of my body, fingertips to toes. It is like a soundless concussion, as if some enormous thing has stomped itself into me, the vibrations reverberating outward like water ripples in the soft core of my being. Something’s wrong, it seems to say. So I glance down to find that I had never actually set up the rappel at all. No ready ATC on my belay loop with the rope threaded through. No rope even through the rap rings themselves – it was still dangling in a knot tied to the side of my harness, as you’d do to prevent yourself from dropping it. I had disassembled the system as lead climber and never reassembled anything for rappel.
I breathe in as slowly as I can, lean gently back into the rock, pressing my chest against the hard surface. I unclip the personal anchor from my harness and listen to its metal as I attach it to the bolts. My ears ring. My palms erupt with sweat. THAT FAST PATRICK. That fast you could have died. I would have fallen over 100 feet and detonated on the jagged rocks next to Corey. Stunned, I finish what I was originally supposed to do, something that is so second-nature, something that I have done thousands of times and is so stupidly mundane. I do it all with shaky hands, and finally rap off the route.
When I reach Corey, who had been collecting his gear completely oblivious to what had transpired, my body is afflicted from the rapid adrenaline hangover. I’ve been befallen by silence and don’t mention anything to him. Yet I know I have to communicate something. I’m embarrassed, albeit traumatized. I don’t want him to ask me anything. So I express tiredness and a willingness to belay him on anything he wants, but that I myself was done with trying hard. What had almost taken place up on the wall and beside him, echoed inside my head. My state of mind was an awe-depressing haze.
The following day, Corey and I headed to Eldorado Canyon to climb again. He asked if I had any preferences – do we climb hard or do some easy soloing? And he even chuckled to himself at that last thought, aware that I had never free-soloed and never would. But what happened the day before flooded me. I came to the realization that even though I had the confidence and the expectation that I would do everything safely, I nearly lost it unbeknownst to myself. It was a stupid mistake derived from distraction; yet it made me feel like I never had control over my death – that each day was another roll of the proverbial dice: snake eyes, you’re out. So for the first time, I let go of fear and said fuck it, “Yeah let’s go solo.” Corey’s eyes lit up. He was half surprised but immediately psyched. We decided to start slow and easy and he suggested that we climb the Wind Ridge, a casual 5.6. I knew enough from the people around me that free-soloed often that you try to move only one limb at a time, that movement is static while maintaining 3-points of contact.
I found strange, intoxicating space in my mind, a backdoor almost, that was entirely safe from fear and panic. It was incredible. Every move was effortless as we floated up in tandem. Upon reaching the summit, I admitted to myself and to Corey how addicting free-soloing was. It was so liberating to climb a few hundred feet in only 10 minutes. Whereas while roping up, people can be stuck on a route for hours. Corey asked if I wanted to do more and without hesitation I said yes.
The next route we set our eyes on was The Bastille Crack, a classic 5.7+, which was taller than what we had just done. Nonetheless, despite having to pass a few parties, we made short work of the wall. I was entranced, absorbed with the freedom free-soloing seemed to provide. So we decided to do one last route to end the day. Corey, having free-soloed these routes in the past was ecstatic to share the experience with me and we fed off each other’s energy.
Hair City 5.9R. About 150 feet off the deck there is a short overhanging section, a roof more or less. I remember working the sequence and feeling the air of exposure – but I was never afraid. I couldn’t do anything wrong. Each hand placement was solid, sturdy. Each toe, perfect. No slipping. No sweating. Safe. Absolute euphoria. We sat on top and reflected on all that we had climbed. For me, each route was a new experience and a complete on-sight. We had climbed nearly 1,000 vertical feet in only a couple hours. Yet most of the time spent was actually hiking from one route to the next; the vertical journeys themselves were only a cumulative 30-40 minutes. But those minutes dominated the perception of the day. Still high off the elation, I told Corey that I would be psyched to do more free-soloing in the future.
We go home. But as the day ends and the night falls into place, I find myself reflecting on my life as a climber. I couldn’t help but confront all the conversations I had had with my father growing up. My father’s words spoke heavy and rattled shame, “There’s old climbers and bold climbers, but there’s no old, bold ones.” Then I thought of how my father would blame himself for introducing me to climbing if I were to die free-soloing. I was challenged with the fact that I wasn’t only risking my own life but the liveliness of those who love me. If I didn’t have enough sense to live for myself, I needed to at least stay alive for them.
I eventually made the commitment that I was done with it. That it was only pure luck that I was able to do what I did and get away with it. However, it wasn’t more than a week later that Corey and I found ourselves back in Eldorado Canyon. Corey asked again if I wanted to free-solo the Bastille to warm-up for us tying in later. Knowing that it was well within my ability and that I had already done it, I decided what the hell, if I can do it once, I can do it again. Thus I briefly ignored my pact, and we started up. Around the top of the second pitch I began to feel lightheaded and could tell I was starting to reach a mental limit; I was knocking on the armored walls that held back all the fear and the promise not to do this again was spilling over with each hand placement. What the fuck are you doing? Why are you up here again? You’ve already done this once, what are you trying to prove? Internal war erupted and mixed suffering ensued in waves. I remember at one point Corey looking down at me and I could see his eyes looking curiously into mine. “Are you okay?” he calmly asked.
My response was guided by the fact that I had gotten myself into this, so I had to get myself out. Admitting panic to Corey would perhaps only make him panic. “Of course, everything’s fine – let’s keep going,” I peacefully asserted. But my climbing was shit. My feet would find an edge and slip. My hands, jammed in the cracks, would steadily give way to mild desperation. I was fighting a constant pump of dread and sweat. The only thing that kept me going was the understanding that the climbing was within my ability. I can do this and I am not going to die on this wall. Finally, seconds having passed like hours, we find ourselves rounding the blocky summit. The instant my feet were on solid, flat ground, I told Corey that I was done and I admitted to having almost lost it. “I knew something was wrong!” he exclaimed. “Yeah – and what? Tell you? Have you freak out as well?” We knew the day was over, or at least it was for me. So we hiked out and drove away.
I never told him about my initial motivation to free-solo that one invincible day, where my body buzzed and the energy-high was like a gift of perfection. I didn’t tell him for years. My mind was fucked up. I had PTSD for a while. Gave up climbing for 6 months, moved away from Colorado to work in different states, doing things that kept my mind far from the cliffs. I would come back and leave again, go home to Illinois or to Florida. I worked on a hog farm in California even, covered in pig shit, herding livestock, philosophizing with donkeys. Corey actually got me the job on that farm, and we worked together there, two years after the fact. And that’s when I finally told him all that happened. “Well it all makes sense now,” he connected the dots, and he felt ashamed for treating the day like any other day.
When I did fully come back to climbing, it took a good year of self-talk to convince myself that I was safe when I was tied in, that falling was okay and just part of the experience – like before, when everything made sense. It was a slow process effectively assessing risk again. But I eventually found that relative balance and peace of mind, and progressed. I finally broke the mental barrier into 5.12 and above after having been a climber for over a decade. And I understood that free-soloing is always a choice. I have done it since, but only on the Boulder Flatirons where it’s almost a rite of passage into the Boulder climbing scene and the climbing itself is like a ladder. I even shared the experience of free-soloing the 3rd Flatiron with my then girlfriend, now wife, in 2015.
And nowadays, when I find myself in the vertigo that fear tickles into you, no matter what I’m climbing or how, it is easier to move past it; because confidence is everything, even if you’re tricking yourself into believing it. And death will never be mine to control, but I don’t have to let go of life in order to accept it. So I push my limits in ways that I feel warrant staying alive, only challenging death when it challenges me first. And I am no stranger to near-death experiences. I got hit by a truck riding my bike when I was in first grade. As a teenager, I was almost pushed off the road on a motorcycle when an RV came around a blind turn on a mountain pass, in my lane. Then, at 23, I did fly off a mountain in my Jeep off-roading when the engine suddenly stalled on a point of no return and we rolled until a tree stopped us. A year later, I spent 19 days in the hospital when I came down with Lemierre’s Syndrome and the doctors had to punch a metal straw into my back to drain my lungs.
But all these things and more were the result of pure chance and circumstance, things unpredictable. The climbing incident was unquestionably my fault – avoidable, predictable, the effect of user error. I have never had a direct play into my own potential for death as I have had with climbing. Actually that’s a lie – when I was a young turd I held on to the top of my friend’s car going over 100 mph. Yet when you’re close to death you can’t help but feel all the more alive, and as long as I’m attentive, climbing lets me wander the edge without slipping beyond – and what could be more fun than that?
Patrick Hodge enjoys his morning coffee and believes humor as the best medicine. You can find him planting vegetables, chopping wood in his Carhartt onesie with the ass-flap open, and sussing moves on the cliffs of Colorado, occasionally writing about his life when his wife feeds him chocolate and tells him to do it.