By Nathan Geffen, 19 August 2023
I fell to the ground climbing today.
But only about a metre.
This minor mishap evokes either greater admiration or dismay for free solo climbers like Alex Honnold. I'm not sure which yet. Maybe both.
It happened like this: I went for a mountain walk. I found a boulder that was very easy and very safe climb, as I sometimes do. Today's boulder in the Silvermine reserve was especially simple, full of jugs and footholds. Conditions were perfect. It was sunny, Cape Town winter day, but the rock was also dry.
Sending the boulder required no more than three or four easy moves and then stepping down to a rock to to get back onto the walking path. Using the South African grade system this was no more than a 14, possibly lower. way below my maximum ability, in fact way below the maximum ability of any able-bodied reasonably fit person. If you'd asked me the odds of falling, I would have said very close to zero. Yet when I stepped down onto the rock I mistimed something; I'm not sure what. And I fell, to the ground.
I landed on my butt and didn't hurt myself at all badly. Just a scrape on the arm. But I have no idea why I fell. I don't think I lost concentration. If the drop below was 100 metres instead of one metre I doubt my level of concentration would have been less; on the contrary it may have been impaired by extreme fright. True, I was not wearing climbing shoes, but I don't think I fell because my foot slipped off the rock. I suspect it was simply human fallibility, a co-ordination error. My brain sent messages to my limbs that were ever so slightly out of sync.
And yet free solo climbers like Honnold, Brette Harrington and Matt Bush on a routine day climb routes incomparably harder and longer. They are still with us. It seems to me that this is not merely because they are much stronger, better co-ordinated and more talented at climbing than the rest of us; there is a consistency to the co-ordination of their limb movements that far exceeds the norm. Where ordinary climbers like myself may pull off a certain move 99 times out of 100, they would do even harder moves 1,000 times out of a 1,000. (Or perhaps I'm just a klutz whose consistency of co-ordination is below normal?)
I am obviously speculating. But I wonder if there's a way to measure and test the consistency of co-ordination of top climbers, especially free solo ones, and to see if they're more consistent than the rest of us.