Free solo climbing, or free soloing, is the practice of climbing rock or ice without a rope. In the case of rock climbing, free soloists use only their hands, rock shoes, and sometimes climbing chalk to ascend a wall, with no rope to catch them in the event of a fall. The same principle applies on ice and mixed terrain, though free soloists typically use crampons and ice tools. Some free soloists, such as Alain Robert, have also specialized in climbing buildings and other artificial structures.
For obvious reasons, free soloing is the most dangerous discipline in the climbing world. Except in extremely rare cases, a fall while free soloing results in serious injury or death. It’s worth noting, however, that at low difficulties, the definition of “free solo climbing” may vary depending on the individual. For example, one climber may consider a couple of pitches of 5.4/3 a “scramble” and not bother with a rope, while another would consider this a free solo.
I chose these climbers in this list based on their skill, prolificity, and overall contribution to the world of free soloing. Several were chosen because they pushed the difficulty cap of the free solo grade; others because of the quantity and regularity of their soloing.
But unlike roped climbing, there are far too many variables in free soloing to “rank” free soloists like football or basketball players. Free soloists don’t just manage technical difficulty, duration, weather, and route conditions. They battle fear. Doubt. Anxiety. Both gravity and their own minds. As a result, most free soloists do not consider free solo climbing a sport. Some don’t even think of it as an athletic endeavor.
With this in mind, I feel it would be poor form to indicate that there is a “best” free soloist of all time. That’s why I listed these soloists alphabetically and refrained from numbering the list. At the end of the list, I’ll cover a few more who could’ve easily appeared here, too.
No list of free soloists is complete without mention of the “French Spider-Man,” Alain Robert. While Robert is best known for free soloing of skyscrapers, he was also one of the most prolific hard free solo rock climbers of the 1990s.
His send of Compilation (5.13d/8b) in 1993 was the first free solo ascent of the grade. But Robert soloed nearly 20 other routes in the 5.13/8 range, many on the upper end, such as La Nuit du Lézard (5.13c/8a+), Pour Une Poignée de Chamallow (5.13c/8a+), and L’enchaînement des Abominaffreux (5.13d/8b). Another of his most spectacular feats on rock was a free solo of the 165-foot/50-meter Pol Pot (5.13a/7c+) in the Verdon Gorge. This route sits nearly 300 feet/91 meters off the deck and requires tenuous, friction-based moves.
Robert transitioned to soloing buildings in the late 1990s. Now 61 years old, he has climbed nearly 200 skyscrapers in over 60 countries, most of which have never been repeated. He continues to free solo buildings a few times each year. Perhaps most impressive is that, due to several falls early in his career, Robert is considered 66% disabled, with a severely limited range of motion and strength in his hands and wrists. All of Robert’s significant solos were made with these disabilities. When you take this into account, his achievements are magnitudes more impressive. (Robert recently gave an exclusive interview to Climbing House, which sheds more light on his philosophy and background.)
German powerhouse Alexander Huber, 54, is perhaps most famous for his hard sport and big wall free climbing. He was the first to redpoint 5.14d/9a (Om, 1992) and potentially 5.15a/9a+ (Open Air, 1996). Also, he put up several legendary big wall free ticks like Zodiac (5.13d/8b 1,800’/549 m) and El Niño (5.13b/c-8a/+ 2,500’/762 m) on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and Eternal Flame (5.13a/7c+ 2,100’/640 m) on the Trango Towers. His free ascent of the Salathé in Yosemite was also the first redpoint of a 5.13b/8a big wall.
However, Huber is also one of the strongest free solo climbers in the world. His 2004 ascent of Kommunist was the first 5.14a/8b+ free solo in history. He also free soloed the 1,900-foot/579-meter Brandler-Hasse Direttissima in the Dolomites, the first-ever free solo of a 5.12a/7a+ big wall.
In 2008, Huber spoke to Alpinist (1) about hard soloing:
“The most important thing is self-confidence. I try to judge myself, and when I come to the result that I can control the difficulties, this results in the necessary self-confidence. I do not need any special meditation to concentrate–the experience is so intense that you automatically concentrate 100 percent.”
If you mention free soloing to most people, the first name that comes to mind is Alex Honnold. The 38-year-old American is probably the most well-known rock climber in the world, primarily because of the groundbreaking nature of his free solos and the high level of media attention they’ve received. The Jimmy Chin documentary Free Solo, which follows Honnold’s climb of Freerider (5.13a/7c+ 2,900’/884 m) on El Capitan, won both a BAFTA and an Academy Award. Honnold became the first person to free solo El Capitan (via a Grade VI route) in the process.
Honnold’s tick list is extensive, but among other feats, he is known for a free solo of El Sendero Luminoso (5.12d/7c 1,750’/533 m), holding the speed record on the “Yosemite Triple Crown,” a link-up of routes on Yosemite National Park’s three biggest faces, Mount Watkins, El Cap, and Half Dome, and setting a sub-two hour speed record on The Nose (5.9/5b C2 3,000’/914 m) with Tommy Caldwell. He has also sport climbed up to 5.14d/9a, bouldered V12/8A+, and won a Piolet d’Or with Caldwell for The Fitz Roy Traverse (5.11d/7a C1 16,400’/5,000 m) an alpine traverse in Patagonia.
Writing in TIME (2) following the death of fellow soloist Dean Potter, Honnold wrote:
“No matter the risks we take, we always consider the end to be too soon, even though in life, more than anything else, quality should be more important than quantity. I generally don’t climb something if it makes me feel fear. The beauty of soloing is that there’s no pressure – no one’s telling me to do it.”
Barring (perhaps) Lynn Hill, the French alpinist and rock wizard Catherine Destivelle was the leading female climber in the 1980s and 1990s, winning fame on plastic, rock, and ice, with competition victories, high-end sport redpoints and stunning alpine ascents. Destivelle laid to rest a series of significant high-altitude climbs in the Himalayas and elsewhere, such as Pakistan’s Nameless Tower, the southwest face of Shishapangma, and Peak 4111 in Antarctica.
In the world of free soloing, Destivelle is likely best known for a winter free solo of the north faces of the Eiger, the Grandes Jorasses, and the Matterhorn, as well as alpine solos of routes like the Bonatti Pillar on the Petit Dru. She was the first woman to complete the feat and the first person to do so onsight. She told Rock and Ice in 2020 (3):
“When I’m free soloing, I feel OK. I always have a big safety margin, I’m not struggling. You feel quite powerful and calm. If I ever felt afraid, I wouldn’t go. I don’t like to bet.”
American climber John Bachar was the leading American soloist of the 1970s and 1980s and among the first to free solo big walls. He is credited with early solos of many 5.10 and 5.11 (5 and 6) routes in Yosemite Valley (Nabisco Wall) and elsewhere in California. He’s also established a number of highball boulder problems. By the 1990s, Bachar managed several 5.12/7 free solos, as well.
Teamed up with Peter Croft, Bachar is also known for being the first to tackle a linkup of both El Capitan and Half Dome in a day (roped), and for making the first free ascent of Astroman (5.11c/6c+ 1,000’/305 m) with fellow Yosemite legends John Long and Ron Kauk.
A fitness fanatic, he also developed a popular climbing training tool, coined the “Bachar ladder.” Bachar famously posted a note on Camp 4’s bulletin board offering a “$10,000 reward for anyone who can follow me for one full day.” The challenge was never taken on. Bachar ultimately died soloing at the Dike Wall in Mammoth Lakes, California, in 2009, aged 52.
American Michael Reardon was another leading soloist of the 1990s and 2000s, known for a staggering array of free solos, such as the 1,000-foot 5.12b/7b Romantic Warrior, for which he was awarded National Geographic‘s “Adventurer of the Year” award.
Reardon is perhaps best known because many of his hardest solos were performed onsight, such as Outrage (5.13a/7c+), Sea of Tranquility (5.11d/7a), and Shikata Ga Nai (5.12/7a+). He also made the first solo of the Palisades Traverse (5.9/5b) in a mere 22 hours. Until then, the fastest party had taken 12 days.
Among other feats, he completed 214 onsight solos in England and 240 in Ireland, 1,000 individual solos in 30 days, and 100 first ascent solos up to 5.12/7a+ in Joshua Tree National Park. In total, Reardon made over 150 first ascent solos in his lifetime, at grades up to 5.13c/8a+. He died in 2007, aged 42, after being swept out to sea after downclimbing a sea cliff in County Kerry, Ireland.
Edlinger was the golden child of French climbing in the late 1970s and early 1980s, winning both early climbing competitions and setting milestones on rock. Edlinger established a number of cutting-edge sport climbs and was among the first person in history to climb both 5.12d/7c and 5.13a/7c+. He was also the first to onsight 5.12c/7b+ and 5.12d/7c. Edlinger later free soloed up to 5.13b/8a (Orange Mécanique) in addition to climbing with ropes up to 5.14b/8c. He is best known for his solos in the Verdon Gorge, hundreds of feet off the deck.
Sadly, Edlinger’s later years were marked by tragedy, characterized first by a 40-foot/12-meter ground fall, then the death of his best friend Patrick Berhault, and a troubled marriage. Edlinger ultimately found himself struggling through alcoholism, loneliness, and depression. He seemingly found himself unable to cope with his decline as a climber, as indicated by a masterful Ed Douglas profile (4) originally appearing in Rock and Ice. He died in 2012, aged 52, after falling down the stairs in his home.
Famously under-the-radar Canadian Peter Croft never enjoyed the spotlight as much as some of his contemporaries. Nonetheless, he is undoubtedly one of the most talented free solo practitioners of all time. From the free solo of Astroman (5.11c/6c+) and the Rostrum (5.11c/6c+) to his linkup free solo of both routes in a single day, not to mention a spectacular series of speed records and linkups both in Yosemite National Park and further afield…
Croft was perhaps the most prolific free soloist and big wall free climber of the 1990s and early 2000s, even as other figures received more limelight in the American media. As mentioned above, Croft also tackled the first one-day linkup of Half Dome and El Capitan in Yosemite along with John Bachar (1986).
American climber Steph Davis is likely better known for BASE jumping and wingsuiting than free solo climbing. Still, she is one of the most talented female climbers to free solo. Davis has free soloed routes up to 5.11b/6c, was the first woman to summit all the peaks of the Fitz Roy Range in Patagonia, the first to free the Salathė Wall on El Capitan, and the first to free solo The Diamond on Longs Peak, via the legendary 5.11a/6b+ Pervertical Sanctuary. After Lynn Hill, she was also the second woman to free climb El Capitan in a day.
Davis is also known for her marriage to Dean Potter, a talented American free soloist who could have easily appeared on this list as well. Davis said in the documentary film “A Perfect Circle (5):
“Free soloing is a practice for life. What I learned is that it is all about controlling what is going on in the brain. […] There’s a euphoria to finishing a long free solo. That’s the only way I can describe it. I’ve never felt that with anything else I’ve done. But I always feel it after free soloing.”
Other Famous Free Solo Figures
There are a number of free soloing pioneers who are arguably just as influential and talented as any free solo climber on this list. Their ranks include:
- Dean Potter
- Austin Howell
- Henry Barber
- Hansjörg Auer
- Jim Erickson
- Tobin Sorenson
- Wolfgang Güllich
- Alfredo Webber
- John Yablonski
- Dave MacLeod
- Paul Preuss
- Dan Osman
- Brad Gobright
- Brette Harrington
- Marc-André Leclerc
- Charlie Fowler
- Colin Haley.
Solo, Part IV: Alexander Huber
Alexander Huber, July 16, 2018
Climber Alex Honnold: What Risk Means After Dean Potter
Alex Honnold, May 28, 2015
Free Solo Rock Climbing and the Climbers Who Have Defined the Sport
Alison Osius, June 4, 2022
The Triumphs and Tragedy of Patrick Edlinger
Ed Douglas, November 11, 2021
A Perfect Circle
Steph Davis, Mario Richard, Keith Ladzinski, and Jorge Visser (2012)