Has Alex Honnold\u2019s free solo climb of El Capitan sparked more daredevils? At least one free soloist has fallen to his death since the film was released.\n\n\n\nIn 2017, the day after Alex Honnold completed his free-solo ascent of El-Capitan, climbing journalist and author Daniel Duane wrote in The New York Times: \u201cI believe that it should be celebrated as one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.\u201d \n\n\n\nA National Geographic documentary film crew captured the four-hour 3,000 foot ropeless ascent\u2014as well as the years of intense preparation Honnold put into climb. Released in theaters last fall, \u201cFree Solo\u201d won an Academy Award and grossed $21 million at the box office, making it the highest grossing National Geographic documentary of all time. A record-breaking 3.1 million viewers watched the premiere on the National Geographic Network. \n\n\n\nThe documentary attracted viewers outside of the climbing and extreme-sports community. The visceral and primal spectacle of witnessing a man face imminent death attracted a broad audience. Honnold, already a celebrity in the climbing world, became a household name. \n\n\n\nIt was an exercise in existential voyeurism, and freesoloing, the most taboo, dangerous and controversial styles of climbing, reached the mainstream vernacular. \n\n\n\nWill all the current fanfare directed towards freesoloing cause a surge in climbers to leave their ropes and bolts behind? We asked members of the Southern Appalachian climbing community for their thoughts on freesoloing.\n\n\n\nAustin Howell\n\n\n\n\u201cWhen the rope is off, you can\u2019t afford to slip,\u201d explains free solo climber Austin Howell. Austin Howell was a rock climber for 12 years, 10 of which had been primarily as a free-soloist. He was the kid that climbed the tallest tree in hide and seek never to be found. He took up rock climbing at an indoor gym in college. After college, he worked day jobs that called for him to climb 300-foot cell towers, often in harsh weather. He became a proficient lead climber, requiring him to go long stretches between safe points. \n\n\n\n Unhooking the rope for the first time for Austin was not an epiphany; it was practical. He was half-way up a steep rock face, felt weighed down by the heavy bag of bolts and the ropes on his back, and simply unhooked himself and passed the gear to his climbing partner.\n\n\n\n\u201cSoloing in one way is the most obvious way in the universe,\u201d he explained, speaking proudly of John Muir in 1888 climbing Cathedral Peak. \u201cEssentially he free-soloed that cliff to the top of it, and free-soloed it back down.\u201d For centuries, Pueblo people had built houses into the sides of tall cliffs without any safety devices. Carabiner and belays didn\u2019t arrive until 1933. \n\n\n\n\u201cSubjectively there\u2019s nothing safe about it. There\u2019s risk and there\u2019s consequence. The consequence is very obvious,\u201d he said.\n\n\n\nOne month after talking with BRO, Howell, age 31, fell 80 feet to his death on a free solo climb at Linville Gorge. \n\n\n\nAustin Howell free solo climbs in the Linville Gorge. Photo by Jess Daddio.\n\n\n\nSasha DiGiulian\n\n\n\n\u201cI do not free solo,\u201d says Sasha DiGuilian, a world-renowned professional climber from Virginia who spent much of her youth climbing in the Red River Gorge. \u201cRocks can break and incidences out of my own control can occur. To do this would be selfish to my family and my loved ones because I can handle my own death, but I would not want to put those close to me through the heavy weight of loss.\u201d\n\n\n\nThe 26-year-old is known for her free climbs, different from free soloing, in which the climber may use climbing equipment only to protect against injury during falls and not to assist progress. In 2015, she became the first woman to free climb Magic Mushroom (7c+), one of the most difficult routes on the north face of the Eiger Mountain in Switzerland.\n\n\n\n \u201cIf I am in a situation in which free soloing is the only option to reach the summit, and there is not a safer way, there will be an occasion that I may embark. However, it is not something that I seek out.\u201d\n\n\n\nSasha DiGuilian on Free Solo: Sasha Digulian wrote this on Instagram the night Free Solo won the Academy Award for best documentary film.\n\n\n\n"Last night Free Solo won an Oscar! First of all, huge congratulations to Jimmy Chinn, Alex Honnold, and all of the crew involved. Needless to say, an accomplishment of a lifetime and I know this came with a lot of hard work and perseverance. It is momentous for me to see a climbing film recognized at the highest of high regards. With all the hype and attention that is sure to come from this, I felt it was important for me to speak about the very specific differences between this form of climbing (free soloing) and the approach the vast majority of climbers take to the sport itself. What Alex does when free soloing is by nature, very risky. And while in my career I have had instances where a form of this has been necessary it has also been a choice that came as a last resort and has happened less than a handful of times over my 20 years of climbing. Free soloing is a style of climbing that a very small percentage of climbers partake in as there is no higher level of risk: life or death. I say all this with the caveat that it is not the sole form of climbing that Alex does.While I am so excited by the recognition this film has received, I also feel like I have spent a big portion of my career trying to educate people unfamiliar with climbing about our sport. A goal of mine has been to demonstrate that anyone can do it, and that it is a safe and welcoming activity. In my opinion Alex is one of the greatest climbers of all time to have the capacity to realize all that he has accomplished. However, I also just want to make it clear, which I do feel like this film has done a good job of, the separation that free soloing has from the general form of climbing that I encourage all of you to experience at some point in your life. But when you do, especially if it your first time: please be sure to seek out guidance from a trained and knowledgeable climber at your local gym or local crag. Take a course in how to enter the spot safely and with the proper training and equipment. This is an incredible and inclusive sport that, when approached correctly, is safe and fun for everyone."\n\n\n\nJesse Anderson\n\n\n\nJesse Anderson, 32, has been a park ranger at Pilot Mountain State Park for six years and a climber for a dozen, but never as a free soloist. \n\n\n\n \u201cI understand the mantra with the connection, the rock, the silencing of the mind through free soloing, but it is not for me,\u201d Anderson said. He hasn\u2019t seen an uptick in free solo climbing on his watch at Pilot Mountain after the Honnold documentary. \n\n\n\n\u201cNo matter the preparation, the unfortunate truth is that accidents happen, and that\u2019s why people use ropes.\u201d \n\n\n\nThe free soloist has the freedom to leave the ropes behind, but anyone else climbing the same crag that day has the unexpected risk of witnessing brazen climbing and potential loss of life. \n\n\n\n\u201cIf a free soloist starts climbing beside another climbing party that is roped up, it is unsettling,\u201d says climbing filmmaker and photographer Adam Nawroot. He noted how Jimmy Chin, producer and principal shooter of Free Solo (also an advanced climber and one of Howell\u2019s close friends), chose in advance to pull the crew from the Huber Boulder Problem, the most risky climbing sequence of the ascent. \n\n\n\n\u201cThe Boulder Problem is the single reason nobody had even considered free-soloing [the] Freerider [ascent of El Capitan],\u201d Caldwell told Men\u2019s Journal last year. \u201cIt took Alex almost a decade to get comfortable on it. Otherwise, he\u2019d probably have free-soloed it in 2009.\u201d\n\n\n\nChin and Honnold knew that if Honnold was going to fall, the Boulder Problem would be the most likely place, and Chin didn\u2019t want a videographer to have to witness Honnold fall out of frame. \n\n\n\n \u201cIf you\u2019re a free-soloist and you show up at a crag and you start free soloing and don\u2019t clear it with everyone they might watch you die right there. It is unfair to the other people around you.\u201d \n\n\n\nZachary Bopp\n\n\n\nZachary Bopp agreed. He is the Outdoor Program Supervisor at REI in Chattanooga who leads climbing classes.\n\n\n\n\u201cWhen you encounter a free soloist on a crag, you do not know whether they have been dialing in the climb as Honnold did for El Capitan, or they just decided to do it with little or no forethought,\u201d says Bopp. \u201cIt can be hard on other climbers as to whether they should speak up and say something. It is the most unsafe climbing there is, especially coming from an instructor background,\u201d says Bopp.\n\n\n\n\u201cWe set ground rules from the get-go to manage the risk. We tell everyone the rules and expectations so we don\u2019t have to correct and address the daredevil style student.\u201d \n\n\n\nA natural fear of falling tends to weed out the majority of potential free soloists. Once a climber reaches about 15 feet, they do not proceed without ropes. It is a consensus in the climbing world that free soloing is the \u201cfringe of the fringe,\u201d a tiny community growing smaller in the current climbing boom of indoor gym climbers that has led to climbing\u2019s debut in the 2020 Olympics. Even with the inherent risks to both the climber and those who may be unintended witnesses of a fatal fall, the question of regulating free solo climbing is widely seen as a moot point due to its rarefied nature.\n\n\n\n\u201cEven back to movies like Cliffhanger, potential land managers will bring up climbing without ropes, and it is an opportunity for us to make an educational point, that this style of climbing is really a televised phenomenon for the most part,\u201d says Zachary Lesch-Huie, Southeast regional director for The Access Fund, a national climbing advocacy and conservation organization. Naturally, one would think Austin Howell\u2019s recent death and the popularity of Free Solo could spook future work. Lesch-Huie has had to ease worries due to similar concerns in the past.\n\n\n\n\u201cWe haven\u2019t seen an increase in climbers out there trying to be Alex Honnold,\u201d he says.\n\n\n\nThe Carolina Climbing Coalition (CCC) was established after a climber fell to his death in 1994. Climbers mistakenly worried that state parks would be closed to climbing as the result of a fatality at Crowder's Mountain. State park officials and climbers met in Charlotte and determined that a park closure was not planned and that a coalition would best serve the interests of both climbers and park officials. In January 1995 almost 100 area climbers voted unanimously to create the coalition to help preserve climbing access in the Carolinas.\n\n\n\nMike Reardon\n\n\n\n"We're not the climbing police telling people how they should go climb." \u2014Mike Reardon, Carolina Climbers Coalition \n\n\n\nMike Reardon was appointed Executive Director of the CCC last February. He described the charitable organization\u2019s main mission is maintaining access to various areas by stewarding trails and working on bolt replacement. They also collaborate with landowners to open new areas to climbing. \n\n\n\n \u201cIf it is something that affects access, then it is something we would take a stance on. We\u2019re certainly not the climbing police who tell people how they should go climb.\u201d\n\n\n\nMike Reardon shares the name with one of the most revered of free soloists. In 2007 the other Mike Reardon fell to his death free soloing a cliff in Ireland. After he fell into the cold water, a rogue wave took him away and he was never found. \n\n\n\nHe was 41 at his death, Austin Howell was 31. Howell spoke and wrote regularly about Reardon as somewhat of a ghost-mentor to him. \n\n\n\nHowell had completed hundreds of free solo ascents across the country. One of his videos, documenting a free solo ascent completely naked save for a cowboy hat and boots, made it onto MTV\u2019s Ridiculousness. \n\n\n\nWith the growing attention being paid to free soloists after Free Solo, he had begun to attract a larger following within the booming danger-sport landscape, alongside the skyscraper parkour and perilous selfies taken atop towers and on cliff edges. He had begun talks with a potential filmmaker to make a documentary about his exploits. \n\n\n\nHowell got into climbing through a gym-wall in college. He excelled and began going to the gym regularly. During that time, he won a rope and safety equipment after participating in a raffle during a climbing exhibition. He told me how this led him to discover a new world of climbing outdoors. He quickly became a certified lead climber, and outdoor climbing took over his life. \n\n\n\nIt was acquiring safety gear that led him into outdoor climbing. It was putting aside that gear that took his life prematurely.