Long On…Free Soloing

Part I in a series of conversations with John Long


John Long, a.k.a. Largo, is one of those rare beings that can be legitimately called a legend. Consider the resume: Pioneering rock climber. World adventurer. Award-winning TV and film writer and producer. Author of more than 40 books with two million copies in print.  In 2009, Rock and Ice magazine called Long “the most influential climber in the world” for his groundbreaking climbs and vast contribution to climbing literature.

His interests and passions know few bounds. An undergraduate philosophy major with an M.F.A. in creative writing and an M.A. in theological studies, Long went back to grad school yet again in his mid-40s for a master’s degree in clinical psychology.

Now in his 50s, Long’s recreational activiy of choice, along with climbing and surfing, is mountain biking down steep boulder-strewn hills—on a unicycle. Indeed, here is a guy who could give the face of Dos Equis beer a serious run for the title of The Most Interesting Man in the World.

As his publisher, we at FalconGuides have had many opportunities to be in John Long’s larger-than-life presence, hearing first-hand his tales of adventure and soaking up his unique perspective on, well, just about everything. We have decided to share some of the Largo Experience with you, our readers, by presenting a series of conversational interviews with Long covering, well, just about anything.

For our first interview, we discussed free soloing—the amazing (though sometimes-fatal) form of climbing that doesn’t involve ropes, harnesses, or any other protective gear. Long himself is no stranger to free soloing. In fact, he helped to popularize it as a teenager climbing in California in the early 1970s.     

How does a person one day look up at a towering mass of vertical rock and decide, “Hey, I think I’ll climb that without ropes.”

It’s actually the result of a natural progression that comes from familiarity with the rock. I began free soloing at Joshua Tree during high school, and we used to go out there every winter weekend. And when you go to the same central location repeatedly, you end up doing the same climbs over and over. So it’s natural to start doing them with less protection because of your spectacular familiarity with what you’re doing. As the months and years pass, you continue to do harder and harder things, pushing the limits. Soloing comes quite naturally to those who are open to that kind of experience.

Do you think people would be less alarmed by free soloing if they knew the steps that went into it?

Sure. Take big-wave surfing. All people see is the final product, which is a guy riding an 80-foot wave. They don’t see the years of preparation that went into it, the thousands of incremental steps that were taken before the surfer got up on that 80-footer.

Writing is like that, too. People always ask me for advice on becoming a writer. I tell them it’s something I started as a sophomore in high school, and I went through all the steps. I studied literature and fine arts in college. I went to a graduate writing program. Then I started writing magazine pieces. It’s just like any career. You don’t start fixing cars without having fiddled around with engines, and you don’t do rocket science without having studied physics. It’s the same with soloing. It’s all in the preparation, the practice, and the backstory. If you take that out of the equation, then you’re just a daredevil, and free soloing was never about that.

And yet you were quite young when you started soloing…

Yeah, I was 17.

How long had you been climbing before that?

About a year. I started climbing at 16.

Wow, that’s a quick education. You went through the natural progression fast...

Ah, yeah. But, you know, I lived around a climbing area, so we practiced a lot.

Aside from trying new things and pushing the limits, what attracts people to soloing?

Well, there’s a process to soloing which is itself an adventure. You start doing smaller things and you build up to bigger things, and you’re ultimately trying to achieve that feeling of mastery and freedom that led you to climbing in the first place. But you free solo for the sake of free soloing. For me, it was never about using it as a means to have other experiences. Now people try free soloing as a kind of art form or whatever. That’s never what it was about. Free soloing should be something you come to naturally in the process of your climbing, or adventuring, or whatever. If it doesn’t come naturally, don’t bother doing it.

Particularly because it’s dangerous.

Yeah, and free soloing is a nebulous thing to begin with. It’s not something you’d do because a friend told you to give it a try. Only somebody out of their mind would recommend that you do something death-defying. But the point is that, if you follow the natural progression of it, free soloing shouldn’t be death-defying. The penalty for error is giant, so don’t go up there if you feel like you might make mistakes.

Climbers like Dean Potter and Alex Honnold have done some extreme, mind-boggling free solo climbs. What are your thoughts on their achievements?

Well, both those guys started off as nobodies just doing what they loved, and they’re naturals at it, so my hat’s off to them. It’s natural for to them to do that stuff.

It’s “natural” how so?

They’re psychologically just made that way.

Made what way?

They just naturally gravitate towards things that are risky—the experience of handling risk animates their being. That’s a big part of why they do it. But you couldn’t find two more radically different people.

Tell us about their differences.

Well, Dean Potter burns hot and is real volatile, and Alex Honnold is as cool as the other side of the pillow. I mean, he’s ice.

I imagine you’d want to be ice when you free solo. It can’t be good to lose your cool when you’re hanging by your fingers a thousand feet above the ground.

No. Dean manages to keep his cool through spectacular rehearsal and preparation—that’s how he does it.

Tell us more about the risks and appeal of free soloing.

Risk management is something you find in every aspect of life, and free soloing is just another example of it. But in soloing the risks are physical rather than financial, emotional, spiritual, or mental, because you could end everything by doing it. These risks may have more gravity than in other areas of life, but I think the basic dynamic of this kind of risk is the same as in anything else, and it can be really stimulating. You could argue that’s what turns on high-end card players in Las Vegas, or NASCAR drivers, or even generals on the battlefield. It’s all about risk management and what you can learn about yourself in the process of managing the risks. You may discover resources within yourself that you never knew existed.

In hindsight, have you taken risks you would classify “unreasonable”?

Oh, yeah, sure. A lot of them. Not so much with the climbing stuff, but during some of the later expeditions I was involved with when we did these big cross-country, first-time traverses through the jungles in the South Pacific. A couple of them were real crapshoots because there weren’t any maps at the time and the commitment on those expeditions was low.

But, yeah, come to think of it, some of the early climbing experiences were fairly risky. My friend Dean Fidelman and I were recently talking about an early ascent we did on the east buttress of El Capitan, which is just a day climb. It was at the edge of the face and still a legitimately large route, maybe 1,600 feet long or so. And I remember going up there with just one rope, which means you can’t get down because you need two ropes to rappel with. We had just one puny rattail-like rope, a very meager piece of protection. And we had no pack, no water, no food, and I didn’t even wear a shirt, okay? I just went up there and did it in a couple hours. And looking back on that, I’m like—wow. At, the time I didn’t think a thing about it. Twenty years later, I’m going, “What was I thinking up there?”

What’s the closest you’ve come to paying the ultimate price?

It’s hard to say because I never paid it, and until you do, you don’t know. I could have been real close to it on numerous occasions. I just wasn’t aware of it.

For more on John Long, click here.