For most, the thought of scaling a vertical rock face or skyscraper with harnesses and ropes is laughably daunting. For these five free solo climbing legends, it’s just another day at the office. These men and women are not only the best free solo climbers but the epitome of the Adrenalist lifestyle, human symbols of the amazing things that can be achieved when mental and physical toughness work in perfect, awe-inspiring synergy.
One can’t mention free solo climbing without bringing up Alex Honnold; at just 27-years-old, the climbing prodigy has become the face of one of the most dangerous, physically demanding sports in the world. And, of course, we’ve covered him extensively. Despite lucrative endorsement deals, Honnold lives out of his van on a monthly stipend that’s less than those held by many college students and devotes his life to a year-round climbing regiment that includes scaling some of the most challenging rock faces in the world, including Yosemite Valley’s Freerider and the Nose of El Capitan. In 2010, he was awarded the Golden Piton award for his then-magnificent achievements, and that was three years ago. It’s mind blowing to think about the kind of success that lies ahead for this young star.
Like Honnold, Alain Robert has graced the pages of our site before. Known as the French Spider Man, Robert is intriguing as much for his travails as his successes. That’s because the world-renowned free soloist, known for climbing the tallest skyscrapers on the planet in record-setting times, suffers from vertigo and is physically impaired in an estimated 66 percent of his body–the effect of numerous climbing-related accidents. Despite physical limitations that would undoubtedly prevent most from climbing a tall flight of stairs–let alone a building– Robert has earned numerous awards and recognitions as one of the world’s best climbers, including several mentions in the Guinness Book of World Records. Like Spider Man, he truly is superhuman.
He who achieves glamor and success must always take on great risk. That’s a truth that every person on this list has to (or has had to) face and one that brought an end to superstar free solo climber John Bachar‘s life and storied career after he fell from a rock near his California home in 2009. As part of a 1960s gang of daredevil climbers who referred to themselves as The Stonemasters, Bachar helped found modern free soloing. One-time climbing partner Dean Fidelman describes Bachar as “an artist,” someone who “transcended the sport.” Numerous routes in Yosemite valley still bear his name and the Bachar ladder–a high-level training device used to strengthen climbers’ upper bodies–was his creation and a lasting legacy of his passion and tenacity.
You may know her from this Citibank commercial where she demonstrates an ability that looks too amazing to be true, but Katie Brown is as authentic a free soloist as they make and, yes, she really did complete that climb in the ad (the route’s called Utah’s Ancient Art). If knowing that isn’t enough to impress you, consider this: Brown began climbing at age 13 and by 14 won a gold medal at the 1996 X Games. The video featured above shows her and fellow free solo extraordinaire Lynn Hill becoming the first women to ascend the West Face, Leaning Tower at Yosemite. Not only is Brown an inspiring athlete, but she’s also a galvanizing author and has written a book entitled “Girl on the Rocks: A Woman’s Guide to Climbing with Strength, Grace, and Courage.” It seems that there’s nothing she can’t do.
For true Adrenalists, fear is an inextricable component of enjoyment; this was certainly the case for the late free soloist and “rope free-flyer,” Dan Osman. In addition to being known for various death-defying ascents, Osman earned a good bit of his reputation by inventing the sport of rope free-flying, a practice where the climber voluntarily falls hundreds of feet, relying on a safety rope to break the plummet just in the nick of time. For Osman, free-flying was cathartic, the means through which he both embraced and overcame the bone-shaking apprehension that most, if not all, free solo climbers have, and the visceral answer to the question “What happens if I fall?” Though Osman’s life ultimately ended as a result of his own daring creation, his commitment to understanding, exploring, and conquering the limitations of the human psyche informs the idea that fear can be one of achievement’s most powerful motivators.