Free Climb vs. Free Solo: Terms Explained (2024)

Image of free solo climbing

Last Updated on: 23rd January 2024, 01:40 pm

One of the biggest mistakes that non-climbers and new climbers make is confusing the terms free climb vs. free solo. What’s the difference? Is there a difference? Is it important?

Free climb vs. Free solo

The terms free climb and free solo both refer to forms of rock climbing, but they differ in the use of protective gear. Free climbing involves using a rope, harness, and other gear to protect against falls, while free soloing is done without any protective equipment. This means that free soloing is much more dangerous than free climbing, as any mistake can lead to a fatal fall.

Free climb vs. free solo
Free climbing vs. free soloing

While both activities require strength, skill, and mental focus, it’s important to understand the risks involved and to always prioritize safety when climbing. If you’re having trouble remembering the difference between free climbing vs. free soloing, just remember that free climbing involves placing protection. As the name implies, free soloing means you’re up there alone with no belayer, no rope, and no gear. Just you and the wall.

What is free solo climbing

Let’s talk about free soloing first, since that’s the easiest to define. Free solo climbing without a rope or any other form of protection. Or to be more specific (and to differentiate it from bouldering), it’s climbing a route without a rope that would normally be climbed with a rope. If the consequence from a fall is death, than you can consider that unprotected climb a free solo.

Ever since Free Solo came out (the academy award winning documentary about Alex Honnold’s free solo accent of El Cap) many folks who don’t climb associate free soloing with climbing. The ironic part is free soloing is incredibly rare in the climbing world. Very few climbers actually attempt these types of climbs, though because of their daring, high consequence nature, they tend to get a lot of media attention when they do.

What is free climbing?

Free climbing is a type of rock climbing where a climber uses only their own strength to move up a route. Climbers will still place protection either in the form of cams or nuts in trad climbing or bolts and quickdraws in sport. Climbers do not use gear to aid themselves up the wall but rather, to protect themselves from hitting the ground if they fall.

free climbing example
Free climbing

Free climbers have to learn the correct way to place protection. For sport climbing, that means carabiner orientation and for trad climbing how to place cams and other types of protection.

What is aid climbing?

Sometimes, you’ll hear about climbers that use other types of equipment to get their way up the wall. That is aid climbing: making upward progress by the means of something other than your own body. Pulling or stepping on a bolt? Technically, that’s aid climbing. Plugging a cam into a crack and pulling on it or resting on it? Technically, that’s aid climbing.

The most popular type of aid climbing is used to climb big walls (think about El Capitan in Yosemite). This type of aid climbing involves climbing cracks and faces that are too difficult to climb just by using hands and feet. This means aid climbing is necessary in the form of attaching aiders (essentially ladders made from webbing) to gear, climbing up, attaching more aiders to the next piece of gear, and repeating the process over and over again.

Famous free solo climbers

Before Alex Honnold, arguably the most famous climber in the world, there were folks like John Bachar and Dean Potter. These guys were known for their free solo triumphs and received significant admiration among the climbing world for their feats. Unfortunately, they both passed early, Potter in a Wingsuit accident and Bachar while free soloing.

Wrap up

Free climb and free solo are both forms of rock climbing that require immense physical and mental strength. While free climbing provides protection, while free soloing is done without any protective equipment and can be deadly. I highly recommend you never attempt to free solo! Chances are if you’re someone who could do it, you would probably never read this in the first place.

Always prioritize safety when climbing. Respect the power of the mountains and to never underestimate the risks involved. Stay informed, practice proper techniques, and make safety your top priority.

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