As some of you may know, I recently soloed the Breithorn, which is the highest peak I’ve ever soloed as well as the first peak higher than 4000 m that I’ve ever climbed. It was a great experience and one that I will probably keep remembering throughout my life. However, despite the good experience, I am aware that the Breithorn is a high mountain and that, if the proper respect and attention was not paid, things could have turned out differently.
That’s me on the summit of the Breithorn (4164 m) this summer :-)
Soloing is a much disputed activity within the climbing community, which is understandable. Walking alone is associated with a higher degree of risk, that’s a fact. However, soloing can offer the most wonderful of experiences, and truth is that I have had many of my most forming experiences soloing, which have made me grow both as a climber and individual. Therefore, I will not speak against this activity, if you feel it is something you want to pursue.
There are a number of things you can do to reduce the risks affiliated with soloing, and my hope is that you will read these before you head for the hills. The following are 6 tips for soloing that I have developed through 7 years of soloing in the Alps, Iceland and elsewhere.
1. Train your ability to “read the landscape”
Being able to read the circumstances that surround you in the mountains will reduce the likelihood of accidents happening. For example, being able to read the terrain enables you to move in the safest way possible, just as being able to read weather conditions, enables you to make decisions that can be lifesaving in the end.
You may get to know different landscape types via books and video, but the best way to get to know these is undeniably by trying it out for yourself – via time spent in the mountains that is. Try touching different types of rock, walk in loose rocks, and moving on that soft “slush-icy” afternoon snow. Naturally, there are some types of terrain you must be more careful with and even acquire professional assistance with, such as glacier travel and rock climbing. But the general rule of thumb, I would say, is to just get out there and try it. The same goes for weather skills. It is a well-known fact that many mountainous regions present very changeable weather conditions, and the best way to get to know these dynamics is simply by experiencing them at first hand repeatedly. A good way to think of it is that you are training a “mountain instinct”, which over the years gets better and better and more and more reliable.
Hanging high on the Presolana wall on my first real solo trip back in 2012
2. Speeding up your mind
Compared to when you climb or hike with partners, you need to slow down when soloing. By this I don’t necessarily mean slow down your physical tempo (although that is undeniably a good idea too), but to kind of speed up your mind so that everything around you seems to be slowing down. The point is that you become able to foresee or anticipate possible accidents before they happen.
In my opinion, one of the most important skills for a soloist is to be able to anticipate any pending accidents that may lurk around the corner, as well as to be able to anticipate even the unthinkable. Just what the unthinkable might be is difficult to say; hence unthinkable. However, by going through every single scenario that can occur, despite the unlikelihood, your subconscious is somewhat prepared, and you’ll be ready to react if things surprise you. Remember, it may only take one moment of inattention and you could be falling off the cliff.
3. Know your limits
Depending on the mountain, route and difficulty you have to know what you are able to handle. To exceed one’s own abilities can be fatal at worst. So you need to ask yourself “just how much difficulty and what type of terrain can I handle?” Unfortunately, there are many examples of people going too far. So make sure you don’t engage on a heavily glaciated peak, if you don’t know how to work your way on this type of terrain.
What typically keeps many from soloing is the question of isolation. Being alone in the mountains, sleeping in pitch darkness and so on. It is very mental. Being a social person, I have been struggling with this myself and still do once in a while. Exactly this is probably one of the most important elements that soloing has to offer. The psychological challenge is one that really can make us grow as individuals. If you don’t feel like you know yourself, soloing offers a golden opportunity to achieve just that.
My first snowy solo peak was the volcano Hekla (1488 m) in Iceland in 2013
4. Don’t take unnecessary risks
This tip is in line with the previous and pretty much explains itself. It is really very simple. Since you are soloing, NO ONE will be there to help you, if things go wrong. Therefore, don’t take unnecessary risks. It is true that accidents can and do happen to even the best, but by not taking any unnecessary risks, you reduce the likelihood for such accidents to occur considerably. Therefore, it is a good tip to just play it safe when you are soloing, and save the more exciting stuff for when you are climbing with partners.
5. Preparation, preparation, preparation…
This tip is really a general tip that applies to soloing as well as group climbing. However, it becomes extra important when soloing, as you are the ONLY ONE responsible for everything.
Naturally, it is important to know the task at hand. You can read a lot on-the-go but it will always be an advantage to know the mountain and the surrounding area thoroughly. Knowing this will reduce the likelihood of encountering any unpleasant surprises, such as glacier crevasses, steep cliff faces or predator habitats. Once you know the task at hand, you will also need to plan accommodation, food and equipment for the trip. If you realize that there are no huts or campsites around, for example, it would be nice to have a tent or bivi with you. The same goes for food and equipment. You don’t want to run out of food or a set of crampons for a glacier crossing.
It can really be put quite simple. As with any other job or project in life, you must do your homework in order to be successful.
6. Just enjoy it :-)
My last tip would be just to enjoy the trip. Being out there alone is a different experience than walking with partners. It is more intense and your senses are fully activated. You hear things that you don’t normally hear and see things that you don’t normally see. You will have more wildlife encounters and see more avalanches, feel the wind more etc.. In that way soloing becomes a very intense and spiritual experience that I really enjoy :-)
Feeling stoked near the summit of the highest peak in Scandinavia – Galløpiggen (2469 m) -, which I soloed in 2014 ;-)