Exclusive: This climber just pulled off the biggest free solo of the year (and it’s not Alex Honnold)

The 25-year-old climber went up and down an iconic Patagonian peak with nothing more than climbing shoes, a bag of chalk, and skill.Sunday, 31 March 2019

An American rock climber from California has pulled off one of the most creative and cutting-edge free solos in Patagonia, Argentina, in which he not only climbed up a technical 5,000-foot rock climb on 11,171-foot Cerro Fitz Roy without the safety of a rope or gear—but he also down climbed the route without any artificial assistance.

The catch? His name isn’t Alex Honnold.

Meet Jim Reynolds. He’s a 25-year-old climber hailing from Weaverville, California. He works on the Yosemite Search and Rescue (YOSAR) team in the summer, wears rectangular frameless glasses, plays renditions of Slayer on a mandolin, and considers mental training to be wielding a wooden samurai katana in the sun-dappled light of a ponderosa forest behind the YOSAR campsite.

Reynolds perhaps is best known for briefly holding the coveted speed record on the Nose of El Capitan with Brad Gobright—clocking a time of 2:19:44 on the 3,000-foot route in 2017—before Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold went sub two hours in June 2018.

This past austral summer season was Reynolds’s first expedition to the fearsome jagged spires that comprises Patagonia’s Chaltén Massif.

“After a three months here, I finally found my flow,” says Reynolds. “I found my way for me to best express myself.”

On March 21, he free soloed up—and down—a 5,000-foot rock climb called Afanassieff on Fitz Roy in around 15.5 hours round-trip—a physically and mentally exhausting period of time to be in such an exposed position that a simple slip or error would mean instant death.

The route Reynolds free soloed has a difficulty rating of 5.10c on the Yosemite Decimal System of climbing difficulty—technically much easier than, say, Honnold’s free solo of Free Rider (5.13a) on El Capitan. But what distinguishes Reynolds’s free solo of Fitz Roy isn’t the technical difficulty, per se, but the nature of the climbing (a long mountain route with snow and ice), its length, the remoteness of its position, and this curious decision to eschew using a rope to rappel out of stylistic purity and heightened adventure.

“It is mind blowing that this came to pass,” says Rolo Garibotti, a world-class Argentinian climber and Patagonia expert. “Jim is making a big statement here. We’re going to be speaking about this for a long, long time. I have a hard time imagining how somebody is going to up the ante over this.”

Primal Screams in the Night

If you’ve seen the film Free Solo, you may recall that one of the scariest pitches for Honnold wasn’t the one that was most technically difficult. It was the first “slab” pitch—a less-than-vertical section of smooth granite, devoid of cracks, that always felt frighteningly insecure.

Such was the nature of Afanassieff’s toughest sections—blank slabs of rock that lacked the security afforded by cracks into which a climber would jam his or her hands and feet.

As Reynolds climbed up the slabs, he placed dabs of chalk on hard-to-see edges of granite that protruded like credit cards stuck against a wall in order to mark hand- and footholds, hoping he’d be able to see them on the way down. On the easier sections of the ridge, he changed out of his technical climbing shoes and put on sneakers with sticky rubber. He built cairns so as not to get lost during the descent and navigated upward by both route-finding instinct and his memory of a guidebook description he’d pored over in the weeks leading up to this moment—but forgot at home.

Aside from an earlier attempt to solo this route a week prior—an effort he aborted when a sudden pang of intuition caused him to declare the moment not to be right—he was largely moving through new (to him) terrain sight-unseen. He carried with him a short rope and some gear—only to increase his safety margin should a notoriously fast-moving Patagonian storm strike or he need to self-rescue. His aspiration, of course, was that he would use neither rope nor gear, on the way up or down. Nothing more than climbing shoes, a bag of chalk, and skill.

And even though he carried a rope, he had forgotten his harness and belay device at home, rendering the rope virtually useless—a fact he didn't even realize until later.

Nearing the summit, he found himself climbing up a gully that was shedding blocks of ice as they melted out in the afternoon sun. Wearing no helmet, he was scared an ice chunk might knock him out and send him hurtling into the abyss. He spied a line of holds leading up a steep wall of granite to the right, and decided to follow this new path. The climbing here became harder and more insecure than he was expecting, perhaps as difficult as 5.11b, but he managed to pull through the powerful movements and reach a low-angle snow slope that led to the summit. He switched into crampons and ice axe, and continued to the top.

“It was pretty incredible, really surreal, to be on the summit of Fitz Roy all alone,” says Reynolds, describing a view of stunning mountains and glaciers tumbling away in all directions as if to the very edge of the world. “But I knew that I couldn’t spend much time up there. It was 3:13 p.m. It had taken me 6 hours 38 minutes to go up. If I spent too much time up there, I was gonna end up in dark. I knew only half of the rock climbing was done.”

Climbing down ended up taking even longer than going up. He got off route and forced himself to backtrack instead of taking shortcuts that could lead to trouble.

By the time he reached the lower slabs, it was night. The light of his headlamp swept across the dark, blank rock as he tried to find the tick marks of chalk he’d left, like little white breadcrumbs. The slab was now wet, however, and some of the chalk had washed away.

“This was when there was real fear and uncertainty,” says Reynolds. “I never felt like I was about to die, but I had this overwhelming feeling that I really, really want to survive this. I want to make it back to the people in my life and my community. I really wanted to live."

Reynolds could only see no more than three holds below him. He’d commit to those holds, unsure if they were even the right path. Then three more holds would appear. Down he went. Steadily, slowly.

One more steep pitch of 5.10b remained between Reynolds and the easier terrain leading to the ground. “I had this momentary urge to just rappel this section,” says Reynolds, knowing how difficult it would be in the dark, let alone how exhausted he was at this point. “It’s steep, and down climbing steep rock makes it hard to see your feet."

He almost gave into the temptation to rappel, but decided instead he’d come too far not to try.

“I had to try hard here, and as I was down climbing I was just letting out these primal battle screams into the night, just to increase my power and effectiveness,” he says. “I never felt like I was on the edge of insecurity, but I was screaming to put my full focus and concentration into making that down climb as solid as possible.”

When he reached the ground, 15.5 hours after setting off, he had achieved a complete free solo of Fitz Roy in the best style possible.

“When I got to the base, I literally said to myself, aloud, ‘Good job, Jim. Good job.’"

A True First Free Ascent?

How to rank Reynolds’s ascent within the context of Fitz Roy’s climbing history will undoubtedly become a point of debate for the mountaineering community. Fitz Roy has been climbed solo a handful of times before by solitary climbers who have employed minimal use of ropes and gear to aid their ascents.

Dean Potter is the only climber known to have climbed Fitz Roy in a true free solo fashion—using no ropes or gear during his ascent. In 2002, he free soloed a route called Supercanaleta. Potter, who died in a wingsuit BASE jumping accident in 2015, called Supercanaleta one of his best ascents ever.

Yet, Potter rappelled on the descent.

“I think what is so special about [Reynolds’s ascent] is the ethical purity of it," says Garibotti. “You could technically argue that this is the first free ascent of Fitz Roy.”

Garibotti cites another famous moment in climbing history to support his point: the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall. On one pitch Tommy Caldwell chose to down climb 100 feet of new terrain rather than rappel. Climbers go to great lengths to climb “free” on their ascents—meaning no falls, no assistance from gear, and using only their hands and feet to ascend. On a mountain where there is no walk off, why don't those rules also apply on the way down?

Interestingly, this question predates Reynolds’s ascent by over a hundred years. Paul Preuss was an Austrian alpinist who first began posing ideas of adhering to strict ethical norms when approaching the mountains in the early 1900s. His ascents and writings were extremely influential, virtually informing the basis for every ethical debate in climbing going forward.

“With artificial climbing aids you have transformed the mountains into a mechanical plaything," wrote Preuss in 1911. (Preuss died free soloing several years later.) “Eventually they will break or wear out, and then nothing else will be left for you to do than to throw them away.”

One of Preuss’s more significant “theorems” about climbing posited the idea that climbers should only attempt routes that they can down climb safely.

“I’ve always thought that it’s slightly cooler to be able to down climb or hike off of a free solo,” says Honnold. “I consider rapping to be a last resort, though I wouldn’t consider it an ethical standard or anything. I think the ideal is down climbing an easier route on the other side of whatever you came up.”

Reynolds is indifferent about how to characterize his solos in Patagonia this year, which not only include Fitz Roy, but also two other smaller mountains in the same range. In mid March, he free soloed the West Face (5.10c) of Rafael Juarez (8,038 feet), making perhaps the first free solo of this formation. And he also free soloed Saint-Exupéry (8,366 feet), via a route called Chiara di Luna (5.11a). As with his solo of Fitz Roy, he down climbed both of these formations, though he did take different routes down.

For him, the choice to climb up and down with using any gear or ropes is simply a matter of what he calls “getting to express my art in nature.”

“For me, soloing is a way to combine the beauty of humanity with the beauty of the natural world to create a higher art,” Reynolds says. “That’s what’s worth pursuing in a modern age where many have no purpose."

Love is Greater Than Fear

After four years on YOSAR, in which he has conducted over 70 rescues, Reynolds knows all too well the results of what happens when one falls.

“These things require a ton of respect for mountains," says Reynolds. “Mountains are beautiful, but they’re brutal as well. I have seen the consequences of what you look like when you fall 1,000 feet to ground. Those images of death are a part of me.”

Reynolds doesn’t describe himself as an adrenaline junkie. Indeed, Garibotti says one thing that stuck with him is Reynolds’s calm demeanor, which he noticed while watching Reynolds’s iPhone videos that he captured mid-climb.

“There was zero stress,” says Garibotti. “His key strength is being very comfortable on this terrain. He seemed cheerful and calm.”

And yet 48-year-old Garibotti, a former free soloist himself, worries about the consequences of promoting this risky game—especially as the film Free Solo has put this dangerous activity into the spotlight in a major way.

“I worry about how this will influence young men,” says Garibotti. “Because I was influenced when I was young. But it’s important to know that there are other ways to create a meaningful life than using risk.”

Reynolds, however, seems to possess a healthy approach. “I live for so many things beyond climbing," he says. “I have friends, a good family I care about, and they are part why I want to live. I say I want to live forever. Live a good, full life. But I’m not willing to compromise my love of climbing for fear. Fear of death is obviously one of strongest fears we have ... but love is greater than fear.”

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