Soloing is often described as the most pure and dangerous form of climbing. For all of us, testing the limit of what’s comfortable, whether that’s scrambling up 5.3 terrain or spending fifty days on a big wall alone, is an unparalleled mental and physical exploration.
[Photo] Silvia Vidal collection
We at Alpinist asked the most inspiring solo climbers we know– “those defining the edge of what’s humanly possible”– to tell us more about their rare connection to the vertical world.
Last week, Alex Honnold opened the Solo Series with his take on free soloing. This week, Silvia Vidal shares her thoughts on aid soloing big walls.
Vidal is the author of “Life is Lilac,” in Alpinist 23. She began aiding in the mid-1990s, fell in love with it and was climbing A5 routes within a year. She has been soloing big walls for more than a decade, and her most recent major accomplishment– a new route, Life is Lilac (VI A4+ 6a, 870m), on Shipton Spire (5885m), Karakoram, Pakistan –gave her the limelight one year ago. You can read the NewsWire about her ascent, and pick up a copy of Issue 23 in our online store.
1. Please tell us a bit about yourself and your climbing.
I’m from Barcelona, and I aid climb for the love of it. I’ve been solo aid climbing big walls for about fifteen years.
I keep climbing big walls because I still enjoy the mountains, the landscapes, the partners, traveling, the experience, the unknowns about the expeditions…I consider it a great privilege to have been able to witness so many landscapes from so many perspectives.
2. Why do you so enjoy aid climbing?
Aid and free are different games, both valid. You can be in a swimming pool playing water polo, or you can be in a swimming pool doing the crawl: the water is the same, as is the rock. What changes is how you use it and how you enjoy it… I don’t think that aid begins where the possibilities of free climbing end. To me, though, aid climbing feels more fluid, more natural.
[Photo] Silvia Vidal collection
3. Can you choose one word to describe what need you are trying to satisfy when soloing a big wall?
4. What you first didn’t like about climbing was that you were not autonomous. Is this why you chose soloing?
No it’s not. I didn’t feel autonomous because climbing is a technical sport, so you need to know something about it to be able to practice it. That is, more or less anyone can run or play soccer– but if you don’t know how to tie a knot, you won’t get an inch off the ground.
5. What does solo climbing– your embodiment of autonomy –bring to your life?
Autonomy brings autonomy. That doesn’t mean I don’t need people! Dependence is a problem, but loneliness (the bad kind: the kind you don’t choose) is also a problem. For me, one way to feel confidence is to be surrounded by people and share with them– yet, at the same time, be your own individual, autonomous self.
6. You’re first multi-day solo climb was Zodiac in Yosemite. What came from those five days on the wall, and how did it influence your climbing future?
It provided a general feeling of joy. At that moment I wasn’t thinking about my climbing future– mostly because I didn’t realize climbing would become so important in my life.
The author on the third ascent of Reticent Wall (VI A5 5.7, ca. 2,200’), El Capitan, Yosemite, in 1997. From her beginnings in Montserrat, Spain, she found herself progressing more naturally in aid climbing than in free. That natural progression led to climbs such as this in the Valley, as well as later forays to new wall routes in Baffin Island, Mali and the Karakoram. [Photo] Pep Masip
7. In your article “Life is Lilac” in Issue 23, you say that “fear, nervousness, joy, exhaustion, curiosity… I found that soloing magnifies these sensations even more.” You also say: “In the moment, I felt everything, the worst, the best.” The positive sensations must be enjoyable and easy to deal with. But how do you deal with the negative sensations: fear, doubts, nervousness, loneliness, exhaustion? Which of these sensations is the hardest to deal with?
I try to accept all of them. But luckily I almost always have positive feelings. Otherwise I couldn’t stand it.
Fear is the hardest to deal with because it is so universal; you can have fear from doubt, nervousness, loneliness, exhaustion…
8. What enables you to overcome fear and move on, especially when stranded on a portaledge in bad weather?
9. When some people are alone they have so many internal thoughts that it can drive them crazy. Do you ever feel yourself drift into insanity on walls?
No. I can use the word craziness as an expression, but I’ve never actually felt crazy.
10. In “Life is Lilac,” you say that you speak to the rock and ask it permission to climb up. Do you also speak to yourself on solo climbs?
Yes, but that’s something I do sometimes even when I’m not climbing!
11. Does talking to yourself help you keep sane on such long trips?
I don’t feel as if I have to try to keep my sanity.
12. Is soloing the purest form, for you, of engaging with the mountains and the environment?
The author on the first ascent of Sargantana (VI A4 5.9, 560m), Porcelain Wall, Half Dome, Yosemite Valley, California, in 1997. The route was one of the first new lines established on the wall in a decade. [Photo] Pep Masip
No. I think there are other options for engaging within one’s environment, and soloing is the one that I have chosen.
13. For you, is the experience of climbing a hard aid pitch something that everyday life can satisfy?
I think that in everyday life you can find many “hard pitches” to be climbed, and sometimes you don’t choose them. However, there is comfort in knowing that you have control over beginning a hard aid line– it is not something that just happens.
14. What’s been your hardest moment alone on a wall?
Probably on Shipton Spire, when I was rappelling the route, and I couldn’t reach the lower belay. I had to spend a night without my portaledge between two small rocks in the middle of a pitch. I knew that if it began to snow, as it had in recent days, I would have been in trouble. In retrospect, I think of it as one of my best, most unforgettable bivouacs.
15. How do you deal with coming back to the “real world” after a month on a wall?
Badly. There’s a big contrast between being up there and being down here. It takes a long time to readapt mentally and physically. After my last expedition (Shipton solo ascent), it took months before my body recovered fully.
16. Do you feel depressed when you return from a wall?
No, that’s not the feeling. It’s just that I need time to fully understand the experience.
17. Do you dread or look forward to being home and talking with people?
I’m always happy to see my family and friends.
[Photo] Silvia Vidal collection
18. How does soloing affect your daily life?
I don’t solo all the time. I have many great memories from soloing, and I think they are an important part of my life experience, but soloing is not always part of my daily life. But I think that all the intense experiences that we have, related to climbing or not, change us little by little.
I’ve realized that soloing is just a tool. And– like a tool– it changes you in different ways depending on how you use it.
19. What is your advice for young alpinists who look up to your accomplishments?
Always try to do what you feel.