Soloing was true autonomy. My body belonged to me, alone. OK, it’s a bit dramatic, but it’s how I felt back then. I felt genuinely free. I could hold on, or let go at any time.
It is easy to die soloing.
That may be one of its most powerful attractions. Few voluntary acts put one "up against it" the way a threshold solo can. Even fewer acts allow the participant the time to fully "savor" exactly what he is doing, seeing, feeling, and risking while the action is taking place. Soloing is a journey into the heart of things and that trip takes time. The introspection and transformation I sought rarely occurred in the seconds of a perfectly executed ski run or during a fluid race through pop-up targets that fell to well-placed shots. I reflected on those events but contemplation after the fact is subject to interpretation, therefore suspect. Soloing demanded similar intellectual and physical intensity at a pace allowing me to analyze my Self.
It is also easy to learn how to live from soloing.
Like all confrontational situations the subject in whom thought and action are simultaneous is the one who survives. A single heartbeat separating thought from execution can spell disaster: take the correct, appropriate action instantly, automatically, or die. In these circumstances one knows without need for reassurance by others that the experience is authentic. It is happening right here right now and as long as you don't fuck up you will learn about yourself in a way that cannot be altered unless it is overwritten by a dishonest accounting. But if we allow written and remembered experience to displace real experience over time or under the pressure of commerce … well, what's the point? I went looking for something so powerful that its lessons could never be changed no matter how often I told the story. Soloing was it.
No one can do it long-term. Will runs out. Responsibility preempts risk. I made it through about eight years, from September 1984 to March 1992. I climbed alone or without the rope after that though never did anything difficult. I just chose easy terrain I could run on. Competence earned earlier in life made it possible to do some challenging and enjoyable routes by myself later but these were so far below my threshold that the weren't life-changing, not a lens used to concentrate a bright light on my psyche. These easier routes simply exposed the void created by having quit. Maybe I ran out of courage. Maybe I learned as much as I was going to from having looked over that edge. I came close to diving off it once or twice. It wasn't sustainable. I walked away.
Having soloed plenty, survived, and ultimately forsworn it is one of the more difficult things I have had to adjust to in life. That the arc was logical in the sense of beginning, middle, and conclusion didn't make it any easier. Maybe the soloists who had it easy are the ones who never came back, who never had to readjust to life "down here" where the trivia can be suffocating. Having stayed in the world of black and white, they never had to adapt to the gray.
During a classic film titled "Three Days of the Condor" Higgins asks an old OSS, CIA, and war veteran whether he misses "that kind of action," and seems mildly put out by the reply, "no, I miss that kind of clarity." And that's the most concise description I have ever heard: up there, with a split-second of indecision the difference between survival and its opposite, right action and right thought and the very nature of life is absolutely clear.
Ultimately, it is difficult to live after having soloed, having been defined by it and then having quit.
No experience will ever be as powerful as that, ever again.