Why do some climbers risk it all? Jeff Smoot’s new book, “All and Nothing: Inside Free Soloing,” attempts to answer that question. A thrilling, heart-pumping exploration of the dangerous world of free soloing, where falling means serious injury or death, the book illuminates the motivations and obsessions of free soloists, examining the relationship between risk and reward and providing unique perspectives on mortality. A prolific outdoor adventure writer and photographer, Smoot talked with The Seattle Times about his riveting new nonfiction title. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

“All and Nothing: Inside Free Soloing”

Jeff Smoot, Mountaineers Books, 320 pp., $22.95

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What is free soloing?

Free soloing is rock climbing without a rope or protection where falling would likely cause serious injury or death. In bouldering, you’re climbing a few feet off the ground and won’t get hurt unless you land badly. But once you get up 20 or 30 feet or above, if you don’t have a rope to catch you and you fall, you’ll have bad consequences.

How did it grow out of mountaineering?

In climbing there is some aspect of unroped travel. On easy terrain, most climbers don’t rope up. Almost all climbers free solo to some degree. I think the distinction for my book is when a climber purposefully goes up a route steep enough where everyone else will tie into a rope because the consequences of falling are extreme.

Illustration by Jenny Kwon

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Why do climbers do it?

It’s inherent among rock climbers to try to improve, work your way up through the grades. When we started climbing 5.7 (climbing scale with 1 being flat ground and 5 normally requiring ropes and protection placed in the rock to prevent falls, with each additional point incrementally harder), we wanted to climb 5.8, 5.9 or 5.10. People want to push themselves to get better.

This used to be a fringe activity. Is it becoming more popular?

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Back in the late ’70s when I got into rock climbing it was a fringe activity but the climbers I hung around with were in the fringe. A lot of people did it. If you went to Joshua Tree or Yosemite, you’d see several people free soloing as you did a route.

I know people still free solo it because I see reports of more climbers falling and being injured or killed, so I know they’re out there. But it’s hard to gauge a number. Free soloists don’t self-report. They don’t want to talk about it. It’s a personal, private thing for most of them.

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Especially if they’re trying to get life insurance, they wouldn’t want to put that on the application. What did you think of the movie “Free Solo”?

It’s a great film. I saw it in the theater twice. And the second time I went with a friend with a 7-year-old son who hadn’t been exposed to climbing. His first introduction to rock climbing was seeing Alex Honnold on the big screen soloing El Capitan.

I worry it may influence people to think Alex Honnold is cool and free soloing is awesome and that’s something to emulate. I saw a film called “Solo” that came out when I was in fifth grade. It featured a rock climber soloing. I loved it. It turned me on to climbing.

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In the ’70s, we were influenced by Evel Knievel. We’d see him jump over the buses on “Wide World of Sports.” The next day we’d set up a plywood ramp, our friends would lie down, and we’d jump as many as we could until somebody got hurt.

How did you get into mountaineering?

After I saw the film “Solo,” I thought climbing was cool. I’d climb trees, retaining walls, sides of buildings and up on the roof. My stepmom yelled at me to get down but it was fun to go up there. When I was a teenager, I decided to climb mountains. We did the Tooth, a rock climb near Seattle. I freaked out at top; I had this weird urge to jump. I didn’t want to be afraid. I wanted to learn to control that fear. That led to more climbing.

Unlike many climbing books, “All and Nothing” explores the psychological dimension of climbing. Was this a deliberate goal?

The film “Free Solo” and all the conversations that came after that led me to write the book. People asked me questions that the film didn’t answer. “Hey, you’re a rock climber, do you do that?” when I’d say yes, they’d say, “Why do you do that? How do you do that?” and then the inevitable, “Are you crazy?”

I turned the lens on myself. How do I answer those questions about myself? I explored my psychological background and how that made me interested in climbing and then eventually free soloing. I interviewed free soloists and looked at the lives and deaths of free soloists to see where they were coming from.

What have you learned from free soloing?

The main lesson is the old cliché there’s nothing to fear but fear itself. It applied to free soloing with the caveat that the consequences are extreme. If you want to do something, fear is the main thing that will stop you. Learning how to control fear, how to maintain self-control in extreme situations can translate to a lot of things that are helpful in other parts of life. Taxes and public speaking are things people are more afraid of than death. I’m not afraid of public speaking, but I am scared of taxes.

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What was the motivation for writing the book?

I wanted to explore free soloing from a different perspective than was being portrayed in the media. It focused on Alex Honnold and the solo climber and how he does what he does but didn’t explore it in depth. And the people who had written about this weren’t going very deep into their psychology. They were skimming the surface, not going all the way down the rabbit hole.

What was the most interesting thing you learned from writing the book?

I went into this with a bias of what I thought about free soloing, but through interviews and research I learned there are a lot of different reasons, just like any other high-risk activity. Many people have some of the characteristics in common but other people have completely different motivations. Are free soloists crazy? They may be. Are they crazier than anybody else? I don’t think so, just in a different way.

Which solo climbers influenced you?

Peter Croft. I was soloing this 600-foot, 5.10 route on Castle Rock near Leavenworth. Peter Croft came up behind me. If I’d fallen off, I would have taken him off and killed him. I felt I had to nail this to prove my worth. It went fine and we finished the route. I had proven myself in Peter Croft’s eyes. I felt I’d joined the club.

Jeff Smoot

7 p.m. Sept. 13; The Mountaineers Seattle Program Center, 7700 Sand Point Way N.E., Seattle; $12; st.news/jeff-smoot.

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