Without a Safety Net

As I watched my business partner free solo the seventy foot tall frozen waterfall, I wondered if I could run Savage Gentleman if he were to plummet to his doom. (The conclusion is that I could, but not for very long).

For those that aren’t familiar with climbing terminology (as was I up until this weekend) a “Free Solo” is when a climber makes an ascent without the use of a rope or any other safety apparatus. He is wholly dependent on his own strength, skill, and in this case, ice tools to prevent him from falling to his doom.

Matt Winslow Free Solo

For all but the most experienced and capable of climbers, this is something that shouldn't be attempted. As I watched each meticulous swing of the ice tool and every deliberate placement of each foot, even from 50 feet below I could sense Matt’s extreme confidence and concentration. This ability to perform in such situations is something that comes with years and training and experience. No doubt, some of his steely resolve was garnered during his tours in Iraq.

After successfully hauling up and attaching the top rope, it was now my turn. Matt assured me that the ice screws that anchored my rope to the mountain were sturdy enough to support the weight of a truck.

I could only take his word for it and trust that they would indeed hold. As I began to make my way up the near vertical sheet of ice, tendons and muscles that I have apparently never used before, screamed in protest. Half way up, I began to question if I was going to have the grip strength to endure the remainder of the climb.

Up until that point I had been climbing as if my life had depended on it. Because in my mind, it one hundred percent did. But in contrast to Matt’s free solo, I was attached to a rope that would arrest my descent if I were to fall. And it was this realization that helped to quell my fear and doubt.

I reminded myself that if my grip did completely give out, I could simply repel back down with Matt on belay. As it were, this reassurance along with my pride not wanting to be damaged by quitting, helped to muster the strength to complete the climb.


It is interesting to consider how we react to situations based off of the real or perceived consequences. After realizing I had the security of the rope to save me, I gained the courage necessary to fight through the fear and fatigue. But what if I didn’t have a rope to save me? If that were the case, I wouldn’t have ventured more than a few feet up the mountain.

It brings to mind the Robert H. Schuller quote: “What would you attempt if you knew you couldn’t fail?” Which begs the question of how much our psychology and perceptions feed into our performance. For some, the fear of failure is paralyzing and they never make it off the ground. Other times, being backed into a corner with no way out brings out the best in them. Curiously, these two opposite reactions can manifest within the same person. 

A key factor it seems, comes down to the significance of the outcome. If the risk is perceived to be too high, most of us will generally quit before we even begin. The thing to note here is our perception of a thing. Quite often, we forget that our situation isn't actually life or death (we may be operating with a rope and not even realize it).

Although it feels like everything is on the line, we usually have some sort of device that will keep us from hitting the bottom. In climbing, it is a rope, harness, and another person on belay. In everyday life, it is our own abilities and fortitude that we must trust in, even if we slip up.

However, that isn't to say that we should take unnecessary risks and free solo all of our mountains. It is more of a call to action to better evaluate our position. We must learn to recognize when we actually do or don't have a safety net.

Are we shying away from something because there is a real threat to life and limb, or just a perceived one? If we fail at some endeavor, can we get back on the wall and proceed to the top? If the answer is yes, then we absolutely need to take that chance (even if it means taking a few bumps along the way).

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