The Doubts and Ecstasies of a Highline Free Solo
In May, Outdoor Research and Somewhereelseland team members Jan Galek and Jordan Tybon became the first two-man team to free solo the Lost Arrow Spire highline in Yosemite. Here’s Jordan’s breathless play-by-play of their feat, with additional notes from Jan.
We had just two days to complete what was, in hindsight, a somewhat ambitious adventure: to rig, walk, and free solo the Lost Arrow Spire highline. It was early May and hot—really hot. Jan and I were in Yosemite and spring had finally arrived, the Valley alive with excitement.
We had rigged the spire some weeks before—it had been an excuse to see some friends who were in the valley and a quick distraction from the stress of an AFF skydiving course in Lodi. It was good to get on the line again before the free solo mission to remind ourselves of the rigging details. We noted exactly how much equipment we needed, and it would be tough to carry off with only a two-man team. As a highliner, I have a pretty intimate familiarity with heavy backpacks. But the packs for the spire weighed in at about 135-140 pounds, considerably more than I’ve had the pleasure of carrying for any project in the past.
Yosemite Falls Trail is steep, slippery and full of rocks and lovely endless switchbacks. We made it in about two hours and managed to set up our tent just before rain came crashing down. On any other day, I would have suggested we wait until the next day to rig, but I knew that we were pressed for time, so out we went as soon as it stopped raining, leaving just before dark to rig a complicated highline.
The spire is about a 20-minute walk from the campsite. After fixing our first abseil, we descended to the flake and began to build the anchor, placing the four blue cams, equalizing with an industrial sling and attaching the line to the anchor. We used very dynamic webbing with high stretch and a thin 8.5 mm twin rope as backup. Everything is redundant in highline systems, and when rigged properly, highlining is quite safe. The lines were attached to my harness and I trailed them behind me, taping them together at large intervals to reduce the chance of a line getting caught as we climbed the backside of the spire.
Here’s Janek’s description of climbing the Spire:
“As soon as you rappel to the notch, you can feel the exposure in your whole body. We try to climb fast and efficiently, with as little downtime as possible. We are, in some way, simulclimbing—that is, while I’m setting the anchor for the next pitch, Jordan is already climbing with a mini traxion on a fixed line. I begin the second pitch solo and when Jordan arrives, he begins to belay. I combine the last two pitches, mostly on aid, something like a bolt ladder, using mini wire hangers and quickdraws. As soon as I get to the top, I fix the static line for Jordan and begin building the highline anchor. With Jordan trailing on static lines, zigzagging around the spire with a 40-pound haulbag, the last pitches took some creative maneuvering but went off without a hitch, and we were on top within an hour.”
We finished rigging in just over three hours, and under the stars we packed up what remained of the gear and headed back to camp. The atmosphere was sharp, as the nervous energy electrified the night. At camp, we were wild and boisterous, making fun of one another and engaging in shenanigans, doing anything to distract ourselves. Among the currents there was certainly a respectful nervousness, but we were jubilant because we were inspired. The line was rigged—an ideal setup, ready to be walked. All that remained to be seen were the conditions. We hoped to find a break in the typically strong winds.
The next morning, however, was a completely different story. From the moment we opened our eyes, before we could even realized where we were, the weight of what lay before us weighed like a choking humidity. Not a word was spoken at breakfast, neither one of us bothering to look up from his bowl. We stared at the ground and fidgeted. That is, except once when the words just sort of tumbled out, “Man, I just cannot stop thinking about it,” with only a nod of acknowledgment as reply.
We made our way out to the line, both breathing heavily from overworked joints and sore muscles. As we crested the hill and began to walk down, the line slowly came into view. No matter how many times I see this line, the beauty of it still overwhelms me. The very idea of it, 880 meters high, rigged on trad gear and rusty old bolts, off level, old-school. Scott Balcom—the first person ever to walk the spire, as the first highline ever—once told me, “It was an art project. It was to take a beautiful idea and transform it into a beautiful experience.” The Lost Arrow Spire highline is, has been, and will always be, a testament to what motivated, creative people can accomplish.
The line was waiting for us, still and serene. It was early, and we were there only because we didn’t want to sit around in the silence any more. But in any case, there we were, there was the line, and there was the free solo that was to be found only on the other side.
The wind is usually calm in the mornings and in the evenings, when the valley floor is cooler, so we had four possible windows in which to make the attempts. For the first couple of walks, I planned to have some fun on the line, release a bit of the pressure I had put on myself and just feel comfortable walking. So I harnessed up and walked several times, building up a bit of confidence before heading back up to take a break. Janek was eager to start his warmup walks, so he put on his harness and headed down to the line.
Generally speaking, a free solo is the result of a gradual process. One walks the line in a climbing harness or swami belt until he feels comfortable with how the line moves and responds, and then begins to slowly lower his level of protection. For example, after three or four walks in a swami, he might switch to a belt-loop swami, which is the leash run only through the belt loops of his pants; or perhaps an ankle leash, which, as one would could infer from the name, is a short leash fixed only to the ankle. Ankle leashes, in particular, provide a sufficiently visceral free solo feeling, but with some level, ambiguous as it may be, of protection. Ultimately, one becomes familiar enough with the line and his body and how the two work together in that particular moment to untie his leash and walk across without any security.
Janek walked four times in an ankle leash, and began to untie.
From Janek: “Since the moment I walked the spire back in 2007, I had this crazy thought in my head to maybe one day make the free solo. I wasn’t free soloing highlines at the time, but I promised to myself that one day, when I was ready, I would go back and do it. Some years passed, the line saw two more free solos. Finally I found myself in the Valley again, ready to face my dream and my fears together with my best friend and team-member Jordan Tybon.
“Free soloing the Spire highline was surprisingly easier then I thought it would be. I did four full walks in an ankle leash before I was ready to make the solo. The wind was picking up, but acceptable, and I thought about waiting until evening for the perfect conditions, hesitating for a moment, but then my next thought was, ‘You just walked it four times, practically free solo, so you can do it, no problem.’ I stood up and quickly took the first few steps—sometimes it’s better not to think about it too much, but I was totally focused, everything melting together, and the only things in existence were my breathing and my anchor-point. Taking the last step to the Spire triggered an amazing joy, relief, and an overwhelming feeling of fulfillment. I couldn’t stop myself from screaming a bit. The walk back was much more intimidating, since the line is off level, and I had to push myself to walk uphill toward the wall. But I succeeded, and it changed forever my ideas of what is possible and impossible. That walk was my 70th free solo. I walked it leashless twice, full man (in both directions) and also once more to the spire. It was amazing to enjoy being stripped of any safety, feeling almost naked.”
As I watched Jan complete his walk, I was bombarded with feelings of respect, pride, and of course, a heart-wrenching anxiety. I ended up resting in the sun most of the day, and although conditions were relatively good in the evening, I was doubtful that my legs would hold out long enough to complete enough warm-up walks to make the solo. At the time, I thought it better to save my energy and get my attempts early the next day.
Janek having already completed his walk, the only reason we were still up there was because of me. The pressure started getting to me, and I began to doubt myself, my ability and most especially, my motivation. Why was I even doing this? The whole drama in itself was quite silly. If you ask my mother, there was no good reason at all for me to solo the spire. Then again, there’s really almost no good reason for doing anything, but somehow the act of selection infuses all of our movements with meaning and beauty. It’s such a fascinating phenomenon, how these stupid, senseless goals we set for ourselves carry with them such a large degree of importance for us personally, as if somehow they are representative of our entire being. The doubts and questions are always present, regardless of what you’re doing: If I cannot overcome this, what does that say about me? Will I be a disappointment where it matters most, to myself? We build up these problems for ourselves and hope that we can overcome them. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes we can let go, walk away and say, “I don’t feel it, it’s not right today.” For myself, however, the spire would not have been one of those times. I wanted this more than anything I could remember; to walk away was not an option, but the thought of actually having to do it was enough to embitter me on highlining altogether.
I woke up pissy and frustrated—my legs were still destroyed. I knew immediately upon awakening that I couldn’t do it, I wouldn’t be able to pull through, that I would fail. And that’s how I went into my day, wanting nothing more than to believe that it would get done, but all the while knowing that I was not the one to do it. This was the highline of all highlines, and I wanted to free solo it? We got out to the line and I just sat down, buried my head in my knees and waited. I’m not quite sure what I was waiting for, but I knew that no matter where I went, I couldn’t get away from what was there before me. Waiting and brooding, my mood and confidence swung wildly; at some moments, I felt courageous and ready to solo anything, at others I hoped that my procrastination would hold out until conditions worsened enough to give me an excuse to walk away.
The approach to the line is something in and of itself, with the abseil from an 880-meter wall and tie-in on a 30 centimeter-wide flake, it’s about 20 minutes—plenty of time to convince yourself that, no, you’re not quite ready, and maybe it’s better to wait. Once you get down to the flake, it’s do-or-die time. There is something very final about the decision to go down to this particular line. You can’t just walk up and sit on the line to see how you feel. You have to decide before you even touch the line that you want to solo. You know from the start that the moment will come when you will untie your leash and be exposed.
At the small memorial above Camp 4 a few days before, I had a conversation with a nutty old dirtbag who is, coincidentally, experienced in climbing hard multi-pitch on acid, and he told me something interesting. I was relating to him the difficulty I’d had recently with free soloing at Taft point. I had wanted to solo this line, similar in length to the spire, as practice; yet as many times as I walked it in an ankle leash, I didn’t feel comfortable with the solo, and I had to walk away. He told me something brilliant and dangerous, which I think is why I like it so much: “When I try to think about something so huge, it overwhelms me completely; I can only shudder and look away. But I know that when I get there, I can figure it out. I know I will be able to handle myself when the time comes.”
Janek walked the line several more times, including another free solo. I watched in complete amazement—it was truly something wondrous. He returned after his second free solo and put on his harness; he fixed himself to the rappel rope and looked over at me. I looked down, ashamed. He and I have spent enough time together over the years that he knows not to ask how I’m feeling. He just remains positive, tells me I can do it, and does everything he can to lighten the weight. He reminded me that thinking about it more wasn’t going to make it any better, that I just needed to get out on the line and get my walks in. He said, honestly, it only depends on how much you want it.
That really struck me. It only depends on how much you want it. It kept repeating in my head. How badly do you want it? How important is it for you? Do you really want to go home knowing that you couldn’t overcome your fear? Can you really deal with that fact until the next time you have this chance, which could be several years from now? Will the next attempt be only that much more charged with meaning? You have to at least try.
After some time, he was able to convince me to go down and walk in a harness, just to see how my legs were feeling. As I got down to the line, I sat for a long while on the flake, looking down at the valley below me, thankful that I wasn’t down among the Memorial Day tourists, but certainly wishing I was somewhere else, somewhere a couple hours or days down the line, when I had already completed my solo, and could feel good about myself for pulling through. I really didn’t want to be there, because I knew already that it was a forgone conclusion; it simply wasn’t going to happen, I thought. On some level, I was just running through the motions, trying to get the walks in to be able to say, “My legs are too tired, I don’t feel it,” and be able to walk away.
At first, I was by no means solid, my legs as good as dead. But as I walked, I felt better, and eventually I was breathing calmly enough to enjoy myself a little bit. Breathing—something so simple and so utterly fundamental—is so often overlooked. My breathing told me I was ready to take off my harness and tie into my ankle.
After a few walks in the ankle, I was ready to make an attempt at the solo. And as I came back to the flake, Janek was there waiting for me, looking hopeful and supportive. “And how do you feel?” he inquired. “Good,” I said, as I thought about it for a minute. Then I confirmed, “Good…yeah… I think I’m ready now, but I’m going to do one more ankle, just in case.”
In a few minutes, I was back on the flake with Janek. I didn’t look up at him as I untied my ankle from the leash, fixed the short rope that I no longer needed to the anchor and scooted out. I was terrified.
But what else could I do? I could only answer the question Janek had put to me: How badly do I want it?
Janek said, “I don’t know what made me more happy, free soloing the line myself or seeing my best friend finally going for it after a long mental battle and getting it. I have to say it was truly beautiful, I’m glad I could support Jordan as well as I could, and I have to admit the moment he reached the Spire I shed a tear.”
We derigged quickly and made the tyrol back across to the flake together, pulled our last rope and head up the short rappel. Untying the last knot was a sublime moment, and it hit us simultaneously: Our mission was successful and we could go home. Well, not home, but at least down to the valley floor, where life is a bit more comfortable, and having this adventure behind us, a bit more beautiful.