Free Climbing vs Free Soloing – Two very different climbing styles

Ever since the award-winning documentary Free Solo brought the sport of climbing into the mainstream, there has been a big confusion between free climbing and free soloing.

Free soloing is a form of free climbing but they are not to be mixed up. The difference between free soloing and free climbing is very simple: while most free climbers are attached to a rope to protect them in case of a fall, a free soloist climbs without any type of protection.

Every free soloist is a free climber but long not every free climber is a free soloist. In fact, most free climbers will never venture into free soloing because it’s so dangerous and fatal. If you fall while free soloing, that’s it for you. If you fall while free climbing with a rope, your belayer will save you from dropping to your death.

I hope this clears up any confusion for anyone looking to get into climbing or just interested in the world of climbing. Back to the article.

What is Free Climbing?

Free climbing is a style of rock climbing where the climber uses their hands and feet to ascent a rock. In most cases, free climbers have a partner who will belay them up the route.

Both the belayer and the climber are attached to the same rope. The belayer will stay on the ground (unless it’s a multi-pitch) and give slack to the climber on the wall. Using their belay device and the rope, the belayer will catch the climber in case of a fall.

Sport climbing, traditional (trad) climbing, bouldering, and even free soloing are free climbing styles. Any type of roped climbing in the gym is also considered free climbing. So long as hands and feet are used, we are talking about free climbing.

Styles of free climbing:

  • Sport climbing
  • Traditional climbing
  • Bouldering
  • Free soloing
  • Deep water soloing

Aid climbing is NOT free climbing

The reason free climbing holds its name is to contrast aid climbing. Aid climbing is a bit of a relic of the past. Before climbers were using their hands and feet to ascent rock faces, the sport of climbing used equipment to make it to the top. This meant that climbers would place gear such as pitons on the wall and pull themselves up.

Once climbers started using their bodies to climb instead of equipment, the term free climbing was created to differentiate between aid climbing and free climbing.

Bouldering is a type of free climbing

Bouldering is a style of climbing done on small boulders of about 15 feet. Due to the height restriction, boulderers don’t need to be attached to a rope and instead use a crashpad or mats to protect them in case of a fall.

There is sometimes confusion about whether or not bouldering is free climbing because no protection is used. However, free climbing encompasses all styles of climbing that use hands and feet. Thus, bouldering is a type of free climbing.

Free soloing is a type of free climbing

This may get confusing but technically, free soloing is a type of free climbing. Because free soloists use their hands and feet to make it to the top. One could argue that free soloing is even the purest form of free climbing as there can be absolutely no way to aid yourself to the top.

What is Free Soloing?

Free soloing is a type of free climbing where absolutely no protection is used to catch them in case of a fall. Just like other styles of free climbing, the climber relies on their hands and feet to make it to the top of a rock.

Free soloing is the most dangerous type of climbing as the smallest mistake or unfortunate event (e.g. a rockfall) can be fatal.

While some might argue that they are, this doesn’t mean that free soloists are completely crazy or have a death wish or something like that. A lot of thought goes into a free solo ascent. Oftentimes, the route is practiced with protection countless times prior to an attempt. Additionally, most free soloists only free solo routes that are way beyond their roped potential.

For example, a climber who climbs 5.14d could easily free solo a 5.9 route without much risk as the odds of them making a mistake is very slim.

In a video featuring Alex Honnold, Norwegian pro climber Magnus Mitdbø free soloed a 5.9 route. While this is still very dangerous since Magnus is a 5.15b climber, the route was way below his roped potential. Thus, Magnus was comfortable enough to attempt a free solo even though he has very little free soloing experience.

If Honnold made you become fascinated with free soloing, Magnus’ video is an absolute must-watch as it showcases just how scary free soloing is. Even on an easy route, Magnus, a world-class climber is visibly stressed in this almost uncut footage.

The video gives you some raw insights and conversations on free solo climbing that even the Free Solo documentary couldn’t capture.

Bouldering is not free soloing

While both bouldering and free soloing are practiced without roped protection, bouldering cannot be called free soloing. This is because boulderers are still protected by their crash pads in case of a fall. Most boulder problems are around 17 feet and over.

High ball boulders can go up to 30 feet. While much more dangerous than conventional bouldering, high ball bouldering can still be protected with the right amount of crash pads and spotters. When a climber is above 30 feet, one can no longer call it bouldering, and the term free soloing should be applied.

Deep water solo is a safer form of free soloing

An interesting variant of free solo is the deep water solo. This is a type of free solo where the climber isn’t protected by crash pads or mats but instead by the ocean (or pool) underneath the route. Deep water solo sits somewhere in between roped climbing and free soloing. While much safer than free soloing with the water underneath you, you can still make a wrong landing.

One of the most impressive deep water solo ascents was made by Chris Sharma when he sent Es Pontás in Mallorca, Spain. The route featured a gnarly 7-foot dyno which took Sharma countless attempts over the course of many months to finally stick but when he did, it was totally worth it. The climb was documented by Reel Rock.

The most impressive free solo ascent

Undoubtedly, if you came to this article, you know about Alex Honnold and his free solo ascent of El Capitan.

This is by far the most impressive free solo ascent to ever happen. Nobody thought El Cap would ever be free soloed but if anyone was going to be crazy enough to do it, it would have been Alex Honnold.

To recap, in June of 2017, Alex Honnold made a free solo ascent of El Capitan’s freerider route. Freerider is graded 5.12d (eight grades below Honnold’s roped potential which is 5.14d) and 2900 feet (900m) high. Alex ascended in a mere 3 hours and 56 minutes, this time is even more impressive if you know that most Yosemite climbers do Freerider over the course of 4 days. Honnold actually had to pass some climbers on a portaledge while he made his way up the granite giant that is El Cap without protection.

What you may not know though, if you haven’t seen the film, is that it took Alex more than a year to prepare for his free solo ascent. He knew every move on the freerider route.

And before he made his ascent of El Capitan, Alex Honnold had a number of other large free solo ascents in his back pocket. These include:

  • Moonlight Buttress 1000ft (5.12+) – Free soloed in 2008
  • Regular Northwest face of Half Dome 2200ft (5.12a) – Free soloed in 2008
  • Chouinard-herbert 1400ft (5.11c) – Free soloed in 2011
  • El Sendero Luminoso 1500ft (5.12+) – Free soloed in 2014

Not to mention the countless undocumented free solo ascents Alex Honnold has made over the years, which according to 60 minutes, is over a thousand. While that seems dubious, we are talking about Alex Honnold here. I mean, during the filming of 60 minutes he free soloed Phoenix (5.13) off-camera to deal with the nerves.


We really shouldn’t be comparing free climbing and free soloing. In fact, such a comparison would be thoughtless, since free soloing is a type of free climbing. Roped free climbs allows climbers to explore new climbing feats such as Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson on the Dawn Wall and Adam Ondra when he sent Silence (9c). They are what makes climbing a competitive and ever-evolving sport.

On the other hand, a spectacular free solo ascent such as Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan captures a mainstream audience and introduces the masses to the climbing world.

More articles like this

Leave a Comment