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Our climbing group had a disagreement today with another set of climbers over the fact that my friend was doing “free solo” on what normally would be a 5.6 top rope route. Personally I wasn’t happy with them climbing “free solo” but I respect their freedom to do so as long as they don’t endanger others. The arguments for “free solo” being unethical were:

  1. You might traumatize others if they see you fall and die
  2. Search and rescue will have to carry your body down
  3. If you post a video of a successful “free solo” you’re further spreading bad habits around

Is this the general consensus? If so, does one need to seek out remote boulders to practice “free solo”?

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    Whether something is ethical is a matter of opinion, and beside that, altogether off-topic on this site. You've hit nearly every bullet point in the "What not to ask" page on the help center.
    – TylerH
    Jul 13 at 13:46
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    Closing this question as opinion-based, partly due to the significant discussion generated that is not helpful or constructive. Please take the opportunity to review this further on Meta if desired.
    – studiohack
    Jul 13 at 15:25
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    As @studiohack has pointed out, while this question is interesting, it has two issues that mean it doesn't fit here: 1) it is opinion-based, and 2) the broad spread of opinion means it attracts a large number of conflicting comments and answers and, well, discussion.
    – Rory Alsop
    Jul 13 at 15:32
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    Jonathon: Your question is now reopened. I suggest waiting to see what happens next. Sometimes questions flip closed, reopened, closed...... If so, I think a relatively modest edit could save the question. Something along the lines of What are the adverse impacts on others of solo free climbing, if any, and how do they compare with other unregulated activities, e.g. [have to think of a good example}
    – ab2
    Jul 15 at 2:44
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    While I think the reframed question is answerable and interesting (and I voted to re-open), it might be better to ask it as a new question, since this one is already quite full of answers regarding general ethicality and those don't really address the new question as it stands now...
    – fgysin
    Jul 15 at 8:07
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While free solo climbing is receiving a lot of attention, there are other ways of climbing that are just as risky.

  • In mountaineering it is common to go unroped on easier terrain to move fast. While 4b/5.6 is definitely on the harder side here, the transition between "hard scrambling" and free solo climbing is a quite fluid here.
  • In trad climbing runouts can be pretty large or the protection pretty bad. Again, the risk profile can be very similar to free solo climbing.
  • Even bolted routes can be extremely run out. Just consider the Elbe river sandstone climbing (German/Czech border region) where metal protection is forbidden and bolts ("rings") are often placed 25m apart.

These are not considered unethical.

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    too small of an edit: fluent should maybe be fluid?
    – CGCampbell
    Jul 12 at 16:56
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    Interestingly, the worst injury AH received was when he was climbing with a rope. I’d imagine there can be a false sense of security that you have a rope: but perhaps the rope is poorly rigged, or would swing you into the wall, etc. Climbing free solo you know there is 0 protection if you make a mistake.
    – Tim
    Jul 12 at 19:13
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    @Tim A point of order: Any injury AH might get while free soloing would likely be fatal, so it stands to reason his "worst" injury would of course be while using a rope. Jul 12 at 21:47
  • @tim you might want to pick a different Acronym here, but blame the hot meta posts. I came here thinking you were referring to a former German ruler, turns out from the other comments that there appears to be a climber? that has the same initials.
    – Luuklag
    Jul 15 at 7:28
  • I have free soloed stuff and I live in the Elbsandstein gebirge mentioned in this post. I feel safer free soloing. Jul 19 at 10:23
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Climbing is an assumed risk activity, put simply that means all your point always apply. You might fall and die, you might have to be rescued, if you post a video other people might try the same thing.

Taking a black and white perspective, all adventure sports should be banned because taking part might cause some trauma to a third party. In the grand scheme of things, if I read the conversions correctly, 5.6 is a little harder than a long step ladder, but not much.

If it's a training route surrounded by children, then I would suggest not free soloing it as you don't want to set that example. Otherwise if someone wants to take up free soloing then they need to start somewhere and a relatively easy climb seems like a good start point.

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    According to the comparison table at en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grade_(climbing), 5.6 is something that most young&healthy people should be able to do toprope after a bit of training. It's certainly not something you should try free solo just because you can free solo a ladder!
    – Jan
    Jul 12 at 14:34
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    @Jan, I wasn't going to go into detail on that, but depending on scales, conversion tables, and remembering all these things are subjective, not objective, but 5.6 falls around a 4a, that's right down the easy end of the scale. It has large easy holds, length of climb will increase the grade and it doesn't have an overhang. So harder than a long step ladder, but not much. I have been up ladders where I wanted a rope.
    – Separatrix
    Jul 12 at 14:44
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    @Separatrix Just because the route was graded 4b doesn't mean it will feel like that to climb. Some wet green could have appeared making a foothold very slippery. One of the jugs could have snapped off, or indeed snap off in your hand. You might get lost on the wall and not follow the proper route line, or use the wrong beta and make the climb harder than it needed to be. All reasons even a decent climber could conceivably fall off a 4b. A rope would save you in such circumstances and arguably make a free solo attempt unethical.
    – niemiro
    Jul 12 at 17:24
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    Ban aviation too, or come up with airways that overfly no one. At least the only property owners hit by train wrecks knew there was a railroad there when they bought the property. Jul 12 at 20:58
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    @Stilez actually I'm suggesting that in this case it's fine because it's an easy climb, though half the comments are arguing the opposite. Also people seem to be suggesting that it's a really long climb and any fall would be fatal, but that would increase the grade so it's either an even easier climb or quite short anyway.
    – Separatrix
    Jul 13 at 8:39
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The primary directive of most ethical philosophies is "do no harm."

I think it is difficult to argue that you are doing harm to others when you are talking about accidental outcomes that end in your personal injury or death. It might cause distress for those who witness it, but there are so many examples of similar outcomes to things we accept as normal every day activities (e.g. driving) that I believe this becomes more of an argument of prudence over ethics.

However, point 3 almost certainly does contain an unethical component. When you promote reckless or dangerous behavior, you become partially culpable to the people who end up hurting themselves when they imitate your actions. This is one of the reasons you see people give disclaimers in videos where they are participating in dangerous activities; they are attempting to divorce themselves of responsibility for others hurting themselves.

I am personally of the opinion that because proliferating or glorifying free solo climbing is extremely dangerous, we should not consume media that depicts it, and we should try to actively discourage our friends from attempting it. I refuse to climb with anyone who I know free solos. How can I trust their judgement on the safety of a climb if they are willing to forgo any safety at all when they climb on their own?

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    So Alex Honnold is immoral, along with the production company of his movie? Jul 12 at 16:06
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    @JonathanReez In my opinion, yes. I personally know 2 people who for some reason decided to try it after watching the movie. One person very nearly fell over 100 ft while doing so, and brags about it often.
    – BlackThorn
    Jul 12 at 16:13
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    Heh same here. My friends inspiration was Alex Honnold. But at the same time I imagine plenty of people (including myself) watched that movie and became even less interested in free solo. Not sure if it all balances out. Jul 12 at 16:24
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Apart from the risks to rescuers and onlookers, which can be debated, something that hasn't been mentioned is the harm free soloing does to access.

Many places where rock climbing happens have tenuous access rights—Gariwerd / The Grampians and Djurrite / Arapiles in Victoria Australia being a prime example. Free soloing, whether or not it causes accidents, is a great way to convince land managers that the risks of allowing climbing at all is too burdensome, and that it's better to just shut down the crags.

TL;DR: While it may stoke your friends ego, it's doing the climbing community, and the broader community harm.

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I don't think 3. is a good argument, because doing something is not the same as bragging about it online. How to communicate that you are climbing free solo is another debate.

For the first 2 arguments:

People take risks every day. When doing so they should have evaluated a few questions:

a) What is gained by taking this risk? b) How likely is failure? c) How bad would failure be (for me and others)?

So in this case:

What is gained by taking this risk?

A feeling of freedom.

(There might be more I don't know of.)

How likely is failure?

Not so high on a 5.6 top rope route, I would say. But keep in mind that you would also have to factor in how often you do take the risk and whether you might get lightharted after a few successes.

How bad would failure be (for me and others)?

You could fall and die (or get injured permanently)

One controversy here is that when climbing free solo many people seem assume and act like the failure would only affect to the climber. This is true for immediate consequences, but not (as your friends pointed out) after that.

(a point could be made that the consequences of a fall would also greatly affect family and friends of the climber in a permanent way).

(another point to consider is that not all falls would result in immediate death. You could also be permanently injured, with other consequences for people near you and society)

Bringing the points together

So now we would have to weigh the answers of the above. You might evaluate a few points differently then me. Personnaly I feel like the risk is not worth the costs to the climber and her/his social environment.

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    You seem to have submitted the answer before finishing writing it; your conclusion seems unfinished. Jul 12 at 6:48
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    @fyrepenguin fell without even being able to type three dots... Jul 12 at 8:08
  • @fyrepenguin Thank you, I readded the missing last paragraph.
    – Kaligule
    Jul 13 at 21:23
  • Another impact to others: It might close the site to future climbers -- If whoever owns the site is impacted at all, they might put up no trespassing signs and close access.
    – Dave X
    Jul 16 at 14:00
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To consider your points:

  1. One can reasonably expect climbers know climbing can be dangerous and they might see an accident. Just as drivers know they might see a horrible accident, it's unpleasant but the idea we can shield everyone from everything they might not want to see is not only unworkable but foolish. It is unethical to deliberately cause others distress but we can assume most climbers don't expect to have terrible accidents.
  2. Rescuing people is the job of the emergency services. Whether or not you are in danger for a reason of your own making or outside your control. We can strongly argue it's stupid, maybe unethical, to put yourself in a position you know are incapable of dealing with or to deliberately put yourself in danger - for instance people strolling up a treacherous mountain in shorts and crocs and the weather predictably changes - but they should still be rescued if they do.
  3. I think this ties in with previous points - if you are encouraging people to do something they are not capable/experienced enough to do, that can be considered unethical. It is ultimately their choice to do it but encouraging someone to do something illegal can itself be illegal so the same principle holds. Recklessly encouraging someone to risk their life without realising the risk is unethical, but if people simply see you do X and want to do X (big wave surfing for example) that is their call.
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I remember when this debate started with the argument "you have to put on the helmet when you ride the motorbike because if you get hurt I have to pay for your medical expenses" and it slowly expanded toward ever stricter rules restricting people freedom. I know that the dividing line between the necessities of the society and the freedom of the individual is something very difficult to define. Centuries of philosophical debates went on about it. But isn't the time that we start saying stop this is going too far? Who gives you the right to decide what I can and I cannot do?

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    In essence the question is whether freedom and well-being of society is more important than freedom and well-being of the individual.
    – Michael
    Jul 12 at 11:59
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    Do you have the right to directly endanger other people for fun? There's a clear line between endangering yourself and endangering others. You're free to take whatever risks you like, with only the moral responsibility to not set a bad example. When it comes to directly endangering innocent passers by, I say there's not just a right but a duty to stop you doing it.
    – Separatrix
    Jul 12 at 13:34
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    @Separatrix: The line is not that clear. If you have an accident there is a small risk (at the very least an inconvenience) for the search&rescue personnel. A falling body or falling equipment can harm or delay other people. I still think that in this case the majority of the risk and inconvenience is with the free-soloing climber. For third parties it’s pretty much negligible in this case.
    – Michael
    Jul 12 at 13:50
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    @FluidCode No, it's not fascism.
    – JS Lavertu
    Jul 12 at 14:32
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    @FluidCode freedom doesn't mean "I can do whatever I want" That motorcycle exist because we live in a complex and interdependent society, which means that you can't just ignore the consequences of your actions on others in the name of your perception of freedom.
    – njzk2
    Jul 12 at 19:28
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The main question boils down to whether suicide is unethical, given that free solo climbers have a significant chance to die while climbing. If suicide is unethical, putting one's life intentionally at risk should be unethical as well, paralleling that putting somebody else's life at risk is unethical because murder is.

Whether suicide is ethical is, of course, debated: There is a tension between the unanimously acknowledged value of life and one's right to self-determination. Cultures who assign a high value to individual freedom, like the modern Western societies, typically don't find suicide unethical.

The question about an indirect "advertising" effect is harder to answer because there is potential damage to others. Popular real or fictional characters certainly invite people to copy their behavior, including suicide. In recent years media coverage about suicides has become more careful and is accompanied by counseling contact information to mitigate any effect of unintentionally triggering more suicides.

Again the answer depends on what importance we assign to the freedom of individuals, both the climber's and the potential copycats'. Western societies with their focus on individual responsibility are more lenient than more traditional societies: Individuals have a lot of leeway how they go about their life, even if it may have negative side-effects. The potential copycats, assuming they are capable individuals, are equally responsible for their own actions; we are not responsible for others unless we abuse inabilities or dependence or use coercion. I also take issue with your labeling free soloing as "bad behavior": That judgement is dependent on the answer and should not be in the question.

The question whether it is unethical to endanger rescue personnel is similar to the copycat question. I can imagine that non-solo climbing also causes a significant number of rescue operations, and perhaps more urgent and hence dangerous ones because there are still lives to save. Do we find roped climbing unethical as well?

Another argument is that rescuers are volunteers; this is a different situation than, say, flying aircraft stunts over populated areas where potential victims don't have a choice.

My take as a member of a Western society which puts a lot of value on the individual freedom to lead one's life as one pleases is: Let them climb. It's fun and they hurt only themselves.

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  • Suicide is illegal, which is much more restrictive than unethical.
    – ab2
    Jul 15 at 2:36
  • @ab2 Suicide is not illegal in most states of the U.S, and not in Germany where I live. It is a criminal act in some countries, e.g. India (but it is debated there, too). That reflects, I believe, the conflicting values involved. As an aside, I would dispute that illegal is always more restrictive than unethical. Sometimes they seem rather orthogonal ;-). Jul 15 at 6:39
  • I might suggest that free climbers don’t have a significant chance of dying (or there would be fewer of them). Certainly, should they fall the consequences are severe, but you need to factor in the chances of falling in the first place. People die tripping on the sidewalk, yet walking is not unethical.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 15 at 11:40
  • @JonCuster Yes, there is a spectrum of risk, and nothing is risk free; there is no clear line that can be drawn. But some activities are obviously riskier than others, and many free climbers have died (Wikipedia has a list of "notable fatalities"). There are probably not very many to begin with (non-life threatening bouldering is more common). But it is hard to come by reliable numbers for the living or the dead. Jul 15 at 12:25
  • "In the minority of American jurisdictions that continue to recognize common law crimes, suicide is in theory a criminal offense; but in practice no penalty has ever been applied in the United States for a successful suicide. Penalties may, however, be imposed for attempting suicide or for aiding another to attempt or to commit suicide." From suicide: Legal Aspects
    – ab2
    Jul 15 at 13:08

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