My relationship with being alone in the forest as a tool of self-discovery and intimacy with place goes back as far as I can remember. When family gatherings as a child or, heck, my own birthday parties would get too stressful for me I’d retire to the sturdy limbs of the nearest cedar with my journal until all the guests had departed. Often I’d invite friends over for play dates as a kid to appease my mom then spend the entire time they were at my house evading and spying on them or constructing makeshift tents out of the brown tall grass, whiling away the afternoon alone and daydreaming. At recess during elementary school I spent my time making concoctions of whatever plants grew on the playground or I stayed in the library and read, invariably alone and not at all miffed. This behavior continued into my teens as I made my first forays into the mountains solo.
The first time I remember conducting an endurance activity alone in the mountains I was sixteen and on snowshoes. There is a minor ridge to the north-northwest of Mount Rainier––the trail was near my home and where I’d worked as a volunteer with the Department of Fish and Wildlife so I felt comfortable there and I admired the mountain whose milk had nourished me all through childhood. Though the entire hike was less than eight miles long, I saw no one the entire way up. When I doubled back on my path of ascent, I began to note cougar tracks laid in to the square patterns made by my snowshoes. That was the first time I felt the now-familiar mix of fear, responsibility, and wonder that comes standard with each of my solo ventures into the wilderness. That snowy day I also realized that, by putting myself at the mercy of the more-than-human yet remaining aware and not dissociating by arming myself, I felt the natural order of things in the woods and my heart was tender, my ears were sharp, my attention diffused itself to perceive the slightest movements and sound in the silent understory.
Following that first time in the mountains alone, I began hiking to my favorite alpine lakes alone that summer; this was less because I preferred being alone and more because I found my friends were less reliably available to join me than I’d have liked. When I was twenty I took up mountaineering; that same summer I rode the train then hitched in to the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park on a ten-day backpacking trip alone. On that trip I interacted with my first moose in the wild and I coped with fear so profound that at night it felt like a hand pressing on my chest as I tried in vain to sleep.
This quickly devolved into runs from Camp Muir to the top of the Cleaver solo as a twenty-two-year-old climbing ranger on Mount Rainier. Once the slowest and most cautious person on the mountain (literally, not hyperbolically) I surprised myself by striding out alone, unroped across the Cowlitz and Ingraham Glaciers in my lightest crampons. I liked the feeling of efficiency, traveling without so much as a pack to slow me down, and the way that my lack of safety devices demanded that I use my mind to discern subtle bumps in the snow that might be collapsable snow bridges and to take note of the speed at which I traveled downhill in different consistencies of snow. In 2010 I set the first female speed record on the mountain, simul-soloing next to my late partner, Chad Kellogg, and ultimately deciding to tell no one about the day’s activities. The feeling of total awareness combined with complete relaxation, the giddy action of leaping over gaping crevasses next to my soul mate, is one I only replicated with the homebirth of my child five years later.
Together, we also climbed solo on alpine rock and waterfall ice. The most indelible of these experiences came one day just before solstice on our yearly trips to Canmore to ice climb. We climbed a multipitch waterfall unroped and in perfect synch next to one another. This took a lot of trust, not only in my own technical abilities, in the ice and in him. Climbing together that day, feeling the ringing of my solid sticks in plastic ice and the vibration of his tools landing in unison, goes down for me as one of my favorite moments in the mountains. We found safety in moving fast together but still solo.
Chad’s boldness in his solo endeavors and the elegant simplicity of his alpine aesthetic poured fuel on the loneliness-seeking fire inside me and solidified my own stylistic leanings as a spirit-athlete. When we parted ways, I began to run ultras solo and unsupported as a way to feel less confused by other people and more in the company with the beings with whom I knew I belonged: the trees and the animals. Over the next couple years I ran distances from 50k to 100 miles, some that I had never run before, solo and unsupported adding up to twenty-seven ultras alone at the time of writing.
I taught myself to rope solo the summer of 2014 but didn’t begin to rely on that tool as one for regular training until the summer of 2015 when I moved to the Methow. I realized that, alone, I could knock out a ten-pitch session in less than a quarter of the time it would have taken with a partner. Sure, I didn’t get the opportunity to lead given that I was top-rope soloing at the time, but if fitness and simple movement on the rock were my intended outcomes for the day then rope soloing was the vastly more efficient way to get it done. I continued rope soloing through the first two trimesters of my pregnancy with Rumi and, as a parent, rope soloing has often been the only way to get in a few quick pitches as parenting compresses my schedule.
These days, in the summer and autumn I rope solo and run alone six days a week; in the winters I run and ski alone six days a week - many of these days include two solo sessions in a day (climb/run, or run/ski, or on the best days run/climb/ski). I have never been late to check in with my safety people and have self-evacuated after my two injuries alone in the mountains - one evacuation had me run/walking twenty miles alone and hypothermic, the other bleeding from four orofices with bursa in my knee deployed and a shattered pinkie knuckle.
These days, solo and unsupported is my happy default - rock, snow, and trail. I’m no Honnold, nor do I ever want to be, but here’s this introvert’s guide to the ethic of the solo, unsupported athlete.
What is soloing for runners? For running this can encompass a broad spectrum of what is considered “solo”. This begins, in its mildest form, as a fully-supported run completed alone. The runner’s crew might maintain aid stations, refill the runner’s water, provide bodywork on the fly, and do course marking or navigation for the runner. But why deal with the annoyance and distraction of other people clogging your spirit work and complicating your plans? In its most extreme, solo running takes the form of solo, unsupported, onsight runs in the mountains. This is the same for skiing except in ski mountaineering where a pair of skiers can solo by simply choosing not to rope up or a single skier can go out alone.
What is soloing for climbers? Climbers can rope solo, either top-rope or lead, on a variety of terrains from sport crags to alpine multipitch climbs, to glaciers, to big walls, and on aid pitches. There is a lot of complexity between and among these varied types of roped solo climbing. A climber can also simul-solo, solo alongside a partner on rock, ice, or glacier, which is a common practice for a team of experienced climbers wishing to travel swiftly through easy terrain between harder pitches or steeper, more broken terrain. Sometimes unroping in this environment is the safest decision for the team. The most risky soloing a climber can do is to free solo (climb without ropes though sometimes still in a harness) on a bigwall or mulitpitch route - especially one she or he has never climbed before. The levels of risk, experience, and judgement involved in decisions about soloing while climbing range widely from top-rope soloing to free solo bigwall climbs.
Why? For athletes for whom comparative, patriarchal, capitalist models of alpinism originating in whiteness ring hollow, there exists an alternate path: going alone and sharing your journey only out of joy, not conquest or personal gain. This path is little-discussed, stigmatized, and old as time. Every spiritual tradition has, in its structure, a wisdom-seeker who goes into the wilderness alone to seek or construct situations that alter their ordinary perceptive reality into one of non-dual awareness and psychedelia. It is my personal belief that this is where most mythology springs from. Some athletes choose to solo simply because their need for movement outstrips the availability of partners. Some go because they like to be quiet, as a break from their lives of constant social obligation.
Internal risk factors: Reserves, physical and emotional, are the first consideration in choosing whether or not to go solo. If it has been a stressful week at work, if you’ve not been sleeping well, or if you’re in emotional distress, either choose to not solo or choose a solo activity with less objective hazard or one in familiar terrain. Risk assessment capacities are vital to develop and maintain as a solo athlete and they can be compromised if you are observed, if you’re tired, or when you’re stressed. Medical training for solo athletes is a must. Attain and keep current at least a Wilderness First Responder and become familiar with the types of self-rescue systems you might need to employ if you are rope soloing in any sort of terrain. There are creative ways a soloist on a glacier can protect herself when crossing a crevasse and important knots, hitches, and pieces of equipment a climber must learn to use to release the load on a rope or to lower themselves safely back to the ground. Be sure you have solid navigation skills before venturing into the mountains alone. Pregnancy is not necessarily a risk factor in the solo endeavor rather the person’s individual health and skill level should be the determining factors.
External risk factors: Objective hazard comes in many different flavors depending on your mode of travel: avalanche, crevasse falls, wildfire, rockfall, tree wells, adverse weather events, falling off a wall or trail, and deadfall in historic burns all make the list. Other people in high-traffic areas are a particular concern for female mountain movers. Animals rank lowest for me on my list of external risk factors.
Mental training: Part of being solo and unsupported that refines me is the component of total commitment. If shit hits the fan, I am the only one out there to resolve things––I have to let go of any sense of being the victim of my circumstances and take responsibility for what is in every moment. The athlete should have a sober and realistic assessment of her own abilities including technical skill, planning, and fitness before venturing out alone. Fortitude, the quality of persisting either stoically or softly under pressure, is vital for the solo athlete and going alone will cultivate this in you. Rather than allowing yourself to bonk hard at mile twenty or thirty-six or sixty or at hour twenty-four when you’re out alone, transform those lulls in the event by implementing grace windows instead, walking and feeding your way into them so they hit in a less-acute way. Cultivating any sort of mindfulness practice - sitting, visualization, lucid dreaming, or astral projection - is an invaluable tool for the soloist. You stop being a hero or a martyr the moment you eschew outdated dualistic thinking and instead move in a gnostic paradigm.
Physical training: When first embarking on solo endeavors, I advise athletes to choose their local training grounds and routine places for alone training sessions. The solo sessions can increase in complexity as the consistent fitness and boldness of the athlete increases. If you want to go alone on new terrain, at a new distance, or under any unfamiliar circumstances, you must first attain an ample endurance base, be in perfect mental and physical health, and accept that additional degree of risk. For some, this level of risk is motivating and exhilarating; for others it is distracting and debilitating. Also choose your solo activity in each discipline in alignment with your skill level at each. For example, I might be comfortable running a solo, unsupported ultra in unfamiliar terrain while I’m only comfortable soloing on alpine rock in places with which I am intimately familiar and whose rock is quite stable.
Safety (or “Do As I Say, Not As I Do”): Leave a plan for your outing with a local safety person. This plan should include a map, where you’re parking, when you anticipate being back in contact with said safety person, and instructions for that person to get in contact with the relevant Search and Rescue professionals in the area if you’re not out on schedule. Carry a satellite GPS tracking device, preferably one with the capability to send and receive messages. These are two important safety concerns and I’ll note here that I’m a hypocrite: I do neither. Though I usually leave a plan with a trusted safety person when I ski or climb alone, many of the trails I run are secret, unmapped trails whose location I won’t disclose to even my best friend. I simply don’t have the $500 to buy a sat phone or pay for the annual subscription. The latter I hope to remedy in the coming year; the former will likely remain the risk it currently is because solitude is solace.
Contraindications: Solo wilderness travel is contraindicated for those people without adequate training, those who lack a clear plan, and those who have experienced the need to be rescued in the past as a result of poor decision-making. Soloing for an audience, whether your friends or a camera crew, is additionally reckless and negates the ego-transcendent properties of true aloneness. Additionally, people in dissociative relationship to their pain and fear are not qualified to travel peacefully and uneventfully alone in the wilderness. People with poor mental health might think of a rash solo trip as the only balm for their pain, this is incorrect. Whether alone or in a group, your most effective safety tool is the mushy, grey one between your ears.
Communion: Alone, I am vulnerable and unguarded - in stark contrast to my daily life among unpredictable two-leggeds. Alone, I am creative and ferocious, forgiving and alive, attuned and magnificent, grotesque and tired. Alone, I realize the emptiness of all things. Above all, going it alone is about connecting with the people with whom I most identify: the trees, rocks, snow, and animals. In this sense, solo and unsupported is less a romantic notion of accessing the unsullied, the undisturbed, the placid and more the practice of plugging in to a subtler frequency without the fetters of ropes, partners, or coordinating plans with someone other than the moon, the snow, and the weather.