The Free Solo Backpacker

The author was never a rock climber, until the backpack with everything he needed for survival tipped over a cliff. 


Let’s be clear: I’m a backpacker, not a free soloist, a walker of the lumpy horizontal, not a sender of the slick vertical. A buddy once led me up eight pitches of desert sandstone, and that was a thrill, but the stupid ballerina slippers hurt my delicate tootsies. Better to wear comfy leather boots and keep said boots on solid ground. Heck, better to keep the ground on the ground, i.e. prevent it from tipping sideways.

Well, we don’t necessarily get to call the shots in this manky, chossy lifetime of ours, now do we? Always and forever, we are at the mercy of the wild world—and nothing’s wilder and worldlier than gravity.

This was made exceedingly clear to me when, during a solitary circumambulation of Stuart Island, an upthrust hunk of earth south of New Zealand’s South Island (next stop Antarctica), that great downward-pulling power took the one thing I simply couldn’t afford to lose. Honor, religious tolerance, meaningful work, the love of a hearty peasant woman—sure, those are nice, assuming you’re dry and well fed. Which, it appeared, I wouldn’t be for long.

My backpack of clothes, sleeping bag, stove and larder—plus passport and cash—had gone over the edge of a cliff.

This particular cliff was a freakin’ monster, not by hard-ass alpinist standards, but by my standards. I had sought out the prominence because the sun was dropping and the panorama included ten billion gorgeous miles of glinting ocean and the day’s hiking was finally finished. Unshouldering my lopsided load, I set it on the crag’s narrow seat-ledge, only to behold, in extreme slow motion, the tippy bastard tip sideways. And plunge. Gulp. Into the yawning salt-spray void.

Perfect! Lowering onto all fours, inching nose-first toward the dreaded confirmation of my predicament—stranded on the backside of the island, the backside of the world, the backside of anything with a front—I’ll admit to earnestly wishing for the sticky rubber of ballerina slippers. Then, thinking more clearly, I wished to be somewhere, anywhere, else.
But hey, looky looky: The void wasn’t actually a void—it was floored with a toothy spit of whetted and wetted black rocks. Moreover, my pack clung desperately by its fingertips (a couple thin straps) from a shrubby outgrowth some 100 feet above that dangerous gaping mouth of a beach.

Thus, with a double knotting of my beloved leather boots, I the backpacker became I the free soloist.

Whether the pitch was 5.6 or 5.0 I have no clue, such designations meaning zilch during a hyperfocused quest for luggage and survival. An improbable jug appeared. An improbable toehold followed. My awareness of the micro—of fissures, flakes, slippery lichen patches—expanded and expanded, nudging from consciousness, displacing entirely, the exposure nipping at my heels. There was just elemental earth, an animal body and the imperative: Do Not Fall.

The shrub neared, and with three hooked fingers (superpower strength in addition to superpower glueyness!) I retrieved the awkward load. Ascending was difficult, indeed, but I can report with total honesty that I didn’t carry the added burden of fear. A part of me, a part I’d not previously known to exist, was weightless, graceful, like some kind of ballerina who doesn’t require slippers, doesn’t require anything but deep breathing and determination.

Might this be what Alex Honnold and Spider-Man and actual arachnids experience, this stick-to-anything meditative trance?

Free soloing is a misnomer. The costs, as too many families and friends have learned the tearful way, are severe. Some years ago, though, I managed to skip out on my bill, and for that experience—not only the experience of acing a wee pitch, but also the experience of needing to ace a wee pitch—I am grateful. However briefly, I glimpsed the power, the glory, the mystery of mind meeting rock, rock meeting mind.

That said: I’m a backpacker, a walker of the lumpy horizontal. I don’t plan on paying my debt to the wild world until I’m 88 and have a grandkid bouncing on each knobby, achy, arthritic, 10,000-mile knee.

Leath Tonino of Ferrisburgh, Vt.,  is the author of two essay collections, both published by Trinity University Press: The Animal One Thousand Miles Long (2018) and The West Will Swallow You (forthcoming October 2019).

Featured Photo Caption: The view from the top, in New Zealand.

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