Jim Reynolds’ Fitz Roy Free Solo: Putting it in Perspective with the Pros
Jim Reynolds made waves recently with his up-and-down free solo of Fitz Roy in Patagonia. We got the whole, brilliant story from Reynolds, and we checked in with some of the best alpinists, big-wall climbers, soloists and Patagonia veterans to get their thoughts on Reynolds’ accomplishment, its style, and where it fits into the long and storied history of Patagonian solos.
Most everyone had packed up for the season down in El Chaltén by mid March. Summer in the southern hemisphere was all but over, and with it the best chances for good climbing weather on the Patagonian spires—known to be bombarded by capricious storms even in the balmier months.
But on March 21, the autumnal equinox in the southern half of the world, Jim Reynolds, a 25-year-old YOSAR member wrapping up his first season in Argentine Patagonia, took advantage of an unheard of weather window—“March had more good weather than you could possibly climb in,” he said—and started up Fitz Roy. He had a rack and a rope, but he didn’t use them.
In about 15 hours 30 minutes, Reynolds ventured all the way to the top of the 11,171-foot summit of Fitz Roy via the Afanassieff route (VI 5.10c, 5,000 feet), and all the way back down, free soloing the entire thing in both directions.
While Reynolds is not the first person to have free-soloed Fitz Roy—that distinction belongs to the late Dean Potter, via the Supercanaleta (VI 5.10 WI4) in 2002—he is the first to also descend the climb in a pure free-solo style.
Soloing Fitz Roy—in any fashion—was not something Reynolds had expected to do when he traveled south this year. “It just didn’t seem like something that was possible. It didn’t seem like you were allowed to do that sort of a thing,” he told Rock and Ice. “I came in there not knowing a lot about the place, and just being really open to learn what was there. It was only after I’d been there for two months that I realized it might be possible for me to go out and climb solo in these mountains.”
Before he turned his attention to the highest tower around, Reynolds prepared with a couple of smaller up-and-down tower solos: Aguja Rafael Juarez, up via Filo Oeste (5.11a) and down via the Anglo Americana (5.11b); and Aguja Saint-Exupery, up via Chiaro di Luna (5.11a) and down via Kearney-Harrington (5.10b). Reynolds’ roundtrip solos of Saint-Exupery and Rafael Juarez were both onsight affairs. (He had climbed Kearney-Harrington earlier in the season, so the Exupery downclimb was not onsight, but all the rest of the climbing on those outings was brand new for Reynolds.)
After Exupery and Rafael Juarez, he rested in El Chaltén for a couple of days and then headed straight back out to try Fitz Roy. Aside from his roommates, no one truly knew his plans. Part way up the Afanassieff—which he’d never climbed before; he’d never climbed anything on Fitz Roy for that matter—he decided to turn back. “I was so depleted from the former climbs” on Exupery and Rafael Juarez, he said. Still, he downclimbed all but one pitch toward the bottom, which he rappelled.
Reynolds though he might never get another chance—maybe not this season, maybe not ever—but the splitter weather continued, and on March 21 he marched towards Fitz Roy for round two. By this time, virtually the whole town knew what he was up to.
At the base, he realized he had forgotten his harness and rappel device, but reasoned that he wasn’t planning on using them anyway, and would be able to fashion a makeshift harness out of some cord he had along and use a munter-hitch if he found himself in a tight spot. The harness and rappel device weren’t “necessary to the plan,” he said, “and they weren’t necessary to the backup plan.” Still, he said with a laugh, “definitely not the part of the story I’m most proud of.”
Unphased, he popped in his headphones, pressed play on his soloing music of choice—Enslaved, a death-metal band—and started climbing.
[Also Watch VIDEO: A Line Across the Sky: Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold Complete Fitz Traverse in Patagonia]
Reynolds passed the point where he bailed on his first attempt and was again in territory unknown to him. He recalled, “There were a couple of moments that were scary when I got off route—though I don’t think there is really one Afanassieff route; it’s not like a trail, it’s like many paths. At one point I accidentally came back to the ridge too early and ended up climbing some dead vertical splitter cracks. It started off as hands, then went to fists, then went to offwidth… So there were at times some anxiety related to knowing you’re not in the right spot. I had a rope and cams, so some margin, but I didn’t want to use them if I didn’t have to.”
After tagging the summit, Reynolds reversed course and jammed his way back down the often perfect Patagonian granite, never reaching for his rope. But at one point, he was close: “The pitch I rapped down the first time [I had tried to solo the Afanassieff], it’s like 10c or 10d. It has good holds, but it’s very steep. It’s difficult first thing in the morning, but after 9,000 feet of rock climbing when it’s dark and you’re exhausted, then it’s really difficult. Downclimbing that pitch was the only thing standing in my way of a pure free-solo ascent of Fitz Roy. It definitely got a little wild… I wouldn’t say I was close to falling or anything like that, but I had to concentrate a ton. I may have rapped that pitch if I hadn’t already downclimbed everything else to that point.”
But despite moments like these, Reynolds never felt as though he was pushing any edge or tempting the fates. “Climbing a huge mountain like that there are bound to be some scary spots,” he said. “But for the most part it felt really good. I’ve done a lot of solos in my life—some have been scary, some have been my best climbing moments. These solos all fell into that second category.”
Big solos have become a prize in Patagonia. The past decade has seen a number of notable solo ascents—though not all free—of Patagonia’s most iconic peaks. Colin Haley became the first person to solo Cerro Standhardt in 2010, and went on to solo Torre Egger in 2016. Markus Pucher made the first free solo of Cerro Torre in 2013, and the first winter solo of Aguja Guilluimet in 2017. The late Marc-André Leclerc soloed all three of the major Torres: Cerro Torre and Aguja Standhardt in 2015, and Torre Egger in 2016. Brette Harrington did the first free solo of Chiaro di Luna, on Aguja Saint-Exupery in 2015.
Reynolds was at first surprised by the attention his feats this season garnered. “I knew they would at least be impressive to the people familiar with the range and the routes,” he said, “but I definitely didn’t expect all this international media buzz.”
At day’s end, he says, his Fitz Roy solo wasn’t a statement about how climbing should be done, or an attempt to one-up other ascents; rather, it was about climbing the best way he could personally. “I don’t tell people how to rock climb,” he said, “but I do think we should all climb in the best style we can imagine for ourselves. So if it seems possible, and it seems like good style, that’s probably how you should do it. I was executing the vision of the best style I could imagine for myself.”
So what to make of Reynolds’ accomplishment in the context of past free-solo achievements and Patagonian ascents? In what ways was it ground-breaking and cutting-edge? Which aspects of it deserve more or less attention than they have been given thus far in the outdoor media?
We asked several of the most qualified authorities on the subject for their thoughts on Reynolds’ big climb.
In pulling off these three ascents Jim has shown true mastery. The videos that he made during the various climbs show him comfortable and at ease in the terrain, to the point of being goofy and casual. This relaxed attitude in the face of enormous challenges seems to be one of his key strengths.
Also impressive is the fact that he concocted on his own the idea of climbing up and down peaks without rappelling, unaware that Paul Preuss, “the father of style,” had advocated and practiced this style one hundred years ago. It takes a vanguardist mindset to come up with such an idea, and to believe it can be applied to such big formations. Intuitively it makes sense that on a jagged peak the ascent should not finish once the top is reached, and that instead of rappelling one would choose to down-climb. Should Jim’s ascents be called be first free ascent of these peaks? It seems unlikely that down-climbing will become a thing, but the provocation is a valuable contribution.
What I am less sure about is whether the free-solo aspect of Jim’s ascents is a valuable contribution. While I would never question his choices—we are all free to decide our fate, I do question whether we, as a community, should continue to celebrate and hold in high regard such levels of risk taking. Is it reasonable to use risk as yard stick to measure performance? Jim’s mastery is unquestionable, but whether this level of risk taking is or not the best expression of the art should be up for discussion.
I don’t have a ton to say about Jim’s solos—I haven’t climbed any of those routes so I don’t know exactly what they entail. It’s certainly bold to go up on Fitz Roy by yourself. Just hiking into those mountains alone must be super intimidating.
To be honest I didn’t totally understand the Nat Geo article. He had a rope but didn’t use it? He forgot his harness?!? It didn’t quite make sense. Who forgets a harness in Patagonia?!? And if there’s no harness or rack, why take a rope?!? (Since there’re no real fixed anchors anyway)
Anyway, respect to Jim, it’s certainly an impressive day in the mountains. Seems like he had an incredible experience.
Of course the most badass solo ascent of all time on Chaltén (the real name for Fitz Roy) was Renato Casarotto’s first ascent, solo, of the Goretta Pillar. However, in terms of alpine-style solo ascents, Jim’s is certainly among the top. The Afanassieff is probably the overall most difficult route yet soloed in alpine-style on Chaltén, although it was a very logical choice; no individual section is very difficult, but it is very long, making it a perfect objective for a soloist, where moving ropeless is a big advantage in terms of pace.
The other routes previously soloed on Chaltén in alpine-style are the French Route, the Californian Route, and the Supercanaleta, all similar in technical difficulty to the Afanassieff, but with less total climbing. While it is definitely very impressive and thought-provoking that Jim down-climbed the route, to me it is more signifiant overall that he made the first solo ascent of the route than that he down-climbed the route afterwards. Down-climbing is usually faster and more efficient than rappelling (except when rappelling a clean face on bolted anchors!), so for someone with a high-enough rock climbing ability to be able to do so safely, it is a very logical choice.
Put in the context of time, I think Jim’s first solo ascent can be considered comparable to the other alpine-style first-solo ascents of routes on Chaltén: the Californian Route by Thomas Bubendorfer in 1986, the French Route by Christoph Hainz in 1994, and the Supercanaleta by Dean Potter in 2002. Although there are no photos (causing some to be skeptical), assuming the claim is true, probably the most badass alpine-style solo ascent of Chaltén was by Yasushi Yamanoi in 1990, when he soloed the Californian Route in winter… back when Patagonian winters were more consistently frigid!
In any case, Jim’s climb is really awesome, especially since it was his first season in Patagonia, and especially because he did it at the very end of the summer, when most climbers had gone home, and he had the mountain all to himself. It certainly sounds very scary to me to imagine free-solo down-climbing the steep, and usually wet, moves at the start of the offwidth pitch!
I actually haven’t read the details of Jim’s solo. Sounds pretty out there though. The guy is definitely pushing it. Although in a good weather window I think soloing Fitz Roy seems relatively reasonable for a bold mountain climber. A bit of an evolution for Patagonia but not really out of line what has been done in the past by climbers like Marc-André and Dean Potter.
I think it’s the kind of thing that will probably become relatively common in the near future while soloing El Cap probably will not. Not to take anything away from Jim though. The guy is a total badass. And I love his vibe and attitude. Just trying to find perspective.
One more thought: The idea of being on top of Fitzroy all alone and without a harness sounds pretty darn exciting. What an adventure!
I’ve known Jim for years and have, for a long time now, been impressed by his soloing in California (the High Sierra and Yosemite). His solos in Patagonia, from my perspective, are super impressive, and also very much in line with Jim’s climbing trajectory. He loves soloing, and moving fast in the mountains. It is up to the individual climber to judge their own margins and risk assessments, and in my opinion Jim is super capable, and has his head in the right place.
I met Jim down there this year and I saw a guy who was fired up for the mountains… It was his first time in Patagonia and he said for him it was important not just to go try for a great thing in Patagonia—he wanted to be there! Feel Patagonia!
This mountain range is so great and and it’s a playground for all our desire. Jim went there and he fell in love… we had some asado together and he really became part of the inner circle of Chaltén´s Stonemonkeys.
He started first with his amazing solo of Chiara di Luna and I knew what was in his mind! Afanassieff is the way to go on Fitz—beside Cerro Torre it is the peak of Patagonia.
What he did, free-solo up and down is bold… but more importantly for 16 hours he was a part of the spirit of Fitz Roy. And if you are part of the mountain, the mountain will protect you.
These are the stories that make climbing so great. For me, it’s less important to say that his solo was a big achievement—it was! I want to say how crazy beautiful the climb was—it was more than just a climb without rope!
I think it is very bold to climb up and down. And for sure it is a fast time, which is key in Patagonia!
The only thing is, as soon as you have a rope and slings plus one carabiner, it is not free solo. It is solo! As you always have the chance to fix yourself, which mentally makes a big difference. And free solo—to me that’s climbing up and down without anything.
But I am super impressed by Jim’s achievement! It makes me even more keen to go back to Patagonia next year, with my own ideas.
Roddy McCalley, a climbing guide in Joshua Tree National Park, shares thoughts on helping those who need it most during the pandemic.read more