Rock climbing is a really interesting activity because the climb itself is intensely personal, but for the most part can’t be done alone. It isn’t a competitive sport for most of us, but the internal competition and need to improve is what brings us back. When you’re leading a long pitch and are near the end of a long runout, you naturally tune out all distractions and develop a sort of tunnel vision until you are able to clip the protection and return to relative safety. It isn’t really a team sport, but also can’t be done with only one person. The problem is that it’s not always easy to find someone to go with you all the time.
The most common style of rock climbing, sport climbing, requires a belay partner. You can, however, do a few other types of rock climbing without a partner. There are a lot of different styles or disciplines within rock climbing. The most common ways to go rock climbing without a partner are bouldering and climbing indoors on an auto belay device.
Rock Climbing Methods Without a Partner:
- Auto Belay Device
- Deep Water Soloing (Psicobloc)
- Free Soloing
- Roped Soloing
Styles of Climbing
Variations of rock climbing have existed forever. For some of them, a partner is just there to catch your head and guide you onto your crash pad, while for others they perform a more integral role belaying you and capturing your progress. We’ve written a lot about the different kinds of rock climbing people get involved in, but here’s a brief description:
Indoor Rock Climbing Without a Partner
Bouldering Indoors- The easiest way to climb alone, and easily the most common, is to go to a bouldering gym. Bouldering is rock climbing shorter routes (called problems) without a rope, using a crash pad or thick mat to catch your falls. Most bouldering problems are less than 30ft (10m) high. All climbing gyms usually have a dedicated area for bouldering, and many gyms are dedicated solely to bouldering.
One of the main reasons people like bouldering so much is because it can be done alone, and you don’t have to rely on someone else going with you. Bouldering has replaced a lot of people’s gym workouts, and they go multiple times in a week. If you hang out in a bouldering ‘cave,’ you’ll usually see a bunch of people with headphones in going from problem to problem.
If you go bouldering outdoors, you will probably need someone to ‘spot’ you. A spotter (or spotters) stands below you and guides you onto your pad as you fall, especially protecting your head. For indoor bouldering you don’t really need someone to spot you because the whole ground is covered in thick pads.
The main difference between bouldering indoors and out is that it is a lot safer to go alone indoors. If you’re outdoors, you’re probably going to a remote location where a broken or twisted ankle could be extremely dangerous. A lot of people do go bouldering outdoors by themselves, so I recommend always telling someone where you’re going and when you’ll be back just in case.
Auto Belay Devices- Many gyms nowadays have auto belay devices installed so you can do a higher roped climb without needing someone to belay you. Auto belays work like a seatbelt, with an internal camming mechanism or magnet that stops you if you fall.
The rope slowly retracts as you climb up the wall, and then lowers you slowly when you let go. If you fall, the jerk on the rope engages the device, and it holds you where you’re at. When you get to the bottom you secure the carabiner back to the wall so it’s ready for the next climber.
There’s actually been a surprising amount of controversy surrounding auto belay devices, as they have led to a couple of deaths. The fault, however, comes from the users and not from the devices. People simply forget to clip in and start climbing up. A fall from high enough will cause serious injury, or worse. Now most gyms connect the auto belay line to the wall using a big yellow YIELD sign in an attempt to get the climber’s attention.
I’m not aware of any instance where one of these auto belays has failed and caused an injury. I’d imagine that as long as they’re kept up by the climbing gym, you really don’t have to worry. Lawsuits do a good job scaring people into compliance. Because of the high risk of injury if it fails, they’re sure to keep up on the maintenance. They’re pretty expensive, but why not pick one up for your home gym?
If you’re interested in trying out indoor rock climbing and want to know how much it will cost to get started, read our article How Much Does Rock Climbing Cost?
Outdoor Rock Climbing Without a Partner
Bouldering Outdoors- Going bouldering outside without a partner is a lot more dangerous than bouldering inside, mostly due to regular backcountry risks like exposure to the elements and distance from care and hospitals.
The ground isn’t padded all over like it is inside a gym, so you have to bring your own crash pad. Depending on how strung out the problem is, you will probably need more than one. Even with adequate padding, there still may be other rocks and things in the way.
You can go alone, but it’s highly recommended to bring someone along to spot you. They don’t necessarily have to be a climber, but need to be able to help direct your falls onto the pads. As mentioned above, always let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back so they know where to find you in the event of an emergency.
Soloing- Soloing, by definition, is to climb alone. It can be done with or without ropes, and with varying levels of danger. The inherent risks of soloing are similar to those of bouldering: exposure and remoteness in the event of an injury. These three styles of soloing add more complexity, and more danger.
Free Soloing- This style of climbing requires no partner, and no expensive climbing gear- not even a rope. Absolutely anyone could go free soloing all by themselves. Before you get too excited though, consider the things that you have to live for.
Touted as a way to reach an inner level of enlightenment to forget about everything else, it is practiced by a select few climbers. Think: Nirvana mixed with Red Bull. It’s not something I would ever consider doing.
The most famous climber who practices free soloing is Alex Honnold, whose 2018 documentary Free Solo won an Oscar in 2019. Hopefully watching even just the trailer will help you make the decision not to climb unroped. I can imagine the rush that climbers feel as they climb unencumbered, but also the rush as they plummet towards the ground unhindered!
Watch the Trailer for Free Solo here–
Deep Water Soloing- DWS, or psicobloc as it’s called in Spain, is a close cousin to free soloing. The only difference is that you don’t die if you fall! I guess that is a pretty big difference. DWS is climbing or bouldering without ropes, using water as your protection. Most routes are fairly short, as falling from above 25-30ft (10m) will cause a lot of pain if done incorrectly. The secret is to land feet first, and point your toes!
DWS is growing in popularity, with competitions starting to spring up around the world. It’s an awesome way to cool off on hot days, and is fun to do with a lot of friends. On the other hand, you can do it by yourself pretty easily.
Keep in mind that if you get hurt or knocked out by falling rock, you will land in the water and drown unless there’s someone nearby to fish you out. It’s best to do this with other people, but it can be done alone. I wrote more about Deep Water Soloing, and it’s impact on climbing shoes in this article: Can Rock Climbing Shoes Get Wet?
Rope Soloing- If you want to go climb alone, or can’t find someone to go with you, but you don’t like the idea of plummeting to your death if you slip, there are a few ways to solo with ropes. Most of them require setting up a top rope, and then rigging a grigri, or other assisted-braking belay device to the rope and securing it to a tree or other fixed object.
This can only be done in areas where you can walk up to the top of the cliff and set up the top rope. As you climb, the grigri slides up the rope, which is secured to the ground. If you fall, the inner camming mechanism locks up and arrests your fall. When you want to descend, pull back on the lever and rappel. (See: Can you rappel with a belay device?).
Practice these techniques on smaller rocks and perfect them before moving onto anything dangerous. I’ve never tried rope soloing, and really don’t recommend it. Learn from reputable sources before trying it yourself.
There are other techniques for rope soloing practiced around the world, but they’re largely deemed reckless or unsafe. For big wall climbs, people use the Petzl Micro Traxion ascender. If you can’t get someone to go with you, stick with bouldering or gym climbing. Climbing is a great way to make new friends, and everyone needs a good climbing partner or two.
You can also check out the last few sections of our post here to read about the difference between all the many styles of climbing.
How to Find a Climbing Partner
Over time, climbing partners learn to communicate without words, and can usually tell exactly when the other person needs slack, or is about to take a fall. Climbers usually end up climbing in pairs, but sometimes climb in big groups instead of pairing off.
I laughed reading in Tommy Caldwell’s epic book The Push about his difficulty in finding a partner to tackle The Dawn Wall in Yosemite. He spent a lot of time up on the wall alone during the first few seasons because his friends didn’t share his same obsession with the route. Even pro climbers struggle with this!
Here are some suggestions of places to meet other climbers:
Or hey, you can always try Tinder!
As a general rule, as you get to know more climbers you will be happier. You probably won’t be able to have someone as a committed climbing partner who is available whenever you want to go, so you’ll want to have a group of friends who do it. Odds are someone will be available to go when you want to.
Get Your Friends into Climbing-
If you skim through the classified listings for climbing gear, you see tons and tons of harnesses and shoes that have only been used a few times. My theory is that these people all started dating a climber at some point who gifted them the gear, and then they broke up. Don’t hesitate to invite a friend, sibling, neighbor, or even parent along to give climbing a shot. You never know who will fall in love with the sport and make a great climbing partner for you long term. I found a good climbing partner, and married her.
A Word for Beginners-
If you’re just starting out and wanting to get into climbing, you need to find an experienced partner who can help show you the ropes. If you don’t know anyone who climbs, sign up for an intro class at your local gym or REI. There you will meet others who are interested in starting, and you may be able to get a group together.
Don’t worry too much about climbing with people who are better than you are at the beginning at least. You’ll learn a lot and learn quickly. Most climbers are just excited to have another person they can add to their shortlist of partners (we all just want someone to belay us!). We all started somewhere! Watch others to learn what works for them, and don’t be afraid to fail (or fall- the safe way).