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Solo, Part IV: Alexander Huber

Alexander Huber free soloing the Hasse Brandler Direttissima on Cima Grande, Dolomites. [Photo] Alexander Huber collection

Soloing is often described as the most pure and dangerous form of climbing. For all of us, testing the limit of what’s comfortable, whether that’s scrambling up 5.3 terrain or spending fifty days on a big wall alone, is an unparalleled mental and physical exploration.

We at Alpinist asked the most inspiring solo climbers we know–those defining the edge of what’s humanly possible–to tell us more about their rare connection to the vertical world.

After exploring the minds of rock master Alex Honnold, big wall diva Silvia Vidal, and ice climber Guy Lacelle, we ask Alexander Huber what it takes to free solo the some of the most exposed and extreme routes–up to 5.14a–without protection. Discover how Alex got started and how he contemplates free soloing today.

1. Please tell us a little bit about yourself.

In the Bavarian town of Trostberg, in 1968, I was born into a family familiar with climbing. My brother Thomas and I began climbing together seriously in 1983, and since then we have focused on many different genres of climbing.

2. How did you become a professional climber?

In 1997 I finished my studies, and I was working as a physicist in the Institute of Theoretical Meteorology in Munich. Additionally I continued to give slide shows about climbing all over Europe. The slide shows were such a success that I finally decided to stop working as a physicist to become a professional speaker and climber.

3. What is your perspective on free soloing, and how did you get into it?

Free soloing is too forbidding for it to ever become popular. It is an activity for those with a precise knowledge of their own ability.

I did my first solo climbs when I was about 22 years old. When I was studying in Munich, I couldn’t always find climbing partners, so I went to the mountains alone to do classic multipitch routes, most of them 5.9. Only after many years of experience on wild climbs did I feel ready for my dream: to free solo a hard, exposed and big alpine face.

4. Please list your most notable free solo ascents. Why is each special for you?

Brandler-Hasse Direttissima (5.12a, 500m), north face of Cima Grande (2999m), Dolomites, Italy

Dent du Geant (5.10d, 250m), south face of Mont Blanc (4013m), France

Kommunist (5.14a, 22m), Schleierwasserfall, Wilder Kaiser, Tyrol, Austria

Mescalito (5.13a, 20m) Karlstein, Bavaria, Germany

My biggest was definitely the Direttissima, my most difficult Kommunist. But the scariest free solo was Mescalito: it has a technically super-hard crux move in a very exposed position. The route is not very long, but it starts some 50 meters above the ground, so the exposure feels like a multipitch climb.

Alexander Huber free soloing the 250m South Face (5.10d) of Dent du Geant, Mont Blanc (4013m), France. [Photo] Alexander Huber collection

5. How do you decide where and what you will free solo?

I free solo any kind of terrain–vertical icefalls as well as hard sport climbing and multipitch routes. But a route has to catch my interest somehow. Like the Direttissima: to me the idea, to climb through such an overhanging 500-meter face, had been so challenging that I couldn’t resist giving it a chance…

6. What is free soloing like? How does it affect your life?

Free soloing makes me feel satisfied. It’s one way to reach the state of happiness. And its intensity creates the strongest possible memories. My experiences free soloing make my life colorful like nothing else.

Huber free soloing Aqualung (5.12d) sportclimbing route, Schleierwasserfall, Tyrol, Austria.

[Photo] Alexander Huber collection

When free soloing, my whole thinking is focused on nothing besides the climbing. The world is concentrated, and only the few square inches of the next hold matter. I control the fear of falling through self confidence, which makes it possible for fear to heighten concentration, not cause any nervousness. Your life is the highest possible stake, so the outcome is more intense than with any other kind of climbing.

7. Why do you wear a helmet to free solo climbs such as the Brandler-Hasse and the south face of the Dent du Geant? What use does it have?

In case a rock hits my head. Rockfall is a kind of danger that you cannot control, so I use a helmet. I also wear a helmet on any alpine climb that has significant rockfall danger.

Alexander Huber free soloing Opportunist (5.13d) sportclimbing route, Schleierwasserfall, Tyrol, Austria. [Photo] Alexander Huber collection

8. The rock in the Dolomites is quite friable. Don’t you feel that you are stacking up the odds when free soloing on such rock?

As the rock on the Direttissima is friable, I was forced to avoid many questionable holds and instead use many small but solid holds. This made the route harder than its normal grade. Even more, I had to climb three consecutive overhanging pitches in a row, with no rests, since that section is protected by hanging belays. This made the route significantly harder than its guidebook grade, 5.12a.

9. How do you prepare for a major free solo?

The most important thing is self confidence. I try to judge myself, and when I come to the result that I can control the difficulties then this results in the necessary self confidence. I do not need any special meditation to concentrate–the experience is so intense that you automatically concentrate 100 percent.

10. Free soloing Kommunist (5.14a) raised the bar for free soloing. How did you train for this route? How did you know you were not going to fall?

The crux of Kommunist is 10 meters above the ground. It’s important to me to explain that I didn’t use any fall protection like crash pads or fire brigade rescue equipment. This would reduce the climb to a highball boulder problem, in which a fall is scary but still an option…

I worked on the route until the moment I could perfectly control it under good conditions. I was convinced I wouldn’t fall, but like anything in life, you never know 100 percent. This sliver of potential danger is the essence of alpinism and climbing.

11. When free soloing, have you ever dealt with fear, doubt or other negative thoughts?

Up to now, I’ve kept everything under control: no scary moments, no negative feelings.

12. Do you intend to push the limit even higher?

Not in sport climbing. To control 8b+ [5.14a] high above the ground in a free-solo situation is the limit of what I can control.

13. Have your free solo climbs made you a better climber?

No. It’s no help for regular climbing–the movement is so controlled. Having the same focus on a regular climb would decrease my speed.

14. Do you feel that you are defying death on free solo climbs?

I love my life, so I defeat it always with both my hands and my legs (that’s a German saying). But since I love my life, I want to make it colorful and rich. I only free solo when I am convinced that I can control it.

Alex Huber free soloing. [Photo] Alexander Huber collection

15. Has free soloing changed you as a person?

To say that it has changed my life would be an overstatement.

16. What would you like to say to young climbers who look up to you?

If you decide free soloing is for you, then be sure that you do it only for yourself, not because you believe others would think it’s cool.