Free climbers are among the most technically impressive climbers on the planet. Taking on some of the most difficult grades in the world, these athletes are truly to be admired for their skill and sheer determination.
When you think of free climbing, you probably think of a solo climber scaling a sheer granite face in Yosemite without any ropes or safety equipment. However, not all free climbing is as gnarly and risky as this.
There is a difference between free-soloing and free climbing. Free-soloing is climbing without any use of ropes, harnesses or safety equipment. Unlike bouldering, free climbing is usually done at heights where a fall would mean instant death.
Meanwhile free climbing does involves ropes and safety equipment but only as protection from falling, rather than an aid to help you progress the climb.
We’ve included both a mix of free-solo climbers and free climbers in this list of inspirational men and women.
Alex Honnold is without a doubt the best free climber in the world. Aged just 31 years old, he has made a huge name for himself worldwide for scaling some of the world’s toughest faces without any safety equipment in record time.
In 2008, he became the first climber to free-solo the infamous Half Dome in Yosemite National Park alone. Since then he has speed climbed the Yosemite Triple Crown - Mount Watkins, The Nose and the northwest face of the Half Dome - in a mere 18 hours and 50 minutes. Just watching Honnold climb makes your palms sweat.
Check out the video above from The North Face showing Honnold taking on El Sendero Luminoso in Mexico, arguably the most difficult rope-less climb in history.
Tommy Caldwell is one of the top free climbers in the world. He’s known for a number of ascents including the first free climb ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite with Kevin Jorgeson. He’s also free-climbed six other El Capitan routes.
Just to add intrigue to his character, Caldwell was once captured and held hostage in Kyrgyzstan by rebel soldiers, until he pushed one of his captors off a cliff and his group escaped. Oh and he’s only got nine fingers because he sawed one off by accident with a table saw. Nuts.
Steph Davis is one of the the world’s most experienced free-solo climbers. She is the first woman to have solo climbed a 5.11 route as well as the first woman to free climb the Salathė Wall on El Capitan and second woman to free climb El Capitan in one day.
She spent years living out of her car and eventually became a sponsored climber. Davis was married to Dean Potter, another famous free-solo climber, and later Mario Richard. Both sadly died in wingsuiting accidents. Davis is also enjoys yoga and is a vegan activist.
Alongside Tommy Caldwell, Kevin Jorgeson’s most famous ascent is free climbing the Dawn Wall of El Capitan for the very first time. As one of the most difficult big-wall climbs in the world, it was a feat many thought impossible. He’s been climbing since the age of 10 and has long been driven by the thought of going where no one has gone before.
Since the 2015 Dawn Wall climb, Jorgeson has pursued climbing projects all over the world. When he’s not climbing, he is working with charity The Boys and Girls Club which aids the refugee crisis in Greece.
Catherine Destivelle is a legend among female free climbers. She is one of those climbers that naturally excels at free-soloing. The Frenchwoman learnt to boulder in Fontainebleau and became an excellent sport climber before branching into free-soloing.
She is known for soloing Spain’s infamous El Puro in 1985 and Devils Tower in Wyoming, USA in 1992. That same year Destivelle became the first woman to complete a solo ascent of the north face of the Eiger.
Alain Robert is known as the ‘French Spiderman’ because he spends his time scaling the world’s tallest skyscrapers without ropes or harnesses, including the Sydney Opera House in Australia, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Robert started climbing at the age of 11 when he forgot his house keys and decided to climb his parents’ seven-storey building to get in. Most of his attempts are illegal, so Robert will arrive early in the morning to climb his building of choice.
23 year-old Czech lad Adam Ondra is one of the best boulderers and sport climbers in the world. He’s been smashing it in the World Championships over the past few years, while also excelling as a free climber. He became the second person (after Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson) to free climb the Dawn Wall in November 2016, the hardest multi-pitch climb in the world. We know there are big things still to come from this young dude.
We couldn’t write this list without including the legendary Dean Potter. He is probably the world’s most famous free climber, tackling some of the toughest routes on the planet. He’s famous for soloing a number of faces in Yosemite and Patagonia, including a major section of El Capitan. Potter is said to have taken up BASE jumping so he could climb even tougher free-solo routes. Sadly he died in 2015 after a BASE jumping accident in Yosemite.