It’s one thing climbing over 1,800 feet up a vertical rock face, it’s another thing altogether to do it without the use of safety ropes — at speed.
In September, Dani Arnold scaled the imposing Cima Grande wall in the Dolomites mountain range, Italy, with nothing but his bare hands and a bag of chalk.
He did so in a record-breaking time of 46 minutes, 30 seconds, obliterating the previous record by almost 20 minutes.
“It’s very much a head game. All the skills, like the climbing technique and all the endurance, these are basic for me,” the 35-year-old Arnold told CNN Sport, from his home in Switzerland, as he reflected on his love of free soloing (climbing without ropes).
“There are so many very strong climbers around but having these normal climbing skills whilst also having a very clear mind and feeling safe without a rope, that’s a bit like a joker [card] or a jackpot.”
Climbing has always played an important part in Arnold’s life. Growing up in the Swiss mountains he would spend his days inadvertently honing his skills because, as he put it, “there was nothing else to do.”
As his skills developed, the challenges intensified as Arnold began to feel increasingly comfortable hanging off the steepest of rock faces, albeit with ropes attached and a support team.
It was not until he completed his first free solo while ice climbing that he realized the intense thrill that comes with the most dangerous of sports.
Free soloing entered the public’s consciousness after American climber Alex Honnold scaled the Californian granite monolith El Capitan without any ropes, an achievement immortalized in a breathtaking BAFTA-winning National Geographic documentary “Free Solo,” which won Best Documentary at this year’s Oscars.
“I’m very in the moment,” Arnold said, explaining how he manages to stay calm when his life is at risk.
“I know what would happen if I make any mistakes but it’s not […] fear or something like that. I’m just very, very concentrated. I know what I do. So it’s not comparable with anything.”
It’s an answer that gives his family and friends little comfort when he sets off on such perilous adventures and Arnold admits that neither his parents or wife enjoy what he does, though they have come to appreciate why he takes such risks.
“They realized that this is something very important to me,” he said. “They see how many times I train for this stuff […] I don’t go if I have a bad feeling or something like that.”
Climbing at speed while free soloing adds an extra layer of peril that pushes Arnold to his absolute limit.
The natural handgrips and footholds that he uses to pull himself up the rock face are often only a matter of inches but, when you’re jumping between them at pace, you lose a certain amount of precision.
“[There is] a big balance between being fast and being safe. That’s quite a small line, I would say,” he added.
According to the 35-year-old climber, minimizing risk is all about preparation.
Before setting off on the Cima Grande, Arnold climbed the exact same route (the 1,800 feet Comici-Dimai route) three times and felt mentally prepared for the challenge ahead.
However, his record-breaking attempt was the first time he climbed the route without safety ropes.
“I spend 200 days per year somewhere in the mountains, of course not always without ropes, but every day is a bit of preparation and training.”
Despite all the preparation, climbing can always throw up the unexpected.
During his ascent, at around 650 feet in the air, Arnold encountered a team of British climbers who were attempting the same route he was — but with the aid of ropes.
Fortunately, the three men did their best to let him through on the perilous ledges and Arnold took pictures with them once they eventually caught up with him at the top.
Once at the summit, Arnold said the emotion was “indescribable” but later reflected that the overriding feeling was one of exhaustion.
The final 10 minutes of the challenge were on flatter terrain which meant he was able to sprint to the finish line, pushing the climber to his physical limits.
“It’s just endurance and I’m not so good in endurance so when I reached the top I was super exhausted,” he said.
“I was just happy to stop and that the Cima Grande was not higher.”
Just weeks before going up Cima Grande at speed, the climbing fanatic had just finished a seven-week adventure in Pakistan where he climbed Broad Peak, the world’s 12th highest mountain at over 26,000 feet.
Despite losing weight during the expedition, Arnold was “proud” to have been fit enough to climb Cima Grande.
“I am a bit tired, not physically, but I feel my head is a bit like ‘I need a bit of rest,'” he said, before revealing he would certainly be taking on a new challenge in the future, possibly ice climbing in Scotland.
However, despite holding speed records for four of Europe’s six major north faces, he has no desire to complete the set.
One of the remaining climbs, the Eiger north face in Switzerland, is simply too dangerous for Arnold to try again having seen his previous record beaten by six minutes.
“Climbing is so, so cool and there are so many mountains around and just to focus on the Eiger north face, I’m not so interested in that,” Arnold admitted.
“It’s super dangerous if you feel pressure […] I don’t want to do that again.”