Chunks of ice hurtled down the headwall. The rime, which coated the top of Fitz Roy like a cap, was melting in the midday sun. A direct hit would be enough to pluck Jim Reynolds off the wall. Climbing free solo—with only his rock shoes, a chalk bag, and a pack—he veered off route, sidestepping the immediate danger, and continued climbing into unknown terrain on the adjacent rock face. A few hundred feet later, at 3:13 p.m. on March 21, the 25-year-old from Weaverville, California, reached the summit of Patagonia’s iconic peak. But the climbing for Reynolds was only halfway over. Instead of rappelling the granite monolith, the usual method of descent, he was about to do the inconceivable, something that had never been done before. He was going to free solo down-climb the entire 5,000-foot spire.
“By the time I got down to the lower slabs, they were soaking wet,” says Reynolds. “Imagine what a nightmare it was, down climbing in the dark with a dim headlamp, on wet, insecure slabs, not knowing exactly where the route went. And that was probably after 12 or 13 hours of non-stop movement.”
You may recognize Jim Reynolds as the man who partnered with Brad Gobright in 2017 to break the speed record on El Capitan's Nose route. But his free solo ascent and descent of Afanassieff (5.10c) on Fitz Roy, which might be the longest free solo ever, has launched him to the next level. The climb itself is huge, and no one has ever down-soloed anything of this caliber. “It would take a competent team of two, pitching it out, two days to do that climb,” says Ted Hesser, a climber and photographer who also summited Fitz Roy this season. “To commit to something like that, free solo, is so bold because there’s so much terrain, and it’s very alpine in nature—there’s loose rock, snow, ice, and variable conditions. It makes my stomach drop.”
To put this ascent into perspective, when Alex Honnold completed his ground-breaking free solo of El Capitan’s Freerider (5.13a) in Yosemite, he climbed 3,000 feet in 3 hours, 56 minutes. Including the down climb, Reynolds free soloed 10,000 vertical feet in 15 and a half hours. While Afanassieff is technically easier than Freerider, it’s on a remote alpine peak with serious objective hazards and route-finding challenges. Freerider, in comparison, is a well-traveled route with clean rock in one of the busiest national parks in the U.S.
Before his free solo of Freerider, Honnold spent countless hours on a rope, rehearsing and memorizing every hand hold, foot hold, and move on the route. Reynolds, on the other hand, climbed Afanassieff onsight, meaning he had never climbed the route before (except for the first third, during an aborted free-solo attempt the week prior, when it didn’t “feel right”) and had no prior knowledge of the sequences of moves. To be clear, both feats are ridiculous—possibly insane—but Honnold's climb is maybe the only other exploit available to place what Reynolds has just pulled off in its proper context.
Reynolds is on the Yosemite Search and Rescue team (YOSAR). He knows the risks of climbing firsthand. “Mountains are beautiful, but they’re brutal as well,” he told National Geographic. “I have seen the consequences of what you look like when you fall 1,000 feet to ground. Those images of death are a part of me.”
In the weeks leading up to his Fitz Roy solo, Reynolds also onsight free soloed—up and down—two other Patagonian peaks. On March 9, he free soloed up Filo Oeste (5.11a) on the West Ridge of Aguja Rafael Juarez, and then free soloed down the Anglo-Americana (5.11b) for approximately 4,600 feet of climbing in total. Only two days later, he free soloed up Chiaro di Luna (5.11a) on Aguja Saint-Exupery, and then free soloed down the chossy Kearney-Harrington (5.10b) on the tower’s North Face, approximately 3,800 feet of climbing.
Reynolds didn’t head to Patagonia this season, his first time there, with the intention of climbing ropeless and alone. He began the trip climbing with partners as a roped team, the way most people ascend the region's large granite peaks. “I really enjoyed those experiences, but each time, I felt like I wasn’t able to express who I was as a climber,” he says. “And I didn’t really know what that meant.”
The answer for him was free soloing—not just up, but back down as well, in the purest style of climbing he was capable of. For Reynolds, free soloing is deeply personal, not something to be glorified nor condemned. Like an echo of Dean Potter, he describes climbing as a form of art, and to him, free soloing is pursuing that art to its highest level. “Maybe you climb every pitch ropeless, but is it a true free solo if you rappel?” he says. “The fact that there’s a question doesn’t mean that it’s not a free solo, it just implies that there’s a higher level of style possible.” He’s quick to add: “It’s not like I did it in the highest standard possible—I still used climbing shoes and a chalk bag, so there’s still a greater style out there for someone else.”
He carried a rack of gear for protection and a thin rope he could use to rappel on his free solos of Rafael Juarez and Fitz Roy (but he left his pack at the base of the Chiaro di Luna). He planned to down climb the routes, he says, but that wasn’t his expectation. “The expectation was to do whatever made the most sense in the moment and to have options,” he says. “You want to have as many options as you can to keep your safety margins as wide as possible so that if anything goes wrong, you’re not like, Oh, this one small mistake means I’m going to die up here.”
Climbing, especially free soloing, often gets a bad rap as a selfish and solitary pursuit. But Reynolds doesn’t see it that way. To him, climbing is about the community—people supporting each other, learning from each other, and drawing inspiration from one another. “Without that, I don’t think any of these solos would have been possible,” he says. He mentions piggybacking off of Marc-André Leclerc and Brette Harrington who both free soloed Chiaro di Luna, and Potter, the only other climber known to have free soloed Fitz Roy, but taking those accomplishments further (all three of those climbers rappelled).
“They showed me what was possible, and I was able to envision this next style,” he says. “We’re standing on the shoulders of those who came before us, and we’re paving a path for those who come after us. It’s not something we’re doing alone.”