The You Tube clip is 55 seconds long. In it, a petite lithe man clad in bright yellow spandex makes his way across a vertical rock overhang 500m above sea level. In a subsequent clip you’ll watch him reach the edge of the overhang, pause for a brief moment before he removes his feet and one hand from their grip on the smooth rock. Hanging now by just one hand, no safety equipment attached, his focus sharpens and he is in a zone where nothing else exists but this moment, a moment petrifying to onlookers but liberating to him.
Meet Matt Bush, free solo climber, speaker and dreamer. On a regular basis Matt heads out and climbs mountains and rocks without the use of ropes or safety equipment.
Matt Bush has been doing this for 8 years, inspired by the baboons on the farm in Montagu on which he once lived, freely climbing rocks.
“They were strong, fearless and uninhibited. On my first solo climb a troop of baboons were climbing above me on the rock. It was a wild moment”
Much like the name suggests free solo climbing is a solidary sport practiced by a small group of people worldwide. And while they may share tips and knowledge, it is a personal pursuit. They practice in meditative solitude, perfecting the art of scaling rocks and mountains, free of any safety gear or ropes.
“I learn a lot from watching other soloists. Every soloist has his or her own way. Yet, I have spent a lot of time soloing alone and developing my own style. For me it’s a personal pursuit and I would say that I follow my own heart and intuition.”
Preparing for a solo climb requires more than just logging hours in a gym or in nature.
“My preparation involves mental and physical training. It’s important that I strengthen my body but also my mind. I train to develop the technical skills, endurance, strength, power, flexibility and agility. Mental conditioning is another essential part of the process. I use a combination of autogenic training and visualisation”
When Matt Bush was younger and starting out, he followed a strict training routine, focussing on developing the physical condition for climbing.
“I trained cross modality 5 times a week and for long hours. My training included weights, yoga, indoor climbing, campus boarding, tight rope walking, cycling and running”
But now his focus is centred on the fun and enjoyment of the climb.
“It’s more about the experience than the results. When I am having fun, the results come naturally. The best training for me is to simply go climbing”
His diet has also undergone the shift from strict and carefully measured to more balanced.
“I try to eat healthy but allow myself the “cheat” here and there. I would say I eat 80% healthy with 20% variation”
This shift may be a result of experience, of realising that to conquer literal mountains; a strong mind comes above a strong body.
“For me it’s 90% mental and 10% physical. The mind controls the body. Where the mind goes, the body follows. The 10% physical is also very important. I must have the right physical condition but it’s mostly in the mind”.
Over time, Matt has learnt to control his mind the same way one does through meditation; Focusing on the rhythm of his breath and the moment.
“It’s important that my mind is clear and present when I solo. Sometimes it’s not and I can feel the difference. But when I am focussed and I’m climbing in the moment it’s easy and everything feels just right. Climbing is my form of meditation. I do some exercises to connect my mind and body for challenging solos. This includes soloing routes that are easy for me. I can really focus on being still while moving and channelling my breath into the movement”.
He used that mental focus to get back up and successfully complete South Africa’s most difficult route. A route he had just attempted and fallen 9m from.
“I fell from 9m attempting to climb South Africa’s most difficult route without a rope. It happened very quickly. I had to make a dynamic leap to catch a hold and my body swung out from the rock. I slipped off and hit the ground very quickly. I rolled to disperse the impact force. I was not injured nor did I have a scratch on my body. I got up and thought to myself, either I could walk away and never attempt the climb or get up and give it another go. I decided to go for it again. I talked positively to myself and focussed on the goal rather than the failure. I succeeded on my second attempt. It was a great feeling for me. I overcome a potentially career ending fall and climbed South Africa’s most difficult route without ropes”
It’s that resilience that has enabled Matt to accomplish two dreams – become a free climber and a speaker.
“The biggest obstacle to overcome has not been external conditions but rather myself. This is the greatest mountain to climb. Conquest of self is not an easy task and it’s a lifelong process. I overcame myself by having a vision for my life, standing up for it and not letting anything get in the way of my dream. I refused to let failure or anything stop me. I took some big knocks but decided to always look at the situation positively”.
What separates free climbers from other athletes is, according to Matt, their strong minds and ability to overcome fear.
“I believe free climbers have very strong minds. I think what makes a free climber different to other athletes is the ability to control fear”.
Not to say that they do not feel fear, but rather they can understand when it is positive and when it becomes preventative.
“I do feel the fear but I have learned to control it. It’s one thing to have fear but another when fear has you. I don’t let the fear stop me from achieving my goal. Through repeatedly exposing myself to height I have learned to control my physiological response. I have broken through many fear barriers. On the wall I have experienced gale force winds, rock breaking, wet rock, raptor attacks and snakes. Each experience has naturally triggered fear within me. This type of fear is a natural response to danger. However it’s very important to control the fear because when it gets out of control that’s the real threat. A certain amount of fear is healthy and adaptive. It produces adrenaline, which naturally sharpens the senses for action. But too much fear can be very dangerous. It can shut the body down. Controlling fear has much to do with a positive mind-set, breathing and staying calm no matter what happens”.
“It’s one thing to have fear but another when fear has you”
While Matt may have conquered his fear, he is sensitive to the fact that watching him free climb and, what may appear to be testing fate, is hard for his family.
“I think it’s been a big challenge for my family and friends to accept that soloing is part of my purpose. But they see that I am not reckless and that each solo is a calculated and controlled process. I think they have come to understand my love for soloing. I can imagine that it must be difficult for my parents not to feel responsible for my safety. Yet, I have shared some of my journey with my family and friends and they have given me positive support for which I am eternally grateful. My wife, Raphaela supports me 100%. She has even been out there filming and photographing me on solo climbs. She knows how much I love climbing and encourages me to pursue my dreams”.
If you look closely enough at the mountains of Cape Town, you may spot Matt Bush perched on a rock or clinging onto an overhang attempting another climb. Not for the fame, risk taking, adrenaline, or thrill.
To Matt Bush, free climbing is a calm, controlled and calculated experience. It is an art form. And he is an artist.
All images courtesy Matt Bush.
Follow Matt on instagram for more adventures at height @mattclimber