The hold, more of a wrinkle in the rock really, is as deep as a fingernail. It’s wide enough for five fingertips to be jammed together, three from his left hand, two from his right. As he dangles there, relying on five half-fingertips – the ground waiting 25m below, the valley floor 100m below that and his right foot resting on a smudge of support – his left foot creeps out sideways, blindly seeking a vital hold hidden under a rocky lip. It’s a critical, committing move. There’s no rope. Just the climber pressed into the smooth brown rock. Some birds. Sun. Air. And in this particular position, not much of a second chance. As he levers off his left foot and reaches up for a solid left-hand hold, Matt Bush has never felt freer.
His mind is as empty as it can be, all things considered. It feels like his entire consciousness has been distilled down to this, a total focus on inhabiting the now. Bush climbs with complete faith in his body’s abilities, and why not. He’s as supple as a reed and as strong as steel.
In training, he does one-arm pull-ups hanging from a single finger. But the yoga mats and gym apparatus are far away now. The goal here is to ascend with irresistible rhythm, to almost float up the wall, if that were possible. Known as the Activist, this climb in Montagu, South Africa is very different to the big walls made famous by free soloists overseas, but it is demanding enough that when Matt Bush sends it, it joins his collection of some of the most extreme solos ever completed.
Not that gradings hold much interest for Bush. For one thing, since a soloist can end up paying the ultimate price whether he’s 15m or 1,015m off the deck, grades offer only a certain amount of insight into a climber’s mastery of mind and body. For another, despite the world-class numbers that Bush has posted, due recognition seems to have passed him by as the climbing world fixates on the sponsors’ chosen few. But mostly it is Bush’s free spirit that inspires his indifference.
“We can play with measurements in soccer or rugby or cricket because we create the rules,” says Bush. “But nature has its own rules. How do you measure nature? And why the need to quantify and qualify – for one’s ego or satisfaction? To gauge personal progress? It seems to have less and less relevance for me. A greater motivation is my love for what I do. How does one measure the free solo experience, anyway? It’s free. It’s free solo. It doesn’t have a border or boundary or barrier.”
Bush’s first taste of the outer edges of human experience came early, when as a pre-schooler he was plucked semi-conscious from the bottom of a swimming pool by an alert child-minder. But the origins of his journey to soloing were more mundane: dominating the South African competitive climbing scene for five years straight sharpened his appetite for a new test, and the elemental purity of free solo spoke to his soul. “The challenge, to see if they can do it – that’s always the main motivating factor,” says SA mountaineering and BASE-jumping pioneer Andy de Klerk of the allure of free soloing. “To see if they can push through their own fears and boundaries to do something that’s unprotected and unsupported. Matt is very bold. He’s got a very cool head. He’s comfortable stepping out of the comfort zone and taking risks others wouldn’t.”
De Klerk maintains that soloing always looks worse than it is. “On film, it looks horrendous,” he says. “It looks like you’re about to fall off and get killed at any point. That’s the macabre attraction for the audience. But when you’re soloing, it’s quite different. The soloist is in the zone and doesn’t feel out of control. You know exactly what’s going on.” Maybe, but the epic un-roped moves that Bush produces – like a bat hang from a yawning overhang or a human flag on a Table Mountain cliff face 1,000m above sea level – cannot be contemplated without being haunted by what ifs. What if his foothold loosens? What if his grip slips while his body is extended out over the void? The consequences are obvious and terrifying.
“What separates soloists from everyone else?” asks Bush rhetorically. “Courage. Soloists have courage to go where most people say they shouldn’t go, and the courage to push on the margins of their experience and to reach out for something unseen. Why should I get pulled into other people’s fear around what I do? It’s not my fear. It’s often people’s own fears of death being projected into my space.“One mistake, you die?” he says incredulously, his eyes widening as he questions the hand wringing that sometimes dogs what he does.
“I’ve made mistakes. I haven’t died. I’ve gone off balance and then reversed my moves or climbed myself out. When your skills are there, you have margins to work with, more than those who don’t climb would understand. The popular perception is one mistake and you die, but it’s not quite like that. If I misjudge the sequence of moves, I can often re-correct. If my hand pops, I can put it back on the wall. Free solo is a language. When you climb, you speak it. If you don’t speak it, you don’t understand it. It’s that simple.”
Bush admits, however, that some mistakes weigh heavier on a soloist’s mind than others. The most technically difficult line he ever soloed, Route by the River, ended prematurely after he forced a jump and his hand hit the hold, then popped out. Even Bush was surprised to walk away from a 9m fall, albeit into river sand, utterly unscathed. He took a half-hour breather and then, confident that he was now much more focused (and if not, that he could survive another fall), got back up on the route and nailed it.
His experience 150m up Cogman’s Buttress, also in Montagu, was different. His left hand unexpectedly skidded out of a damp and sloping hold, swinging his body away from the face. “I quickly pulled myself back in and got solid again,” says Bush, “and I re-focused so quickly after that moment. But later that experience was one that made me question it all.”
To watch Matt Bush on a boulder in the Cederberg is to see the power and grace of an elite climber at work. In fact, without that proximity it’s impossible to appreciate how ridiculously hard these feats of anti-gravity can be. Picture this: Bush clings to a massive boulder’s ochre underbelly, using the enormous prehensile strength in his fingers and toes to stay attached to the overhang as he manoeuvres into position to launch an ambitious ‘dyno’, a dynamic leap in which all four points of contact leave the rock. From this incredibly awkward launching point, Bush rockets upwards and outwards at a 30° angle, fully extended like a backstroker exploding out of the starting blocks, aiming for a hold he cannot see, which he then somehow grabs single-handed, controls his body’s pendulum-like momentum and finally boosts himself up and over to the boulder’s crest. It is a phenomenal display of athleticism and spatial awareness.
It’s also a good marker of Bush’s free solo pedigree. “The routes that I’ve soloed would be considered by soloists generally as routes you wouldn’t solo,” he says. “You wouldn’t solo cave lines that are so steep and overhanging with big dynamic moves and jumps. They would see that as a little bit reckless. But that’s my natural style – not reckless, but dynamic and explosive.”
Sylvain Burki, one of South Africa’s most accomplished highliners and stunt riggers, identifies method in the apparent madness. “Matt is very controlled and methodical, working out all the moves with a rope beforehand,” he says. “The moment you have consequence, you start worrying instead of concentrating on getting to the next hold. You can’t let your thoughts interfere with what you have to do to stay alive. You need to be confident in your abilities: that you’ve climbed it before, that you know the holds are good, and that you will execute the moves perfectly.”
Apart from obsessively pre-climbing a solo project first with ropes, assessing the risks and learning the movements by heart, Bush’s main safety check is an abstract one. “Being truthful about how I feel is a big rule for me,” he says. “It’s not ‘Do I think I’m ready for this?’ but ‘Do I feel ready for this?’ If I’m thinking I’m ready but feeling another way inside, I’m going to have an epic battle with those emotions on the wall.”
The only variables that Bush doesn’t control are the natural ones. He’s dealt with rising winds and territorial birds before, but brittle rock remains a peril. More often, it is the battle within that must be won – and a soloist’s greatest test always lies in his ability to silence the internal chattering of doubt. “There are ways of centring oneself when the mind starts to run away and starts a catastrophic dialogue,” says Bush. “The first is breathing correctly in order to relax the body. The second is rewiring the mental dialogue around positive self-talk.”
In a sport with so few objective yardsticks, it seems inevitable that the rewards of free solo should be intensely personal. For Bush, facing the fear of his own mortality is the key that has unlocked a life to be lived more fully. “If there is this existential vacuum which can be filled with all sorts of things,” he says, “I fill it with these experiences in nature because they are so fulfilling for me. Going where I haven’t gone before, I feel like the pioneer of my own potential. I feel inspired to be on that journey. Realising it’s just dot dot dot…”