It’s 10:30 a.m. on a sunny fall day in Boulder, Colorado, and Brad Gobright has just started up the dirt trail toward the Naked Edge, a 5.11b that is one of America’s classic trad climbs and the most famous route in Eldorado Canyon. He hikes in his climbing shoes and carries little more than a chalk bag—not even a rope or harness—when suddenly Jere Burrell stops him. Burrell, a wiry 34-year-old Eldo regular and rock-climbing guide, is belaying a friend from the trail.
“What’s your name, dude?” Burrell asks.
“Oh. I think I saw you solo this over here the other day,” Burrell says, pointing toward a vertical, north-facing 5.12c route on the other side of the canyon known as Hairstyles and Attitudes. No one in Eldo’s storied history had climbed it without a rope until Gobright did on October 25.
“Yeah,” Gobright confirms shyly—he was the climber Burrell saw.
Gobright, who is 27, later explains that he planned the Hairstyles first ascent for more than a year, rope-soloing the route at least 50 times to perfect each move. Whereas Gobright does most of his climbing for fun, free soloing Hairstyles served a different purpose. “It’s not like I just want to go up there and climb,” he says. “I want to challenge myself mentally and know that I’m secure enough and confident enough and strong enough to do it. It takes 100 percent confidence.”
Earlier in October, two weeks prior to his pioneering ascent, Gobright climbed to the base of Hairstyles but backed off “when the butterflies weren’t going away.” He downclimbed back to the road. But on the morning of October 25, finally feeling confident about the route, he called Boulder-based climber and filmmaker Cedar Wright, who is making a movie about Gobright with fellow filmmaker Taylor Keating. “If you guys want this footage, you better come out because I’m going to do it today,” Gobright said. He proceeded to send the route—climbing it without stopping—despite a heartstopping moment halfway up, 350 feet off the ground, when he appeared to lose his balance and teeter outward from the wall. (Falling from that height would have meant certain death.)
Wright, a longtime climbing partner of big-wall free-soloist Alex Honnold, has seen some crazy feats on rock walls. Last year he filmed Honnold’s free solo of Mexico’s sheer 2,500-foot-long El Sendero Luminoso (5.12d), which the North Face said at the time “could be the most difficult rope-less climb in history.” But Gobright scaling Hairstyles and Attitudes without a rope was something else, Wright says. “It’s by far the raddest and scariest thing I’ve ever shot.”
Back at Eldorado, Burrell wishes Gobright luck on the Naked Edge, a sharp arête that Gobright has soloed roughly 20 times, including the previous afternoon. A hundred feet up the trail, Gobright says softly, “That happens all the time. People don’t know my name, but they’ll kind of say, ‘Hey, was that you on so-and-so the other day?’ And I’ll be like, ‘Yeah, probably.’”
Gobright is 5’7’’ with tussled black hair, the taut upper-body muscles of someone who puts his life into climbing, and an unassuming demeanor that fits his profile. He was born and raised in Orange County, California, started climbing in a gym when he was seven, and became consumed by rock climbing in high school. In 2008, at age 20, he dropped out of community college, moved to Yosemite, and began sleeping in the boulders above Camp 4. He free soloed the 800-foot Rostrum (5.11c) in 2012—his first big solo, and, coincidentally, Honnold's first big solo five years earlier—and projected significant trad routes around the West, including four 5.14a’s.
These days he works as a busboy at the St. Julien Hotel & Spa in Boulder, drives a 1994 Honda Civic, and counts grocery-store donuts among his diet staples. He lives with five roommates in a rented house in Boulder and climbs every day—often on rock in the morning and in the gym in the afternoon. Sponsors send him free ropes and shoes, but that's about it. “I’m a dirtbag,” Gobright says. Professional climber Mason Earle, a friend of Gobright’s, confirms that much: “He’s definitely gotten caught swiping food off tables in Yosemite that people have finished eating.”
Nevertheless, over the past five years, largely due to his free solos, Gobright has attracted a rare following—more by word of mouth than through social media and sponsorships—among core climbers that has some wondering whether they are watching a much bigger ascent than they realize. “Plenty of dirtbags can scrape their way up a 5.11, but Brad’s on the cutting edge of the disciplines he climbs,” Earle says. “You compare his tick list with a lot of big-name climbers in the country and they would be impressed—and maybe even feel light-duty.”
Wright is more blunt: “The only other guy soloing like this in the U.S. is Honnold.”
Gobright has heard that comparison before. He has also climbed with Honnold in Yosemite and Squamish, British Columbia. They completed a single 15-hour free climb of the Heart Route on El Capitan last summer. “I’m no Alex Honnold,” Gobright says, as if to snuff the comparison. “The stuff that he does I would never consider doing.” Gobright isn’t just talking about the difference in scale between their free solos (Honnold’s are typically much larger), but also about their mental makeup. “Some of the moves on the routes Honnold has soloed will feel insecure for me no matter how strong I’m climbing,” Gobright says. “He’s got more confidence in his climbing than I do. He knows his abilities a little better than I do.”
Earlier this year, inspired in part by Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson’s Dawn Wall climb, Gobright joined Earle on a first free ascent up the 26-pitch Heart Route (5.13b). It took them six days (Gobright completed every move except for a V10 that both he and Earle say required longer limbs than he has) and capped a five-year project. This fall, he soloed Hairstyles and Daub Griffith (5.11c), the two hardest ropeless ascents in Eldorado’s history. The only comedown: his speed record, with Scott Bennett, on the Naked Edge fell to Jason Wells and Stefan Griebel on September 19 (Wells/Griebel’s time of 24 minutes and 29 seconds, beat Gobright/Bennett’s 24 minutes and 55 seconds*).
Despite Gobright’s low profile, his recent feats—particularly the free solos—have attracted a fair bit of attention on social media, and he doesn’t always know how to handle it. On some level he still seems conflicted about participating in a film about, of all subjects, him. After he soloed Hairstyles, he called his girlfriend, Taleen Kennedy, and said, “I really hope people don’t just think I did this because there were cameras involved.” Later, when trolls started predicting his death on Instagram, Wright recommended that Gobright stop reading their comments.
“Soloing is very occasional,” Gobright says. “It’s not this thing I’m doing all the time. I build up to it.” He says he has never been gripped, or physically worn out, during a free solo. “I’ve been scared on a rope plenty of times, but if you’re scared soloing, you’re not doing it right. You should go down.”
Strangely, Gobright is much less confident in his ability to turn climbing into his career, although he'd like to. “I don’t have what it takes, honestly,” he says, before rattling off a list of goals that includes climbing El Cap twice in a day, something only his hero, Caldwell, has done.
Honnold, notoriously difficult to impress, says Gobright “obviously has a gift for soloing” but stops short of anointing him. “He’s a really good climber, just not, like, the best climber. I think the next year or two will be a deciding period for him. If Cedar makes a good film and Brad actually picks up more sponsors, maybe he would get a lot better a lot faster” because he wouldn’t have to work as often and would have more financial support.
Honnold pauses, then adds: “He definitely has a ton of potential. But I worry about him a little.” Specifically, that he might fall. “But I’m sure people would say the same thing about me.”
Back in Eldorado on a Tuesday morning, the sun is warming up the sandstone, and Gobright is unsure whether the Naked Edge is still safe to solo. He decides to ascend the 5.8 approach and check. When he gets to the base of the arête, he stops for a minute, then downclimbs almost as fast as he went up.
“It was just a little hot, just a little less than perfect,” he says back at the trail. He turns to hike down to the road, mumbling to no one but himself, “Better safe than sorry.”
*CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the record on the Naked Edge was set in 24 hours and 29 minutes.