The edge of reason: the world’s boldest climb and the man who conquered it

Croak

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Authors: Rio Sports

Climbers love history. Dates, difficulty ratings, the names of the brave souls who did a route first. Each generation of climbers measures itself against yesterday’s best, with dreams of going one better. Advances in the sport tend to be linear and incremental, like climbing up a rock.

Occasionally, rarely, a big climbing achievement erupts into the general consciousness. A 2015 ascent of the Dawn Wall on California’s El Capitan was celebrated by no less than Barack Obama. But the public, which is busy, quickly moves on. When the Dawn Wall was climbed again last year, few noticed.

Then there are the climbs of Alex Honnold.

Yosemite Valley, where El Capitan is situated, is an epic setting for epic exploits. The valley is a magnet for the strong and bold, who spider up granite walls and leap in wingsuits from the rim. But even in this world headquarters for daredevils, certain feats have for decades remained sealed off as mere ideas, locked away in a realm of challenges too big and too scary to grapple with, almost to speak of.

In the early morning hours of 3 June 2017, Honnold, 32, walked to the base of El Capitan, touched the wall, and made the biggest idea of all a reality. He climbed from the bottom to the top of the cliff at one of its tallest points – 900m – without a harness or rope, along a route called the Freerider, just to the left of the Dawn Wall

A mistake at any point, or a failure of strength or focus or courage, or a stroke of bad luck in the form of a wet spot or a loose rock, would have sent him to the ground. Instead, after about three and a half hours, Honnold, with some of the hardest sections behind him, found himself 150m from the top, still climbing with perfect confidence and very quickly, and without fatigue or fear – as if he had somehow transcended gravity. “The final 500ft of the route was pretty much: ‘I’m done, this is easy, I’m just cruising,’” says Honnold. “It’s enjoyable to be able to climb that way.”

It was the first time that the full height of El Capitan had been climbed without a rope.

The edge of reason: the world’s boldest climb and the man who conquered it
Alex Honnold solos The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, California. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

“As one of his closest friends and an El Capitan addict myself, you would think I’d have a handle on what it would mean to free-solo the Freerider,” Tommy Caldwell, who in 2015 made the first free ascent of the Dawn Wall, wrote after Honnold’s climb. “But I don’t. No one does. Except Alex.”

At the top, Honnold melted dumbly into hugs from a film crew that had documented his ascent – friends all – and succumbed to a feeling of “overwhelming stoke”, he said. “I felt almost vulnerable in a way. I just felt emotionally wrought.”

What he did not feel was tired. “It was emotional just because it was emotional,” Honnold said. “It was not as if I was worn down. Because physically I felt great, I felt super strong. If you had teleported me back to the bottom, I would have just gone again, because I felt so good.”

Honnold had good reason for feeling relieved. Just seven months earlier, he had started the climb, got into trouble, and had to invent an escape.

For 10 years, Honnold has been picking a lonesome line where athletic exploit blends with lethal risk. The hazards of Honnold’s climbs on monolithic faces such as Yosemite’s Half Dome and Zion’s Moonlight Buttress have been both obvious to everyone, and known only to him. While El Capitan was an order-of-magnitude leap for Honnold, the climb could also be called the next logical step for him.

He has often been asked what he thinks about death. Of his hardest free-solos, Honnold said: “There’s always a point, where you can’t overpower it any more, you just have to commit to: ‘If my foot slips, I’m going to fall and die, and that’s all there is to it.’ To me that’s the level where you’re really climbing. It’s a different level, where you’ve just committed to just climbing like normal, but without a rope.”

“Climbing like normal, but without a rope”: the phrase seems to hold the essence of Honnold’s genius, or his psychological uniqueness – the thing that allows him to do what no other climber can. Like a piano star or a test pilot, his performance seems indifferent to, or heightened by, the pressures of performing.

He rehearses extensively before his biggest climbs, unlocking the subtleties of each move and committing long phrases of choreography to memory. “It’s just like a gymnast thinking about the routine and visualising every movement of their body,” he says. But the analogy falls apart unless the gymnast is performing with the knowledge that a single mistake would be fatal.

Rehearsed, not reckless; planned, not spontaneous; life, not death. It’s all a fit with Honnold’s low-key persona. In the many films that feature him, Honnold establishes a funny, ironic distance between his staggering feats and a laid-back vibe. While he can be something of a motormouth, he does not have the reactor-hot ego of some of the old-school climbing stars.

A fall on a steep limestone route on the Greek Islands.
A fall on a steep limestone route on the Greek Islands. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Honnold’s mother, Dierdre Wolownick, a college French professor, told Outside magazine about taking him at the age of five on his first climbing gym outing in Sacramento, California, where he grew up. “I was talking to the supervisor, and I turned around,” she said. “There was Alex, 30ft up. I was scared to death he’d kill himself.” His father, who died of a heart attack when Honnold was 19, would drive his son for hours to explore new gyms as the boy’s obsession took hold.

“Overall, if you ask people about Alex Honnold, most people just really like him,” says Katie Ives, editor of Alpinist magazine. “He comes across as humble and genuine. He seems down-to-earth. He seems to have a lot of self-awareness and a lot of self-control, and he appears not to have let all the publicity go to his head.”

A few days after Honnold’s historic ascent, a friend of his claimed that unhappy film executives had threatened to sue him for posting 19 images of the climb on his popular El Capitan photography blog. The climb is to be the subject of a feature-length film to be released in 2018. The executives wanted the images deleted from the internet.

“Unfortunately, higher-ups at the production team keep sending me harassing emails, threatening me with legal action,” the friend, Tom Evans, told his readers in a sharp note after deleting the images. “They tell me I’ve no right to my own photos and I must get permission from them to use any of my Honnold shots.”

Evans did not reply to an email asking who had threatened him. In a statement, National Geographic Channels, which will release the film, denied that Evans had been threatened with a lawsuit and accused him of violating a non-disclosure agreement. Evans says the film producers “tricked me into signing a release.” The company says the terms were clear.

Unusually for a climbing film, the project also has a big-time movie production company attached, Parkes+MacDonald (Men in Black, Gladiator, Barbie).

The media frenzy surrounding Honnold is the subject of some griping in the climbing world. “This is the kind of thing that makes me glad I’m a climber from the Golden Age before all this commercialisation shit hit,” one commenter on Evans’s site wrote. Peter Croft, a childhood hero of Honnold’s whose own free-solos provided an early road map for the young climber, has compared being filmed while soloing to performing in a “sex video”.

“I can appreciate what Peter’s talking about,” Honnold says. “I mean, soloing is a very personal, intimate experience, and it can feel weird to have somebody there sort of exploiting that experience. But at the same time, you know, if the filmers are good friends, and you feel you’re sharing something that you care about, and that you want to share… I mean sometimes filming can be kind of cool.”

The edge of reason: the world’s boldest climb and the man who conquered it
Alex Honnold: ‘If anything, I’m probably moving in the direction of being slightly more conservative in my risk-taking’. Photograph: The North Face

Every move Honnold makes in the commercial realm, however, raises questions about the commodification of risk. Should corporations be making money from someone risking his neck? Is there a moral hazard for consumers who buy Honnold videos – or for filmmakers who shoot them – or newspapers who cover his feats? At least one corporation has broken up with Honnold. In 2014, Clif Bar dropped him and four other climbers, explaining: “We no longer feel good about benefiting from the amount of risk certain athletes are taking.”

But reports of a supposed controversy surrounding Honnold seem overblown: it’s hard to identify the opposition. Apart from his films, Honnold has gold-plated sponsors, including Black Diamond, La Sportiva and the North Face, which brought him to London recently for its “Walls are Meant for Climbing” campaign. He is the cover boy of the global outdoor recreation industry, which clocks an estimated $887bn (£684bn) in sales each year and is growing fast.

“These kind of controversies are not anything new,” says Ives. “Climbers have been debating issues relating to publicity, media and profit ever since the 19th century.”

On his free-solo ascent of El Capitan, Honnold occasionally interacted with the film crew. At the site of the single hardest move of the climb, however – which requires an all-body weight transfer via splits between two non-footholds at 520m – the filmmakers used remote cameras.

“It’s not the presence of cameras that exerts the pressure, it’s the presence of people operating the cameras,” Honnold explains. “I didn’t want to go into the crux wondering what they’re thinking about what you’re thinking – it’s just too much weird reflection.”

In March 2016, a neuroscientist at the Medical University of South Carolina stuck Honnold in an MRI and found his amygdala, the brain’s centre for threat response, did not glow when he looked at disturbing images the way a control subject’s did.

Afterwards, according to the science magazine Nautilus, Honnold had a question: “Looking at all those images – does that count as being under stress?” The scientist in the study concluded that either Honnold’s amygdala was misfiring, or “his frontal cortex is just so powerful that it can calm him down.”

“I think it was all legit,” Honnold says. “But I think what it showed was that I was probably slightly less sensitive than average to begin with, and then after spending 10 years soloing at a high level, I’ve further desensitised myself to stimulus.” But he doesn’t see this as a safety liability. “If anything, I think that would make things safer for me, as it would allow me to better discern real risk,” he says.

The edge of reason: the world’s boldest climb and the man who conquered it
El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. National Geographic documented Alex Honnold’s historic ascent on June 3, 2017. Photograph: Ben Margot/AP

In addition to his prodigious talent, Honnold clearly has extraordinary judgment in the mountains, a big part of which is knowing when to fold. One morning last November, he set the same process in motion that he began on 3 June. He woke up in his van, put on his shoes and started climbing the wall. But an ankle injury had not fully healed, he found, and things didn’t feel right. He began grabbing steel rings bolted to the mountainside for climbers to clip ropes to. Then he borrowed a sling from the film crew, rappelled off the cliff and went off to climb something else.

The people closest to him support what he does, while fearing for his life. His mother is a backer. “Climbing is Alex’s job,” she wrote in a Climbing magazine. “And I trust his judgment.”

Honnold says he is taking fewer casual risks than he used to. “I’ve actually really reined in my moderate soloing,” he says. “If anything, I’m probably moving in the direction of being slightly more conservative in my risk-taking.”

In his personal habits, Honnold seems geared for the long term. He is a vegetarian. He only drinks water. He has never had alcohol or been stoned, which among full-time climbers may be Honnold’s other unique feat. He jokes he is a Mormon without the religion. “I’m in a period of up-and-up,” he said. “I’ve had the same girlfriend for coming on two years, and it’s totally solid, everything’s good.”

Looking to the future, Honnold says, a major focus will be to spend more time on philanthropic work. The Honnold Foundation, which he founded in 2012, supports environmental development programmes, from equipping low-income housing in the US with solar panels to eradicating kerosene lanterns from Africa by 2020.

Honnold has an El Capitan tie-in to describe his foundation work. His point is that a seemingly impossible task, like rejigging the African energy grid, can start to seem doable if you work at it steadily enough.

“You can take something that seems totally impossible, and say: ‘Oh well, I can at least chip away at it, I can at least work towards it. You think about soloing El Cap and, you know, 10 years ago that seemed completely outrageous, and much too big of a project. But then, over the years, you just work away at it, and then one day you’re like: ‘Oh yeah, that’s not a problem.’”

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