Perhaps one of the most significant accomplishments in climbing history, Alex Honnold’s free solo of El Cap brought accolades and plenty of criticism from those suggesting the danger was far too great. Here’s why the critics are wrong.
By Joseph Legotte
Over the past week the climbing industry and community have been inundated with articles and social media posts about Alex Honnold’s success in soloing Freerider on El Capitan. Andrew Bisharat, author of the blog Evening Sends and contributor to Rock and Ice, argues that, “Honnold’s El Cap free solo transcends all sports. It suffuses a higher, more ancient realm in which our greatest virtues as human beings are often contained by our oldest and deepest fears. This solo was a moment in which those virtues triumphed. As a result, to witness this moment, to be a part of this community, and to feel deeply inspired by what Honnold achieved, somehow, it feels like we all triumphed, too.”
I congratulated Honnold in an Instagram post he will likely never see, and consequently my feed has been a constant stream of every name in climbing putting in their two cents. From James Lucas and Tommy Caldwell to the audience of an entire 30 Seconds to Mars concert in Nashville, it really does feel as though Andrew has captured the essence of this “collective triumph.” It was Steph Davis, though, who postulated the most fascinating ideas surrounding this mystical feat. In an Instagram post congratulating Honnold she remarks, “It’s cool to watch people grappling to come to terms with the fact that calculated and deep risk is not the same thing as rushed, seat-of-the-pants risk. Risk is complicated, and risk is inspiring.”
For even the most accomplished climbers like Tommy Caldwell and Brad Gobright, the thought of being up there on El Cap sans rope is pure terror. This in itself validates the very thing we are struggling to comprehend: Alex was not taking a risk when he stepped off the ground at the base of El Cap and soared into the granite void.
Honnold was venturing into intimately memorized territory and each decision in those 4 hours on the wall was precisely calculated. All he had to do was execute everything within his own realm of control. Due to his unbelievably adept poise and equanimity, any potential external factors were suffused into the background. To possess such skills means he must truly be at home on the wall. The purity and freedom in suspending himself thousands of feet above the valley floor is precisely where he belongs. Nevertheless, there is always the unknown.
For most of us lacking these essential qualities for soloing, who let fear creep in every time we find ourselves more than 20 feet above our last piece, we cannot help but speculate on the potential unknown external factors—rockfall, holds breaking, or other deathly situations. We ask, why put oneself in a position that has only the illusion of complete control? It must be insanity to trust that you will not have a hand or foot hold break over 3,000 feet of climbing!
The easiest analogy we can use to defend Honnold’s seeming insanity is that he is taking no more risk doing what he does than the average person takes when they sit in their car to drive to work. Nobody expects to be in a fatal accident on the road, but it happens to over 30,000 people a year in the United States. I’m sure when Honnold embarks on a ground breaking solo he does not expect death any more than you and I would when we get behind the wheel. We’ve learned to suppress the looming fear of vehicular death every time we start up the engine.
Steph tapped into the depths of the art of soloing at the cutting edge. Risk is complicated because risk is perception and risk is relative. Watch any climber at the gym pause, unable to move to the next hold due to the risk they are feeling. This happens whether you climb 5.5 or 5.15.
We learn to manage risk as we progress, and a 5.5 that may have felt risky once upon a time, transforms into a place of security and confidence with practice. Nevertheless, the open ended nature of climbing means risk will always be there, no matter who you are or how hard you climb.
There is inherent, deep risk that intrudes upon our very soul as climbers. I think that everyone feels this at a myriad of moments, and regardless of how illustrious a career one has on the wall, this sensation will expose its “inspiring and complicated” facade. Had Honnold onsight-soloed Freerider, you can certainly bet he would have come across this feeling. However, his devotion to preparation, attention to detail, and remarkable composure constructed over numerous years of soloing, allowed him to exist synergistically with the profoundly implicit risk trying to rear its unsightly head at the wrong moment.
It’s easy to discuss Honnold when conjecturing about risk, but it exists for all of us as climbers. In fact, when it comes to the art of soloing, the risk we discuss is universally comprehensible: death. This is why soloing can be viewed as the most pure style of climbing—the consequences are clear cut. However, risk in climbing is rarely that black and white for most of us. Though death in relation to climbing is an omnipresent modicum of white noise, we’re typically adept at tuning it out. Risk, it so happens, is unequivocally ambiguous.
There are other iterations of risk I find fascinating and ones that we all experience from day one as climbers. Though difficult to find the perfect word to describe my favorite iteration of risk, I think “hesitation” conveys it adequately. Though hesitation is the resultant action due to risk, it is something we can all confront. Think back to the last time you climbed on slab at or above your limit; the feeling of insecurity and that you could come off the wall at nearly any moment is risk disguised as fear and hesitation. Death is rarely a possible outcome, and sometimes you may only be inches off the ground, but you are still gripped. This is both a scary and beautiful thing. Teetering on the edge of comfort and discomfort, balance and imbalance, is freakishly inspiring.
As climbers we create opportunities to live in limbo and to walk the delicate line of equilibrium. How sweet is the instant after the moment of hesitation when you latch the next hold and fight to control the swing, striking just enough tension to flutter to the edge of declivity? How exquisite is the occasion when the insecurity of friction slab pivots to peace and soundness as your center of gravity quivers gently over the line? How sublime is it to pull and push into a mantle to the brink of stability and fight beyond the boundary of fear? If it wasn’t for risk those moments would go unnoticed and untouched.
If it wasn’t for risk, the charm of climbing would be vastly diminished.
We need to fall flat on our backs and cheese-grate down a slab every now and then. We need to drop off reluctantly and repeatedly before finally committing. We need to understand the blights and blessings of risk so that we can learn to embolden our souls.
I dearly hope we can continue to find inspiration and revelation in the transitory spaces that risk manifests. It is what compels us and people like Alex Honnold to aspire towards lofty exploits. Climbing keeps proving to the world at large that we are a community of people with indomitable strength of mind and body. We should be proud that those at the forefront of our sport can unflinchingly unveil that allure for everyone. The risk will always be there—whatever our path in life—and climbing provides us a wonderful medium to interpret, understand, and accept our mortality and our place in the world.
Joseph Legotte is a veritable renaissance man who strives to strengthen the community of climbers who lovingly accepted him. If he’s not setting new routes at Mesa Rim or chatting up members, you can find him baking bread, crafting cocktails, reading Harry Potter, or punting off the top of many blocs in the Buttermilks.