A tribute to Alex Honnold, and everything he has taught me

Monday, March 25, 2019 - 12:38pm

Alex Honnold

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Alex Honnold is one of the best rock climbers in the world. Alex Honnold regularly eats directly out of the pan using a spatula as a spoon. Alex Honnold is a giant, a visionary, a profoundly inspiring person whose story reminds me of all the good human beings are capable of. Alex Honnold is a big dumb buffoon who downplays every insane thing he does to the point that fellow climbers call him Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold.

The boy has layers.

Some background: Alex is having a bit of a moment right now. You might have seen him on viral YouTube videos, breaking down climbing scenes in movie based on realism. Or maybe you’ve seen his TED Talk. Or maybe you saw “Free Solo,” the documentary film about his 2017 ropeless ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan Freerider route that recently won an Oscar. He’s arguably the most visible and popular climber in mainstream media since Edmund Hillary himself.

His free solo of El Cap is one of the most singular and mind-blowing accomplishments I’ve seen a single person achieve in my lifetime. The wall is nearly 3000 feet of sheer granite, and Freerider is a notoriously difficult path to the top (rated 5.13c in climbing circles, meaning that even with a rope and protective equipment, people very rarely ((if ever)) manage to climb it without falling). It’s hard to put into words the magnitude of what it means to climb this thing with nothing but a chalk bag strapped around the waist — when Alex completed his climb, a lot of people in the climbing community compared it to the moon landing. The New Yorker put it simply when they covered the event: “Another passage can be written in the annals of human achievement.”

Like most people who encounter Alex’s work, I’m pretty much endlessly inspired by him. His achievements induce awe, in the most biblical sense of the word. It’s impossible to be clever or cynical when confronted with the image of a person dangling by two fingers 2000 feet above the ground, grinning as though there’s no place he’d rather be (spoiler: there isn’t). Alex Honnold, for me, has been a breath of fresh air, an antidote to the poison that radiates so much media in 2019. The appeal is simple: He found what he loves most in the world, and dedicated his life to its ruthless and relentless pursuit. In the process of living his life exactly the way he wanted to, he changed a sport forever and redefined the boundaries of fear.

In his book, “Alone on the Wall,” Alex explains that he primarily gets asked two types of questions: Why he free solos (climbing with absolutely no ropes, gear, or aid of any kind), and if he’s scared — both of which are polite ways of asking if he realizes how easily he could die at any minute. To respond, he has developed a strange but weirdly comforting math surrounding risk and consequence over the years. In his mind, he’s always climbing well within his comfortable range of abilities, so even though free soloing has high consequence (falling and dying), the risks for him are low. He’s worked methodically over 15 years of climbing to expand the range of experiences within which he doesn’t feel fear.

All of this strikes me as a convoluted way of saying that he’s reached a level of excellence in skill that makes failure increasingly less likely. You could take that as a certain modicum of arrogance — and you probably should — but it’s an arrogance that works for him and that’s allowed him to do incredible things. I also take that response with a grain of salt — “Alone on the Wall” is Alex presenting himself carefully to his readers. Other climbers are quick to call bullshit on his convoluted risk/reward equations, noting that he can’t control everything, that it’s a matter of when, not if, he falls.

Alex would be the first to tell you that he’s thought about this, and considered it deeply. He explains in his book that he doesn’t understand the point of living a life without passion, and if that mortality is inevitable anyway, why not go out doing what he loves. But he’s also clear about the fact that he’s not a daredevil — he loves living and loves climbing, and he’s said many times in his book that he steers clear of any kind of thrill-seeking. He writes: “There is no adrenaline rush. If I get an adrenaline rush, it means that something has gone horribly wrong.” He’s not trying to get away with anything — instead he’s on a lifelong project to slowly and incrementally become a braver, better person.

When the filmmakers asked him in “Free Solo” why he lives the way he does, he gave an answer that’s been ringing in my head since I first heard it months ago (and the answer that I can only imagine has haunted him years). He puts it simply: “If you’re looking for perfection, free soloing is as close as you can get.”

He’s not wrong. One mistake and it’s all over. And let’s be absolutely clear here: A “mistake” in soloing is placing a thumb and index finger a millimeter too close together. Or letting his eyes wander from the rock in front of him for exactly one second. It’s not just focus or physical stamina that’s required to free solo at Alex’s level — it’s absolute clarity. While he’s climbing, Alex is paying attention to the movement of every muscle and sinew in his body. He knows exactly what he’s doing and exactly who he is. All the philosophical things that for most people remain conceptual — self-actualization, self-sufficiency, staying present — aren’t an abstract for Alex Honnold. They’re a matter of life or death.

It’s easy to get caught up in the grand scale of all of his achievements — the legendary free solos he has pioneered, the sweeping expeditions in Chad, Morocco, Alaska and Patagonia, the multiday big wall linkups in which he shattered every known speed record in Yosemite. But despite all that, it’s the minutiae of his work that I find the most fascinating, because it’s clear that the details are what his survival relies on. He dreams big, yes, but what differentiates Alex from others with big abstract goals is his ability to break down every dream into its components and create a multistep plan as to how to achieve them.

Case in point: In both “Alone on the Wall,” and in the film, Alex talks about his feet a lot. In a conversation in the film with fellow legendary free soloist Peter Croft, the two talk about their favorite part of soloing: how firmly rooted their feet get in the wall when they’re in the zone. These are two men who’ve scaled massive peaks and shattered records, but notice where they find the real joy — in the process, in the component parts of a big achievement. They don’t focus on the thrill of reaching the top, or the daredevil moments in which they almost died, but on the feeling of rootedness. In the book, he describes feeling perfectly planted when he’s high on a wall, climbing with complete certainty that he won’t fall. “It’s that certainty,” he writes, “that keeps me from falling.”

There’s a lot to learn from Alex Honnold, but to me that’s the biggest piece — the ability to feel rooted anywhere you go, to build yourself a place where you’re certain you belong. Alex has made a living by making a home out of some of the most hostile places on earth — deserts and tundras and the tallest peaks in the world. He’s alone up there on the wall, yes, but when he’s up there he’s entirely complete. His solitude while climbing is pure, because when he’s up there, he needs no one and nothing but himself. It’s a quiet confidence that sustains him, a wholehearted belief in himself, his hands and his strength.

When I watch Alex Honnold climb, it makes me crave that perfect solitude, the simultaneous rootedness and weightlessness he experiences when the sum total of his existence in that moment hinges on putting one foot in front of the other. Alex describes that feeling as ‘perfection.’ But I like to think of it as something a little more complicated, and a little more human: pure and absolute joy. We sometimes conflate being alone with being lonely, but in doing so, we forget how magical perfect quiet can be, how good it is to be alone. Feet firmly planted, one on front of the other — you always have everything you need to create something beautiful.