Some Thoughts on Alex Honnold’s Free Solo of El Capitan
The last time I wrote about something climbing-related that made national news, I was critical of the hero-narrative being universally espoused, and that pissed a lot of people off. I want to say at the outset that I have no interest in taking away from, or detracting from, Alex Honnold’s mind-bending achievement. I have the utmost respect for Honnold, about 50% because of his climbing, and 50% because of what he uses his climbing-borne fame to do. It seems like The Honnold Foundation (whose goal is “to improve lives world-wide by offering grants to organizations and engaging projects that make a positive difference”) sprung up overnight immediately following his explosion into the annals of climbing history. His work with the foundation and partner, Goal Zero, has made strides towards a better way of life in Angola, and here in the states in the Navajo Nation. In my opinion, Honnold is a shining example of what a pro rock climber should be: namely, someone who recognizes their privilege, and their opportunity, and works to wield those tools to make the world a better place. As far as I’m concerned, Honnold does that as well as any.
So let’s forget about Honnold. This article has nothing to do with him. Let’s talk about Ueli Steck.
After all, the ink is barely dry on the page after he met his end, also free soloing (in a very different way, but free and solo nonetheless), just over a month ago, on April 30th. Ah – but a month is a really long time for news nowadays. Tell you what, let’s forget Ueli, too. No wait, we already have – haven’t we?
Something about the way we deal with high risk climbing makes me feel bipolar. If somebody dies doing it, we laud them with judgment and criticism. If somebody survives, we call them hero. What I want to talk about is the phenomenology of how we talk about high-risk climbing. I want to talk about the way we toss stones at the dead, and laud praise upon the living for what is ultimately the same act, plus or minus one smidge of bad luck.
There is something broken here. Is it the way we talk about the dearly departed? The survivors? Both? Is it the pure fact that we are so hopelessly captivated by those that tiptoe the edge between life and death that almost nothing else gets as much attention from the climbing media, and community at large?
Personally, I don’t even know how to identify what the broken thing is, much less offer a solution. Maybe we should follow CLIF Bar’s lead and stop supporting “risky” climbers. We as consumers could boycott media that portrays extremely high risk forms of climbing. Professional photographers could refuse to hold the camera to shoot photos of their friends while they put their lives in the balance. We could all, en masse, simply turn away, and refuse to look.
Would any of that make a difference? If there was just a complete moratorium on all press coverage for free soloing, would the number of practitioners decrease? I don’t know for sure, but my guess would be yes.
And would that be a good thing?
I don’t know. I don’t have a damn clue, to be honest. I’ve free soloed plenty, but don’t any more. I’ve written for Alpinist Magazine in defense of soloing, I’ve written for Rock and Ice in opposition to it. I’ve gone round and round in circles in my head a million times on the subject, finally ending up on the bland and banal adage, “to each his own.” It irks me that I can’t come up with something better – but that’s all I’ve got. In the end, it’s a decision that can only be made individually, from within the confines of one’s own mind.
But making that decision properly requires an accurate accounting of the costs and the benefits of casting off from the ground so untethered. I guess I am increasingly convinced that the ability of young climbers to engage in that weighing of the risks and rewards is severely hampered by our community’s portrayal of the heroic nature of high risk climbing.
My gut tells me that what is broken is the way we as a community—as gym rats, boulderers, sport climbers, trad climbers, alpinists, desert rats, friends, family, vanlifers, sponsors, magazines, advertisers, photographers, writers, cinematographers—talk about the risks we take in climbing. Because if we are helping, even in the slightest, subtlest, most remote and seemingly benign way, to push young men and women to a skewed perception of the risks and rewards, then we all have some degree of blood on our hands when they die. We are all, in some way culpable (sigh, I guess I better spell it out again; no, I am not blaming Alex Honnold, in particular, for some past or future climber’s death… nor am I exonerating him. I’m including him, and myself, and you, and everyone else.)
The question any soloist must ask his or herself, at some time or another, is: “Is it worth it?”
My question is, exactly whose voice is it in their head when they hear that self-gratifying answer, “yes.”
I wonder what might happen if the entire climbing world flipped the narrative to one of “no, it isn’t.” And I’m not talking about shaming, or guilting that climber friend in your life. I’m just talking about reminding them how loved they are. I’m talking about suggesting to them that their worth on this planet is not confined and restricted to the special way in which they fondle stone. I’m talking about letting the climbers in your life know that, yes, they are wonderfully talented vertical gymnasts, and for that we love them… but they are also so much more.
Maybe that would help encourage Honnold to finally tone it down (what a novel concept – down instead of up…) a notch.
Maybe Honnold’s greatest achievement – his personal Dawn Wall – will not be free soloing El Cap, but living to the ripe old age of 80, 90, or 123. Maybe it will be his humanitarian work. Maybe it will be knowing when to quit – something so many of his predecessors didn’t seem to figure out.
Maybe by engaging in the conversation a little more deeply, by giving a bit more thought to that question – is it worth it, maybe, just maybe, we can help Honnold and some of our other brightest stars to finally rest in peace…
Without having to die, first.
If you haven’t already, I would STRONGLY recommend reading this interview with Alex Honnold, following the climb. He truly is an exceptional human being (not just climber, but all around human).
There were many great parts of that interview, but I think my favorite were:
“Do you feel the world kind of needed something cool like this, at this moment in time?”
“What the world needs is for the U.S. to stay in the Paris Accords. There’s some bigger issues. But I think it’s always cool for somebody to work on something difficult and achieve their dream. Hopefully people can draw inspiration from this.”
“How was your sleep last night?”
“Oh, I slept like a baby. I woke up at around 2:30 or 3:30, like, ‘Let’s do this!’ And then looked at the clock and was like, ‘oh,’ and then went back to sleep and then woke up around 4:30.”
That last part, I just can’t even… I guess that’s what makes Honnold Honnold. Sleeping like a baby before stepping into permanent rock climbing legend status (as if he hadn’t already done it before).