They say that somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery of why we climb. I’ve been a reluctant adventurer all my life, and so it makes perfect sense to watch Alex Honnold climb the Southwest face of the intimidating El Capitan mountain in a movie theatre. What makes this climb incredible, is that it was done without ropes and he did it all alone.
They say that somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery of why we climb.
I’ve been a reluctant adventurer all my life, and so it makes perfect sense to watch Alex Honnold climb the Southwest face of the intimidating El Capitan mountain in a movie theatre. What makes this climb incredible, is that it was done without ropes and he did it all alone. Free Solo is an Oscar and BAFTA-winning documentary from National Geographic (The NatGeoTV channel) made by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi that releases in theatres this Friday.
Even though you know he did it - he’s the world’s first one to climb that mountain and lives to tell the tale - when you watch him hanging to that granite vertical surface by his fingers and toes, it’s hard to not be afraid for him. When you want to avert your eyes from his searching fingers to that tenuous grip on what looks like a dip on the wall that is no larger than your thumbprint, you are actually looking a couple of thousand feet down the cliffside, and your head will reel.
Jimmy Chin and a crew of wonderful mountaineers followed Alex Honnold for two years, as he prepared himself, body and mind, to make that climb. The mountain climbing community is close-knit and unlike people in real life, truly encouraging and inspiring. Reinhold Messner holds the great Alpinist Paul Preuss in great regard. Preuss is a climbing great, having made 1200 ascents, 300 of them being solo. He wrote the bible for ethical climbing. The simplest rule: no pitons. Pitons are nails climbers used as a foothold. Why use technology when you are pushing your body and soul to the limit?
When Jimmy Chin was in India, climbing the Shark Fin mountain peak called mount Meru, that was a climb with equipment, and is in my opinion equally if not scarier, simply because the odds in case of the Himalayan climb are so much greater.
In order to understand how Alex Honnold’s achievement is awe-inspiring, watch Meru. Not that the Himalayan odyssey was easier. Conrad Anker and Renan Ozturk and Jimmy Chin made that perilous journey and their injuries will make your heart stay in your stomach as you watch the film. I’m a tad partial because Jon Krakauer appears in that film and makes the film as meditative as his fantastic book ‘Into The Wild’ is. Krakauer was part of that awful Everest expedition in 1996 which saw the deaths of so many climbers (It is chronicled in the book and then in a movie called Into Thin Air).
Krakauer says it best: “Getting to the top of any given mountain was considered much less important than how one got there: prestige was earned by tackling the most unforgiving routes with minimal equipment, in the boldest style imaginable.” (Into Thin Air)
When you see Alex jot down his reflections of the El Capitan in his notebook, you know he’s memorising the climb. Noting where to put that pressure, where the dimple in the mountain is and plans and plans and rehearses those plans with climbers Tommy Caldwell and Mickey Schaffer. But the climb Alex has to do it all by himself. Is he prepared? Is he stoked? Is his new girlfriend going to get in the way of achieving his dream?
The film crew knows that there are five sections to the mountain that could lead Alex to his death. Here I take refuge in journalist Mark Synnott’s account of the climb which he wrote for the National Geographic (and he’s in the film too):
Honnold smeared the rubber from his shoes against this smooth rock to maintain perfect balance.
Length of the section: 200 ft.
Alex practised here more than 90 times.
Hollow Flake: He climbed down 90 ft. to reach a large crack. Other climbers avoid this detour by using ropes to swing to the crack.
Length of the section: 280 ft.
Practised more than 10 times.
Monster Offwidth: After wedging half his body into a vertical crack six to 12 inches wide, he wriggled his way upwards.
Length of the section: 200 ft.
Practised more than 10 times.
Boulder Problem: One move of this most difficult section required him to cling to a pea-sized nub (of the mountain), while ‘karate kicking’ one leg to reach a toehold.
Length of the section: 150 ft.
Practised more than 60 times.
Enduro Corner: Honnold used a ‘layback’ technique, pulling at the edge of a narrow crack while pushing his feet against an adjacent wall.
Length of the section: 180 ft.
Practised more than 40 times.
If reading this does not bring the discipline, the dedication and the drive home to you then perhaps when you see the documentary, you will realise there is nothing ‘laid back’ about any technique here. I have seen Mount Toubkal and every atom of my body scoffed at my need for oxygen then, and when you see Alex Honnold travel to the mountain for a practice run, I began to shiver in the theatre. But the documentary is so engrossing that you dare not step out to realign your brain and fuel yourself with coffee.
What are the proverbial mountains that you climb? Have you given up on a dream because you’ve had to live a normal life? What is that which keeps you inspired or do you let yourself fall into a bottomless pit of self-loathing?
You come away gobsmacked and realise that an auto ride home at that time of the night is the closest you are ever going to get as an adventure. But Jon Krakauer’s words about mountains have stayed with me and now hopefully with you: “It was titillating to brush up against the enigma of mortality, to steal a glimpse across its forbidden frontier. Climbing was a magnificent activity, I firmly believed, not in spite of the inherent perils, but precisely because of them.”