And I’m neither referring to NASA landing and operating 5 rovers on Mars (not to mention a helicopter), nor am I referring to the fact that an Airbus 350 weighing 620,000 lbs. at takeoff can stay airborne for 19 hours and fly 9700 miles. While I marvel at these stellar (and interstellar) achievements, what I am referring to specifically is something even more miraculous and decidedly earthbound. It’s probably the most miraculous feat of forever and for all-time. What I’m referring to is free soloist Alex Honnold becoming the first human to summit the 3200′ sheer granite face of El Capitan. And he improbably accomplished this without benefit of any mountaineering equipment except for a pair of really good rubbery shoes and a keen sense of which way is up.
I use the term “the first human” advisedly because even though I’ve witnessed Mr. Honnold ascend El Capitan in the movie Free Solo, I still don’t believe it’s humanly possible to do what he did. Clearly his status as “human” is in question. Even hybrid human Jeff Goldblum in “The Fly” would have had difficulty traversing this unforgiving eminence. And Honnold made his ascent in only 3 hours and 56 minutes – or about as fast as it takes Elon Musk to manufacture 150 Teslas. So perhaps you can understand why, when I consider Mr. Honnold’s feat, I say, “Wait, did that really happen?”
Yes, it really did happen and there is much to say about this superhuman achievement. But words will only conjure a mental dimension of this experience and that’s why I’ve provided some video: Free Solo. It is a worthy exploration to comment on and marvel at this spectacle of indescribable derring-do. And as I share my sense of unalloyed awe at Alex’s outrageous feat and his courageous feet, I realize this endeavor is just business as usual for our uniquely wired Alex. He is not doing this with feigned swagger and false bravado. To Alex, this anti-acrophobic act is not some kind of flashy derring-do. It’s just…do.
Obviously Alex doesn’t understand the gravity of the situation, otherwise he’d never undertake such a vertiginous high wire act. Although this entire event appears to be a case of man vs. nature, it’s really just Alex vs. himself.
I’ll slice into this feat at different points and serve up apposite commentary on the many facets surrounding Alex’s perilous climb. I’ll occasionally garnish the commentary with some random palette cleansers so we may take a break and not feel constantly the dizzying panic associated with heights. For example, sample this palette cleanser: Did you know that just by eating the daily samples offered at Costco you can enjoy a perfectly balanced diet and cut your food bill in half?
Some Mountaineering Terms
- Free Soloing – Climbing without a rope or any type of aid or protection.
- Free Climbing – Climbing with a rope or some other aid only for protection should you fall.
- Aid Climbing – Climbing by standing on or pulling oneself up via devices attached to the mountain.
- Bat Shit Crazy – What you have to be, to Free Solo.
We Begin Our Climb
At 3200’ El Capitan is equivalent to a 297-story building and in this one story I’ll present some backstory, front story and history. I’ll also try to climb into the mind of El Capitan and describe, from El Capitan’s perspective, what it felt like being rubbed up against non-consensually by a sweaty and panting little human clambering up its face. To an anointed few, there is something strangely welcoming about El Capitan and this destination rock should never be taken for granite – even though it is granite.
The climbers of this stony mass are literally rock stars. When El Capitan was first climbed in November of 1958, Warren Harding (not the President, the guy’s actual name), George Whitemore and Wayne Merry took 12-days to reach the summit – and these were proto-professional mountaineers outfitted with abundant equipment including the use of hundreds of pitons and expansion bolts banged into the granite for footholds, handholds and belaying. For comparative purposes it took Alex, clad in his favorite t-shirt and wearing his good rubbery shoes, about 4 hours.
Rather than work hard to create a seamless flowing narrative I’m going to breakdown my awe at this achievement into bite-sized chunks; similarly to how a mountain climber might breakdown the route of their prospective climb. Maybe great minds do think alike. While our minds might be similar there are differences. For example these stout rock-jocks are mountain climbers, whereas I’m just a social climber.
Perspective 1 – Newton’s First Law of Motion (modified for mountain climbers)
A body at rest tends to stay at rest. A body tumbling down the side of a mountain tends to stay tumbling down the side of a mountain.
Perspective 2 – Some Context
When I try to put Alex Honnold’s peerless conquest into some kind of understandable perspective, I fail miserably; unlike Alex who succeeded spectacularly. As I ruminate over his conquest, operating in the background is the thought that “this wiry guy, outfitted with only a t-shirt, sturdy shoes and some resin, ascended up the sheer vertical face a 297-story building of granite – that’s 6/10ths of a mile. “Wait, did that really happen?”
Yes! It’s as if you took eleven connected 100-yard football fields, rotated them up perpendicular to the ground, swapped out the grass for impregnable rock, throw in a few scattered pits and cracks in the surface and then, wearing your lucky t-shirt and best sneakers, climbed to the top of it in about 4 hours. One misstep or failed grip and it’s Rocky Road for you – the hard, ouchy kind and not the sweet, ice creamy kind. Why isn’t this story the first item of news every day?
Perspective 3 – Poetry in Slow Motion. Very Slow Motion
This feat, this endeavor, this aspirational lethality of free soloing El Capitan is so alien to most of us we quite naturally wonder, not only why it is done, but how in the hell does it even become an option. How is it, so to speak, put on the table. I’ll draw an example from the world of poetry to perhaps illustrate an explanation.
In Robert Burns’ poem The Road Less Taken he says:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference
I appreciate Robert Burns’ sentiment. Of course I might want to indulge myself in meaningful non-conformity by examining those parts of myself that might go unnoticed had I simply taken the path of least resistance (the road more travelled) instead of the road less travelled. And yes, I might occasionally take the road less traveled by. And it might occasionally make all the difference. But this. This is a non-starter. There is no path that diverges in a wood that should lead someone to gaze at the imposing massivity of El Capitan and think, “I need to climb that – but without ropes and maybe with some good, rubbery sneakers.”
To say that 2 paths diverged in a wood and I took the road less travelled is one thing, but these intrepid/insane free soloists are taking a road that doesn’t really exist and certainly is rarely, if ever, thought about. They’re trailblazers. But even if this path did exist in a wood, it would only be travelled by people going to or coming from insane asylums.
As of these keystrokes, it appears only Alex Honnold has free soloed El Capitan and about 15 stout rock-jocks have free climbed El Capitan. What was their pathway there? Not just up the mountain, but to the base of the mountain, where they’re willing and able to climb it. You could show me 3 million paths in a wood and none of them would take me anywhere near the summit of El Capitan. I’d be good for about 4’ before my testicles would make like Mexican jumping beans.
Perspective 4 – My Body, My Choice
Remember, Alex didn’t have to climb this forbidding formation. He chose to climb it. It wasn’t some court ordered community service he was sentenced to for insulting a Starbucks barista.
Judge: Mr. Honnold, it has been established you referred to Starbucks barista Kayla Galvin as a ‘slacker.’ For this insult the court hereby orders you to pay a fine in the sum of $10. Or, umm, let’s see…alternatively you can free climb El Capitan (laughs to the bailiff). The choice is yours Mr. Honnold.
Honnold: Your Honor, if it please the court I request a ride to Yosemite?
So you see, this is the kind of mentality we’re dealing with here – strangely wired people making outrageous choices.
Perspective 5 – The Thing of It Is
Free soloing El Capitan is not a thing. Not a Thing 1. Not a Thing 2. Sightseeing at El Capitan may be a thing. Saying you’ve heard of a guy who has free soloed El Capitan is a thing, but actually free soloing El Capitan itself – nope. Not a thing. It purports to be a thing, but like telekinesis, cold fusion or time travel, it’s not a thing. Its pie in the sky, or more aptly, die in the sky. And yet it’s kind of a thing because it’s been done. It’s easier to climb Wuthering Heights than it is to climb El Capitan – and “Wuthering Heights” is a work of fiction.
Perspective 6 – A Mother Knows
Early on Mrs. Honnold thought the die was cast for young Alex to become a free soloist because his behavior was so exasperating it had her climbing the walls.
I don’t want to belabor the preposterousness of this dangerous achievement more than need be. Alright I do want to belabor the preposterousness of this dangerous achievement more than need be. This act just lends itself to idle speculations into abnormal psychology and I’m not going to sit on my hands for this one.
Free soloing El Capitan is not self-mastery. It’s an absence of mammalian fear of heights combined with unparalleled physical skills. Alex didn’t have to inoculate himself against acrophobia. He’s already imbued with a dauntless, avian mentality. His prep is more physical than mental. If you really thought about it, even our reptilian brain stem would protest such an undertaking, “Listen brain, you can think about it all you want, but you do realize there’s no way we’re climbing that thing – ropes or no ropes. No way. No how.”
In a normal brain, the primitive reptilian brain stem would consider the climbing El Capitan and, in the words of Nancy Reagan, “Just say no.” Not so for young Alex. Some of the constituent parts of his brain stem, designed to instinctively protect him, are inoperative and offer little guidance. In an MRI scan, Alex’s amygdala (where fear is produced) is tamped down or duller than a normal person’s. Palette Cleanser Alert: And one can only imagine that Alex’s hippocampus (where emotional memory is stored) is a place where hippopotami go to college. We come to understand then, that Alex’s fear is ungovernable, but only because it doesn’t exist in any meaningful way and therefore does not need superintendence. In other words the ice water in his veins isn’t developed, it’s just inherent.
Perspective 7 – Anthropomorphic Rock?
El Capitan sits like silent movie star Buster Keaton; stone-faced and stoic. Its enduring features are a slow-burn geologic reminder of God’s time scale and not at all reflective of the spit-on-the-griddle gratification so common to Kenner Easy-Bake Ovens.
Palette Cleanser Alert: The face of El Capitan is as inscrutable as the Sphinx’s, but at least the Sphinx had some personality. Situated in its Sahara sandbox, the big stony cat was built in BCCL (Before Clumping Cat Litter), prompting many laborers on the nearby pyramids to complain, “Me thinx the Sphinx stinx.”
El Capitan’s mind is almost impenetrable – not surprising for a 30 million year old rock formation. It’s so slow to respond, it’s like it’s stoned or something. El Capitan’s nearby friend and fellow prominent rock formation Half Dome says, “El Capitan may be 30 million years old, but when the sun hits him just right, he looks like a kid of about 25 million.”
It was more than a nuisance to El Capitan when Alex Honnold decided to free solo him on June 3, 2017. As a fully certified Mountain Whisperer, I channeled El Capitan’s feelings and heard this: “You try being rubbed up against for 4 hours by a sweaty little human clambering up your face and sticking his hands into all your crevices and nether regions. It was a lot like an afternoon at Jeffrey Epstein’s house.”
El Capitan never signed an Informed Consent release and yet somehow scores of mountaineers felt entitled to puncture, paw and climb his eminence. This is a common occurrence with mountaineers and mountains. And now other mountains are speaking up about their non-consensual mistreatment by hordes of insensitive climbers. They’re using the hashtag #GetOffMyBack. A more assertive rock face would’ve spoken up. A bolder boulder would’ve said something. El Capitan has feelings too. It’s not made out of stone; even though it is made out of stone.
In 1987 an “attempt” to climb El Capitan was made by “Love Will Keep Us Together” singer Toni Tennille of The Captain and Tennille fame, but the shrewd block of granite soon realized it was just a publicity stunt to advertise the upcoming Mexican Tour of El Capitan and Tennille. This was shameless pandering by Toni and her relationship with El Capitan remains rocky, as does everyone else’s.
With our palette cleansed we continue our climb straight to the top, unaided by tropes, ropes or gravitas. Or as the Beatles would say, “We’re headed to the toppermost of the poppermost.” Unaided climbing means a lack of handholds on El Capitan even if you plead with the mountain that, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
In a parallel maneuver to mimic Alex Honnold’s methodology for ascending El Capitan, I write Perspective 7 sitting in my bathtub, wearing my favorite birthday suit and floating nearby are my good, rubbery duckies. My situation however, is a little less fraught and far less perilous.
Perspective 8 – How Forbidding is El Capitan?
- Alpha geckos look at El Capitan and say “My fellow lizards, not that I couldn’t climb it, but it’s probably better if we all just go around.”
- Even wind avoids gusting into this unforgiving wall. Too much blow back.
- Dwayne Johnson doesn’t like to stand near El Capitan, because he feels embarrassed when someone calls him The Rock.
- El Capitan was once a molehill. And now look at it.
- El Capitan is a badass overachiever. It was promoted from El Corporal directly to El Capitan. In 4 million years it should make El Colonel.
Perspective 9 – Alright. Enough with the Perspectives Already
It is widely accepted that climbing El Capitan is the height of insanity – a height of 3200’. It would take a skewed and quixotic person to even attempt it. In the paraphrased words of John Lennon*
*Sung to the tune of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
Picture yourself clinging tight to a mountain
Where one slip or false move could mean your demise
Suddenly someone comes tumbling by slowly
A girl with big pasta shell eyes
Angel hair granite of silver and gray, towering over your head
Look for the girl with the shells in her eyes and you’re gone
Alex in the sky no ropes on
Alex in the sky no pitons
Alex in the sky t-shirt on
What are We Mortals to Do?
I hold this truth to be self-evident: That all free soloists are beyond insane. The only thing I free solo are the 18 steps in my house to the 2nd floor. And even then it sometimes becomes a technical climb when I use the railing and take oxygen around the 14th step. Heck, it’s gotten so bad, I’m even considering a motorized Stair Lift.
So how is it that these monk-aineers (monkeys + mountaineers = monk-aineers) brachiating on the daunting face of El Capitan derive pleasure from such an uber-dangerous sport? Let’s just stop the world for a moment and look at this because words fail us. Free soloing El Capitan is not a sport. Golf is a sport. Badminton is a sport. Free soloing is Russian roulette with all the chambers full.
Free soloing is not dangerous. Slapping a kangaroo is dangerous. Peeing on an electric fence is dangerous. Free soloing anything higher than 10 feet is, is, I don’t know, I’d have to create a new word for how dangerous it is: It’s preposthumous, periludicrous or absurdead.
There’s Diversity in Populations and then There’s Inexplicable Deviation
Inexplicable deviation, thy name is free soloist. Yes, these apex-centric mutants possess a completely novel wiring harness that prevents epochs of hardwired genetic aversion to heights from coming between them and their self-navigated stairway to heaven.
Eventually though, all free soloists that go up, must come down – if only to use the bathroom. No wait, I’m being told mountaineers actually use the bathroom facilities while climbing (in situ). Peeing on the side of a mountain is the height of decadence. I wonder what airborne toileting would look like – probably like that Who’s Next album cover. But at least it proves once and for all that indeed sh*t rolls downhill.
Admittedly I have placed these ultra-intrepid free soloists high up on a pedestal, although I’m sure they could’ve gotten up there easily by themselves. After all, if 3200’ of sheer granite can’t stop them, they can probably handle an 8 foot pedestal without much problem.
I’m delighted to delve into something I know actually happened, but that I cannot reconcile. And no, I’m not talking about my parents’ divorce or the ’69 Mets winning the World Series. I am referring to free soloist Alex Honnold becoming the first human to summit the 3200′ sheer granite face of El Capitan. Free soloing El Capitan is magic hiding in plain sight. It’s aerial sorcery for the earthbound. And it’s the end of the story – all 297 stories of it.
It is said that every time someone free soloes El Capitan, an angel gets its wings. Unfortunately it’s also true when someone dies in the attempt. And so it is to all these ardent monk-aineers I say, “we salute you.”
Addendum: Unbelievably, There’s Yet Another Level
Alpinist Marc-André Leclerc was even more outrageously daring (to us, not to him) in his practice of “free soloing.” He preferred mixed media climbs (rock/snow/ice). See him in The Alpinist: The Alpinist