Free Solo

Alex HonnoldPeople in the outdoor adventure world and anyone who has read about it in the last ten years knows the name Alex Honnold. I’m certainly in the latter camp, an armchair explorer, strictly studying to try to understand, not actually experience. Honnold is so unique that when I came across his name along with the words “El Capitan” in a headline a month ago, I didn’t have to read the article to know what happened: he successfully free-soloed 3,000 feet up a sheer granite wall in Yosemite. I showed the headline to my husband and sighed, “Just another heartbreak waiting to happen.”

This 31-year-old man did what he’s dreamed about and talked about doing for years: he climbed an impossibly smooth rock surface the height of a 277-story building in the middle of a yawning mountain range with just his hands and feet — or better, just the tips of his fingers and toes — by himself, with no rope. Afterward he said, “It was like walking on glass.”

The photo accompanying the New York Times article shows Honnold standing barefoot and bare-chested perched on the edge of the cliff he has just scaled that overlooks a span of rocky peaks studded with evergreens. His boyish smile is ecstatic, yet somehow relaxed at the same time, and his dark eyes squint slightly in the sunshine. His brown hair is tousled as though he just got out of bed, and his arms hang loosely at his side, not in the triumphant V one might imagine after an achievement like this. Looking slightly tired perhaps, but adorable and satisfied and, above all, chill. Honnold has a face that looks easy to fall in love with.

Mythic, incomprehensible, audacious, generation-defining, death-defying. These are the descriptions the journalists at the Denver Post, The New Yorker and National Geographic come up with for what he has done. The most dangerous rope-free ascent ever, the greatest human athletic feat.

There are other words I might come up with.

I know Honnold is special; I know we’ll never forget him. I also know his kind. I am onto him. Because of who he is, there is no ascent will be high enough, fast enough, difficult enough, newsmaking enough. Nothing will change the passion or the urgency he feels. They are stronger than hunger, stronger than love.

He is only one climb away from a definite eventuality. Extreme adventurers don’t retire. I think of future pain when I read these things.

I don’t begrudge Honnold for following his bliss. Part of me envies his intense focus and dedication, his willingness to give everything for his craft. Another part of me can’t help but admire the massiveness of his accomplishment.

I begrudge him for making anyone love him, for allowing anyone to love him. Even me.


Photo copyright: Pete Mortimer “Alex Honnold free-solo on Sentinel 2011” at flickr per Creative Commons

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