There are some things which should be beyond the capabilities of human beings. Walking on the surface of Mars. Running a sub-2 hour marathon. Climbing El Capitan without ropes or other safety gear.
But every now and then, a super-human comes along. Someone who pushes the boundaries of what we previously thought possible. A goal that seems so dangerous to the rest of us becomes an obsession, until that person conquers the impossible and we take a huge leap forward as a species.
Alex Honnold is a name you’ve probably never heard of, unless you are into your climbing. His ascent of El Capitan without a rope (known as free soloing) has recently shot him into the mainstream and his exploits have been captured in a National Geographic film documentary called Free Solo.
El Capitan is a 3,200ft wall of granite in Yosemite National Park, California. Even the name shows it means business and just looking at the thing is frightening. It takes experienced climbers several days of technical climbing to conquer it and photographs of people dangling from the rock face on ropes are enough to make you feel queasy.
Now take away the rope, or any other safety gear for that matter. Now it becomes the thing of nightmares. Welcome to the world of free soloing. As Alex says, the concept is pretty simple: if you fall, you die. No second chances. There’s a reason why so many people who make free soloing a big part of their lives don’t last long.
I managed to catch Free Solo on the IMAX screen this week and it blew me away. For that 1hr and 40 minutes, I was captivated by the story. How Alex prepared for the climb and the real dangers that he faced. The breathtaking scenery of Yosemite National Park. The skill and professionalism of all the climbers involved.
The interesting part for me was Honnold’s character. I wouldn’t describe him as a daredevil, a thrill-seeker, reckless, or any other adjective you’d normally conjure up for someone doing a dangerous activity. He simply has a healthy and measured attitude towards risk. Only when the time was right did he attempt the climb.
He was meticulous in his preparations, recording in his notebook each training climb in intricate detail. Each tiny movement on the rock face became part of his muscle memory and came together like a beautifully choreographed dance. That detail comes across in the film and is done in such a way so as not to bore non-climbers.
The film keeps you gripped throughout and there are some genuinely funny parts which break up the suspense. The highlight is the final 20 minutes when he’s on the wall without a rope. Even the film crew (all experienced climbers in their own right) can’t watch as he tackles notorious sections of the route.
You could hear a pin drop in the cinema, such is the tension, even though you know he survives! In fact, the only person who seems completely relaxed is Honnold himself, who gives a cheeky grin to the remote cameras as he ascends, indicating he is completely in his element.
This film had more of an impact on me than I thought. I was always going to enjoy it – I’m a mountain geek and could watch footage like this for hours. But it was the message for non-outdoorsy people which stuck with me – Honnold’s attitude to risk and love of life. Something we can all learn from.
Has it inspired me to start free soloing? Are you crazy?!
Does it make me want to live more in the present and prioritise what’s important to me? Absolutely!