Alex Honnold’s plans were no secret. We all knew free soloing El Capitan had been on his mind since the beginning of his climbing career; we just never knew when or even if this crazy idea might ever become a reality.
At 9:28 a.m., Saturday, June 3, 2017, Honnold succeeded in free soloing El Capitan, becoming the first person ever to do so. His ascent of the 3,000-foot Yosemite monolith via Free Rider (5.13a) took 3 hours 56 minutes, but the actual feat itself was over a decade in the making. It involved thousands of hours of soloing on easier terrain. Thousands of hours of training and pushing himself sport climbing. And countless hours of visualizing what it might actually be like to head up on El Capitan with nothing more than a pair of shoes and a chalk bag.
For many climbers, particularly Honnold’s closest friends, the news of his audacious feat was met with a breath of relief that Honnold had actually survived. That quickly gave way to complete and utter astonishment. Already, I’ve seen climbers anoint this El Cap solo as the greatest achievement in sports—ever. But is it?
The answer, probably, is yes. Though to limit it as an achievement only within the world of “sports,” I think, is far too restrictive. First, it’s hard to even to call free soloing a “sport.” There are no other sports in which the penalty for even the most modest of errors is certain death.
Honnold’s progression to this point is as much a part of the story as the ascent itself. Now, in retrospect, it all seems premeditated in a sort of genius way. In 2007, a quiet kid from Sacremento, his face always partly shrouded by a hoody, burst onto the climbing scene by repeating the greatest free-solo of the 1980s: Peter Croft’s link-up of Astroman and the Rostrum. In 2008, Honnold free-soloed the Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park, a feat that by itself would’ve cemented his legacy as the greatest free soloist of all time. Later that year, he soloed Half Dome. Then there was Sendero Luminoso in El Potrero.
Each of these ascents was a milestone. What’s most incredible is to now view them not only as milestones but stepping stones.
“For me, free soloing is all about preparation,” Honnold wrote in his book Alone on the Wall.
Indeed. How many times did Honnold climb Free Rider in preparation for this solo? Unlike Moonlight Buttress, a route that Honnold has never fallen on, the Boulder Problem pitch of Free Rider has spit off Honnold repeatedly. It’s an insecure V7 crux, 1,700 feet up the wall.
What was the moment that made him realize he could climb through these moves with enough certainty to justify the risk? After how many times of rehearsing the route?
And how many hours did Honnold spend thinking about free soloing El Capitan over the last 10 years? Visualizing each and every move.
The answers to these questions would be as utterly glib as asking Michael Jordan how he knew he’d hit a game-winning shot. Some things can’t be described. In fact, this interview with Honnold more or less proves this point.
The idea of being ropeless 2,000 feet up El Capitan is something many climbers have pondered while resting in El Cap meadow, smoking weed, and staring transfixed up at the granite monster towering over them. For most, those moments were nothing more than ass-puckering fantasies that would spur uncomfortable fits of laughter. For Honnold, it was a serious project to be tackled.
Most climbers might describe the idea of free-soloing El Capitan as being a matter of tackling over 3,000 feet of insecure climbing. I can almost guarantee that Honnold looked at it much differently. He most likely saw just three insecure moves on the Boulder Problem pitch—the rest of it, meanwhile, was far more confidence-inducing climbing. This may explain why these ascents are, in Honnold’s mind, “no big deal.” He meticulously breaks them down in such a way that they aren’t (for him).
One way to measure the greatness of any sporting achievement might be to consider the amount of time that passes before it’s achieved again. New world records are set in virtually every single Olympics. Every year brings new sports stars who stand on the shoulders of those who came before them. Look at someone like Usain Bolt, who has a dominant record in the 100-meter dash that might last for generations. The difference is, lots of people can run the 100 meters (albeit not quite as fast as Bolt).
Honnold, meanwhile, is performing in an event that no one else is even qualified, much less willing, to participate.
I can’t be sure, but I have a hunch that Honnold’s legacy will stand for a very, very long time. Which is one reason that I personally hope he now takes a step back from free soloing in the way that Peter Croft did—if only to reexamine any motivations for continuing. That Honnold has never struck me as particularly attached to outcomes or driven by ego inspires confidence that he’ll enjoy the next 80 years of adventure.
Above all, what I’m left with, like most climbers, is a sense of complete and utter astonishment. I find it remarkable to experience such genuine astonishment in 2017, a dark year by many accounts but also an era in which it sometimes feels like we’ve seen it all. I’m taking this weekend to appreciate the fact that we just lived through history and witnessed one of the most incredible performances of all time.
We’ve all stared up at stars, and wondered what’s out there in the universe. It takes a once-in-a-generation visionary to figure out how to actually go there.
Honnold’s El Cap free solo transcends all sports. It suffuses a higher, more ancient realm in which our greatest virtues as human beings are often contained by our oldest and deepest fears. This solo was a moment in which those virtues triumphed. As a result, to witness this moment, to be a part of this community, and to feel deeply inspired by what Honnold achieved, somehow, it feels like we all triumphed, too.
Check out the exclusive story in National Geographic, and stay tuned for a feature film from Jimmy Chin.