It’s easy enough to read it: On June 3, 2017, Alex Honnold rewrote what is humanly possible by climbing the nearly 3,000-foot-tall face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope.
It’s harder to understand how or why, but let’s try.
Start with the feat, and the feat alone: Alex Honnold, a 31-year-old universally acclaimed climbing genius, scaled El Capitan without a rope, aid, or any help whatsoever. That is yes, almost 3,000 feet of climbing and focus applied to the almost sheer, vertical surface most consider to be the heart of the rock climbing universe, done without so much as a BASE jumping chute for a sliver of the illusion of safety.
In 1958, the first three climbers to make it all the way up El Capitan did it only after 18 months of planning and 47 days of actual climbing. They used ropes and drove pitons into the rock itself to secure their progress, and established a series of base camps along the way on a long siege of the climb. Even skilled climbers working today typically take four days to summit the most commonly climbed route, the standard called The Nose.
The route Honnold chose, Freerider, requires a similar commitment of time and resources. There are climbers sleeping on the rock as we write this, very fit, very experienced climbers who will need the better part of a week to knock off. They will sleep there, haul gear from station to station, and even defecate into PVC pipes and carry it with them for disposal later in order to finish the climb. I know this because Alex Honnold said in an interview just after the climb that he woke a few of them up on his way up the rock, passing them without a rope as they slept in Bivy platforms attached to the wall.
That route — my god, I almost don’t want to tell you what’s involved because it makes my hands start sweating just thinking about it. The rock is nearly vertical or past vertical. It heats up in the sun and messes with grip, and starts out cold enough to tear off callouses, leaving a climber’s hands bloody and useless. There are cracks small enough to get hands and feet stuck in, requiring expensive and embarrassing rescue; there are “off-width” cracks, big enough to require delicate use of the entire body as a kind of safety plug, a sometimes nightmarish move for a climber even with protection.
The entirety of Freerider grades out at a 5.12d on a scale that only goes up to 5.15. The crux of the route — i.e. the hardest part — is something called “The Teflon Corner,” a move working across holds no bigger than 1/8th of an inch requiring “a karate kick.” When Honnold was sizing up possible free solo routes on El Cap in 2009, even he doubted tackling Freerider because of the crux: "I've never even looked at the Teflon Corner, but it doesn't sound like something you'd want to solo.”
Eight years later, Honnold blew through the Teflon Corner with ease.* He finished a route most people do in four days in three hours and 56 minutes. He was wearing only a red shirt, cutoff nylon climbing pants, and a pair of climbing shoes when he did it, and carried only a bag of chalk. He was done by 9:28 a.m. PT.
*Correction: Honnold blew through the crux at “The Boulder Problem,” which is a 5.13a rock climbing move, not the Teflon Corner. This is a photo of Pete Whittaker working his way through that section. No, we can’t see what he’s holding onto, either, or how anyone would attempt this with a rope, much less without one.
There is also the matter of how he did this: Free soloing, i.e. climbing without a rope or any aid of any sort. There is no bigger level of commitment to your own skill as an athlete than free soloing a climb. There is no backup past your ability, no preservation from chance or the random disaster, no option B to select on the menu. If a free soloist makes a mistake on an ascent past a certain height, then that free soloist dies, often in violent and spectacular fashion.
Pedantry about free soloing being a glorified suicide helps me make this point: For Alex Honnold, the most unreal aspect of his ascent of Freerider is that it might not even be within the range of unreal for him.
Honnold didn’t use siege tactics and pitons to climb El Cap, but his preparation was no less rigorous. Honnold studied and worked the route — often alongside pioneering free soloist Peter Croft — for years. He free soloed other faces to get a feel for long climbs without protection done at scales that would melt other climbers’ brains. For comparison, take a look at Moonlight Buttress, and feel the fear tingling in your knees and neck just looking at it, and then consider how Honnold did this free solo almost nine years ago, when he was just getting started two years after dropping out of UC-Berkeley to live in his van and climb.
Consider how Honnold’s brain processes fear differently than the average human brain, and how his ability to stay calm and focused despite dangling by his fingertips a thousand feet off the ground comes from his amygdala barely firing under circumstances that would set most other people’s emotional centers on fire. Read about his fingerboard workouts, which he does in an L-sit position to keep his feet off the ground because he has to do them hanging from the frame of his home. Consider that his home is a van he lives in so he can devote his entire life to climbing, and that he rolled out of that same van to climb up the full height and length of Freerider, and that he spent the night before what will likely be the greatest achievement of his or any other rock climber’s career in that van, watching “the last Hobbit movie” and “vegging.”
Also think about there being nothing past this, at least not on Earth. There are larger sheer rock faces on the planet, but almost all of them involve some degree of alpine-style climbing just to get there, and are located in places where the climate and geography are almost as much of an obstacle as the wall itself. Free soloing Trango Towers or Mount Thor would be legitimate suicide attempts made into the teeth of freezing weather and unstable rock conditions. Honnold’s risk in the end was no less absolute, but was also wagered at the very edge of the limit of the possible. What might lie beyond Yosemite is a degree of madness — even for the visibly mad free soloing community, where competitors race only themselves, each other’s records, and ultimately Death.
Finally: Consider how sensible all this madness looks, now that it’s all laid out there. Honnold, who was training to be an engineer before dropping out of university, chose the least unreal and controllable venue for the insanity of the world’s biggest free solo attempt. He prepared for it ruthlessly, devoted his whole life to it, and tracked the entire route until some of the holds felt like “old friends.” Honnold did that for the better part of eight years, then waxed it like it was a practice lap at the peak physical performance age of 31, and with a mental edge so pronounced it became the focus of official scientific inquiry.
Think about that on the day before the climb, Honnold bouldered just to stay loose, and that on the day of, after he finished, he was planning to work out because he’d only had “four hours of light exercise,” but definitely needed lunch first. The most shocking thing about Honnold’s free solo of El Cap isn’t just that it rewrote what humans are capable of, but that the human who accomplished it made it seem so logical and normal in the first place.
The feat is extraordinary without the athlete; the athlete regards it as logical and normal; by extension, the athlete is simply doing what they are there to do, and anyone watching now realizes that they are in the company of a legitimate mutant, someone whose achievements are only made normal by comparison with the extranormal person producing them. I’m out of ways to say this: Alex Honnold is human, and so are you, and that the definition includes both is proof that words are shoddy signifiers for the reality they are supposed to represent, because Alex Honnold climbed Freerider without a rope and it didn’t even seem like an unsafe, unwise thing for him to do.
If all that isn’t enough: Consider that about halfway up, Honnold was planning his next climb, a sport climb at the absurd grade of 9A. That wasn’t being presumptuous: In his mind, the climb was finished the minute he left the ground. The rest — all of the nearly 3,000 feet of it — was just light exercise.