Mountain Literature Classics: Free Solo with Alex Honnold

© UKC News

As the years and centuries go by, the mountains we climb get bigger, more serious, and more difficult. A process that in general is about as gradual as me making my way up Bidean a' Choire Sheasgaich. But now and then there's a sudden step up. Followed by another step up, and a few thousand more – to make a climb that changes our whole idea of what climbers can climb. Whymper on the Matterhorn. The 1950 French expedition to Annapurna. Ben Moon on Hubble. Lynn Hill free climbing The Nose. And all at once the sky darkens with a swarm of buzzwords – iconic – quantum leap – paradigm shift – plus of course the one I already deployed, the ever upward step-change.

And yes, Alex Honnold isn't the only one doing this kind of stuff. But his free solo ascent in 2017 of Freerider (5.13a, around 7c+) on El Capitan is the one that stands out as the iconic, paradigm-shifting 1000m high leap upwards in the meaning of mountaineering.

Alex Honnold's book is 'Alone on the Wall', with the 2018 edition having three extra chapters covering his El Cap climb. Despite its outstanding (if slightly silly) cover picture – despite having fine author David Roberts helping him along – it's a book that, for me, doesn't quite do it.

My right hand came in to my left  and I removed my index and middle fingers, which had been stuck to the wall only by the tension between my right big toe and my left thumb. My right thumb took the fingers' place on the good part of the ripple and my left hand shot out left to grab the sloping loaf.

For this aerial pandemonium ballet, words don't really work. What this kind of mountain motion requires is a major motion picture. What we want is 'Free Solo', 2018, the Oscar winning documentary by directors and cameras Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. If a 90-minute movie can be considered as a Literary Classic, then 'Free Solo' is a classic. And if it can't – too bad, because Free Solo's a classic anyway.

The two directors are outstanding film makers as well as climbers themselves. Their earlier documentary 'Meru' is about their own climbing – they met Alex not on any north face, but on the North Face brand development programme. The story they tell is about Insanity. It's about sex, and it's about death.

It swings into its themes with the sudden abruptness of Yosemite granite: from forest floor to vertical rock in a single step.

Being out of the ordinary

Is there something different about Alex? An interview segment starts asking this even before the opening credits. Alex's parents offered encouragement, and high standards, but little affection: "I never got hugged. I had to teach myself how to hug;" and then his Dad died. Despite this he is high-functioning. 1000m-high functioning.

Then again, they put Alex in an MRI scanner, which showed a lack of response to fear in his amygdala. A defective brain response? Or learned behaviour from self-conditioning against high ropeless climbing? We all know that the more you dangle above huge drops, the less scared you get.

Mostly, we assume that other people's inner lives are more or less like our own. It's a necessary pretence, life just doesn't work otherwise. Neurodiversity: sometimes we find the other person's mental processes hard to fathom because they are just so different. Alex is interesting. His mentality is not like ours. Well it's not like mine, anyway. But I did once go 'oh fuck it' and make an irreversible step across on Torridonian sandstone above an 80ft runout, well there looked like some holds over there. Obviously, I survived.


So stoked to realize a life dream today :) @jimmy_chin photo

A post shared by Alex Honnold (@alexhonnold) on


There's a theory that conspicuous taking of lethal risks can, paradoxically, have survival value. This works if it indicates evolutionary fitness to prospective sexual partners. That way, it could lead to extra reproductive opportunities, enough to compensate for the non-survival effects of possible death.

But not for Alex. Again, this comes up right at the start, in a Q & A at his old school:

Do you think that being a climber has a positive or negative effect on your dating life?

Alex: (laughs) My dating life? I think overall it's been a negative. I just travel too much. I live in a car.

And yet, without additional effort on his part Alex has attracted not one but two long-term partners. Stacey Pearson approached him via Facebook after watching one of his films. Later, Sanni McCandless fancies him at a book talk, moves in on him, and is the heroine of the 'Free Solo' film. And she's even prepared to tie onto his rope and get taken up Half Dome. Despite seemingly taking second place in his life, as well as his climbing rope.

"Having the girlfriend in the van is awesome. I mean, she's cute and small and, like, livens the place up a bit, doesn't take up too much room. I mean, it's, pretty much makes life better in every way."

But a distraction, of course. "I will always choose climbing over a lady." Writing in 2015, Alex still refers to a woman as a 'chick'. And his idea of giving one of them a good time on the crucial first date is taking Sanni ('not really a climber') on what he describes as the most hateful crag in the country.

Seen in these terms 'Free Solo' is a simple, almost familiar story of one man confronting a wall so huge and terrifying that it looks impossible. And through courage, careful self training, the help of his friends – at last coming out on top. But for Chin and Vasarhelyi, that obstacle bravely overcome – it's not El Capitan. It's Alex's inability to interact emotionally, to give and receive hugs.

Vasarhelyi points it out in the Q&A session bundled with the DVD; Alex confirms it in his book. He took to climbing solo because he was just too shy to speak to another climber and ask. Alex is more scared of talking to another human being than he is of dying.

And so the story of Alex and the granite is also about learning to share his man-cave camper van. Deciding not to dump Sanni even when her inattention to the rope causes him an injury that costs him half a season's climbing. Waiting at the top of El Cap to share the moment with the arriving film crew (before heading back to the valley, it isn't even lunchtime, for a couple more climbs...)


Again, the film-makers announce this one up front, in that book tour interview before the opening credits:

Here is what I don't understand. One little mistake, one little slip and you fall. You die.

Alex: Yup. You seem to have understood it pretty well.

The crux move, the Boulder Problem, requires an exact sequence of grips on very small crimps and friction holds, followed by a committing leg-lunge. When practising, roped, Alex fell off it frequently. During the solo ascent, the cameraman on the valley floor can't watch this bit, and turns away from his camera.

"I work through the fear, until it's just not scary anymore," Alex tells us. And: "I haven't had anybody die that I was really close to. Yet." Oh, but half way through the two years of preparation his pal, Ueli Steck the two-hours-up-Eigerwand guy, is killed while climbing Lhotse.

El Capitan panorama.  © Ice Nine
El Capitan panorama.
© Ice Nine, Mar 2012

Alex and the granite

On an early attempt, Alex gives up low on the climb, at Pitch Six on the Freeblast Slabs. No handholds, friction smears for the feet, it's cold and it's still dark. It just doesn't feel right that day. Not with all those camera-people watching. He grabs the bolt for aid, then traverses out to a nearby abseil rope.

But over the next couple of years he learns to ignore the dangling cameras. Just as, already, he has learned to ignore the natural promptings of terror.

So why would a young man, with his whole life ahead of him, spend six years dreaming and two years practising the moves of a project that is extremely likely to leave him dead?

We can understand the film crew. Two years isn't all that long for making an award-winning movie; even if Alex does realise he doesn't want to do it, they've still got great footage of the world's grandest bit of granite outside Patagonia. But what if, at the Boulder Problem pitch or even before, Alex's finger slips and Alex drops out of the bottom of the frame… Apart from anything else (apart from their movie abruptly becoming unshowable) who's going to make the phone call to Sanni?

They decide to just call 911 and let things take their course.

But here's me 20 pitches up this article and I haven't even mentioned the most crucial character of all. The film isn't just about sex and death. It's also about the climb.

Now, I haven't (needless to say) climbed Freerider on El Capitan. But going by the movie, Freerider is a magnificent climb. Exactly 1000m of 5.13a (or by another measure PG13), its 31 (count them!) pitches so full of variety: the downclimb at Pitch 14; the Monster Offwidth, 60m high, too wide for handjams and too narrow to squirm inside; the crux at the Boulder Problem just where it should be at Pitch 23; above that the Enduro Corners, long laybacking on exhausted arms, and the hand traverse at Pitch 27 with the 900m of empty space underneath, the 30 metres of E1.5 'scrambling' at the top, and then the trees and the meadows.

At the top: 'I'm sort of at risk of crying here, I feel so emotional. (Glancing to camera) I think the movie'd be better if I burst into tears.'

When it's all over, you don't actually admire Alex H. Well I don't. You don't actually understand him: his life choices are clearly not sensible. But you do find yourself liking him. Again, when it's all over, we're still left wondering whether climbing is, or is not, a form of insanity. Whether it's sexy. Whether it makes sense in any way whatever.

But despite all that – or possibly because of it – still more convinced of the basic proposition. Climbing is the one true sport.

All of the rest are merely games.

At the time of writing, Alex Honnold has married Sanni McCandless and is still alive.

29 Nov, 2023


29 Nov, 2023

The picture on the cover of the book is fine. Many people including me crawled along the ledge. It's an iconic situation.

29 Nov, 2023

the point of this article?

29 Nov, 2023

I have no idea what was intended but I found the article thought-provoking in terms of what we might or should mean by 'literature'.

It's tempting to confine 'literature' in a box marked 'Tales recorded through the medium of the written word', but in reality the boundaries of that have been pushed for many decades, as illustrations and photos have been common for a long time, and in 'comic books' the words and images are both integral to the telling of the tale.

The way I see it, we used the word 'literature' when the written word was the only option for published tales, and we've broadened the definition to include images too. Now that we can publish tales through other media, such as audio and video, I don't see a huge difference. Indeed audiobooks are fast becoming the way many of us consume 'literature', so should it really be necessary for a tale to have first been published in print for it to be regarded as literature?

29 Nov, 2023

Engagement. Which you've done twice, so it's doing it's job very well indeed!

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