Alex Honnold shattered rock climbing records when he scaled El Cap without any ropes… in less than 4 hours, by the way. His feat is amazing.
My husband and I watched Nat Geo’s documentary Free Solo and were astonished, terrified, and excited in all the right places.
Honnold is 33, tall with a ripped core, and a vegetarian who lives much of his life in his van. A professional rock climber, his favorite way to climb is free solo, meaning without any ropes. No, he doesn’t have a death wish, and isn’t even an adrenaline junkie. I was surprised to learn that he’s essentially a self-loathing perfectionist. He loves to feel perfect, even if for just a moment, and when climbing without ropes, he needs to perform each move with perfection. When he succeeds on a route, he’s achieved perfection.
Long before ever considering free soloing a route, Honnold climbs the route with a rope, as many times as it takes to do it perfectly, until he’s confident that he can do it just as well rope-less. He memorizes every move for the route, and in the case of El Cap, that’s 3000 feet of intricate climbing maneuvers. Each is written down in his climbing journal and rehearsed extensively.
And he doesn’t take the risks lightly. For example, his iconic free solo on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley in 2017 was his second attempt. Six months prior, he set out to do just that, but a recent injury and the pressure of camera guys recording made him change his mind early in the route. After more vigorous work on the wall and diligent preparation, he mastered his years-long goal on June 3, 2017. Most skilled climbers take several days to climb the same route. Honnold topped out by mid-morning.
I was impressed that Honnold really doesn’t seem to be out to dazzle anyone with his unbelievable climbs. He likes to prove himself for himself, and is not interested in pleasing the crowds.
Peeking into his life via the documentary, seeing him climb in his zone, and do hangboard exercises in his van was all very eye-opening. A few details that really grabbed my attention include:
-His amygdala has a WAY higher threshold for fear than most other people (as confirmed by an MRI, in case seeing him function calmly on the face of a massive rock wall half a mile above the trees wasn’t enough proof).
-I have to be honest….when he was talking about his drive to perform and be perfect, he said it’s the “bottomless pit of self-loathing.” My heart ached for the poor guy when he said that. And, though this may seem like a stretch, it made me think of Meriwether Lewis. You know, as in Lewis and Clark, the leader of the Corps of Discovery who battled self-doubt and didn’t think he had accomplished enough in his life. It’s so sad, that these two high-achieving guys would battle such self-negativity. And it kind of made me worry for Honnold, like (he says ‘like’ all the time, so when writing about him, I won’t feel guilty throwing in a few extra ‘likes’!), now that he free soloed El Cap, what’ll be next? Will he always feel the need to outdo himself? Will he ever be satisfied? I’m a mom, so my maternal instinct and compassion are like, “Dude, you’re good enough. Your skill is amazing. Enjoy it, but be safe, Man!”
-The way he justifies free soloing, saying that while the outcome of a fall would obviously pretty much be fatal, the probability of him falling is actually very low, based on the amount of preparation, was understandable. Not so understandable that I’ll get into free soloing, but definitely understandable that he can think in those terms. Since his amygdala doesn’t fire up as readily as mine, that is.
-I loved how he said he doesn’t think in terms of overcoming fear, but rather in terms of increasing his comfort zone so that the scary part of a route, etc becomes comfortable.
-I laughed my head off (and shuddered) when he described one section of the route as being like the worst Pilates class ever while being flogged at the same time. He obviously had his eyes on the prize to get through that!
-It was interesting and kind of surprising (though I guess it shouldn’t be surprising) that when another climber died, Honnold’s reaction seemed very objective and detached. I found it sad, but I suppose he has to view life and death and gravity and consequences objectively to do what he does.
-When he observed that his girlfriend Sanni’s life goal appears to be happiness and enjoying life with people, and that he thinks anybody can be happy but it’s the performance-driven perfectionists who accomplish great things, I couldn’t help but wonder who is happier in the long run? Clearly he was thrilled when he free soloed El Cap (and he undoubtedly had a blast along the way), but will that delight fade into more self-loathing if he doesn’t outdo that accomplishment? Then who will be happier? But if happiness isn’t his goal, then it’s irrelevant. To piggyback that thought, I was impressed when he said that somebody someday will likely do something more amazing than free soloing El Cap, and it will be great. I just worry for his peace of mind (that’s the mom in me!).
So, Alex Honnold made rock climbing history and continues making rock climbing history, and his self-discipline and motivation for perfectionism fuel his ability to do this. Climb on, Dude.
The documentary was very-well filmed with heart-stopping views, emotional moments, and glimpses into life in a van. I was pleasantly surprised that there wasn’t more profanity (I did hear the F-bomb once), appreciated the brief interview with Honnold’s mother, and overall would recommend the doc for teenagers and adults. Those interested in climbing, adventuring, and depression may find it especially riveting.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on Free Solo, Alex Honnold, Meriwether Lewis, perfectionism, and/or parenting a performance-driven child. Please share your positive comments 🙂