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Alex Honnold Scales El Capitan Without Ropes, and the Climbing World Reels (npr.org)
928 points by merraksh 22 days ago | hide | past | web | 495 comments | favorite

By far the best article I've seen to supplement this: https://www.outsideonline.com/2190306/why-alex-honnolds-free...

As a climber, there are very few people that I trust to have a more useful opinion on all this than Tommy Caldwell, a close friend and long time climbing partner of Honnold. It's so out there for most people that most jump to conclusions without proper knowledge of the subject.

Caldwell is in an interesting position of having to balance supporting his friend, and trying to get over the fact that he very well could die doing these attempts. His article does a great job expressing this.

It’s all too easy for headlines about climbing to lean on clichés about the climbers themselves—that these people are daredevils, thrill seekers, adrenaline junkies. But to most climbers, nothing is quicker to trigger the gag reflex. Climbing is an intimate relationship with our world’s most dramatic landscapes, not a self-boasting fight against them. I don’t claim to understand the inner workings of Alex’s mind, but I know one thing for certain: Alex climbs to live, not to cheat death.

Can someone help me understand this? How is doing something without safety equipment that you can do with with safety equipment climbing to live, but not about cheating death? What is the point of foregoing safety if not to somehow eke something out of the increased danger, whether it be adrenaline, or a period of increased focus, or fame?

If it's not about someone being addicted to adrenaline or looking for fame, then I just don't understand it. At all. As in it's so foreign to me that I can't even begin to understand it.

I have a couple of things that might help you a bit:

1. Alex Honnold's brain is atypical. His amygdala simply does not respond to stimuli the way that it does in most people. To learn more, read this (excellent) article:


2. While I am (at best) a mediocre climber, the section you quoted rings true to me, particularly this section - "Climbing is an intimate relationship with our world’s most dramatic landscapes, not a self-boasting fight against them." There is something incredibly natural and sensual about climbing on rock that I can't describe without sounding like I'm talking about sex. And...that's traditionally where people tell me to give them my keys because I've had too much to drink. :)

3. Climbing is a deeply meditative activity, particularly when you get into a place where each movement flows into the next. When I am there, my mind shuts down and it is just a rock and me doing the most natural thing that I have ever found (see #2). That flow is deeply beautiful, but when you climb with ropes, you have to be in near constant contact with your belay partner. When I am with my regular belay partner, it interrupts that flow. When I am with a new belay partner, I never get close to it.

I suspect that if my amygdala worked like his, I would free solo simply to avoid having to communicate with a belay partner.

Andy Kirkpatrick is another climber who solos (but aid climbs, not free solo) and mentions a few times in his books that he does so because he doesn't want to deal with the faff of other people.

In response...

1. I wonder if amygdala responses in meditators would be similar. The Nautilus article mentions the control of his prefrontal cortex as a possible way he mediates the amygdala's response, and meditation often shows modulation in PFC activity. As a meditator, I also have a strange lack of fear response—for example, it's almost impossible to startle me.

2,3 I have only climbed a few times, and I too felt an unspeakable relationship with the rock itself that I have rarely felt while doing anything. The closest I can relate it to is indeed a deep meditative state, but one that comes with motion. Totally understand these points.

I heard Alex speak once and he said that if he's in the position of having an adrenaline rush while climbing something has gone wrong. He needs to be calm and calculating to make every move right.

What is the personality test that this article about Alex mentions? The one that generated that bar graph. I'd like to take it myself.

Well thank you, but the test in that link doesn't work. Anyway, I searched for some high sensation seekers tests, but the graph in the article has far more detailed results than any test I could find. It measures several interesting personality traits.

link worked for me. https://i.imgur.com/I7RKlW5.png

The test doesn't

You're right. I found the full test and scoring table at http://wsm.wsu.edu/s/we.php?id=200

I think I understand you, its like having a sex with or w/o a condom ;)

I think more like with or without the neighbours knocking on the walls telling you to keep it down

It's like having sex without falling three thousand feet to your death.

It would have also been amazing if he free-claimed up with a chute on his back and as he reached the peak, based off it back to the bottom!

Had Dean Potter lived a little longer, I suspect that he would have tried that.



Edit -- Added a second, better link.

Dean Potter did do that, off a route of the Eiger. He called it, "freeBASE"



I know, but I was replying to a comment about El Capitan. As far as I know, Dean Potter didn't freebase from El Cap.

With that kind of exposure, I'm pretty sure that the Yosemite rangers would have an easy time catching an El Cap freebaser and confiscate all the jumper's gear.

Thanks for the YouTube link! I hadn't seen that before, but holy shit, do I ever miss sharing a planet with someone like Dean Potter.

Yeah, Dean is missed. I don't believe he ever did it on El Cap. either - I sort of wished he did, as it would be an interesting argument/philosophical point FOR "basejumping" within the Park, as it would show an extra level of safety when climbing. His relationship with the rangers within the park must have been interesting, as they certainly knew what he was up to...

I wanted to know more about Potter's final jump and found this: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/14/sports/dean-potter-final-...

That is an amazing article - thanks for taking the time to find it and sharing the spoils!

Also a fucking shitload safer

I think the main thing you need to realize is that is climbing with ropes there is a lot of overhead involved to do it safely. I'd say about 1/8th of the time is climbing the other 7/8 is spent with the logistics of the rope management, partner management and placing protection in the rock. With free soloing you can focus entirely on the climbing and not on the logistics. I honestly think its more about this focus and flow and less about the cheating death.

I free solo'ed small stuff, mostly 5.6/5.7. It's a rush, the desire will always be there.

What's the rating of free solo El Capitan?

5.13a, as Honnold did it. There's a route without the dihedral that drops it down to 5.12d, but the rock isn't considered trustworthy anymore.

For anyone else who has no idea what these 5.x[a-d] numbers mean:


ahh, 5.13 > 5.6. Thanks.

I agree.

This is why I prefer bouldering these days.

The closest analog I can think of is Phillipe Petit's tightrope walk across the twin towers. Petit has similarly said that:

“I am not a death-wish person,” he said to me. “I want to live very old. It is true that death is part of the frame—that it frames such activities as bullfighting and tightrope walking. My world is a dangerous world, sure, but I am very safe in knowing my limits. I am not playing with words when I say I don’t take risks. The danger becomes so narrow that it is a novel companion with whom you travel. It is not an enemy.”

I know this isn't an answer, but if you've never seen the documentary about Petit, "Man on Wire", perhaps it would help to understand the mindset.

You have to embrace the ambiguity in natural languages. Life and death can be simply considered opposites. In this mode of thinking any risky behavior is trading in death at the peril of life.

However you can also imagine a justification along these lines: There are certain things we humans can do which give us access to unique highly desirable mental states. Some of these are familiar things like falling in love or having children. These are risks but usually perceived as having obvious upsides. There are also other behaviors like drug use or underground fight clubs which also give access to unique mental states but are usually perceived as too risky to encourage. It's easy to put judge free soloing climbing as something like drug use or bareknuckle boxing. But try to imagine that when done correctly and carefully that it could be something much like having a child or working on a math proof for years.

> There are certain things we humans can do which give us access to unique highly desirable mental states.

Sure. If cheating death is the path to that state for some people, that's understandable, and not really something new. I'm not judging him, this isn't some roundabout way to say people shouldn't free-solo. I'm literally trying to figure out if there's something else to it I'm missing, because the way it's stated makes it sound like there's something other than risk that's inherently different about free-soloing.

People are responding as if I said I don't understand why someone would do a risky behavior. I understand the high from cheating death. I don't understand doing something as risky as this if you aren't necessarily looking for that high, as the statement implied to me.

The alternative as I see it is that the author is reluctant to admit, or in denial about, some of the real reasons to free-solo. I didn't want to assume that without first checking my own assumptions.

I think there's such a pushback on the term "cheating death" because it sounds like "I should have died, but I didn't", when in reality that's not what the thought process is. The thought process is "of course I'm not going to die because of x y and z".

For me, the best way to describe it is that I strive to feel in control in progressively more difficult environments. That's the mental state I'm looking for. The progression of the mental state goals are easy to follow:

Top Rope (rope already set up above you): "I feel in control despite me being 40' off the ground"

Lead climbing (bring the rope up and clip into the wall as you go): "I feel in control despite me having to take a big fall if I fail"

Outdoor climbing: "I feel control despite me climbing real cliffs outside"

And you can follow this all the way to free soloing, where you can feel in control despite having no safety net at all. I'm not going to pretend that I understand Honnold, and I don't free solo, but this line of thinking makes sense to me.

The other off topic reasons I climb are:

1. Getting better at a sport, just like any other sport/hobby.

2. I like the outdoors and adventure, climbing is a great way to see things from a perspective most can't.

3. Fitness

I'd add to that and say that there are non-death threatening things that are very enjoyable to control and master (a cello, a paintbrush, code). It just so happens that some of those things that are enjoyable to master also involves mastering not killing yourself.

I love driving (shifting with manual transmission, steering, car maintenance, safe driving, etc). Some of that is controlling metal and machine; some of that is controlling your environment and the safety of your life. Same with riding a motorcycle, except I spend a little more on the safety part of it. Some might think I do it for the thrill of cheating death. Yes, staying alive is a goal, but that's not the reason I ride!

It's possible he has a much different view of the world than you or I do. I once met a person who did similarly risky things but from his perspective living a normal life seemed like a nightmarish slow burn death. He was completely fine with the most brazen stunts but the idea of settling down somewhere or having a 9-to-5 desk job gave him cold sweats and in his own words "the feeling as if a hand were wildly grasping at my throat" (sounds better in the original language). No "quiet desperation" for him I guess.

Although I think the simple thrill of it has to factor in at least a little bit, the climber is perhaps mainly motivated by the idea that not living like this is actually a form of death in itself or a very risky behavior (in the sense of wasting your life). It's similar to the ancient idea that a life of servitude is not a life at all. I can't say I necessarily agree but it's not such an outlandish concept either.

I've free soloed easy routes (long 5.4-5.6 routes in tahquitz -- I regularly climb in the 5.12s). Soloing something that you are comfortable with is enjoyable precisely because you _dont_ feel like you are cheating death. It feels like a fun romp -- quickly up and down -- you move faster, you don't have to stop and deal with belays, and often you can downclimb the route and avoid a lengthy walk-off. To the extent that you feel like you accomplished something -- you only really have that feeling if the climbing felt easy and smooth. If it felt hard and scary -- it was probably a _not_ fun experience, and certainly its something you would feel less "proud" about because a "better" climber wouldn't have felt the need to experience the discomfort.

If you listen to Alex talk -- he climbs a huge amount of "easier" terrain and he often describes those experiences in similar terms. It's just for him "easy" is waaaaaaay harder. I can indeed imagine how cool it would be to run up 5.11 (or in honnolds case more like 5.12) with the same fun casualness that I have experienced when running up 5.4 -- and it really does sound like it feels that way for him often.

Pushing the difficulty of his soloing as he has is partially about the specific challenge of doing a harder route and partially about moving up his comfort zone so that he increases the range of "easy" terrain that he can go casually solo. His expanding comfort over time has given him access to a huge range of terrain that he could comfortably free solo - which is a huge part of the reason why Caldwell asserts that Honnold has probably climbed more technical rock mileage than anyone else ever.

I think one thing that's interesting (mystifying?) about the way Honnold treats risk -- he doesn't really acknowledge that the longer he solos the more likely he is to have an accident. Instead he focuses on how fear in some of the situations he pursues can only ever have a detrimental effect on performance -- and that setting aside that fear is actually a required part of the task of minimizing the risk involved for what he wants to pursue. I think this is probably true though the mathematician in me still struggles with the first part -- and actually if you look at Alex talk, it sounds like he's starting to change his tune a bit too. Free rider was one of his top life goals related to soloing -- and it sounds from his interview that his next goal at least is more focused on climbing harder routes than on pursuing harder soloing.

> Soloing something that you are comfortable with is enjoyable precisely because you _dont_ feel like you are cheating death. It feels like a fun romp..

Up until that slightly exposed bit where you suddenly get buffeted by some wind and spend 30 seconds panting slightly whilst re-organising your thoughts. It is, without question, the most pure/fun form of climbing. To my simple brain staying calm and on point for a 4 hour free solo is just inconceivable

Completely agree -- however if it wasnt inconceivable it would be very cool for reasons other than the grandparents postulated satisfaction of defying death.

I used to climb, but didn't really have a handle on the difficulty of this due to the American grades used, so I looked into it a little more. It's utterly mind-blowing. This article [0] was helpful for anyone more used to UK climbing. This conversion chart is also handy. [1]

To put it into perspective, if you went to a busy indoor climbing gym, there'd maybe be one or two guys climbing at that level. And they'd probably be "working" a route, falling off it repeatedly, resting on the rope and learning the moves.

The idea of climbing at that technical level, for that length of time, with that level of risk just defies belief. I can't wrap my head around it.

[0] http://danmcmanus.blogspot.co.uk/2016/03/a-guide-to-freeride... [1] https://www.rockfax.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/trad_grad...

I know a lot of people who engage in dangerous sports, and I have done so myself. None of them do it because of some sense of cheating death - they do it because it is enormously fun and fulfilling. They walk away when the conditions are not right. If they wanted to cheat death, they would not.

The fact that it happens to be extremely dangerous means you take more care, but that is not the source of the pleasure. It's the cost of admission. Some won't pay it. Some will.

I really like that you are not judging him. I have seen people dismissed as stupid, as if they don't understand the risks. That's like calling a person stupid if they smoke. They aren't cheating death, they are enjoying cigarettes (and they are addicted, probably). But not stupid or ignorant.

I don't think smoking is a fair analogy. Free climbing is an awe inspiring sport, while smoking is a deadly and addictive habit with zero advantages whatsoever.

I first read about free climbing in an issue of National Geographic almost a decade ago. I never once recall thinking that it was "stupid": on the contrary, it quickly jumped up my list of interesting sports (below chess boxing).

Minor correction but a lot of people make the mistake, free climbing is what Ondra did on El Capitan's Dawn Wall last year. Where you climb with ropes but do not use it for any aid in climbing.

What Honnold has done is free soloing which is climbing without rope for protection.

They sound similar but are significantly different.

I don't think your analogy is on point here. This is more akin to playing football without a helmet, or driving a race car without a roll cage. Playing the sport is one thing, but I agree with the parent; what reason aside from tempting fate is there to climb without safety gear?

You are still racing cars, you are still playing football with the safety gear on (although football players in Australia do not wear helmets, and F1 cars don't have roll cages nor even roofs). Perhaps your analogies are off also ;)

However, you can climb mountains in different ways and people want to explore the possibilities. Some climbers think bolts are OK, some don't. It's their personal philosophy. They don't get the satisfaction they want if they use bolts, and think they desecrate the climb. So they don't use them. Not because they want to tempt fate, but because they would prefer not to climb things in that way.

The reason you ask for is: It's what they want to do. Reinhold Messner climbed mountains without oxygen, without seige tactics, because that's how he thought mountains should be climbed. Not because he wanted to tempt fate by eschewing "safety gear".

Wingsuit BASE is much more dangerous than regular BASE. Putting on a wingsuit is the opposite of safety gear - it's dangerous gear. However, it's not done to tempt fate, it's done to gain a different experience. That's what I think Honnold is doing here. He thinks it can be done, he thinks he can do it, and he turns out to be right. Same as Messner.

>You are still racing cars, you are still playing football with the safety gear on (although football players in Australia do not wear helmets, and F1 cars don't have roll cages nor even roofs). Perhaps your analogies are off also ;)

Sure... I wasn't implying that taking part in dangerous sports is something only adrenaline junkies do; I meant to say that doing so _without taking simple safety precautions_ puts you into that category.

I am trying to explain that there are different classes of climbing philosophically, not just one activity with or without certain safety related items.

"Motor racing without a helmet" = "stupid and pointless", we can probably agree on that.

"Climbing Everest without oxygen" != "Climbing Everest as an adrenaline junkie as I have deliberately foregone a safety related item".

"Free solo" != "Free climbing as an adrenaline junkie as I have deliberately foregone a safety related item".

My family have different risk tolerances and desires than me, but they know me and don't consider me an "adrenaline junkie".

I guess we just disagree :)

>"Free solo" != "Free climbing as an adrenaline junkie as I have deliberately foregone a safety related item".

That's the part I don't get though. That said, I'm not a climber and I'm trying to logic my way through it as an outsider with zero experience, so I fully admit I may be wrong.

Taking risks is not the same as cheating death.

Driving a motorcycle is not something you do to get an adrenaline high, yet from a strictly transportation perspective, it's a bigger risk than driving a car.

I think it has to do with priorities. Death is not the worst that can happen to me, hence I don't chose the safest option in every decision, because even though a long life is desirable, it's not the most important thing.

The sense of freedom is often worth more than the safest option.

> Driving a motorcycle is not something you do to get an adrenaline high

As a rider who's done a fair bit of social riding over the years, I have only met one rider for whom the thrill of it is not a factor.

Perhaps there's an athletic nuance as well - a roped-in climber can rest at any point during the climb by just hanging there, whereas a free-soloer can only rest at certain ledges along the way that naturally let him do that. It takes crazy stamina and self-discipline.

Overall I agree with you that most of the feat seems to be about the risk, but there may be more to it (I'm not a climber).

Isn't the type of resting already distinguished from non-supported resting in competitive or high-level climbing? I know that the term "free climbing" means that you use ropes and supports for safety, but not to aid you in any way.

From reading other comments, it sounds like the programming equivalent to coding a product without any tests, validation, exception handling. Risky and very likely to lead to a unrecoverable spaghetti mess, but we've all been in that state where the ideas are just free flowing unimpeded by caution.

Considering that Honnold completed the free solo in around 4 hours, I would suppose it is an experience of a similar nature, albeit with greater personal risk involved.

"War is the most dangerous fun you'll ever have"

– My old squad leader on NPR

Interviewer was aghast.

We're like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

An orgasm isn't called a little death (la petite mort) for nothing. I didnt know what it meant to live till I almost died. I'm definitely not a thrill seeker compared to free solo climbers. So call it what you will, I'm happier feeling life through the new senses I now have.

> Climbing is an intimate relationship with our world’s most dramatic landscapes, not a self-boasting fight against them.

For the same reason why many would spent hours catching fish over a lazy weekend when much better fish is available for $5 in super-market.

For the same reason why someone would spend 5 hours trying to solve an interesting algorithms problem when one can easily find a solution on internet.

I am not a climber. I have fear of heights but I can understand it.

Many climbers have a fear of hights. Climbing can be a way to get comfortable with it.

I climb and I'm afraid of heights, when I'm not climbing. I can't get near a ledge without an harness without feeling slightly dizy.

I'm a pilot and I'm terrified of heights. I get vertigo even thinking about looking over the edge of a cliff. I would also really like to try skydiving one of these years.

I think that a better way to express it for many people is we're not afraid of heights, we're afraid of falling and dying. Removing the falling aspect "cures" the phobia.

As a climber who is also scared of heights, I like to describe it as "a rational fear of heights". If I'm actually safe, I'm fine with it. It's the thought that a single slip, mental or physical = death. Even with a waist-high barrier, I'm still not going to look over the edge for fear of leaning too far. Give me a glass room hanging over the grand canyon that's stable and I'll be happy to go inside, lie face down on the floor, etc.

That is a rational fear. What you are describing is a normal fear. In my caseit would be more of a phobia where even when I am perfectly safe I would sweat, heartbeat would increase and I might get into a panic attack as suck.

you could say the same thing about top-roping vs lead climbing (placing protection from the ground up). Yes, top-roping is much safer, but the experience & sense of achievement is just not the same.

Free-soloing (climbing without ropes) is the purest form of climbing. Not stopping to place protection, not having to bring up your partner, not having to haul a bag... It's just you on the wall. It takes most climber multiple days of painstaking climbing to summit Freerider. Alex did it in 4 hours.

Beyond all else it's just a unbelievable feat of human ability.

If you really want to understand just how impressive this was:

1: climb something (even if it's just 40 feet in a climbing gym) 2: Go to Yosemite and stand at the base of El Cap

> If you really want to understand just how impressive this was:

I have no doubt it's impressive. I'm impressed. I'm not trying to diminish that in any way.

> you could say the same thing about top-roping vs lead climbing (placing protection from the ground up). Yes, top-roping is much safer, but the experience & sense of achievement is just not the same.

My question is why is the sense of achievement not the same. Is it because of the danger, or because it's inherently harder when you abstract danger from the situation?

> Free-soloing (climbing without ropes) is the purest form of climbing. ... not having to bring up your partner, not having to haul a bag

That's the closest I've seen to a an actual differentiation. Here's the question: If you could Free-solo the same wall but with without (or greatly reduced) danger? That is, hypothetically assume there's tracks installed vertically in the wall, and a robot that you are attached to ascends with you, so if you fall the robot keeps you from falling far and getting hurt. Does that somehow dampen the feeling of achievement when completed? If the answer is yes, then I fail to see how it's not about cheating death in some part.

Which is fine! Just own that shit.

I'm not making a value judgement about people doing this, I'm just trying to understand that statement. Either it is about cheating death to some degree and the author is not being truthful to someone (us or himself) for whatever reason, or it isn't about cheating death and I don't understand it at all, so I'm asking for clarification. Either I understand it, even if I don't practice it, or I don't understand it, in which case I want to. It sounds like it's about cheating death (even if just to get to some desired state easier).

Free soloing is "inherently easier" in the physical sense when you abstract danger from situation, climbing with ropes slows a team down significantly. That is one of the reasons AH was able to climb the route in 4 hours as opposed to the usual 4 days.

In your hypothetical scenario the answer is yes, if there is no danger, the achievement of climbing without ropes is lessened.

The experience of free soloing is to small degree about cheating death, at least as much as watching a movie is about seeing moving colors and hearing sounds. What one really gets from free soloing (or risky rock climbing, which I have some experience with) is a unique clarity of mind, a change in ego, a confidence game, where you need to quash your own doubts about yourself to succeed. The consequences of falling are a necessary but insufficient condition for the resultant feeling of achievement. In my opinion, AH, and his ability to control his mind, is the closest living example we have to a Jedi.

Free soloing is actually a bit slower than the fastest free-climbers, which I found interesting: http://adventureblog.nationalgeographic.com/2012/06/25/alex-...

The time spent being especially careful that you don't fall, adds a bit more time than racing up with ropes.

Fun fact, Alex Honnold holds the speed record on El Cap.

This is my own experience with the very miniscule free-solo experience I have and even with trad leading over sport, over top rope.

If it's within my abilities/condition, I get into a much more zen/like zone doing trad leads vs coming up second. Or even leads in a gym. I really don't like falling, so that focuses me up and the world just fades away. It's all managing foot position, burn, effort level, pace, etc.

On the other hand, if it's outside my ability/condition and I'm shaky with failing energy... It's the worst experience in the world(overcoming it feels nice though lol).

That last paragraph is brilliant and I'm going to borrow it to use in conversations with my friends and family who have been asking me about Alex's climb and about free soloing.

"unique clarity of mind, a change in ego, a confidence game" - as an climber with some mildly risky free solo experience, this is a very good description.

It seems to me with no consequences of falling, that ultimate level of focus and control is impossible (hard?) to achieve, although one can get close with varying levels of more risky but less deadly climbs (lead climbing with a super long run-out and so on).

"Does that somehow dampen the feeling of achievement when completed? If the answer is yes, then I fail to see how it's not about cheating death in some part."

It's a good question...but I think only Alex could answer that question for himself.

I can say that the feat would not be as impressive because fear management and mental control are a huge part of climbing. As you move from top roping to sport leading (clipping your rope to preplaced hangers) to trad leading (placing your protective gear into cracks or other features in the rocks and trusting it to hold you if you fall) the risk increases and the fear start to become more of a factor.

I've seen climbers that have been perfectly physically capable of making a move but have been so gripped with fear that they couldn't move (and I've been that climber). I've done multipitch climbs (where you climb multiple rope lengths) where at the end of the climb I'm completely exhausted. Not from the physical exertion, but rather from the mental exertion of keeping fear at bay and from the sheer focus that climbing takes.

And honestly, I can see the appeal of free soloing. Protective gear is a giant pain in the ass. It's heavy. It's noisy. On lead the weight of the rope can become a very present annoyance, especially if you're on a long pitch. I would love for there to be the magical robot of your hypothesis that allowed me to climb without all that shit. But such a thing doesn't exist and my personal risk envelope has not expanded to free soloing (nor will it).

> Here's the question: If you could Free-solo the same wall but with without (or greatly reduced) danger? That is, hypothetically assume there's tracks installed vertically in the wall, and a robot that you are attached to ascends with you, so if you fall the robot keeps you from falling far and getting hurt. Does that somehow dampen the feeling of achievement when completed? If the answer is yes, then I fail to see how it's not about cheating death in some part.

There are certainly climbers who COULD repeat the climb in the same style, if they were guaranteed they couldn't fall to their death (Tommy Caldwell being one of them). And yes, without the risk the achievement definitely doesn't seem as impressive (moon landing?).

But I don't think Alex see's it like he's "cheating death". Instead more of "confidence in mastery of ones skill and mind" to a point where the crazy & impossible seems realistic.

I think it has more to do with agency than thrills.. You could look at that as cheating death, but it's not quite the same as jumping 20 buses on a Triumph and just hoping you don't break all your bones cause, you know, it just seems to happen to you frequently and maybe this time it won't.

The game is just different. The mental state is different. The focus is different.

Look, ignore the utility differences between scooting around on your butt and walking, running, or cycling. The sense of agency involved is simply different. They are also, possibly, more risky than scooting around on your butt.

Bowling without bumpers has a different feel to it than with; even if you never touch them. It's not so much about cheating the gutter; the agency, the feel, the game is different.

It's hard to explain why free solo > trad > sport > top roping for some. But it has everything to do with risk while having nothing to do with risk.

I've only done a very small amount of climbing many years ago, however I have done a fair bit of overnight hiking.

I would suggest that the difference between protected and free climbing would be the same as the difference between hiking with a full backpack and hiking with a small day pack with only some food/water and maybe a warm pullover. Your plans are the same, to travel somewhere, your methods and the level of encumbrance is very different. Your enjoyment would also be different, with significantly less sweat and exhaustion but depending upon your environment maybe less enjoyable sleep and more restricted food. In my subtropical environment I know which I prefer, as long as it does not rain.

The term "cheating death" implies that the person should have died but didn't. You make it seem like a game of russian roulette. That's not the case here. The person used their skill to climb the wall -- there's no "should have died" part.

Falling from the wall and surviving through freak luck would be cheating death.

I think what you mean is "does the fear aspect make a difference?". Not "cheating death". Your repeated use of the term I think belittles climbing as some kind of crazy stunt.

I don't see why it has to be about cheating death. What about just the fact that you're accomplishing the climb yourself, with as little external help as possible? A free solo climb doesn't even use any tools, other than climbing shoes and presumably light clothing. Having a massive drone flying next to you or a safety elevator makes it much less about just you and nature.

Imagine you completely reproduced a famous climb indoors with a 3D printer. Surely you can understand the difference between climbing that and climbing the real thing, even if the physical difficulty is identical.

> If you could Free-solo the same wall but with without (or greatly reduced) danger? [...] Does that somehow dampen the feeling of achievement when completed?

I've pondered this.

For me personally, the answer is: yes.

I think part of the sense of achievement after success comes from knowing what you invested (effort, risk, ...). I'd like to say that for me the fun of climbing would be about "oneness with nature" or some such thing, and that's partly true, but in reality daring to take a calculated risk, and succeeding, gives it a big extra something.

Maybe compare it with heli skiing vs backcountry skiing. Let's say both are equally non-risky. The sense of achievement (and exhaustion) after making the summit is quite different, even though it's the same summit. And having come up by chopper you might be able to benefit from the fresh powder on the way down more (because you're not exhausted), but the feeling of elation is just not the same -- at least for me.

One fact that might help - setting safety gear generally consumes a significant portion of a climber's time and effort. It doesn't show in top-roped gym climbing, but going up El Cap means putting a great deal of work into hauling and placing safety gear.

Free soloing versus geared climbing is almost comparable to free diving versus scuba. It's less safe, but removes so much overhead that it's a qualitatively different experience.

Honnold's free solos in Yosemite are frequently world speed records - often by a factor of 2 or more. He's climbing with a directness and lack of complication that's really hard to attain any other way.

I think there's some nuance to to live here.

There's the banal meaning, which is the opposite of dead.

Another meaning, which I think the article meant, is to explore the outer limits of your ability and ambition during your incredibly brief period of existence in the universe. That's living. :)

Edit: formatting.

To "live" in this sense is, perhaps, to "flow" in the Mihaly sense. You can't flow if you're dead, but the flow you seek is not a panicked fleeing from death.

Not too different from deciding to run a startup - small probability of success, certainty of exhaustion, possible alienation from family, etc. SV provides ropes for when you fail. Doesn't happen everywhere.

I'll let Charles Lindberg's words about his first parachute jump attempt an answer. Having been both a skydiver and a rock climber, I can say his thoughts are spot on.

"When I decided that I too must pass through the experience of a parachute jump, life rose to a higher level, to a sort of exhilarated calmness... The thought left me a feeling of anticipation mixed with dread, of confidence restrained by caution, of courage salted through with fear.

It was that quality that led me into aviation in the first place — it was a love of the air and sky and flying, the lure of adventure, the appreciation of beauty. It lay beyond the descriptive words of man — where immortality is touched through danger, where life meets death on equal plane; where man is more than man, and existence both supreme and valueless at the same instant." [1]

[1] "The Spirit of St Louis", C. Lindberg, 1954. Quote was lightly edited for brevity.

It's about not being encumbered by all the extra material. People can feel more fulfilled by just experiencing themselves and the mountain, not themselves, the mountain, and a whole mess of carabiners and leveraged ropes.

Honnold's no thrill-seeker, he just prefers doing things alone.

If you wore a helmet 24 hours a day you'd be living a safer life.

Most people don't, because we want to live life not be scared of it.

He's the same as the rest of us just on a different level.

I find it kinda easy to understand even if it's not my thing.

Another thought - this is specifically about Honnold.

Caldwell isn't just making a pretty-sounding claim, he's drawing a distinction between Honnold and other free soloists who were much more attuned to death, who seemed to be free soloing precisely for the adrenaline rush of survival. (Dean Potter is the classic example.)

So I think this is a claim that Honnold is soloing for the purity and experience of the thing, specifically as compared to some other soloists who are more focused on adrenaline and risk.

It's about perspective. One definition or opinion does not necessarily invalidate the other. Each is an expression of a point of view.

You say safety equipment. Others might say encumbrance, or unnatural performance enhancer, or laziness cheat. An apparatus that enables a lessening of difficulty, which eases the challenge.

When the goal is to engage a challenge, anything that renders the effort less challenging is a dilution of the very challenge as a whole.

Of course one must use safety equipment to examine the possibility of a raw attempt. But one builds on the experience, removing the unnecessary, wherever possible.

Of course it's easier to climb with a helmet and ropes, because those are the things that provide for obvious leverage to control the outcome. But who ever climbed a mountain because they wanted to do an easy thing?

The harder the task is, the better, in this context. The satisfaction of accomplishment is the goal, rather than the stress or all of the physiological byproducts or recognition that come as part of the package when completing the task.

Trying to do something, based on an intuition that an outcome is possible, when others lack the same intuition is the goal here.

This is not the same as fame. Fame is a derivative of the behavior of others, as outsiders to the activity.

To trust in one's intuition, and find that it is correct, is a fundamental aspect of human existence.

To divorce oneself of maximizing challenge, is to lie in bed all day as a shut in, and have your food delivered to you, in the most exaggerated sense of the comparison.

I'm not a climber, but I imagine that there could be two things going on here:

1. The sheer pleasure of doing something unaided - people enjoy doing crosswords without referring to computer screen that will tell them all 7 letter words ending in g-something-t.

2. The pleasure of feeling yourself as part of nature. The walk in the woods wearing shorts and a T-shirt, rather than racing through it on a motorcycle.

Everyone lives their life in the face of impending death. Yet we usually judge the quality of our lives by what we accomplish, not the mere postponement of the inevitable.

Climbers climb for the enjoyment of the experience, and to get to the top--not just to show that they can avoid falling. Alex is a rare elite climber, so he reaches for rare elite experiences and accomplishments.

Looks like he's not the dead-at-25-buried-at-75 type!

Does free diving vs scuba diving make sense to you?

Basically different sports, rather than being about safety

When you're free soloing, you climb much faster and with much less equipment.

With safety equipment, climbing El Cap takes 2-4 days, and you have to pull up several bags of equipment behind you with pulleys.

Without any safety equipment (i.e. free soloing) climbing El Cap takes a few hours and you just bring your body and some chalk.

Plus it's just a cool thing to do (at least IMO). It's like, the dude is so good at climbing he doesn't need ropes.

I find it funny that you mention that climbing el cap free soloing, "just takes a few hours" as if it wasn't just recently free soloed for the very first time in known history by one of the most skilled climbers of all time.

It takes hannold 4 hours. It will likely never be tried successfully by anyone else.

I would like Alex to get tested for toxoplasmosis. It would explain a lot.

Is the link between risky behaviour and a toxoplasmosis infection that well established ?

Apparently so. I watch Joe Rogans interview with Robert Sapolsky which I might add was fascinating and he spoke about this at length and how people with toxo are more likely to take risks and or live dangerously.


For what it's worth, Joe Rogan interviewed Alex Honnold himself, a few years back:


In a typical Rogan style, it's a pretty relaxed and "real" chat, about girls, shitting your pants, purpose etc. Gives a little more insight into how top athletes like Alex think and approach their craft.

By that logic, would you call doing a startup cheating poverty?

By cheating death, one becomes famous. The article and this thread is proof of that. Being famous supplies many advantages and privileges.

One of the most striking quotes for me was: "Alex once told me that he had never fallen completely unexpectedly—meaning without at least some prior inclination that it could happen. When I told him that I had unexpectedly fallen at least ten times, he looked confused, like somehow that didn’t compute."

It really illustrates what a professional Alex is and how in-tune he is with his skills and his craft.

I take the same thing from that quote. I have a good friend who has become one of the top competition paraglider pilots in the world. A lot of paragliders see him as doing terrifying, reckless things. He's told me that he considers himself a conservative pilot, and that he doesn't take risks. I agree with his self-assessment. I've known him a long time, and saw him ascend through a long, well-ordered series of incremental challenges.

Luck only lasts so long. You don't last long at sports like this if you aren't cautious and well-trained, that's for sure.

I'll offer a counter anecdote to yours: I was talking to a guy this weekend who had been a serious hang-glider for over a decade when he was younger. Every time a friend would have a problem, he analyzed it and saw that because of the way he operated he wouldn't make the same mistake and could therefore rationalize his continued participation in the sport. Eventually though, he had a problem, he made a mistake, it scared him, but it took fully two years of continuing to fly before he finally worked through it and decided that he could never eliminate enough risk and quit flying.

EDIT: I may have mischaracterized his response and removed "error-free" language and clarified with "eliminate enough risk".

So, both of the replies to my comment seem like they assume there's a need for a strong assurance that "it won't happen to me." I know hundreds of para/hang pilots, and I think the majority of them don't think about it that way. We already made a fundamental decision to risk life and limb to fly.

We engage in that kind of analysis continually, and collectively. Our conversations are like 80% post-mortem, all the time. Somebody gets hurt, the whole community analyses it in minute detail, the pilot writes it up, we watch video of the incidents. We check in with ourselves about whether we would make the mistake, whether we have the knowledge/skill/pre-flight routine to avoid it. Contrary to the other commenter, constant self- and peer- assessment is extremely useful. It's just that the goal isn't to assure ourselves that we won't get hurt. The goal is simply to improve our odds. That's all.

Most of us know multiple pilots who died unexpectedly, sometimes very good pilots in benign conditions. I'd guess every one of us knows someone who broke their back. We're very conscious of the risks, people who think their skill puts them above it are in the minority. We only talk about odds, and increasing our time between incidents. Those few of us who have been unscathed know that we're due. It's worth it. I've seen a paraplegic come back and fly again.

EDIT: Yes, "eliminate enough risk" sounds much more like para-talk to me. My instructor always harped on about high-percentage vs low-percentage decisions. He was downright gleeful about responding to ubiquitous "Is flying safe?" questions by popping catastrophe reels into the DVD player.

We had two high-profile paragliding deaths over the past year in my area. One, a seasoned pro who'd flown (and instructed) here for decades apparently took a risky line (if you don't have enough altitude or updrafts to make it over a saddle, there's nowhere to go) and didn't make it. She knew the area well and knew the issues but something went wrong - what specifically happened is unknown of course, maybe canopy collapse. The second was a father who took his daughter up, failed to clip himself in correctly somehow, got disconnected, and fell 1000 feet. His daughter didn't know how to fly but survived her subsequent crash landing.

* I'm not a paraglider, so apologies if the terminology is off.

There is an old saying in climber culture: "There are old climbers. There are bold climbers... but, there are no old, bold climbers."

My dad used to say the same about fighter pilots (he was one).

Climbers do this type of analysis too. Accident are reported,filed, and are published in a yearly volume. You can also search online:


It's a great supplement to experience,

German equivalent, must read if you're a climber and know the language: http://www.bergundsteigen.at/

Austria, Switzerland and Germany have a very long rock climbing history (unsurprisingly), and their respective climbing associations are obsessed about safety.

> ... he wouldn't make the same mistake and could therefore rationalize his continued participation in the sport.

In the early chapters of the book The Right Stuff, Tom Wolfe says that this was the normal attitude among test pilots about their brethren who crashed and died. "How could anybody fail to check his hose connections? And how could anybody be in such poor condition as to pass out that quickly from hypoxia? ... One theorem was: There are no accidents and no fatal flaws in the machines; there are only pilots with the Wrong Stuff. (I.e., blind Fate can't kill me.)"

I've never heard anyone describe themselves as a reckless or unsafe driver. I'm sure majority of people before accidents say they're conservative drivers.

Maybe he's right, but... self-assessments of skills are rarely useful. Survival bias and all that.

A combat fighter pilot once told me that 90% of pilots were fearful they were not good enough, and covered it up with bravado and drinking. The other 10% knew they were good enough.

*weren't good enough

Having never tried rock climbing, I'm curious what the potential causes of catastrophic events would be on this kind of a climb (that would necessitate safety gear for most climbers in the first place)...pieces of rock that give out under a hand/foot, appendage slipping out of place, etc.?

I am a mediocre climber (after about 5.10c, I start thinking, "Greg, this is fucking insane."), but I used to be quite heavily involved with the Alpine Club of Canada and have read many incident reports about climbing deaths. One thing sticks out as being common enough to warrant mention. It is insane how often deaths happen when highly experienced climbers get out of their routine and make tiny little mistakes. When you are working on a difficult enough problem, a tiny mistake is most often fatal (unless you are using ropes).

With climbs like El Cap, a tiny mistake could be something as simple as letting momentum carry you a few degrees too far, losing your focus for an instant, or even losing strength. Climbing is a cross between chess, long distance running and gymnastics and to free solo something like El Cap, you need to be world class at all of those...simultaneously.

Several years ago, when I had a total of three hours of climbing experience (one hour in a classroom and two hours on an indoor wall), I made a mistake ice climbing that could have been fatal if I had not been properly roped in. I was incredibly inexperienced, got incredibly scared and started gripping onto my tools for dear life. I was so scared that I put all of my strength into my grip. My forearms spasmed and I lost my grip. I was an ugly climber, so my belay partner had given me a little too much slack, so I fell about six or seven feet, thus leaving a very experienced climber's very expensive tools in an ice wall several feet above me. Rather than get lowered and try to recover his tools the proper way, I decided to use crampons and my gloved hands to climb the ice like I would climb a rock. It was an incredibly sunny day, so the waterfall was a little wet and that was likely the most miserable seven feet that I have ever climbed.

In retrospect, it's a funny story about a noob getting scared and I had to buy several rounds of beer when we got back to civilization. But, that's an example of losing focus and doing something incredibly foolish that could have had tragic consequences.

I've run into plenty of snakes and had a bee land on my hand while reaching for a hold. I've had rocks break off beneath my feet. My arms have gotten tired and my feet have slipped unexpectedly. Heck, I've tripped just going down a flight of stairs. That's why I always use a rope. As a climber, I'm in awe of this feat but seriously hope he's the last person to do it.

Despite what others have said, there is still loose rock on El Capitan. That is always a concern.

The particular route Honnold climbed (Freerider) is hardly "cutting edge" (at 5.13-, it is roughly eight or nine grade levels below the absolute hardest rock climbs in the world), but the most difficult section (the "crux" in climbing jargon) is notoriously insecure, meaning that even skilled climbers find the movement difficult. Honnold himself spent time on the route on a rope learning this sequence (and others).

A month or so ago I watched this 60 minutes of his Half Dome climb ... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SR1jwwagtaQ

I seem to recall him saying in it one of the big risks is suddenly being overcome with fear or vertigo from the height.

My hands are sweating non-stop just watching this.

For us mortals, it is far more likely that you simply lose your balance, strength, or concentration. A typical multi-pitch climb is hard work and the odds of missing a move are pretty high.

Granted, I'm a mediocre climber (can lead 10c/d), but falling every once and a while is pretty common for most of us.

If you're a skilled climber, the most common reasons for falling are likely: fatigue, improper execution of a move, improper foot or hand placement, improper sequence of moves, random shit.

Like you said, it's not uncommon for people's feet to slip out from under them. A big part of climbing is the friction your shoes have against the rock, but move around, reach for something, and angle of your foot against the rock changes, along with the friction, and zoosh: your foot slides off.

The rock can break off ("chossy" climbs, Pinnacles is notorious for this), but that's a less common occurrence than Hollywood would lead one to believe.

>The rock can break off ("chossy" climbs, Pinnacles is notorious for this)

A doctor from our local hospital died from, as far as we can tell, exactly this while climbing Discovery Wall. He was an excellent climber, and was using appropriate gear. He just was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and his safety equipment wasn't enough.

Depends on the rock. The sandstone along Sydney's eastern beaches can be fragile in places.

El Capitan is granite, and perhaps even more importantly, it's very heavily climbed so for the most part anything that can break will have already been broken off by someone else.

I don't agree with that. In fact, I wear a helmet whenever I am near a wall because I have seen way too many formerly solid looking rocks fall, even on granite.

Heck, a few years ago, a 2000 ton slab of rock fell off of Half Dome, which is a famous granite dome in Yosemite. I can't find the article now (of course), but I read a great article about how rock expands and contracts with the heat of the sun, water gets into cracks and plates will break off.

This article is okay, though it isn't the one that I'm thinking of. If I can the correct article, I'll edit this answer.


You're missing a very important distinction though: for a solo climber the main thing out of their control that's different from normal rock climbing is holds breaking unexpectedly. For that risk, having lots of people climbing the rock helps increase the chances that such unexpectedly weak holds will have been broken already by someone else; obviously loose rock isn't so much of an issue, for the simple reason that you know it's loose and can climb appropriately.

Rock fall meanwhile is dangerous to all climbers, whether or not they're using ropes. Sure, it's more dangerous to a solo climber - you might get lucky and just get knocked out, something a rope can save you from - but we're talking about a moderate risk vs. high risk comparison, not zero-risk to high risk. That 2000 ton slab you gave isn't a very good example, because something that big has a pretty good chance of killing you rope or not.

FWIW, I do a lot of cave exploration, and in caves the "already broken off" effect is a very powerful one. Virgin passage that's never been explored before can be a very scary place to be because everything can be loose and ready to fall. This is particularly true in areas that undergo freeze-thaw cycles, such as upper parts of alpine caves - I've been in places where every single bit of rock, including the ceiling, is heavily fractured due to frost. Breakdown piles are also a big problem - they're huge piles of rocks and boulders, generally due to ceilings gradually collapsing, and you have to be really careful around ones that haven't been visited frequently because pretty much anything you stand on could be unstable. Lots of cavers have been trapped in breakdown piles that shifted unexpectedly.

The underlying cause of this problem in caves is simple: caves can be very static environments with no weather, increasing the chances that the force you exert on a rock will be the largest force it has ever experienced in that position.

This is an exceptionally interesting comment. Thank you!

It occurs to me that this phenomenon will also be a big risk factor in lunar exploration, if people ever go back up there.


Oh, is http://idlewords.com/2007/04/the_alameda_weehawken_burrito_t... yours? That's basically my favorite blog post ever.

Or someone can drop gear.

10% of El Cap accidents are falling objects http://www.climbingyosemite.com/portfolio/danger-zones-nose/

Yeah, I'm just saying the things that go wrong depends on where you're climbing.

Yup, you're 100% correct there.

For example, I've personally done quite a bit of what's actually free soloing in cave exploration, but that style of climbing is done in confined spaces with rock on every side. You're much less dependent on individual holds as you'll usually be supporting yourself by pushing against the rock with your whole body, so it's a lot safer than most free soloing - even if you do fall you have a good chance of self arresting by, and if you can't you can at least slow your fall significantly and just slide to the bottom.

In the Outside article up thread, Tommy Caldwell who free climbed the route with Alex a couple weeks ago mentions loose rock as scaring him: "I went to Yosemite last week over the Memorial Day holiday and we did a practice lap on the Freerider with a rope. High on the wall, panting and sweating, feet smearing on crispy flakes that made crunching noises as I stepped on them."

Yeah, sandstone and water don't mix.

I was highlighting the sudden surprises that tend to catch a climber off-guard. If someone is climbing on wet sandstone, they should already be cognisant that it may crumble. (They should also avoid climbing it when wet so that they don't break holds, but that's another topic on stewardship.)

when you climb high grades the rock becomes extremely difficult to navigate and 'grip'. The common example is stacking 2-3 credit cards on top of each other and looking at the edge from the top - thats the size of the rock people are holding onto and stepping on with all their weight. In some cases you won't even have a flat piece of rock to step on, imagine climbing a brick wall. Asides from the difficulty, there are obvious elements such as high winds when you're at that altitude, mist, rain, wildlife, etc.


Alex may be the standout that never makes a mistake. But a notable free soloist dies while climbing about once a year. And I'm sure they all claim to know their limits and understand their abilities as well.

This quote is telling. After listening to a lecture given by someone who is a master of their craft (even if I watch online), I can feel a sense of clarity whenever I'm doing the task they talk about. A master of his/her craft knows the craft so deeply that it's as easy as breathing. This is how climbing must be for Alex... though, sometimes everyone skips a breath. I guess his atypical Amygdala helps him get over that.

I've read an article recently - someone actually scanned Honnold's brain and it turns out his amygdala does not respond in the usual way to inputs that in most people would elicit fear. In colloquial terms, he's "fearless".

If true, that would explain a lot.

Apparently, meditation can reduce the size of your amygdala [1], and this reduces your fear response, so yea. I'm not saying you can become like him, but you can make some headway in that direction.

[1]: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/what-does-mi...

Sounds like a bad idea to me. People like Alex have a pretty short life expectancy.

But what a life they lead.

Considering you and I have a 100% chance of death anyway, I see the attraction.

Oh, I agree. I guess I'm saying that if you want to live that life, that's great, go shrink your amygdala. However, if you haven't chosen that, then a smaller amygdala may not help you live a better life.

reducing the amygdala would be a win in stress and anxiety management though which would touch all aspects of life.

And that's the point. A lot of us walk around with certain fears that would be best to be put behind us. This kind of thing helps, indeed.

This stuff is not so that you'd go out there and live a life like Alex. It's more of a, face some of your own irrational fears, sort of thing.

Honnold needs the following to do what he did: Absolute fearlessness, talent (most couldn't ever do what he did even with years of practice), and discipline (to train like crazy).

People like Honnold are pretty rare.

And: Luck (because shit happens). I don't mean for this to in any way diminish his amazing accomplishments, but no matter how well he trains and how disciplined he is, he is always one unexpected external event (failing hold, rock falling from above, just enough loose dirt) from complete failure.

I guess, but I am one external event away from dying on my drive to work too.

Sure. Just a lot less probable.

Alex only does dangerous free solos on rare occasions. He's certainly vastly more likely to die on one than the average person on the average day, but the fact that he only does it rarely is how he's still alive at all.

Nobody really knows exactly what type of risk he's taking, but my rough guess is that he's probably on the order of ~10x an average mortality rate (which is 1.5% / yr among males his age).

Whether that's insane or not is up to an individual. For me, it's a rare combination of crazy and rational, which I find fascinating.

Your average mortality rate is off by 10x. Mortality rate for a 31 year old in the United States is 104/100,000 or 0.104%/year.


Ah, so that would make my estimate ~100x. Thanks

That reminds me of a very dark joke that I heard in a bar in Canmore once.

- How do you become the greatest climber in the world?

- You become the second greatest climber and wait for #1 to die.

I would also presume that from a physical perspective he must be above average in ways that matter for this sport.

Indeed. Tall, skinny, gangly, and very big hands & fingers with incredible power. Imagine doing 10 sets of reps of pulls-ups but hanging on with only one finger at a time to get an idea. As if one-arm pull-ups weren't hard enough, pinky pull-ups are on a whole different level.

I won't call him gangly. He isn't even skinny in the sense most people assume (no muscle, stick figure).

He seems to have a lot of lean muscle (http://media.npr.org/assets/img/2017/06/05/ap_17155772401614...)

No? He looks gangly to me.

gangly, adj., \ˈgaŋ-glē\ : long and thin [1]

[1] https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gangly

Watch the '60 Minutes' interview with him that somebody else linked to in the thread. His fingers are the size of household water pipes.

It would be rude to call him a mutant, but that's pretty much what he is, for better or worse.

Ten pull ups with one finger on only one arm?

I can't find the video I want right now, but this has some nice visuals. Check out this climber planking around 0:39.


maybe it was a video from magnus mitboe? https://youtu.be/BEc5uVsM6bE?t=1m33s

or the 80ies oldschool classic; wolfgang guellich in a german gameshow: https://youtu.be/rugoETlUAVI?t=22m47s

there are actually a lot of people who can climb harder (on a rope) than alex honnold; he has done one 8c+; atm 350 people have done 9a or harder and a lot of people have done multiple 8c+ routes:


i think what's so special about him are his mental abilities, not his physical.

In 2012 Alex solo'd Freerider, Watkins, and Half Dome in ~19 hours.

He completed the Fitz Traverse with Tommy, who referred to him as the greatest climber of our generation(perhaps a bit of hyperbole, but still).

He is the current speed record holder with Hans Florine for The Nose.

Alex is the top ultramarathoner of rock climbing. Not only is his endurance of effort incredibly high, he is able to continually execute moves at an extremely high level with an almost non-existent error rate. He has admitted to feeling fear, and has mentioned that he free solo's stuff he feels very comfortable with. I'm positive his AMAZING physical abilities, particularly in the area of climbing endurance, are a contributing factor to his success in this area.

It may be true that his grade is not as high as 350 other peoples, however I would say that dismissing his "physical abilities" as not so special is perhaps not so accurate.

I think it's also worth pointing out how far out on the bell curve those 350 people with comparable or greater athletic climbing skills are as well. The modern day top tier or two of climbers are athletes with Olympian levels of talent/training.

All those technically harder routes are like 50 metres high. Sure there are 350 people that could theoretically manage this climb technical skill-wise, but I'm also 100% certain none of those 350 would be able to accomplish this incredible feat endurance-wise or mentally for four hours and 1000+ meters and absolutely 0 mistakes, while I'm also certain that if Honnold puts his mind to it he will be able to climb those technically harder routes.

He is in fact extremely lean, and his fingers have massive growths of connective tissue from all the years of thrashing up rocks dangling by his fingertips ^.^

I believe you are referring to this Nautilus article


Someone did the same with top downhill skier Aksel Lund Svindal last year, with the same conclusion. They also attached a pinhole camera inside his goggles to study eye movements, and found that he never blinks for the full 2 1/2 minutes of a race.

I forget to blink at a healthy rate when playing unusually intense matches in certain RTS games.

Usually my eyes dry out and I end up with smeared vision and halos around light sources until the eyes regain their moisture.

Damasio reviews evidence that people that lose the ability to feel certain emotions make worse decisions. It seemingly simply doesn't occur to them to not do dangerous things and there are cases where it leads to systematically bad decisions


Posted below, but needs to be higher up. Photos from the valley, and notes from the photographer.


I thought Tim Ferriss's interview of Honnold was quite an interesting exploration of his thought process.


Did he ask him if he uses BrainQuicken (tm) to achieve his success?

Honnold is clearly a Four-Hour Climber. Story checks out.

Amazing photos that highlight how insane this was. My palms are very sweaty.

I'd love to see a picture of the entire wall, with rectangles showing which tiny part of it we're looking at for each photo, just to get a better feeling for how high the climb is.

Not exactly what you asked for, but this is pretty good: http://imgur.com/a/c74MY

Just imagine that the base of El Capitan is about a mile wide.

I have no knowledge of the sport, but isnt that a rope in pic 7? I guess someone else left it and he didnt use it?

Yeah, the route he climbed is very popular and there's a lot of 'fixed' ropes that teams climbing it will normally leave in place on a short term basis.

Those photos are amazing.

I'm way outside the bubble of climbing and stuff, so I was surprised to see people sleep up there. I don't know how I'd relax enough to fall asleep :)

They are still tied up to the rock while they sleep. :)

Wild pictures, thanks for sharing.

Thanks for the link.

Can't ever remember feeling this tense just looking at pix.

Fantastic. I can't figure out where are these taken from?

Says in the post, "Far end of El Cap meadow"

Right, thanks.

Can you believe the first comment 'Now let's see it done with Total Commitment' dude? My god there are some asshats in this world.

I tried looking it up, but couldn't find anything. What does Total Commitment mean in this context?

It's not even sensical—like there was anything one could have done to help him in the event of a fall.

If he found himself unable to continue due to injury or fatigue they'd be able to help him down. But yea, extremely dumb comment.

Maybe for like 0.5% of the climb they could do that, if Alex was close and he could somehow get a harness on, they could help him.

If he got injured it's not like he could step left and there is a magical video game ledge that appears, It's all or nothing.

Its a multi pitch route. There are multiple ledges that can be comfortably sat on. Assuming the injury isn't to catastrophic he could make it to one of those points and be rescued.

That being said anyone trying to claim the climb isn't "pure" enough it mental.

No, but the photos showed that there are several rest points along the way. Presumably he'd try to get to the nearest one despite his injury.

If you are interested in this or the history of climbing in Yosemite and and El Capitan I highly recommend the documentary "Valley Uprising." Even if you aren't necessarily interested in climbing its a beautiful documentary. It's available on Netflix.


I'll just second this as someone not previously interested in climbing who was really drawn into Valley Uprising. From a purely technical point of view, it does some fascinating stuff bringing decades-old photographs and video clips to life on the rock face.

You can get a taste of it from a number of clips that are in the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o86TpaSBcWw

I became interested in climbing in the early 90s, like the day before the climbing gym revolution swept the world, and there were two compendiums of hair raising tales I read that indoctrinated me into the spirit of climbing, and the experience of being in absolutely atrocious situations at the edge of the unknown: Mirrors in the Cliffs, and The Games Climbers Play. Recommended reading for anyone who might be into such a thing.

If you enjoy this, then I also highly recommend the book "The Vertical World of Yosemite". It's shame it's out of print, practically every story in there is a gem.


If you like this, I highly recommend Sunshine Superman http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1322313/

It's a documentary about Carl Boenish and the history of BASE jumping, which is closely related to some of the events and places portrayed in Valley Uprising.

It is very good. I watched it by chance because it happened to be on at a friend's house, and I got hooked almost immediately. The blend of personalities, history, and beautiful shots of Yosemite is wonderful.

The thing that I've most loved while following Alex's exploits over the past few year is how he talks about his mental preparation. He always seems very well prepared for whatever route that he is climbing. To me, the biggest evidence of that is the fact that he quit doing this exact climb a few weeks ago because he felt conditions weren't right. That's really hard to do with media, etc. on your tail, even IF your life is literally at stake.

It would be one thing if he were just incredibly bold and daring and were getting away with it; instead, its clear that his method is a very slow, methodical process in which he manages to practically guarantee that he will have a safe and effortless climb. Even in the interviews after this, it is clear that he is committed to his routine and managed to set-up this climb in such a way that it simply represented a comfortable, natural step in his evolution as a climber. He talks about it almost matter-of-factly.

Truly awe-inspiring.

That's really hard to do with media, etc. on your tail, even IF your life is literally at stake.

Except they weren't.

Honnold and his team very deliberately kept this thing quiet. Other than the crew and close friends, no one knew of the ascent until it was done and announced.

Which is brilliant for exactly the reasons you mention.

If it was filmed/shot by NatGeo, isn't that media on his tail in some sense? It's still pressure he would have to resist. Bailing on an attempt would inconvenience a support team.

It was shot on behalf of NatGeo, but I believe the small film crew was hand-selected from among people he already knew and trusted.

looking at the captions on the pictures[1], it looks like they even picked places where he really shouldn't have a distraction of a camera person and placed remotes[2].

1) https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=14500166 http://elcapreport.com/content/elcap-report-6317-special-edi...

2) #14 from http://elcapreport.com/content/elcap-report-6317-special-edi... with the caption "14) He rested again for a short time before doing the infamous “Boulder Problem” which has turned away most of the suitors of the free ascent. This is the crux move of the entire route and it was mandatory that it be done well. He did it and I felt a great sense of relief that he passed it successfully. Notice the two cameras near him. Remotely controlled so no photographers would be hanging around him on this critical pitch."

Jimmy Chin* was the primary contracted photographer (through NatGeo, I think). He has been involved in numerous amazing projects as both a photographer and an athlete: he (Mr Chin) was one of the 3 climbers in Meru, which is also an amazing mountaineering movie.

* http://www.jimmychin.com/

I don't think that's really the same. Public media attention != to a private film crew.

To be honest it wasn't really kept that quiet. Plenty of climbers knew he was working on it, and I'm sure plenty of people in the climbing media knew he was working towards it.

Fortunately I think the climbing media are a pretty sound bunch and did the decent thing by leaving him to get on with it in his own time.

I had in mind just the support people around and the assumption that sponsors/etc prob. were aware of it, but I absolutely take your point. Agreed that the fact that it was kept this hush is another sign of the quality of his process

How do you quit a free climb?

1. Someone climbs to your location from the ground, or descends from the top of the route, hauling a sufficient amount of gear for you to rappel or be lowered to the ground. Obviously impractical on massive routes like El Cap.

2. A rescuer is slung onto the route near the incapacitated climber's location using a helicopter long-line. They prepare the climber for extraction and then they are both slung off by the helicopter at one time.


in this case he could just wait on a ledge until other climbers went by and ascended with them.

You can't just insert yourself into someone else's big wall party if they weren't planning on it; those other climbers would be spending multiple days on the route and would almost certainly not have food, water, and portaledge space for you (not to mention how profoundly rude that would be...). If you were indeed at the mercy of needing strangers to rescue you, a passing party or a rescue party would need to change their plans and retreat with you, which would only really be a good call if your life were at risk otherwise.

The more realistic plan would be to have some friends ready and willing to come retrieve him if needed, and to potentially stash some gear/supplies at the larger belay ledges a few days prior.

> You can't just insert yourself into someone else's big wall party if they weren't planning on it; those other climbers would be spending multiple days on the route and would almost certainly not have food, water, and portaledge space for you (not to mention how profoundly rude that would be...). If you were indeed at the mercy of needing strangers to rescue you, a passing party or a rescue party would need to change their plans and retreat with you, which would only really be a good call if your life were at risk otherwise.

yeah, you can, it's called hitchhiking. it's not very common; but it has be done, Lynn Hill talks about it in her autobiography. if the climber hitchhiking is good enough, the new party will be faster in the end.

He descended using fixed ropes.

Pretty sure you're trying to ask "how do you quit a freesolo?" In which case the answer is usually "downclimb".

It's relatively easier to quit a vanilla free climb.

By not attempting it at all. Or climbing back down from wherever you want to quit.

Die? I guess if you are low enough you could try to go back down. Some hikes also have a point of no return where going back could lead to death.

"Help I'm stuck to the side of a mountain."

Yea I have no idea actually.

> his mental preparation

Honnold is special in that regard[1].

[1]: http://nautil.us/issue/39/sport/the-strange-brain-of-the-wor...

That's a great lesson to extrapolate, but only as long as you are applying it to a domain where failure != death.

For example, in climbing where you have protection a much better lesson to extrapolate is that you will fail, and to be prepared for that at all times.

As a climber, I wish this were less widely publicized. Free soloing is extremely dangerous, and dozens of climbers - including experienced ones die doing it every year.

I am a big Alex Honnold fan, but no matter how much your skill, free solo climbing will kill you one day. Alex Honnold is not the first free soloist, and won't be the last. He is great climber, and has no fear of heights it appears. Your average person or climber is not going to try to replicate what he is doing due to their desire to preserve their life. We do not see many people jumping gorges in rocket sleds like Evel Kneviel although he was massively famous. Of course some will try to replicate but they are also special people that are daredevils as well.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_solo_climbing has a list of free solo climbers. A large number of them have died.

Speaking as a former sponsored, professional climber who happens to have been one of the first Americans to solo 5.13... sorry but I'm still alive and kicking.

Listen... soloing is obviously very dangerous. Nobody who is out there soloing as a pastime is unaware of this. But comparing soloing to trying to jump gorges on rocket slides isn't doing justice to a complicated and nuanced subject.

Soloing is a personal decision. And it is usually carefully made. People who solo regularly are usually not adrenaline junkies. They're not thrill seekers. They're careful and methodical and prepared. They have probably solo down-climbed more total mileage than you can imagine.

Calling Alex a special person is fair and appropriate. But he's not a daredevil.

What would you estimate his chance of death was in doing this climb? 1%? 5%? Most people would call someone who takes on that kind of deadly risk for nothing more than accomplishment and legacy, ie by choice, a daredevil.

If free soloing is not usually thrilling, or adrenaline inducing, but something you approach with care, methods, and preparation... what's the point of the induced-risk? Why not take on a similar challenge that's more difficult, minus the non-trivial probability of dead, like most other climbers do?

Gamers find themselves introducing more and more arbitrary challenges to make their accomplishments more difficult to achieve. The difference between gamers and free soloers, is that when gamers fail, they don't destroy, to various extents, the lives of all the people that loved and supported them as a side-effect of their failure, all because they thought it was a good idea to introduce deadly activities into their lives.

How is this not daredevil behavior?

I think that this is probably the biggest misconception about Alex. Pad your estimates of death with a couple of 0's, that is, 0.01% (even less) chance of death. From this article others have posted https://www.outsideonline.com/2190306/why-alex-honnolds-free...:

> “It would be so easy for you—you know you wont fall on 5.12,”

In essence, he is so good at climbing, this is like going up a really long ladder for the average human. Sure, rungs on the ladder could break, but even I could climb a ladder 3000ft tall with enough endurance training and not fall. At least, most likely not fall.

To answer your question about the thrill, in multiple interviews, he says that free soloing is the "ultimate test". Akin to closed book and no calculators. Can you really claim that you've mastered a subject if you were allowed to use aids? This is the way he views free soloing.

When you view it like this and reduce the chances of dying to be less than driving on the freeway, I think it is less daredevil behaviour and more the ultimate passion for his craft.

On what basis do you think his odds of death on a given climb are less than 0.01%?

The guy has done the route many, many times with a rope. You could sort of work out a probability based on how many times he has had to save himself with the rope. (I'm not sure he ever has)

downvoter: justify yourself. Do you object to making the calculation this way, or what?

So is Formula 1 / NASCAR driving, deep sea diving and even innocuous things such as Sky Diving carries a lot of risk of death and injury which we casually ignore. Alex and other free soloist climb the rock multiple times charting the route, memorizing it, studying the environment and weather and then attempting the challenge. Alex had climbed El Capitan multiple times in the prep for going free solo until the time he can do the climb literally blindfolded. Folks sometime read these stories and assume he just walked to that rock for the first time and started climbing. That's not the case. Risks are there no doubt but it's no different than risking your life Base jumping or White Water rafting.

First, this is like climbing trivia! Who is the mystery user?

Question: do you still free solo? My impression is that there are plenty of ex-free soloists who are still alive (Peter Croft being one of the most notable). I suppose Croft still does some ropeless stuff high in the Sierras, but he seems to stick to a rope when doing more technical climbs. There are, however, fewer older free soloists who still solo at or close to their limits.

You are spot-on about the soloists attitude, however. The NPR article leaves out the fact that Honnold attempted the solo previously, but downclimbed because conditions were right.

You would not be posting this if you were dead, this is selection bias.

Existing as a counter example to someone's categorical claims is _not_ selection bias.

> People who solo regularly are usually not adrenaline junkies. They're not thrill seekers

Why solo, then?

    > free solo climbing will kill you one day
    > [...] [Wikipedia] has a list of free solo
    > climbers.
The Wikipedia article you're linking to does list a bunch of people who've died doing it, but also famous free solo climbers in their 60s and even 80s.

There are plenty of chain smokers and drunk drivers in their 80s. It's still not a good idea.

It's not a good idea and it's dangerous, but we wouldn't say with confidence that smoking or drunk driving "will kill you one day", which is the part of the GPs comment I'm replying to.

The population sizes are vastly different between chain smokers and free soloists.

> A large number of them have died.

Paul Preuss (October 3, 1913) died during an attempt to make the first ascent of the North Ridge of the Mandlkogel free solo, fell a thousand feet

Man. According to Wolfram Alpha[1] it'd take 7.9 seconds to fall 1000 feet, with a final velocity of 170mph (77 m/s).

[1] - https://m.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=time+to+fall+1000ft

I thought that terminal velocity for a human on Earth was about 120 miles/h. Seems like Wolfram doesn't take that into account.

Just makes the horrifying fall even longer!

170 mph assumes no air resistance

Yup, I understand that. My point was that that's not a very accurate assumption in the vicinity of El Capitan :)

Amongst the legendary free soloist rock climbers, here's the spread:

John Gill, alive at 80

Peter Croft, alive at 60

Alain Robert, alive at 54

Catherine Destiville, alive at 53

Steph Davis, alive at 43

Alex Honnold, alive at 31

Dan Osmond, died at 45, not free soloing

Dean Potter, died at 43, not free soloing

Michael Reardon, died at 43, not free soloing

John Bachar died free soloing at 52

It's a very small field, not many people make a discipline of it.

You can also add the legendary Patrick Edlinger, who died after falling down his stairs at the age of 52. Who can forget the epic "Life By the Fingertips": https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jj1-58EfWpo

It's too late to edit, but yes, he belongs on the list! I forgot about him.

Survivorship bias (of the most real kind). You can only be great if you live. :)

They were all established capable climbers before they earned a reputation free soloing. That's not really true in this case. I mean, every year there are inexperienced climbers who die, but comparing them to the masters is like comparing some kid with a spoiler on his Honda civic who loses control and hits a tree to a professional formula 1 driver.

What I'm saying is there may have been other great climbers that we just don't know about because they happen to have one small slip early in life.

Survivorship bias needs to be taught in schools at a young age, like in kindergarten. It's so insidious.

I'll add Derek Hersey to that list. He's not as big of a name as those on this list, but there is a movie called Front Range Freaks which has a great segment about him and soloing. He died at 36.

Nukie brown, upside-down!

Dan Osman still died by falling off a cliff.. equipment failure though https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wY6YsM5Rh0Y

It's worth noting that both Dan Osman and Dean Potter died in part due to park service policies.

The park service allows all kinds of activities that cater to motorized tourists, but bans specialized activities like base jumping. Yosemite is one of the best places in the world to base jump, not just because of its beauty but because the cliffs are oriented well for base jumping. The ban pushes jumpers to fly at dawn or dusk, and hide their activities, in a way that pushes the safety margins.

A ban doesn't force anyone to do anything to break the ban.

The correct response to the ban is to respect the parks wishes and stop BASE jumping.

If you want to push the limits that's on you. You should know the risks and act accordingly.

This starts to resemble something like abstinence-only education in schools, though, where a hard-line stance of "just don't do the risky thing we've told you not to do and you'll be fine" leads to less successful real-world results than embracing the complex realities of human behavior.

No it doesn't. There are other places and countries where you can BASE jump. They chose to do it where it was banned and selected times where they would evade authorities.

This sort of entitled attitude doesn't help IMO. Breaking local laws just confirms that you can't trust these communities and you give everyone a bad name.

Do you honestly think anyone who BASE jumps gives a fuck what you think? Why even waste your time saying it? They're obviously not here to obey the rules. Like, really obviously.

I'm not really sure I understand the point of this comment.

Of course they don't have to listen to me. But people express their opinions all the time.

Of course they should follow local access rules, local ethics and etiquette.

Most outdoor communities I've seen try and keep good relationships with local authorities. We want to maintain areas as much as they do so we can keep using them.

>> The park service allows all kinds of activities that cater to motorized tourists

That's a weird kind of jab. As if the BASE Jumpers walked their way to the park.

Other than driving in your car what motorized activities does Yosemite cater to? Much of the park is wilderness and motorized transport isn't permitted.

Potter also died falling off a cliff, in a wingsuit. If only they had stuck to more sensible pursuits, such as free soloing!

He left his ropes during days in the sun and rain, after having made many fall factor ones with it. Not surprising really.

Dean Potter died doing something even more dangerous than free soloing (as opposed to a random, unrelated thing).

Reardon's death has been attributed to free soloing on a sea cliff, but the official cause of death was drowning.

Well, he was standing around getting his picture taken when a big wave came in and washed him away. Whether he was free soloing or suntanning, it wouldn't have made any difference. Really sad, he was a massive talent and his solo of Romantic Warrior was astonishing.


Deep-water soloing is its own discipline, with a unique set of hazards.

Edit: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep-water_soloing

He also planned to solo the Free rider

Thomas Bubendorfer, recently got hurt badly in a climbing accident.

https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Bubendorfer there is no English page for him

He free solo'ed the south wall of the Aconcagua within a day in 1991.

Wolfgang Güllich, free soloed Separate Reality and other gnarly routes, died in a car accident with 32.

Dean Potter died in a squirrel suit, not soloing.

It's a very small field, not many people make a discipline of it I wonder why ?

But serious question : of the four top people alive, any data on when they stopped climbing ? I would guess that would correlate with longevity.

I also recall reading somewhere that a disproportionate number of elite scientists and researchers in the 1930's - 60's were mountain climbers.

John Gill was doing long free solos on easy 5th class well into his 60s. Peter Croft is still working as a mountain guide out of Bishop, CA, I have no idea if he still goes out for jaunts sans rope in the high sierras, but he free soloed almost daily for decades.

Hansjörg Auer, alive at 33 Alexander Huber, alive at 48

Auer's free solo of Marmolada 'via Attraverso il Pesce' is something in the same league as Alex's Freeride.

TIL about John Gill. Mathematician and climber.

Eiger Dreams has a chapter on Gill. Worth a read if you're interested.

... and probably many, many, more who died before making it to this list.

adding John "Yabo" to that list.... but I couldn't find how he died, (suicide iirc?)

Yes, he committed suicide.

To all those people attacking this guy, I think it's important to point out that free soloing is absolutely controversial in the climbing community, for exactly this reason. Heck, Clif dropped some climber sponsorships, including Honnold's, for just this reason:


Personally, I do think that free soloists like Honnold to some extent damage the reputation of the sport by making it appear inaccessible and irresponsibly risky, while the reality for sport climbers is that the sport is really fairly safe with proper training and equipment.

I don't see how it is any different then something like back country skiers, or base jumping. There are is a wide spectrum of risk in a lot of "extreme" sports.

Not trying to make this an attack either, I just see a lot of parallels elsewhere in other sports -- and it seems a little hypocritical to me that the climbing community would even be divided over this.

Furthermore, sticking with the BC skiing example, many people (resort skiers) would see it as irresponsibly risky. But we know that BC skiers take all the preparations they can, from monitoring avalanche reports and forecasts, taking training classes, learning how to probe and escape avalanches with partners. Similarly, Alex very much spends a lot of time preparing for his free-solos, in all aspects of planning -- which makes it much more calculated then "irresponsibly" risky to me.

It's not really all that different, which is why it's controversial.

Obviously, people are free to do risky activities, if they and their families and friends are the only ones who will suffer the consequences. Things get a lot messier when money is riding on the line, though - see concerns about Everest sherpas, free solo sponsorships, ski resorts advertising their backcountry...

So he should not get wide publicity of this amazing accomplishment because some people are idiots, and we should cater to their idiocy?

Couldn't disagree more with this mindset.

No, he should not get wide publicity of this amazing accomplishment because HE is an idiot. The fact that he succeeded (survived) just means that he is still an idiot.

Honnold had practiced individual segments multiple times before this attempt. Those practice runs had left rubber marks on the walls, which helped him in following a specific route. Before attempting the complete climb, Honnold verified that the rubber marks were not removed by the rains. Plus, he has a daily regimen of specific exercises, so many freeclimbs before, etc. A complete professional, not an idiot for sure.

Here are more details about this climb and his preparation: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/features/athlete...

Chark marks explicitly put there to 'tick' hand and food holds -- to make it easier to see the holds and follow the sequence of moves needed. Not rubber marks from shoes.

He's an idiot because he has different values and priorities than you? I'd say that's pretty damn presumptuous. Who are you to tell him (or anyone else) how to live (and die)?

In the end it's his choice.

"at his incompetence" ? Your nickname is aptly chosen, yet the same can't be said of the words in your post.

Honnold climbs without a rope because he can afford to do so. He may well one day lose his life, but he knows it, and puts much more care in preparing and then stays concentrated on his climbs than most people do when driving a car.

I encourage you to read articles about him, they should help give you some perspective.

What is this? Of course he stays more concentrated than most people when driving a car because one doesn't have to have that kind of concentration when driving a car. Most mistakes while driving a car are not fatal.

As a climber, you aren't very well informed. Dozens of rock climbers do not die free soloing every year.

Honnold's solo of El Cap is arguably the greatest outdoor sports feat ever. Of course it's going to be publicised.


Of course it is, but that is also why it IS widely publicized. It is an incredible feat. I get the perspective of not wanting to encourage others to do X or Y, but everyone ultimately is responsible for their own safety with these types of things.

I understand your position but I disagree. Honnold is well aware of the risks and has prepared as necessary to accomplish this feat. The media needs to better report on that aspect.

There will be people trying to imitate this who don't know what they are getting into. In my view he could have shown the same level of accomplishment in a safer way and set an example.

Anybody who tries to imitate this without knowing what they are doing won't make it 10 meters, let alone 1000 meters. To even make it to the face of El Cap, you have to have some idea what you are doing.

The amount of skill development required to even try something like this cannot happen without picking up a deep safety habit along the way. And that habit requires so much preparation to be satisfied for each individual free solo climb that the fast and loose fame and thrill seekers would be turned off, taking to easier, quicker fixes like e.g. BASE jumping.

It gets interesting when you look at the population overlap: more free soloists seem to die BASE jumping than free soloing. That says little about the "per unit" risk, because people can do so many more BASE jumps per year than reasonably prepared free solos. Risk mitigation for BASE jumping tops out pretty fast, risk mitigation for free solo otoh is an iterative process. They probably declare preparation done when they think that having a very rare deadly accident during preparation becomes more likely than having a moderately rare deadly accident in the actual free solo. (Now an on sight free solo, that would be an entirely different story...)

And when they do make the attempt, and fail, and die, they will be fine examples I'm sure. Mr. Honnold is obviously not interested in serving as a safety example, not sure why many here insist he fulfill that role.

I have no problem with him but I think the media should not make him into a hero.

The idea that glorified media coverage would make someone think they're capable of free soloing a 3,000' 5.12d who didn't already have that idea in their head is pretty laughable. No one who climbs thinks that just because Honnold does something that they can do it too.

I think a reasonable compromise is that the media publicize what he did but drill in the inherent dangers and risks.

While I agree, I think it's a self-limiting problem: those of us who are completely outside of the sport would look at this and think "wow, what an amazing feat" but never fathom doing it. Those on the inside will know how hard and risky this is.

That's pretty much true of every profession. People on the outside are horrible at understanding the risk, amount of time needed, and how amazing something is. This is one of the examples where the risk and amazement are so extreme that and observer gets in the ballpark on the estimate.

Everyone gets to live their own life and choose their own path. To each their own.

I'm ignorant of climbing, anyone can see this is amazing but I'm glad you said this. No matter how amazing the feat it is reckless behavior. One mistake next time by him and he's dead, same for anyone else attempting it. Is climbing so different to any other activity that makes it so far fetched from making this equivalency: 'I'm so sure this code is solid, if it doesn't compile I should have an instant death'.

I have the same question for this as I do for batsuit flyers.

How on earth do you practice it? You can practice bench pressing by pressing a small weight. You can practice boxing by sparring.

You can't just climb up to a deadly height - which isn't even very much, as people regularly die from falling out windows - and work your way up from there.

You can't just do a little batsuit jump, either. You have to be going fast for the suit to make a difference.

For BASE jumping, many start with sky diving or jumping from relatively easy exits like bridges.

Most free solo climbers climb with a rope for the majority of their climbs, although exceptions like Paul Preuss exist. They often rehearse free solo projects many times on rope before going free solo, although there a notable cases of 'onsight' free solos like Hansjörg Auer's 'Weg durch den Fisch'. In the case discussed here, Alex Honnold apparently climbed Freerider around a dozen times on rope and rehearsed the crux pitch many more times. He did take several falls on the route, one of them spraining his ankle last summer.

Auer did not onsight 'Weg durch den Fisch'. He did the route some years before and rappelled down the day before to try the hardest moves.


You can practice the climb with ropes and gear on. You can practice batsuit flying by jumping from an airplane and using a parachute.

I agree. This is not something younger climbers should aspire to.

I am not a climber. What's the chalk for ?

it's 50% placebo, 50% soaks up the sweat so you don't feel like you are pulling on a sheet of glass.

My ratios may be wrong, adjust to taste.

There's a mental aspect (chalk = business time) but it's not a placebo. Have someone deadlift with a particular grip with and without chalk, and they'll lift more with the chalk, no question. It helps grip.

Can anything literally be only part placebo? obviously hyperbole, but anyone who has stuck their hand in a chalk bag knows how comforting it is in spite of it being the 7th time on that same rest hold.

I (as a somewhat mediocre climber) love chalk when climbing outside because it tells me what the next hold likely is :)

Agreed, dries hands and magically builds confidence. The ratio depends on weather and grade of the climb.

And the type of stone. There are places in Colorado where I don't bother with chalk because it's sandstone and is so gritty that chalk is ineffective.

On Chamonix-area granite, chalk is essential for me. Makes a huge difference. Definitely depends on the rock and the amount of sweat your hands produce.

When I was a math grad student, most of the other grad students hated getting chalk on their hands because it dried their skin out. Whereas I'd grab extra chalk from the board, and rub it over my hands to keep them dry.

Chalkboard chalk is calcium sulphate, whereas climbing chalk is magnesium carbonate.

You would not want to use chalkboard chalk for climbing, as it would make holds actually slipperier.

Some climbers do carry a piece of chalkboard chalk to mark key holds, though.

As someone whose best day climbing was a 5.6 route on Yosemite's Cathedral Peak with a guide, I will add that one purpose of chalk might well be for guides to mark where the holds are for their clients.

It keeps your hands dry when they get sweaty, making it easier to hold onto the rock. It's standard equipment for climbers.

You put it on your hands to improve grip.

Keeps your palms dry allowing for better grip

In the end it is his choice.

I won't be doing anything like this, but I can still respect it.

When hiking King's Peak in Utah, my group was plodding along with backpacks for a week-long camp, with food, tents, sleeping gear, and various safety gear. We were passed by a guy in shorts with a water filter bottle who was running to the summit. We met him again many hours later on his way back, when we had not yet reached our day one base camp.

The freedom and purity of just being there with the mountain was compelling, but requires a whole different set of preparation than I have given it.

It's not just removing a helmet, or doing a daredevil risk, it's transforming the experience. Because he wasn't staying over night, he didn't need a tent or sleeping gear. He didn't need a lot of food. He didn't need a backpack to carry it all. Everything he could leave behind allowed him to move faster, improving his experience.

No, climbing without a rope is the purest form of the sport and has been around for longer than nylon ropes and harnesses.

I don't know much about F1 races but I guess say a fairer comparison would be doing time trials alone on the track versus actual races where you risk the collision with other drivers. The former is safer but the latter is more interesting, not just because it's more dangerous.

Maybe this video gives you a feeling for why free solo is romanticized and worshiped so much in the climbing community. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hz5w7q5GHuc&t=3m25s

Like I've said elsewhere, I have no problem with people who want to climb this way, and they're free to do whatever makes them happy. My point is that introducing needless risk doesn't enhance the achievement to me.

Unless I'm seriously missing something about the "sport" of climbing, the point is to climb. My chosen hobby of auto racing involves plenty of risk, but we don't leave our helmets at home to somehow make it more "pure".

Its not only more pure its much faster, if the numbers I found were right by free-soloing el cap Alex Honnold beat his previous speed climing record by 16h (20 to 4h). I'm guessing if removing a helmet increased the speed by 5x many daredevil race car drivers might consider it, its not exactly a safe hobby to start with.

source: http://www.yosemitebigwall.com/speed-climbing

In my understanding it adds to the mental challenge aspect of rock climbing. Think of it as adding difficulty rather than introducing risk. Therefore it could be argued it does enhance the achievement.

For added context, Steph Davis was previously married to Dean Potter (free soloist among numerous other things - mentioned above in the list of famous free soloists) and Mario Richard, both of whom died in wingsuit BASE jumps. Steph Davis is also a BASE jumper using wingsuits and parachutes.

I had a similar reaction. The headlines might as well been "extremely skilled climber makes wildly risky bet and lives to tell the tale."

Sure he's skilled; sure he is strategic. What I want to know is could he do this over and over again without dying? My guess is not. His odds would probably be higher than most others' but still risky.

But in the end, if it's what he wants to do, so be it. To me it's interesting but not something I'd like to do, regardless of the risk. Spending my time climbing rock walls is just not appealing to me, even if it's out in the wilderness, which I love.

Especially so soon after Ueli Steck's death. I first heard about Alex's feat from FB, when I opened it up and saw "Alex Honnold" in the trending stories thing. I said out loud "oh god, no"...and then saw the headline about El Cap.

This article is like celebrating a car accident where the stunt-driver did not wear a seat belt, somewhat reckless and irresponsible like this http://www.cnn.com/2016/07/31/us/skydiver-no-parachute-succe.... It is an extreme sports trend like kiteboarding where getting "better" is equivalent to getting as close as possible to personal harm. :(

I couldn't agree more. If you want to risk your life, fine, but don't take a camera crew with you.

Well, thats how he makes a living. If it wasn't for his free solos, Alex Honnold would most likely not be able to be a professional climber. For those who pay him (sponsors, magazines) its an ethical dilemma for sure. Cliff Bar for instance, recently dropped several athletes including Honold when they decided to no longer support sports that they deemed too dangerous.

> "I woke up one guy and he sort of said, 'Oh, hey.' Then when I went by, I think he discreetly woke up his buddies because when I looked down they were all three standing there like 'What the f*?' "

What an awesome story for a climber: "I was woken up on the wall by the first guy to free solo El Cap"

"Dressed in a chicken suit"

Check #6 here: http://elcapreport.com/content/elcap-report-6317-special-edi...

This needs to be higher up. A great read. I was going to post it up top in reply to the person who posted the NatGeo link saying it was the best description of it, until I found it mentioned all the way down here :)

Oh, I'm sure they recognized Honnold. There probably aren't many serious climbers who don't know who he is.

I've never climbed anything other than a rock wall in a gym. If I know Honnold, they know Honnold.

A couple of years ago it was in the news that a couple a blokes (Caldwell & Jorgeson) had freeclimbed El Capitan.

So for those of us who know next to nothing about rock climbing, what's the difference here? Apparently Caldwell & Jorgeson were using ropes for safety although not for the climbing per se (hence why it was freeclimbing?) So this guy does it all alone, without any safety ropes, and in frickin 4 hours? Waaaat?

Or was it a different route? The Caldwell & Jorgeson stories mention "Dawn Wall", is that something else than Honnold climbed now?

You are correct about the difference between freeclimbing and free soloing. Honnold had nothing to save him if he fell. Caldwell and Jorgeson had a rope and gear and a belayer to catch them if they fell, but they climbed their whole route without pulling on gear to help them climb.

They climbed different routes. The Dawn Wall route had not previously been free climbed, it had only been aid climbed before (meaning climbers pulled on gear to help get through the most difficult sections). Honnold climbed a route called Freerider which is easier than the Dawn Wall but still very very very difficult.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the Dawn Wall distinction was also that they climbed each pitch in order, and each pitch consecutively without a fall. They fell many times, and just had to start from the bottom of the pitch each time they did. I remember hearing slight controversy about them being able to decide where the pitches start and end, effectively choosing the respawn points conveniently. The other distinction was that they couldn't leave the wall before they finished all pitches.

The Dawn Wall is the hardest rated route on El Cap in Yosemite, and additionally the most difficult big wall route ever done (when considered on the basis of the moves alone).

Honnold free-solo'ed a (different) route called Freerider (also on El Cap), which is still stupidly difficult and would be a career highlight for most people to climb at all, likely over the period of several days.

The BBC buggered this up in an article when they covered it.

Comparing it to the Dawn Wall climb completely misses the point and illustrates how misunderstood the sport is. Freeing a previously seemingly impossible-to-climb route is not the same kind of achievement as solo'ing an established route that, in the case of Honnold, he'd already climbed a dozen times or more.

They're both astounding, but for different reasons. It's a shame the media is comparing the two, as it would seem to diminish Jorgeson and Caldwell's achievement.

You are right - what Alex did is called "free soloing" which means climbing with nothing attached to the wall. Freeclimbing means you climb while harnessed in so if you fall you (hopefully) don't die. Originally people "aid climbed" the wall where you drill bolts into the wall and hoist yourself up.

This also explains why Alex can climb it so much faster. No ropes to worry about on the way up.

Check out the movie valley uprising on Netflix if you want to learn more.

> So for those of us who know next to nothing about rock climbing, what's the difference here? Apparently Caldwell & Jorgeson were using ropes for safety although not for the climbing per se (hence why it was freeclimbing?)

Aid Climbing = using ropes to assist with going up

Free Climbing = only using yourself to climb up, but still using ropes to catch your fall

Free soloing = climbing with no protection or assistance

> Or was it a different route?

Different route on the same mountain. They did the 'Dawn Wall' (which Honnold has also done), and his recent record was on 'Freerider'.

Here's the dawn wall: http://www.rockandice.com/dawn-wall-el-cap-yosemite-topo. Don't see a good topo for Freerider yet.

Edit: Turns out I was mis-remembering on the dawn wall. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alex_Honnold#Selected_notable_... has a list of his notable climbs.

Honnold has not free climbed the Dawn Wall. Adam Ondra did last year for the second free accent.

[edit: fixed Adam's name]

Correct. The hardest pitch on the Dawn Wall is rated 9a and in addition the climbing is of a very particular style (slabs) that does not suite most 9a climbers. It is quite possible that the Dawn Wall won't be repeated for a long time. Alex Honnold has never free climbed any 9a but recently stated that this is one of his next goals.

*Adam Ondra

Honnold has not climbed the Dawn Wall. There has been only one other ascent by Adam Ondra: https://www.climbing.com/news/adam-ondra-completes-dawn-wall...

The original nat geo story of which this seems to be a summary covers more of the details (I know next to nothing about climbing as well it just seemed to answer some of these questions)


Freeclimbing is when you're connected to a safety rope. Free soloing is when you're not connected to anything at all.

what's the difference here?

Free-climb - uses ropes for safety in the event of a fall, but does not use ropes for assistance climbing.

Free-solo - no ropes at all. Just hands, feet and chalk, basically. IOW, you fall, you die.

Another difference - The free climbing on the Dawn Wall allowed for mistakes because of the ropes. Jorgesen (and maybe Caldwell, I can't recall) both took falls while attempting to climb the wall. The spirit of free climbing is that you do each pitch (basically one rope's length) without falling at least once. If you fall, you go back to the beginning of the pitch. That way, you have essentially climbed the whole route without assistance from pulling on ropes, since you only rest in 'natural' rest areas.

Honnold's free solo is amazing because he did not make a mistake and have to use the rope. Every move was executed perfectly.

Honnold's free solo is amazing because he did not make a mistake and have to use the rope. Every move was executed perfectly.

It was amazing because there was no rope.

Also the fastest ascent of Freerider, for the same reason.

The people a few years back climbed a different (way harder) route.

achievements in climbing can be kind of difficult for non-climbers to see the relevancy of, since the conventions of success seem a little arbitrary until you put some time into it. it was interesting to see the news cycle pick up tommy caldwell and kevin jorgeson's ascent of the dawn wall in yosemite in january 2015. it was certainly the biggest thing to happen in yosemite at the time, but no bigger in terms of its relevancy to climbing than a handful of other ascents that happened in the few years surrounding. it was a huge climb, and worthy of all the attention it got, but it was a little peculiar to see it get more airtime than any climb since maybe the original dawn wall ascent by warren harding in 1970.

before alex's climb this week, it would be totally reasonable to make the claim that el cap will never get free-soloed. it's too sustained, the only feasible routes are too insecure. no one, expert or not, would ever get shouted down for making that claim, even among a cohort of dreamers who all want to live the impossible. among that cohort, free solo climbing isn't all that common; maybe one in a hundred climbers have ever climbed a difficult route taller than 100 feet without a rope. which makes him alien even within his sport.

honnold just landed on the moon. what he did doesn't require any of the qwerks of convention that accompany most big-wall free climbs. everyone immediately understands the idea of scaling a cliff without a rope. everyone can even try it. el cap is a ten minute walk from the car. but in case the context of the climb is unclear, this is the kind of feat that only comes along every few generations.

maybe I'm overstating it. from one perspective, this climb was another incremental step on honnold's journey. all of his previous ascents were mind-bending as well: moonlight buttress in zion, the regular northwest face of half dome, el sendero luminoso in el potrero chico, mexico. besides, technical rock climbing as we understand it today is only two or three generations old at most, and it's already produced this monster of an achievement. we may see more in our lifetime. I just wouldn't bet on it.

Looking at the pictures El Capitan seems really tall and flat/sheer. Are there other cliffs in the world that are even taller or more sheer? I'm just wondering since I've seen comments from people saying something to the affect that they can't imagine what could top this. There are thousands of mountains around the world. Surely El Capitan isn't the Mt Everest of climbing.


"Considering a truly vertical drop, Mount Thor on Baffin Island in Arctic Canada is often considered the highest at 1370 m (4500 ft) high in total (the top 480 m (1600 ft) is overhanging), and is said to give it the longest vertical drop on Earth at 1,250 m (4,100 ft). However, other cliffs on Baffin Island, such as Polar Sun Spire in the Sam Ford Fjord, or others in remote areas of Greenland may be higher."

I would guess many of those are at heights or in climates that make climbing without gear a no-go because, even assuming you don't need gloves, you would need too much clothing to stay warm.

You think that's crazy, check out El Cap relative to the Empire State Building: http://www.supertopo.com/inc/photo_zoom.php?dpid=Ojw4NjopKCA...,

The importance of this climb goes beyond vertical distance. There are big walls taller than 3300 feet, but Yosemite has an important place in the history of mountaineering and a new era was just opened there.

The difficulty is also important. Though several levels below Honnold's ability, 5.12d on the Yosemite Decimal System is very hard.

there are more sheer cliffs, there are taller mountains, and there are harder routes, for sure. but what makes a cliff, a mountain, or a specific route inspiring is harder to define than its physical countours. there's a mountain in Argentina called Cerro Torre that is seen my many alpinists as the holy grail of mountaineering. it's about 11,000 feet tall, and has a neighbor to the north called Fitz Roy that is even taller and has more terrain on it. but Cerro Torre is steeped in history of climbers making their own attempts on it, and has features peculiar to it that make it seem impossible.

on the other hand, within the alpinism/rock climbing community, Everest isn't actually even seen as the Mt Everest of climbing. if you read Jon Krakauer's "Into Thin Air", he elaborates on this. the commercialism associated with the mountain, the way it is treated by guided parties, and the way it is seen as a bucket list item that anyone with the means to hire guides can haul themselves up, all serve to detract from the appeal of the mountain to the "true" adventure mountaineer. I say that a little toungue-in-cheek, though. if any alpinist had the opportunity to climb everest far from the crowds and without the $50k price tag, they would probably leap at it immediately. the point is, even Everest's stature has fallen in prominence among many alpinists, in favor of more technical peaks (though exceptions are readily available). it's been this way since the 60's and 70's.

the 60's and 70's were the time that yosemite climbing began to really take off. warren harding climbed the nose (the most prominent and popular route on el capitan) in 1958, royal robbins climbed the sheer northwest face of half dome in 1957. from then on, legends like chuck pratt, yvon chouinard, john long, jim bridwell, john bachar, peter croft, ron kauk, and lynn hill, all made their impact on the cliffs of yosemite. many of them went on to climb in the greater ranges of the world. yosemite for a time was a melting pot of the finest pratitioners of the sport--until you could no longer spend an entire summer in camp 4 because of overcrowding.

fast forward to modern day, it's still the proving ground for so many rock climbers and alpinists around the world. to climb the most prominent cliff in the most historically meaningful place still has power that captivates. some of it is its accessibility, some of it is the beauty of the mountain, and some of it is the difficulty, but much of it is simply legend.

In your opinion, what cliff in the world would be most impressive if someone free soloed it? That is, there is no way someone could top free soloing X since there simply isn't any other cliff/route on the face of the earth that could compare.

I know precisely nothing about climbing but simply looking at the pictures of El Capitan made me immediately understand he just did something that by all accounts should have been impossible.

Proper Planning and Practice Prevents Piss Poor Performance.

and DEATH.

In all seriousness, Alex's mental and physical conditioning to achieve this goal should be lauded, examined, written about, and taught.

Lauded, examined, written about - I agree. Taught - Not so sure. Alex Honnold is an extreme outlier. We mortals may marvel but Im not sure his feat can be replicated so easily. I may be wrong.

The guy is simply rad. I couldn't stop laughing at this:

A lighter moment came later, Honnold said, when he passed some climbers who had spent the night on a ledge. He did his best not to wake them.

"I woke up one guy and he sort of said, 'Oh, hey.' Then when I went by, I think he discreetly woke up his buddies because when I looked down they were all three standing there like 'What the f?'*

Imagine yourself and your buddies 3/4 up the mountain and you see a guy coming down solo. It must take a minute to process the thought that he must have climbed up. wtf did I just see? Oh shit!!

I was reading a another article about this ascent yesterday and they brought up a great point. Prior to Roger Bannister running the 1st sub 4 minute mile it was thought to be impossible and beyond a humans capabilities. Once that barrier fell many more quickly pushed through it. There is something to someone moving the bar of what is possible. As a species we are incredible in our abilities and resolve to continually push ourselves.

In the case of the 4 minute mile, I assume lots of runners were training and were reasonably close, and of course someone has to be the first. I don't know if it can be shown that the first 4 minute mile inspired a bunch of other people to follow suit so quickly.

Of course it should be taught -- that doesn't mean everyone ought to try ridiculously dangerous feats like Alex did. But the practices that allowed him to do so are worthwhile nonetheless.

Maybe we're operating under two different definitions of "taught" here. You're using "taught", I think, in the sense of giving someone an "impressive feats in the history of climbing" lecture. Which, sure, why not.

The parent seems to be using "taught" in more the sense that a master teaches an apprentice: giving you the skills, yes, but also putting you in that same situation, or encouraging you to participate in such a climb. Like, picture a skydiving instructor, only they're a "free-solo this particular mountain" instructor. They're giving you instruction and practice with the implicit goal of doing this dangerous thing at the end, and with the implicit suggestion that the course will be all you need to be fully prepared to do the thing at the end, with little risk.

Such "teaching" would be very unlikely to succeed; it would more-often-than-not just kill people.

I'm a swimmer. I'd like someone to teach me how to have huge hands and feet like Michael Phelps so I can swim like him.

Are you sure he was coming down?

Had to read the relevant paragraph again. He was going up. Thanks.

Alex is famous because he does "free soloing" - which doesn't use any ropes or safety at all. More people do "free climbing" which uses ropes just in case of fall.

Anyone have any idea how often free climbers end up falling and needing their ropes? Could many good free climbers do what Honnold did, but just like the added bits of safety?

I climb but not at anywhere near the level of Honnold. That being said, free climbers fall quite a bit. Sport climbing, that is using bolts that are pre-placed as protection, often involves pushing to one's limit which of course means falling. Traditional climbing, using special gear and features in the rock for protection, does not involve as much falling since there is a higher risk of your gear popping out of its placement.

Honnold has climbed this route with ropes many times and no doubt fell while doing it. He was well aware that he was capable of completing the climb without a fall.

Any idea of how many people have free climbed this route? I'm really curious to know if Honnold is a one-of-a-kind climber or there are similar skill level climbers who just aren't willing to risk it without ropes?

Either way he's amazing, but I'm curious to know how amazing.

This route, called the Freerider, has been free climbed by a lot of people. It is arguably the easiest free climb on El Cap. That being said it is out of the range of most climbers. I will assume you are not familiar with climbing grades, here is an overview:


The Freerider is rated at 5.12d. This is a grade that most people will struggle to attain without a huge amount of training and effort.

Also, keep in mind that the route is very long and takes most people multiple days to complete. Honnold did it in under 4 hours.

Honnold climbed the boulder problem variation, which is 13a. The Teflon Corner at 12d is slightly easier but less secure, so worse for soloing.

It's worth noting that a route's difficulty is based on the hardest section. So the rest of the route is generally less, and in some places a lot less.

This is not to diminish in anyway the difficulty of a 5.12d, but might be good background for those not familiar with climbing.

As a fairly experienced climber, this is a very difficult route; one that only the most elite climbers can free climb. But, free climbing it isn't necessarily rare and even as Honnold did this free solo, other parties were camping on the wall.

There's little data on this sort of topic, but I'd estimate that less than 0.25% of climbers achieve the level of physical skill and technical expertise required to free climb Freerider.

Agreed, the other replies to this question seem to understate the difficulty of the route. It's a lifetime achievement for almost any climber. I'd ballpark that it's been free climbed by 100-300 people?

> I'd ballpark that it's been free climbed by 100-300 people?

If you restrict that to people who've done it in a day you're probably down to a couple dozen at most.

gotta be more than that,

100-300 per year maybe, on the lower end.

300 people total means like 10 people per season, I personally know more people who've climbed the nose.

People are referring to free climbing this particular route, Freerider, which is 5.12d/5.13a. It gets done, but it is hard enough there are usually blurbs about it in magazines and in the climbing media when someone completes it without aid.

The nose has only been free climbed by 5 people.

Context is pretty important when talking about aid vs free vs solo

free or aided?

Most people climb el capitan aided.

If Honnold can solo this route in 4 hours, why do the free climbers need to camp on it? Do they take longer? Or need more rest time between sections?

Most climbers take significantly longer because:

1) When using gear (unlike Alex), you have to repeatedly stop and insert it, referred to as "protection." This slows progress and your partner has to then stop and remove that protection as you ascend. After each pitch (think a rope length), you then have to set up an anchor and organize/sort the gear before progressing. So, using and managing gear takes considerable time.

2) Two climbers are usually taking turns, with one belaying while the other climbs.

3) Alex has a level of competence on rock unmatched by us other climbers; his mastery allows him to swiftly glide through sections where most climbers would need more time to think about the moves, analyze the options, etc.

4) Alex was very familiar with the route, with many sequences memorized. Doing the route with less familiarity is like a puzzle, resulting in slower progress as you figure out how to get through various sections.

5) Alex has better stamina with less need for rest.

6) This is a hard route, and many climbers might fall or rest on their gear repeatedly while working through difficult sections.

I'm sure I'm leaving out a few reasons but in a nutshell, keeping it simple (no gear, no partner, no unknown moves, etc.) increases efficiency.

That's a good run-through, thanks!

Additionally, once you are going to spend more than a day on a wall you have to also bring along camping gear and additional food, especially water. This means erecting elaborate haul systems after every pitch and slows things down dramatically.

ESPECIALLY water. That sh*t gets heavy fast.

While free climbing, you also need to wait for your partner to climb the same section. Which effectively almost doubles the time. You don't have that limitation while going solo.

the second can always jug (use jumars - mechanical ascenders) the rope instead.

The difference in skill between Alex Honnold and the majority of other climbers can't be overstated. But I think the main difference in speed has to do with familiarity. Alex didn't just go up to this wall and start climbing it. He's done it over and over and over and over again. He know what moves he needs to make and how to do them. You climb much quicker when you don't have to do any route finding.

Honnold climbed it incredibly quickly. Most people take three or four days, this is a very long and very difficult route. If you've ever been to an indoor top rope gym, imagine picking the hardest route and doing it about 80 times.

Honnold and Tommy Caldwell climbed it as a traditional roped team in around six hours while rehearsing for the solo. It comes down to the competence of the team and how well they know the route. I can promise you that Honnold knew every single foot placement off by heart by the time he hiked up to solo it.

3,300 feet of climbing is a lot of climbing. Most non-pro climbers will be winded and in need of a rest after a couple hundred feet of climbing. Also, it is easier to move without ropes since you never have to sort gear or re-coil your rope.

A lot have free climbed it, but it is a major project for most who do. Here is a great account from James Lucas of what it takes for a more normal human (who is still a pro climber) to climb the freerider: http://eveningsends.com/the-day-i-sent-freerider-in-a-day/

Also, there are many climbers more skilled than Honnold at climbing hard routes. Honnold is not even in competition for climbing the hardest grades.

However, there is no one close to him in his confidence and security off-rope on difficult grades.

Climbing has many different disciplines, lets not confuse marathon runners with sprinters. Honnold is the best big wall speed climber out there, hands down. Of course, to set speed records these days you not only need to be in top physical condition, you've got to compromise or abandon altogether your reliance on safety gear.

Good point. He is also particularly good at carrying long, sustained routes in a single push.

> Any idea of how many people have free climbed this route? I'm really curious to know if Honnold is a one-of-a-kind climber or there are similar skill level climbers who just aren't willing to risk it without ropes?

I don't know how many people have freed that particular route (called "Freerider"), but SuperTopo says it's one of the easier routes on El Cap to free climb[0] (though it's still not any "easy" route by any stretch).

But I think it's safe to say that Honnold is a one of a kind climber because free-soloing something takes a significantly higher level of self-control and self-confidence than freeing the same route does. So he's one of a kind precisely because he's willing to risk it without ropes.

[0] http://www.supertopo.com/rock-climbing/Yosemite-Valley-El-Ca...

Even if free climbing this route without falling once is well within someone's skill, free soloing it is likely not. It'd require serious mental preparation.

> Could many good free climbers do what Honnold did, but just like the added bits of safety?

"Many" people climb that route with protection.

However, to better put this in perspective, it is plausible this feat will not be repeated for decades, if ever. I would qualify this as the greatest sports achievement of all time.

Successfully free climbing the freerider is a lifetime achievement even for professional climbers, often requiring up to a week on the wall. To do it in under 24 hours is the realm of the most elite climbers only.

To be able to approach it as "four hours of light exercise" as Honnold did is an incredible feat in its own right, even before the whole certain-death-for-one-mistake bit gets factored in.

In the NYT article[0] he said he's climbed this route without falling in 2008-09, so physically he's been able to do this for 8-9 years.

[0] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/06/us/california-today-alex-...

People fall all the time. Climbers test movements by doing them (and most don't work).

Honnold left chalk marks on key holds on freerider to ensure he grabbed the right pieces.

When people push difficult sport routes, they may fall fairly frequently. When doing an easier route, or if you are trad climbing, you really shouldn't fall.

Should, or shouldn't, is all theory, though.

Last year, a friend of mine who introduced me to climbing fell to his death on a trad climb. I don't know what happened, but I assume his protection equipment slipped out of where he placed it.

I'm sorry about your friend.

However, your statement about trad climbing is inaccurate. People project hard trad routes all the time, fully expecting to fall.

When working moves, you fall constantly. I was out on Saturday working on my latest project and I probably fell twenty times. Honnold worked Freerider extensively and no doubt fell a lot while getting it all dialed in.

If you don't fall in practice now and then, you won't find where the limits are.

I google him about once a year to see if he is still alive, and I'm surprised each time.

Ha ha, I always find it difficult to choose between your joke, and the fact that someone sells this: https://www.rei.com/product/869679/maxim-alex-honnold-signat...

> I google him about once a year to see if he is still alive, and I'm surprised each time.

That's wickedly funny :) but alas I'm guilty of that too.

I think he should just stop now

The only thing that should be taught in tandem is the definition of survivorship bias.

They're already examining him for the ability to suppress fear (terror?) that would stop mere mortals

(You missed "Prior" on the front, there)

Check these awesome photos of the feat: http://elcapreport.com/content/elcap-report-6317-special-edi...

There's a great documentary on the climbing culture of Yosemite and its evolution (including the equilibrium-punctuating arrival of Alex Honnold) available at least on Netflix: Valley Uprising.

Worth a watch.

equilibrium-punctuating arrival of Alex Honnold...

Yeah, I guess that just about describes the guys career.

Fun question: which people in other disciplines have had the same shattering effect in their field ? I can think of Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov in Chess.

Tiger Woods, Old Tom Morris, a whole crapton of scientists and musicians.

Kelly Slater in Surfing

"Climbing the Nose" is also pretty cool, but about a different route as far as I can tell.

It is a different route and significantly harder and will likely never be free soloed for a long time if ever. The crux is so insecure that it's suicide.

Thanks, I figured as much but in the articles on Honnold's ascent I didn't find any mention of a specific route.

Freerider. The other replier has the link for you. Mountain Project is a great website to use if you hear someone say they climbed up a route, and are curious about the route.

You might want to checkout related articles on r/climbing, it's a reasonable community.

First clip of Honnold's climb: https://goo.gl/LZ1jcq

palms literally raining phew

On a message board I use there has been some interesting discussion [1] of whether elite climbers are being subject to pressure to take unreasonable risks due to the need to stay visible on social media, the commercial requirements of sponsors, and increasing interest in climbing by media orgs like Nat Geographic. I climb at a very modest level and don't feel qualified to judge in this case, and I certainly don't want to imply that Alex isn't making informed judgements about what he does, but I suspect these concerns may have some validity.

But an awesome achievement, nevertheless.

[1] https://www.ukclimbing.com/forums/t.php?n=665201&v=1

Interesting, I feel pretty confident that this was a personal goal for him though, since he first mentioned it in 2009.

I agree about it likely being a personal goal.

But when Dawn Wall was freed a couple of years ago it got a lot of coverage in the mainstream media [1]. I wonder whether that would be the case if, instead, it was done a year or so from now. Or would the fact that Caldwell and Jorgeson used ropes and protection mean that it was no longer extreme enough to be considered remarkable. Even though it was the outcome of a long-term project, would they have to solo it to get the same level of mainstream attention now?

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/15/sports/el-capitans-dawn-w...

I see a lot of comments wondering why someone would take such risks, why it's irresponsible etc...

It makes me wonder how responsible it is to sit in a chair and program all day, distorting your body into a twisted fat shadow of itself.

I think our profession also comes with physical risks, and they sure aren't as rewarding as rock-climbing is.

It's things like this that make me ask myself, "Why don't I climb rocks more?"

Then I remember I have a fear of falling to my death. It's a vicious cycle.

Fear of falling is natural, and good. If yours is a bonafide phobia, that will be a challenge of course, but some people climb in order to fight their phobia.

There's an interesting progression with regard to fear in rock climbing. Bouldering is fairly limited, fear-wise (if you don't count highballs). It's a great way for anyone to get into climbing, and just have fun.

Top-roping a wall is pretty benign as well, since if you fall it's usually just a couple feet. But the height can will still cause beginners to pause, but you should get over it fairly quickly. You will be too focused on the next move to think about the height, most of the time.

Then you progress to lead climbing, where you pull the rope up with you (attached to your harness), and clip into quickdraws. Lead falls are much farther than top rope, in general, and you have the added physical challenge of finding a good position to do the clipping. This added physical challenge leads to mental drain as you have to gauge "can I make it to the next quickdraw and have enough energy to find a position to clip without falling?" The more you move up, the farther you're going to fall..

Then you have traditional (trad) climbing, where you place protection into the rock, in the form of cams and nuts and what not, and you clip into those. The physical challenge with finding a position to put protection is similar to lead, but now you have to hold the position longer, and after it's placed, you have the added mental strain of "will that piece of gear actually hold if I fall on it?"

And then, you have Honnold here, with free soloing. You fall you die (or get super messed up).

When I went from top roping to lead, it was like starting over again. The level I was climbing at plummeted (on lead), due to the mental game. Nowadays when I top rope, it's almost a joke (fear-wise). I can fly up a route on top rope, and then struggle up the same route on lead.


One of the most interesting things about the sport, to me, is the whole mental challenge, and any climber will tell you the same. You are not just challenging yourself physically, but mentally. We all have to fight the fear, our weakness of mind.

Some people don't have any fear; Sometimes I forget to clip when I'm lead climbing.

When you solo regularly, you learn that fear is what keeps you alive.

Do not despair: he literally does not experience that feeling (http://nautil.us/issue/39/sport/the-strange-brain-of-the-wor...). It's like being bummed that you can't spray a fountain of water out of your elephant trunk. There's fundamental physiological difference.

There's fundamental physiological difference.

It's not clear there is. Consider this part of the article:

Yet Honnold ended up scared, really scared, on Corrugation Corner. He clung to the big, friendly holds. “I overgripped the shit out of it,” he says. Obviously, though, he didn’t give up after that first experience. Instead, Honnold donned what he called “mental armor” and crossed the threshold of fear again and again. “For every hard pitch I’ve soloed I’ve probably soloed a hundred easy pitches,” he says.

One by one, acts that had seemed outrageous to him began to seem not so crazy: soloing moves in which he hangs only by his fingers, for example, with his feet swinging in the open air, or, as he did in June on a notorious route called The Complete Scream, climbing ropeless up a pitch that he had never ascended before. In 12 years of free solos, Honnold has broken holds, had his feet slip, gotten off-route into unknown terrain, been surprised by animals like birds and ants, or just suffered “that fraying at the edges, you know, where you’ve just been up in the void too long.” But because he managed to deal with these problems, he gradually dampened his anxieties about them.

So was he born this way, or through repeated exposure did he train himself to be this way?

Or, more likely, is it a bit of both?

The article certainly seems to suggest that we can all improve on our ability to manage fear... perhaps not to the degree Alex has, but enough so to allow us to tackle challenges that might otherwise seem insurmountable.

I got started by bouldering at the gym, which is an incredibly fun physical and mental challenge. It's all low-height (sub 15') climbing without any ropes over soft pads so you can fall without hurting yourself. After a couple of years I've built up the confidence to start rope climbing, but I know plenty of climbers who only boulder.

I do know some folks who go bouldering, which is what I think I would do since it's relatively $ free :) I also hike a lot, which inevitably involves some short scrambles straight up. This may be the summer to expand. Thanks for the motivation!

Climbing is quite safe and certainly less injury-inducing than eg snowboarding or skiing (as my damaged MCL will attest).

Go to a climbing gym and learn how climbing works. You'll see there's nothing much to worry about and you can focus on having fun. Climbing is the best thing there is, in my horribly biased opinion.

To me this quote is the best gauge of how incredible of a human feat this was.

"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."


Sincerely, even thinking about it - feels scary! :)

These are great pictures indeed:


I would not do a climb like this even if the fate of the universe depended on it.

Obligatory related entertainment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3MubrSXdjjQ

Tommy Caldwell is the most qualified person in the world to write this story. A famous name in climbing himself, having written many of the books, and having climbed and prepared with Alex.


There was a very good interview with Alex on Joe Rogan a few years back:


In a typical Rogan style, it's a pretty relaxed and "real" chat, about girls, shitting your pants etc. Gives a little more insight into how top athletes like Alex think and approach their craft.

How did he get back down? With Ropes? Then who brought them up? Or did he do a BASE jump? Catch a ride on a Helicopter?

You can walk off the back.

I find it interesting that I feel some of the same physical symptoms of fear when I look at clips of this guy 1000' off the ground, climbing the rock.

Alex has a such a unique set of skills, which he has not only identified but honed to their best level of execution. It is hard for me to now simultaneously feel awe and disbelief.

Something I've always wondered about stuff like this: How can someone get so good at a craft that seemingly allows for zero mistakes? How do you practice and develop your skills when there's no margin for error?

(Note: I'm assuming he'd have died if he ever made a mistake on this climb)

There are lots of small mistakes you can make while climbing that don't result in a fall. Poor route selection, bad hand placement, sketchy foot holds, etc. The sport is choices leading to choices. Small bad choices can be corrected, for the most part.

For example, in the National Geographic[1] story it mentions that he attempted the climb in November but "but backed off after less than an hour of climbing". I assume he hit some threshold of small mistakes, bad conditions, and negative vibes that added up to, "not today." But he got down and lived to climb another day.

The interview with Tommy Caldwell linked elsewhere in the comments mentions that he even fell once while practicing for this climb, "he had taken a fall on a practice lap of the Freerider and badly sprained his ankle."

So probably less that he makes NO mistakes, and more that none of his mistakes have meant a deadly fall yet.

[1]: http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/features/athlete...

He practices roped

About Alex Honnold, there's just one thing that comes to mind - Unbridled Ambition.

That same spirit that Caesar's men harnessed to build a bridge across the Rhine in 10 days, that led NASA to get to the moon in a decade, that led to the empire state building being erected in slightly over a year.

Here is a post-climb interview with Alex Honnold: http://www.rockandice.com/climbing-news/alex-honnold-el-cap-...

Explore El Capitan via Google street view


One of the best pieces written to date about this.


It would be well to remember the old adage that there are two kinds of rock climbers: those that have fallen and those that will fall. As spectacular a feat as this was, even for someone as skilled as Honnold, he does this often enough, in the end, it will kill him.

i used to think that, but now i'm not so sure. his free climbs are basically choreographed down to the inch, well ahead of time.

that is a completely different thing than just going up because he's in a good mood and thinks he can do it.

That is like saying you can flip 50 coins and have them come up heads every time because your flips were choreographed. Every single move he makes, every fingerhold, every foot placement, everything, must be perfect every time. The rock can't crumble unexpectedly,the sun can't momentarily blind him, hell, a butterfly in the Peruvian Andes can't flap its wings just so. There must be thousands of such points in his climbs, any one of which could kill him. He does it often enough, someday, they will.

Your comment doesn't make sense. You can't choreograph the result of coin flip, but you can definitely rehearse a rock climbing sequence so that you always nail it. I can promise you there weren't thousands of moments on this climb where chossy rock, the sun, or chaos theory had anything to do with his success or failure.

I'm curious , if he is free climbing this large peaks, wouldn't it make sense to wear one of em lightweight parachutes, I'm sure for someone like Alex an extra 800g wouldn't be much of an issue would it?

Assuming Honnold has perfect ability, what are the risks of the route itself? I assume these routes are kept clean of loose rock, holds are inspected constantly and anything showing wear is communicated to the climber community.

hey, actually no one maintains the routes in an official capacity. there are groups of climbers who voluntarily will upgrade fixed protection, or individuals who do the same, but certainly no governing body. it's not like a hiking trail, for example. it's pretty wild west, but generally people work together.

as far as the objective risks, they include loose rock, broken holds, wet rock, birds spooking you, base jumpers spooking you, hornets, climbers dropping things by accident on you.

On the subject of maintaining a route like this, it is dangerous to remove loose rocks since there is a reasonable chance that there is someone below you. As a result, some loose rock is still present on these routes.

The National Geographic article described his some of his preparation, including climbing with ropes and a friend the week before, marking tricky holds with chalk, and rappelling down after an intervening rainstorm to make sure the holds and marks were clean.

> I hope others are inspired by Alex’s dedication to excellence and ability to live without fear

What he did was impressive to be sure, but I wonder how many people inspired by it will attempt it themselves, only to fall to their deaths.

There's some National Geographic video footage of the climb here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9HoUDDetAg0

Why is this celebrated? The man could die. Is it for our amusement? You take someone, you give him sponsors, you make him think risking his life to make a living this way is his own choice? Between fame and money, and a life working as a clerk in some office ... what choice could there be.

I imagine it's like the choice for slaves in ancient Rome between being a house slave or becoming a gladiator. Fame and riches maybe ... death maybe.

Why does society accept this behavior as normal?

The welfare state will bear the cost if he lands hard and is paralyzed. If he dies, his loved ones will bear the cost.

For all this, what do we get in concrete terms? The knowledge that a human has risked his life for something so meaningless? Some "sweet photos, dude".

Madness really. How does everyone accept this as normal?

> The man could die.

People die all the time doing much more mundane things

> Is it for our amusement?

Awe and inspiration are the first ones that came to my mind actually. Nobody manipulated him to consider doing this since 2009. Rock climbing is clearly his life.

> You take someone, you give him sponsors, you make him think risking his life to make a living this way is his own choice? Between fame and money, and a life working as a clerk in some office ... what choice could there be.

I work with genius doctors every day at Google. Truly great people choose their lives, weather it's quietly solving problems in an office, or scaling massive cliffs without gear. People who aren't in control of their own lives tend to think other people's lives are out of control as well.

Just do what you love... Passing judgement at things we don't understand is such a waste of human potential

> How does everyone accept this as normal?

Eh, no one thinks this is normal. Hence all the publicity.

You could die doing anything. It's his life to live and he shouldn't be restricted in how he wishes to live or die. And it's celebrated because it's a form of bravery not all of us have but many of us respect.

It's also brave to play Russian Roulette. Should that be celebrated?

You have to distinguish between brave acts which have a moral purpose. And brave acts which are just displays of bravado.

Bravery to save a person from a fire ... that is worthy of celebration.

Bravery to jump between two tall buildings to impress your bozo friends below ... impressive ... but any society that makes a point celebrating this in its culture might see some problematic developments in how its youth view risk.

It is a remarkable feat, but still in the realm, evidently, of what is humanly possible. Risk is always relative to the activity in which you spend your time.

Just reminds me of Ueli Steck who climbed the Eiger within a few hours. Sadly he had a fatal accident in the Himalayas just recently.

I find it annoying that clicking on the first image takes you to Instagram which displays the linked image smaller than the original article.

More more detail I'd read the National Geographic article linked in this NPR article, it has a very good history/background worth reading.

I know a neuropsychologist who believes that certain people are simply missing certain personality traits that other have, such as fear.

Yes, this was amazing and, as I shared with a friend, bone chilling. I don't know if this feat will ever be repeated.

"...he passed some climbers who had spent the night on a ledge. He did his best not to wake them ..."

Honnold's interview on Tim Ferriss's podcast is fascinating, for anyone who's interested.

I wouldn't even stand with my back to the precipice, as he does in a photo in the article.

How does one get back down from one of those climbs?

there is usually an easy way down the other side.

or you have to abseil.

So crazy, my palms are sweaty just thinking about it

It's Alex Honnold I'm not shocked.

Absolutely incredible.

And why is this hacker news material?

> And why is this hacker news material?

Because "a person who is a hacker , only a hacker, and nothing but a hacker, cannot be much of a hacker."

Yes, but not all hackers that aren't just hackers love climbing. And if I interpret that quote correctly, is there even a remote connection between the article and the kind of social news that are a good fit for this site? I though this site is about computer science and entrepreneurship. And for hackers who love climbing there are online climbing magazine sites, the same for gardening, formula 1 etc.

What would happen if people would start posting here unrelated sports news, or pop music, or motivational quotes, in the name of the quote you mention? Or is it okay if it's only from time to time? What's the ratio?

There's a huge difference between an article about the latest soccer match and an article like this: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/lionel-messi-is-impossi...

I feel this article exposes a monumental achievement that it warrants being of interest. I mean, the proof is in the pudding: it's gotten more comments and discussion going than 95% of the "Version X of [Piece of Software] released" articles (and I consider those to be semi-useful.)

Very interesting point, I haven't thought about it that way, thank you.

>... What would happen if people would start posting here unrelated sports news....

Lighten up dude(dudette)

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