Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Alex Honnold is widely considered to be the world’s greatest free soloist climber. Nathaniel Rich’s review of Honnold’s autobiography in the current issue of The Atlantic is vivid, but nothing can convey his astounding ability like seeing it in motion:

You get queasy too? Watch the full six-minute version here. Many readers with climbing experience are responding to Rich’s book review. This one offers a paean to Honnold:

Alex is among the most highly evolved humans on our planet. He has found a balance between skill, fear, and challenge that few people will ever attain or understand. The highlighted solo climbing that he does is so peaceful, controlled, and pure, he resembles a supernatural creature. Honnold doesn’t care much for fame or bragging, although it is an acceptable side effect. He does this because it is fun, and it makes him feel good. He has reached a state of happiness only few will ever reach.

Thrive on Alex!

Another reader brings the sport a little bit down to earth:

Almost all solos are done after climbing the route many, many, many times beforehand, to the point where the climbing is so easy, it would be like you climbing a ladder to change a light bulb.

There’s also a grading system in climbing. Say you’re a 5.13 climber and the route is a 5.8 or 5.9: There’s a very small chance that you will fall on that route from physical exertion. And many other people have usually climbed a specific route countless times beforehand, so you can be confident in the rock quality and the consensus over difficulty.

Not many people look up at some unclimbed route and go “hmm ... I think I’ll solo that.”

Not many—but Honnold is one of them. From Rich’s piece:

Before attempting his free solo of Moonlight Buttress, Honnold rehearsed the most challenging pitch on rope repeatedly, until he had memorized each move. But he soon tired of this approach, complaining that it “actually took some of the challenge out of the climb.” He free soloed Half Dome without being certain of the correct route; later he free soloed Rainbow Wall in Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon, “fourteen pitches of sustained climbing up this massive, concave, amphitheaterlike face, lots of it on tiny holds,” without scouting it at all, having climbed it only once, with protection, years earlier.

Back to a reader who’s a “fairly experienced climber”:

Mental challenge aside, free soloing is faster and easier because the climber does not have to A) mess with gear while climbing B) be limited by a certain route (fixed bolts or a crack) and C) wait for a second climber to follow. In addition to being faster and easier, it requires consistent concentration and many would describe it as a form of moving meditation, resulting in the attainment of a mental state for a duration that would otherwise be unattainable.

One more reader:

Soloing doesn’t make someone a candidate for a Darwin award. Alex is well-aware of the risks he’s taking every time he solos. The majority of his climbing is done with a rope; he’s just well-known for pushing the boundaries of soloing. He’s also now making a really good living because the wow factor resonates with the general public, not like Sharma or Ondra climbing the hardest lines out there.

Climbing is about growth and understanding yourself, your boundaries, limits, controlling fears, etc. It’s something you can’t understand unless you get out there on the wall, rope or not.

If you also happen to be a rock climber and want to provide your view, drop me an email. (Pictures of pitches welcome.)