No Rope—and No Prep, Cont'd

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

The reader who suddenly found himself climbing next to Alex Honnold in Chile follows up:

Alex is simultaneously inspiring and polarizing, even within the climbing community. My interactions with him up close left me quite confident he has a long life ahead of him, but I’m not sure the films always convey the same. I’m glad to see you cover this in more detail than the simple shock value of what Alex is doing!

When I asked him why Honnold is polarizing among climbers, he replied:

Particularly when the videos first started coming out, some felt that the attention on free soloing unfairly cast climbing as excessively risky. It accounts for probably less than one percent of climbing activity but seemingly 99 percent of the media coverage (which is understandable). Every climber I know got a call from their mother after the 60 Minutes segment on Alex.

There is also certainly the camp that feels his death is imminent—not an unreasonable position, given the history (Derek Hersey—died 1993; Michael Reardon—died 2007; John Bachar—died 2009; Michael Ybarra—died 2012). You can see some older discussion in one of the climbing forums at Mountain Project., which is sort of a “Strava” or “MapMyRun” for elite climbing, has a policy of refusing to publish reports of free solo ascents.

More recently, and as noted in Nathaniel Rich’s book review, Clif Bar (owned by climbers Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford) decided to drop their sponsorship of free soloists, including Alex. Once again, responses were mixed, with maybe half of the climbers I know supporting Clif's decision, a quarter deciding to boycott, and a quarter not really caring but reiterating that they don’t like Clif Bars anyways.

Personally, I think Alex’s abilities are on the order of once-in-a-century, and his attitude and judgement are sound, giving him the best possible odds for what he is doing. That being said, the game he is playing leaves no margin for mistakes or bad luck, and things do happen. As I said, I expect Alex to live for a long time, but I wouldn't be shocked if that turns out to be wrong.

This all ties into some interesting battles playing out over policies that levy fines for mountain rescues, and what constitutes negligence when it comes to risk management in the mountains. The underlying philosophical question seems to be to what degree is an individual obligated to safeguard his or her own life? Free soloing frames that debate in the starkest possible contrast.

I’m glad to see it covered in more detail than the simple shock value of what he is doing!

If anyone has strong views on whether climbers who get stranded on mountains should have to pay for their search and rescue, drop me an email. My colleague David wrote about the controversial topic back in 2009, when he was at Newsweek:

Rescue services have traditionally been provided free of charge, like police and firefighting, but public anger over costs has led several states to implement charges, often when officials determine that the rescuees have acted negligently. In a notable case, New Hampshire fined a Boy Scout $25,000 after he departed from marked trails, sprained an ankle, and required a rescue, using a 1999 law that allows for recovery of costs in cases in which the state department of fish and game determines negligence. Seven other states have similar laws, with a variety of limits and conditions, often passed in response to costly incidents.

But that move is controversial in the search-and-rescue community, says Howard Paul, a spokesman for the National Association for Search and Rescue. “There are documented cases where someone is afraid of the cost and they're put in this horrible position where they know they need help, but they'll delay calling for help,” he says. “That should never figure into the equation.”

There are several other factors that complicate charging rescuees for their rescue. Negligence is also tough to measure—even experienced climbers and hikers can get ambushed by whiteouts, avalanches, and unexpected injuries, despite precautions and preparation. “What's an undue risk?” Paul asks. “I have a greater risk of being seriously injured or killed driving to the mountains on an interstate.”