No Rope—and No Prep

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

A reader quotes an earlier one:

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.

Allow me to relate a first-hand story about Mr. Honnold. Back in 2012 I was in the midst of a career switch, living in Chile for the winter (southern summer), and climbing nearly every day. Alex visited the area where I was staying and I was able to spend a few days in close proximity to one of the world’s greatest athletes. A new route had been established on a 1000+ foot wall and had been completed only twice (this is significant, since new routes are more prone to have footholds break off, etc):

(Al Centro y Adentro, 5.11c/d, Cochamó, Chile — Route indicated with dots)

This is a difficult route of 12 pitches with an overall grade of 5.11c/d (only slightly easier than the Rainbow Wall or Half Dome). Alex began an “on-sight” free solo—meaning a free solo [without a rope] of a route he had never climbed.

The confidence to undertake something of this magnitude is difficult to comprehend, but even more impressive was his discipline and humility. Five pitches up, at the most difficult section, he found the climbing too insecure and decided to reverse the route, climbing back down through several 5.10 and 5.11 pitches. He joined back up with his friends (who were using a rope) and finished the route that same day. I was deeply impressed that he not only had the ability to do the things that he does, but also the wisdom to know when not to.

Personally I was happy to have a rope, since when I climbed the same route two days later, I promptly fell off the section that had given Alex pause.

An amazing, apropos story like this one gives me lots of hope for the Notes section. Other climbers have tales to tell? Please drop me an email. Update from a reader:

The Radical Calm of Alex Honnold” is one of the most insightful articles that I’ve read about him. Money grafs from the piece:

Of course, what makes Honnold truly badass is his mental game, his ability to shrink the space between the hardest route he can climb with protection and what he is willing to climb without. “Alex’s level of commitment is just off the charts compared to anyone else,” Caldwell says.

Insiders point out that Honnold lacks Caldwell’s level of technical skill or the freaky strength-to-weight ratio of Chris Sharma or the young Czech Adam Ondra. But if Sharma or Ondra attempted to free-solo that cavernous Half  Dome face, would the mortal gravity of his situation tighten up the muscles enough to place a difficult move, something normally in their wheelhouse, just out of reach? We’ll never know, because neither would ever try — the consequence of failure is too unbearable. The pleasure of watching Honnold boulder is that he looks the same at 15 feet without a rope as he does at 1,500 feet. [...]

Caldwell has considered the puzzle of Honnold as deeply as anyone. “Most of us are ruled by our emotions,” he says. “When something attracts us, we gravitate toward it; when we’re afraid of it, we run away. But Alex seems to treat his emotions like a car stereo. When the music gets too loud, he just turns down the dial and keeps driving.”