Free Solo, the Academy Award–winning documentary about Alex Honnold’s quest to climb the 3,000-foot face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, has transformed a well-known rock climber into a global hero. El Capitan isn’t difficult for an experienced climber, but Honnold scaled its granite face without ropes or harnesses—an unprecedented, extraordinary feat. The ascent required a series of intricate moves that, if botched, would have meant death.
At one point in the climb, Honnold said in conversation with the New York Times columnist Bret Stephens at the Aspen Ideas Festival, co-hosted by the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic, he had to commit all his weight to one toe before proceeding. It’s a harrowing exploit, but also one unique to his sport. Most people face challenges, but worrying about free-falling thousands of feet down a mountain if you misplace a single digit is not one of them.
When it comes to free-solo rock climbing, if you can’t do the physical part, the rest doesn’t matter, Honnold said. No amount of mental gymnastics can overcome the cold, hard fact that you might be too short to reach a crimp from a particular stance. Honnold mentioned that one of his teammates on the North Face climbing team has particularly impressive finger strength, which Honnold said he lacks. That added strength can make some maneuvers easier, or even simply possible.