Notes

First Drafts, Conversations, Stories in Progress

Stories of Free Soloing
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Readers discuss our profile of legendary free soloist Alex Honnold and share their own stories of rock climbing. Join them via hello@theatlantic.com.

Show 3 Newer Notes

No Rope—and No Prep

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:

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.