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.

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Another rock climber writes in:

Free-soloing is something a fair number of climbers do. To see it done by someone who’s the best in the world at it, like Alex Honnold, is certainly striking. It’s obvious that climbing fingernail-sized holds on an overhanging wall is beyond the ability of most people, but then you add “no rope” and jaws drop.

But really, free-soloing is just the same as what you do when hiking, just steeper. Fred Beckey, ancient Pacific Northwest climber and notorious sandbagger, rates the difficulty of many mountain climbs in the North Cascades of Washington as “class 4,” which is generally defined as “unroped climbing where a fall will kill you.” That’s free-soloing. None of those climbs looks anything like Honnold’s video, but people achieve the same freedom of movement, exertion, danger, and focus, in an amazing natural environment.

The above video is a good example of perilous class 4 scrambling. Says the climber in that video, “The scary stuff starts at about the 6 minute mark, when I get up on the knife-edged ridge.” Here’s a good video tutorial of the differences of class 1 through class 4.

A female reader lends a new perspective to the climbing thread:

Although I am no longer a climber, due to work schedules and age factors, I did climb quite a bit when I was young and fearless. I was one of the few women climbing, let alone leading. I loved friction climbs, because after I learned to master my nerves a bit. It felt like dancing.

I never had a very bad fall, but I did do some sliding and dropping out of cracks onto protection, so I learned to master recovery a bit. It has helped me in my later life—to get a hold of fear and take on challenges other women might not think of mastering. But nothing beats the freedom and joy of being young and going on a good climb with friends.

I asked our reader to elaborate a little on her experience as a female climber, since the sport tends to be predominantly male. She writes:

As a teenager I climbed with a climbing school in The Balls, on Beasore Meadows Road in the Sierras, which was also used by some of the great climbers of the day as a teaching place. Short climbs, top roped mostly, but lots of options. I got very good, very fast, but was still a child. One of my favorite memories:

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. 8a.nu, which is sort of a “Strava” or “MapMyRun” for elite climbing, has a policy of refusing to publish reports of free solo ascents.

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.