Rock climbing is a brutally simple sport. Whether you’re on a bouldering wall, a granite face, or an actual mountain, the line between success and failure is plainly clear. You have to reach the top of whatever you’re attempting to summit or you’ll fall in the process.
Gravity usually wins, which is why most everyone trekking up mountains or frozen waterfalls uses ropes and specialized equipment to stay alive. The core difficulty of climbing is inescapable, but you can mitigate the consequences and, you know, not die. Free soloing, however, is a hardcore offshoot of rock climbing where climbers defy safety and scamper up rock faces and mountains without ropes or any gear that would save them from a fall.
Alex Honnold is perhaps the greatest living free soloist, and this weekend, he conquered Yosemite National Park’s El Capitan in under four hours. The 31-year-old Sacramento native is the first person to scale the wall without assistance. Honnold has free soloed other notable cliffs, such as Half Dome and Zion National Park’s Moonlight Buttress, but El Capitan is in a class by itself. The granite cliff was carved out by glaciers over one million years ago and it looms 3,000 feet above the floor of Yosemite Valley, jointless, imposing, and completely vertical. Alpinist Magazine called Honnold’s climb “indisputably the greatest free solo of all time.” Only a few climbers have ever even talked about free soloing El Capitan, and legendary free soloist Peter Croft noted that it’s the pinnacle of the sport:
“It was always the obvious next step,” says Croft. “But after this, I really don’t see what’s next. This is the big classic jump.”
Honnold began his assault on the wall at 5:32 a.m. local time Saturday morning, and was done before 9:30. It took him 3 hours and 56 minutes to finish the climb, which is well off Honnold’s own El Capitan speed record, but is a remarkably quick time for a pioneering ascent. World-class climber and fellow El Capitan record holder Tommy Caldwell called it the “moon landing of free soloing,” and you don’t really need to be a climbing acolyte to see why Honnold’s feat is so incredible.
Honnold apparently began planning the attempt over a year ago and a small group of collaborators helped him prepare in secret. He trained in China, Morocco, and Europe for the ascent, and even tried to scale the wall last November before realizing that the conditions were not right. Honnold is a meticulous student of climbing, and he prepped for every inch of the wall.
Some of his poise can be attributed to his detailed preparation. He is obsessive about his training, which includes hour-long sessions every other day hanging by his fingertips and doing one- and two-armed pullups on a specially-made apparatus that he bolted into the doorway of his van. He also spends hours perfecting, rehearsing, and memorizing exact sequences of hand and foot placements for every key pitch. He is an inveterate note-taker, logging his workouts and evaluating his performance on every climb in a detailed journal.
Some of the mechanical details from Honnold’s climb are enough to make anyone squirm. There were sections that required him to hang from his fingertips thousands of feet above the ground, and he occasionally had to rely on the friction between his shoes and the wall when there weren’t footholds for him to step onto. As he described it, “It’s like walking up glass.”
National Geographic is producing a documentary about Honnold’s climb, and the filmmakers rappelled down and followed Honnold up the last half of the climb. Even though they were winching themselves up, they struggled to keep up with Honnold. Shortly after Honnold reached the top, he did an interview with Mark Synott and he said that he was going to focus on non-free soloing projects for a while. Completely understandable.