I watched the documentary film Free Solo about the promise of Alex Honnold to climb a massive slab of granite called El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. It is a granite monolith about 3,000 ft. (900 m.) from base to summit. It is a massive hunk of rock. Free solo is a mountain or rock climbing technique that means the climber ventures forth entirely without safety equipment of any sort.
At the outset let me say it: I am a chicken. I would never do anything remotely like what Alex Honnold did. I have not the slightest desire to even try. I also want to admit at the outset that I am fearfully afraid of heights. I get queasy just thinking about what he did. I got queasy watching rock climbers with ropes and equipment climb a rock mountain in Zion National Park 2 years ago. For me, I would have a hard time standing near the edge of the summit, let alone anywhere on the face without ropes or equipment.
I was scared of watching the film because I had been told that anyone who was scared of heights probably should not watch. I wondered what might happen to me from the comfort of my couch as I watched it. How cowardly is that?
I have only seen rock climbers once. That was 2 years ago in Zion National Park. We were beside what I thought was a massive monolith. We saw the climbers from the ground and looking up they appeared as miniscule people. Frankly, I could hardly watch them from down on the ground. I thought the climbers were nuts. And they all had ropes. In the movie Free Solo I learned that this free solo climb in Zion was an easy preparation for El Cap. Nothing to it was Honnold’s attitude. To me that seemed incomprehensible.
It is interesting to note that Honnold was going to climb with a film crew following every step, often from a safe distance. That must have added to the pressure.
I found one thing very interesting in the film. Alex said, “in free soloing you come as close to perfection as you will ever get, because even the slightest mistake means you will die.” I always think the pursuit of perfection is insane. This type of perfection is even crazier. Perfection, as they say is the enemy of the good. I would add it is the enemy of sanity.
I admit to some unease about the film interviews with Alex. Was the purpose to glorify the attempt? If so I do not want to be a part of it. I think it is a crazy thing to try. No it is an insanething to try. I hope the film does not lead others to try it too to grab some glory. The glory could be short-lived.
The first person to climb El Capitan climbed it together with a partner in 47 days using “siege” tactics. This means they climbed expedition style using fixed ropes along the length of the route linking established camps along the way and using aid climbing with ropes, pitons, and expansion bolts to make it to the summit. Even then it took nearly 2 months.
It was ascended again 2 years later by a group of 4 in 7 days. Today it usually takes a group of fit climbers about 4 to 5 days to do it. In 1975 a group of 3 climbers did it in 1 day.
The first solo ascent (not free solo) was accomplished in 10 days in 1968. In time some climbers sought ways to climb El Cap either free or with minimal aid. On June 3, 2017 Alex Honnold completed the first free solo climb of El Capitan without any protective equipment whatsoever. The film is about that climb. He ascended the Freerider route in 3 hours and 56 minutes.
The filming was spectacular with some fabulous 360°shots. A number of times I was almost ill watching. Remember I’m a chicken. It was that intense when he made some moves that required stunning body twists and holding himself with a thumb or a couple of fingers and a quick movement of a foot for a slight toe-hold from one tiny ledge to another. Imagine holding yourself up with a thumb? Or a toe? It really seemed like an impossible achievement.
Even though the cameramen at times had to look away as well, one of them said, “Alex is having the best day of his life.” Was he? Why? I really don’t get it.
I personally have no need to seek out thrills. I don’t want to support it (even though I paid to see the film). I would not want to encourage anyone to take such chances for no real purpose.
Now I know there is nothing gained by me going to photograph wild flowers, or writing this silly blog, but at least I am not putting my life in danger. I get lots of excitement from traveling the world of ideas. I would rather venture forth in the world of ideas than climb a mountain, or walk across Antarctica, or run 29 miles in the Sahara desert. Each to our own. I don’t say my puny achievements are better. They are just better for me.
It was interesting to me that no one in the film encouraged Alex to climb the mountain free solo. Not one person. His girlfriend clearly would have preferred him not to do it, but I also felt perhaps she enjoyed soaking up some of the glory surrounding Alex. She did not stick around to watch him climb. Alex admitted he did not have to do it. He chose to do it. Even after months of preparation by him and the film crew he said, “I know I could walk away from it, but I just don’t want to.” He wanted to try it, knowing he might die in the attempt. But he gave no powerful reason for doing it.
What is the morality of a person doing something as crazy as this so we might behold his achievement? I don’t know. I don’t think I want to encourage it, but I guess I did. I don’t know why. Chris did not want to see the film because that would be like encouragement to others to try it too.
Honnold also said he did not want to die in front of his friends who were filming him. None of them wanted to do anything to distract him. They were very careful to avoid that while filming him. It must have added a serious element of extra danger to do what Honnold did with a film crew constantly around him. He even said he was tempted to just do it all alone one day without all the fuss. Just sneak out int he morning and do it. But then no one would know you did it. Why should that matter?
Honnold also claimed he was doing it “for all the right reasons”. What could that possibly mean? He did not explain. Can you conceive of a right reason? I can’t. Even Honnold admitted that it seemed odd to him to say he was doing it for the right reasons when he was climbing with an entourage of a crew.
At the end Alex said, “What a journey.” That was his summation. That is a pretty prosaic statement for such an amazing achievement. That leads me to think that the entire effort was actually entirely banal. There was no good reason to do. He could not explain one. I don’t think there was one. Hannah Arendt wrote when she covered the Nuremberg Nazi trials after World War II that evil was banal. Sometimes that is true. But I would add that so is spectacle. Spectacle is banal. Sports achievements are all ultimately banal. It may be briefly fun. But there is no important reason for them. There is no good reason, other than to have some fun and get in shape and experience some competition. Extreme sports achievements are all, in my opinion, banal.
I know you have to be brave to do what Alex Honnold did. I don’t have that kind of courage. None of it to be precise. But you also have to be brave to dissent from the almost unanimous opinions of your friends or community. You have to be brave to strike out on your own on new lines of thought. You have to be brave to speak up when someone else is espousing racist views. You have to be brave to attack your own convictions because you never know where that will lead you. That is the kind of bravery I wish I had.