I meant to have this published a week or two ago, but here we are now.
Alex Honnold’s “Antarctica” was nowhere near the South Pole. Instead of the “frore moor” that the polar explorers confronted, Honnold chose to challenge himself in the balmy Yosemite National Park in California, USA. Honnold himself said he likes to be “basically wherever the weather is good,” which prompted him to buy and live out of a mobile Ford Econoline van for about ten years.
Yosemite attracts hikers with its rough, gaping-open beauty and towering granite mountains. While most are content to walk along the forest trails, there are many climbers who prefer a vertical journey. One particular mountain, El Capitan (or El Cap for short), has been especially well-known and well-climbed since the 1950s. El Cap has two faces; the Southwest and the Southeast, and there are many routes to climb both. The most popular road up, however, lies on a prow between the two faces, and is lovingly dubbed The Nose.
Climbs are categorized depending on how gear is used – or ignored. Solo climbing is what it sounds like – the climber goes alone, without a belay waiting helpfully below. Free climbing uses no aids like ascenders, skyhooks, ladders, etc. Aids enable a climber to put their weight on the gear to make the ascent easier. In free climbing, a climber must carry all their weight on their own, with nothing except shoes to assist the upward motion. Free climbing still has the option of using protective gear, like ropes, bolts, or cams.
Free soloing is the most difficult; not only does a climber not use any upward aids – they don’t use any downwards aids. That is, they have no ropes, trad gear, bolts, or any backup to catch their fall. Free soloing is very much a psychological challenge as well as a physical one.
A pioneer of Yosemite climbing was Warren Harding, who led a team in 1958 and marked out a path on El Cap over 45 arduous days. In 1968, famed climber Royal Robbins was the first to solo El Cap’s Muir Wall route, which he did in ten days. A year later, Tom Bauman completed the first solo climb of The Nose. In 1975, a group of three men ascended The Nose in one day – a trip that good climbers need four or five days to complete.
El Cap’s West Face route was conquered in 1979 by Ray Jardine and Bill Price, but The Nose proved challenging to free climbers. The route was free climbed in 1994 by Lynn Hill, and she completed the climb in four days; the next year Hill returned and free climbed The Nose again – this time in 23 hours, considerably raising the standard of Yosemite climbing.
A free climb of The Dawn Wall took a while to be checked off, but in 2015, noted climbers Tommy Caldwell and Kevin Jorgeson made the ascent in 19 days. This is one of the hardest climbs in the world, and the two no doubt felt elated. Adam Ondra, not to be outdone, went to The Dawn Wall in late 2016, and climbed it in eight days.
In recent times, Alex Honnold was the man who climbed twenty-four stories of a skyscraper in New Jersey, but the city isn’t his typical scene. For the twenty years he’s been climbing, he’s best known for his records set in Yosemite. In 2017, he blew all his past achievements out of the water with his famed 4-hour free solo of El Capitan’s Freerider route. This is an especially challenging route that ascends 3,000 feet into the open air, and its success was described by some as the “moon landing of climbing.” No other climb was on par.
Free solo climbing is, obviously, especially dangerous, as falls from even 50-feet can be lethal. Honnold’s plan seemed like he was thumbing his nose at death, and was considered by many to be foolishly reckless. Only two other climbers publicly said they seriously considered a free solo of El Cap – both of them died in climbing-related accidents. The climb wasn’t even considered by John Bachar, the top free-soloist of the 70s who died doing what he loved.
However, Honnold doesn’t appear to acknowledge fear or to validate it. While he recognizes the danger and achievement of his climbs, he adds, “…Feeling fearful while I’m up there is not helping me in any way. It’s only hindering my performance, so I just set it aside and leave it be.”
While emphasizing that he doesn’t have a “death wish,” Honnold explains that he “differentiates between risk and consequence.” When talking about his ascent of a skyscraper, he says with a shrug, “Sure, falling from this building is high consequence, but, for me, it’s low risk.” Part of this confidence may stem from Honnold’s phenomenal climbing ability, as well as his organizational skills when planning a route; but his claims left many wondering if something was a little off in the climber’s brain.
To address aspersions cast on his mental stability, Honnold agreed to undergo an MRI scan. This revealed that while his amygdala is intact (the part of the brain that processes fear and aggression), its response to frightening and disgusting stimuli is considerably below average. Images that are “used widely in the field for inducing fairly strong arousal responses,” Honnold describes as “dated and jaded… like looking through a curio museum.”
Another male, thrill-seeking climber also described no reaction to the images; the difference was that the other climber’s amygdala was still firing subconsciously, while Honnold’s was inactive. This may point to why the thrills Honnold seeks are twice as big as most others. It is impossible to pin down the interactions between Honnold’s climbing and forced calmness; perhaps this fearlessness made him right for climbing, or maybe mentally steeling himself over and over has raised his tolerance for frightening situations.
It is equally impossible to say if the Polar explorers had similarly-inactive amygdalae that led them to the ends of the earth for their thrills. One thing that is certain is that mankind’s desire to be thrilled and rewarded has led to death, discovery, scientific breakthrough, and personal pride felt vicariously by nations. Spectators must take off their hats in admiration when they watch the undauntable heroes of today – even if said spectators are mumbling under their breath about the idiocy of such undertakings.
Yosemite conqueror Honnold, and Antarctic crossers Rudd and O’Brady represent the solitude that everyone faces in their battles. In a sense, we are all unaided as we cross our Antarctica; there is a Pole we seek, and no one can help us get there. We are all free soloists; there is no one to catch us if we slip, and we must drag our full weight up by ourselves. It doesn’t matter if we make it a quarter mile across a frozen desert or 2,500 feet up a stone wall – if we stop, we fail; and to fail means to die.
Kevin Jorgeson, a free climber, told a reporter, “I think everyone has their own secret Dawn Wall to complete one day.” Henry Worsley would have agreed. There is a personal Antarctic, Dawn Wall, or Freerider, waiting for each of us.
May we be up to the challenge.
Images taken from Google Photos.
Text © 2019 Kimba Wisotsky