If you’re not into rock climbing, it’s very possible you have no idea who Alex Honnold is. If you’re not a documentary buff, it’s equally as possible you’ve never heard of Free Solo. Honnold isn’t the most technically gifted climber in the world, nor is he the most powerful rock hound out there. For that distinction, you’d have to look toward Chris Sharma or Alex Ondra (if you don’t believe me, check the tape below):
Honnold is one of the preeminent Yosemite climbers in the world. El Capitan, Half Dome… these are the center of the rock climbing universe. Honnold holds many of the records for fastest ascents on various routes up the big wall. But even when it comes to Yosemite climbing, most would say that Tommy Caldwell is probably the best in the world, especially after he sent the Dawn Wall, a climb no one in history has ever accomplished.
So why am I harping on Alex Honnold? What makes him special or noteworthy when it seems like he’s certainly in rarified company, but never first on the mind? It all comes down to free soloing…
Free climbing refers to any rock climbing performed without a vertical aide — climbers wear harnesses and helmets only to protect in the event of a fall; they cannot use any equipment to aide them in their actual vertical progress.
Free soloing on the other hand, refers specifically to a climber who uses neither vertical aides nor safety equipment. Essentially, a climber who climbs without a rope, harness or any other safety gear whatsoever.
And Alex Honnold is the greatest free soloer to ever walk this earth.
If you watch one documentary this year, I would have to lobby for Free Solo. It’s an unflinching look inside the life and mind of a climber who pushes the bleeding edge of human performance and mental fortitude. Climbing some of the hardest rock in the world, thousands of feet in a day, ALL WITHOUT A ROPE?!? That’s the kind of things nightmares are made of.
It’s also the stuff of champions.
Chances are, neither you nor I will ever accomplish something as physically and mentally daunting as free soloing El Capitan. It’s the physical equivalent of, say, landing on the moon. As Tommy Caldwell himself put it in the film (more or less), imagine if you were an olympic caliber athlete, and you’re going for a gold medal… but if you don’t get it, you die. That’s what Honnold brings upon himself in attempting such an audacious feet. That’s why I call him a robot alien — because no human could possibly be mentally focused and unafraid enough, while also being one of the top 10 climbers alive to boot… But alas, Honnold is all those things.
Honnold will be forever remembered for this accomplishment. The strong likelihood for almost every human on this earth is that we won’t be remembered forever. It’s just not in the cards for 99.9+% of humanity.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from someone like him.
What makes Honnold so impressive is not that he doesn’t feel fear — you learn in the film he most certainly does feel it. It’s that he can prepare relentlessly and quiet his mind to the point that he can stomach that fear, use it and press onward and upward to achieve his ultimate goal. It took him years to build up the confidence, strength and fortitude to attempt his legendary free solo. When it comes to running a business, building a top-caliber team, bringing a new product or service to the market… all of those require a commiserate level of mental fortitude, preparation and focus to succeed. The stakes might not be fatal, but that doesn’t mean the fear of failure is any less real, only that the consequences might not be as morbid. All that said, though, we should study people like Honnold to make ourselves stronger. To improve our methods and sharpen our skills.
You only get better by studying the greats, and Honnold is certainly one of those.