Football players seem even more like gladiators when they play in short sleeves in a winter storm, and baseball players who don't wear batting gloves feel like throwbacks to a more rough and tumble era. What category of admiration should we reserve, then, for someone who ascends a sheer rock face of 3,000 feet using only a pair of climbing shoes and a bag of chalk?
We debate whether Lebron James or Clayton Kershaw or Tom Brady might be the best ever to play their positions, and credible arguments can be made for them all, yet we're all alive during the career of someone who is unequivocally the greatest at his sport, and until a week ago most of the world didn't know his name.
A week ago, Alex Honnold free climbed El Capitan. With no ropes or climbing gear besides his shoes and chalk, Honnold became the first person to free climb what is universally acknowledged, among the climbing world, as the most daunting challenge in what most people consider to be less sport than a perverse game of Russian roulette with fate.
Like most people, my heart races just looking at videos and photos of Honnold on the wall, imagining myself in his place, trapped with no margin of error, feeling the ever present tug of gravity. It only takes a second of panic for the feedback loop of biological responses to kick in, and the moment your fight and flight response switches on, it's over. The adrenaline courses through your body, your muscles start to clench, and most deadly of all, your hands start to sweat. That fight or flight response evolved over hundreds of thousands of year, but it evolved when man had his feet on the ground, in response to predators and threats similarly earthbound. It could not have imagined a scenario in which it would serve a person who'd be hanging by a few pieces of contact between man and rock, a few toes pressing through the material of the climbing shoes, and a few finger tips dusted with chalk.
Icarus, at some point, having soared too high, may have felt a sudden dip, a moment of turbulence, and then glanced to his side to see, with a sudden horror, that the wax securing the feathers to his wing had begun to melt from the heat of the sun. How long did he have to ponder the fact that it was too late, that sometimes the point of no return is literally that?
That's the rub, isn't it? The greatness of humans comes from its ability to imagine, more than any other creature on earth, that which has not been yet but might be. And that is precisely the quality of the human mind that works against someone free climbing a rock. It's been said that the fear of heights stems from a person's ability to imagine themselves jumping. I don't know if it's true but sounds credible. It takes someone physically gifted, with thousands of hours of practice behind them, to even imagine a successful free climb up El Capitan, but anyone can imagine falling to their death with a sickening crunch on the ground below.
There may be more technically gifted climbers (Tommy Caldwell, I've read, is just that). But what makes a free climb of El Capitan perhaps the greatest sports achievement of my lifetime is the mental challenge of entering a flow state for four hours straight. People marvel at a basketball player entering the zone and hitting shot after shot, but Honnold had to enter a new level of zone in which he could not miss a single shot or the game would end forever.
Caldwell knows better than most what Honnold accomplished. He and partner Kevin Jorgeson completed a free ascent of the Dawn Wall in 2015, with ropes used only as backup for those moments when they missed a hold and fell. Says Caldwell:
“If you don’t have your body position exactly right, you can easily slip and fall,” Caldwell told me. “And if you’re at all nervous, there’s a downward spiral where you pull harder with your hands and lean in closer and your feet shoot out, so it takes incredible confidence.”
Free climbing El Capitan has been called unthinkable, and literally so. To think about it is to shrink from it. As you might suspect, several of the only people who could even contemplate such an undertaking didn't even live to attempt it.
Climbers have been speculating for years about a possible free solo of El Capitan, but there have only been two other people who have publicly said they seriously considered it. One was Michael Reardon, a free soloist who drowned in 2007 after being swept from a ledge below a sea cliff in Ireland. The other was Dean Potter, who died in a base jumping accident in Yosemite in 2015.
John Bachar, the greatest free soloist of the 1970s, who died while climbing un-roped in 2009 at age 52, never considered it. When Bachar was in his prime, El Capitan had still never been free climbed. Peter Croft, 58, who completed the landmark free solo of the 1980s—Yosemite’s 1,000-foot Astroman—never seriously contemplated El Capitan, but he knew somebody would eventually do it.
It's difficult to avoid using the world literally when discussing Honnold's achievement because metaphors we typically ascribe to sports analysis like survivorship bias take on a different meaning in free climbing.
It's not as if Honnold is utterly immune to normal human self-doubt. In this earlier video of another free climb, around 3:00, after several hours of free climbing, he feels doubt creep into his mind, and he recalls, "I kind of stalled out and then I started to doubt if I was doing it right, if I had the right holds, why am I even here, do I want to do this."
He stops on a narrow shelf of rock, one maybe one foot length in size, and stares out at the abyss.
"Just come back if you're not feeling it," a voice says to him from off screen.
"Well, that's the thing, I'm like..." Honnold replies. And then he keeps going, and you know the rest.
Despite what he claims are moments of doubt, Honnold is also wired differently than most. You'd think he had completed many rope assisted free climbs of his route before attempting it free solo.
The overwhelming majority of “free” ascents of El Capitan involve many falls along the way. El Capitan also has remarkably few proper ledges; almost all “free” ascents, as a result, involve quite a lot of resting on ropes and hardware between upward pushes. Nobody keeps reliable records of these things, but Honnold’s best guess as to the number of prior ascents with zero falls and zero resting on ropes was perhaps one or two, including his own final practice run with Caldwell. Virtually nobody, in other words, had ever climbed El Capitan without dangling from the safety net, which helps to explain why El Capitan was for so long the final word in free-solo hypotheticals, as in, “Do you think it’s even possible? Will anybody ever free-solo the Big Stone?” The doubt that drove those questions was skepticism that a human mind could maintain such focus — and drive such fierce physical perfection — for so unbearably long.
Many argue that climbing, with its very high risk of death, is so unsafe as to be irresponsible. Even those who admire Honnold and the sport of free climbing must grapple with the ethics of tempting fate so willingly.
Honnold’s sang froid on big cliffs is also so peculiar that even the world-class climbers who consider him a dear friend struggle to believe that it really is just sang froid and confidence, and not borderline-suicidal recklessness or at least a missing screw. Last fall, Caldwell had a nightmare that Honnold appeared at his front door bloodied and broken from a fall.
Jimmy Chin, himself a world-class big-wall climber and another mutual friend of Honnold’s and mine, spent much of the last year making a documentary film about Honnold, during Honnold’s preparation for El Capitan. Chin told me that he felt terrible inner conflict over his involvement in the project, at least at the beginning: What if the presence of cameras encouraged Honnold to do something he would not otherwise have done?
It turns out Honnold really is wired differently.
I have heard other filmmakers say similar things about Honnold in the past, and still other friends of Honnold’s joke that when Alex was a baby his mother must have stepped on his amygdala — the brain region that controls fear. Last year, fMRI testing at the Medical University of South Carolina tilted the scales toward precisely that explanation — an underactive amygdala, not a negligent mother — by confirming that Honnold’s fear circuitry really does fire with less vigor than most.
People have genetic gifts that favor them in all sports. An under-active amygdala, when it comes to extreme sports, may be the most distinctive and valuable gift of all, a relative superpower in any reasonable sense of the word.
Jimmy Chin, the filmmaker behind climbing documentary Meru, filmed Honnold's historic climb. I can't wait to see it.
In most major sports, the ones I watch the most, improvements are slight and often take decades to manifest. The reason we can still have reasonable debates around whether Michael Jordan or Lebron James is the greatest player of all time is that they are not separated by much more than a decade, and while the sport of basketball has a come a long way since the 1960's, it took a half century to evolve to what it is today.
[As a Chicago kid, I'm more than a bit biased, but given today's rules, I think Jordan could easily average 45 or maybe even 50 points a game for a season if he focused on it, though I'm not sure how watchable it would be as much of it would involve him at the free throw line.]
This gradual pace of improvement isn't that surprising. Most such sports operate at the limits of human capability, and so advances in nutrition and training and technique make incremental gains that take long periods to manifest.
We can detect this more easily in sports like track and field, the closest we have to humans using nothing but the abilities of their own human bodies, alone, with no team interaction or environmental effects, and where measured performance is highly precise.
But out of the watchful eye of the mainstream sports audience, athletes in adventure and extreme sports are achieving leaps and bounds in performance that would be unfathomable in our most popular sports. Honnold's ability to achieve flow state may have much to say about how that is possible, and what that entire group of athletes is accomplishing may be one of the great unsung advances in human performance that everyone debating whether the Warriors are the GOAT are missing because of our national obsession over the sports which have dominated American pop culture for the past century (baseball, football, basketball).
It's the subject of The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance, a book that Marc Andreessen tweeted he was reading recently and which I just started reading. I'll share more thoughts on it once I've gotten more than just a few pages in.