By Tom Gnyra
Alex Honnold may just be, for better or for worse, the current face of rock climbing. His ability to connect with a larger audience and bring a humble perspective to his many accomplishments makes him a great ambassador to the sport. Yet, due to his nonchalant attitude towards free soloing, the general public has occasionally labelled him a reckless daredevil who pushes an already dangerous sport even further into the danger zone, risking his own life impulsively and with little deliberation.
Before reading Alone on the Wall, Alex’s new book, it is important to suspend any negative thoughts on free soloing and try to accept that Honnold’s perspective may actually be reasonable. Every time Honnold explains his way of life and his accomplishments, he seems to repeat a few Zen truths about his craft: he doesn’t like risk, he’s not an adrenaline junkie, and that free soloing is relatively safe in this case. Free soloing, in his mind, is a high consequence but low risk activity. Just as walking to the edge of a cliff and peering into the void, free soloing has the consequence of falling into thin air if a mistake is made – yet making a mistake is easily circumvented by being careful.
It’s also important to appreciate how good of a rock climber Honnold is to understand why he may want to free solo. Honnold has been climbing for the better part of two decades, and has been free soloing almost the entire time due to his own shy character that made finding a partner too troublesome to bother. Just like anyone who’s been climbing that long, roped or otherwise, he’s had close calls. He’s also worked hard and slowly pushed himself into harder and harder free solos which have culminated into the climbing of Half Dome, Moonlight Buttress and a slew of other hard free lines which seem too incredible to have been possible.
Climbing has been evolving rapidly over the last few decades. Climbing in the 5.12 range is no longer as much of a feat as it once was. Onsights in the 5.12 range, a feat that seemed impossible to many a mere 30 years ago, are now regarded as impressive but not uncommon. Why is it then so improbable that Honnold can, and has, gone on to free solo climbs in the 5.12 range? Those who question his abilities are the same people who remain unimpressed when roped climbers onsight 5.13 or flash V10. And yet, somehow, Honnold’s pursuits seem so much more incredible because they transcend what many of us cannot compartmentalize: the fear of falling to our deaths. This is what Honnold describes as his superpower, as he has the uncanny ability to climb without fear.
If you can accept that Honnold may not be a lunatic, and instead a climber who does things differently, you will be able to read Alone on the Wall with the perspective that the authors try to convey. Most of what is described throughout the book has also been recorded on video, and so if you also happen to follow Honnold closely, the bulk of the text may feel like a second go around. The retelling of Honnold 3.0, for example, completely rehashes the movie made by Sender Films with a few added snippets of text that weren’t explored in the edited version. Honnold recounts his days filming with 60 Minutes and his free solo of The Phoenix, both which were highly publicized and viewed by climbers and the general public, alike. However, if you missed any of these movies, reading the vivid descriptions captured by Honnold and Roberts will surely cover the book’s pages in a fine layer of palm sweat.
What is most enjoyable about the memoir is reading snippets of information that weren’t originally presented. For example, when contemplating the free solo of Moonlight Buttress, Honnold didn’t only work all the pitches beforehand; he hauled a 600 ft line to the top and rappelled in to work the moves of the most difficult pitches until they were permanently cemented in his memory. He didn’t seem to think it was a big deal at the time, not sure if he would even get a pair of free rock shoes from the ensuing media exposure. In a weird way, this shows how unimpressive Honnold must have thought he was at the time. He was doing bold free solos that no one else dared to even contemplate, yet never thought someone would even sponsor him. Maybe he wasn’t sure if there was a mass appeal to his gut-wrenching solos, but maybe he wasn’t even convinced that they were as impressive as they are.
Many readers have commented on how little Honnold seems to reflect on his experiences in the book. Throughout, there are a few inseparable questions that seem to get the Mallory-esque response of, ‘because it’s there’. Is he afraid to die? Why does he put it all on the line? If you’re looking for a deeper reflection into these questions you may come up short. There is nothing puzzling or secret about the life of a free soloist, something which is made abundantly clear when reading the book. There is no blood oath that must be taken; no Shaolin monk training that must be pursued. What Honnold does is something that appears incredible and is just, in the end, a very calculated risk that he chooses to perform, never pressured by sponsorship or by friends. He does explain himself and his motives for all of his accomplishments, but to many his words are unsatisfactory as the answers seem too simple to be true.
Something that may surprise many is that, to Honnold, free soloing is just a continuation of his overall life motto of simplicity. Free soloing, speed climbing and his lifestyle are manifestations of wanting to add the principles of minimalism his surroundings, whether it is on the wall with the purity and the efficiency of speed climbing and free soloing, or through living in his Ford Econoline, free of the clutter of owning materialistic possessions.
Honnold has even reflected on his own environmental footprint. He is not only determined to offset his own use of carbon, but has created the Honnold Foundation in hopes of lowering carbon emissions by helping those in need. His efforts in bringing solar power to the Navajo nation and to empower developing nations such as Chad are exemplary, and separate him from other free soloists and pro climbers, alike. Thoughtfulness is abundantly clear when it comes to his altruistic spirit, and yet his detractors still crave deep insight into his free soloing, dismissing what he’s already put forth.
Even though most of his climbing is done with the use of a rope and gear, Honnold is definitely most well known for his free soloing. The memoir is mostly about this act of unwavering confidence, as he also recounts other, less known free solos such as El Sendero Luminoso and the Red Rocks linkup of Princes of Darkness, Original Route and Dream of Wild Turkeys. However, some alpine (roped) climbing is mentioned and seems to be a frontier that Honnold himself admits to being slowly sucked into. If nothing else, we also get a glimpse into the future of free soloing as Honnold points to a free solo of El Capitan or using Yosemite, done-in-a-day tactics on the Trango Towers in the Karakoram. Honnold also urges the reader to rethink the prejudices of climbing and free soloing, that selfish behaviours are generally not what drive him or the sport. Believing that climbing is futile or selfish is not something that most climbers hold to be true – and Honnold makes sure to address his critics head on. Although he may initially appear to be a lanky goofball, void of fear or motive, Honnold impresses throughout the memoir as he is more thoughtful than the critics will have you believe.
– Tom Gnyra is a climber and writer who lives in Calgary. Look for more reviews by him on Gripped.com and in future issues of Gripped Magazine.