Photo: Jimmy Chin for National Geographic
“On Saturday morning, 31-year-old Alex Honnold stunned the climbing world when he became the first person to free solo Yosemite’s mighty El Capitan, climbing the 3,000-foot granite monolith using only a pair of climbing shoes and a bag of chalk. No ropes. No safety equipment. Just his otherworldly ability to push down any fear and continually put one hand in front of the other.” – Justin Housman, Adventure Journal
“It doesn’t feel that big a deal when you finally do it, because you put so much effort in. I mean the whole point is to make it feel not that crazy.” – Alex Honnold
To begin with, I know nothing about rock climbing, beyond the basic idea that it involves scaling steep rock faces or artificial climbing walls. But I don’t know what’s involved, what techniques and equipment are used, etc., etc. The pastime has never held any attraction for me.
Nor was I thinking about rock climbing last Tuesday when I heard Alex Honnold interviewed on All Things Considered. I was in my car driving home after a successful expedition to find some really long, steep hills to run. I was running hills in preparation for an upcoming trail race that includes some arduous climbs, so I was practicing going up and down hills with a 10% or more grade. I felt like quite the mountain goat.
The radio host, Kelly McEvers was expressing astonishment at Honnold’s recent feat of completing a free solo of ‘El Capitan,’ an iconic and imposing rock formation in Yosemite National Park that presents a sheer, nearly vertical face rising 3000 feet up from the Yosemite Valley. I vaguely remembered that El Capitan was considered a dangerous place to climb, even with safety ropes, and apparently Honnold’s climb without ropes was being considered the greatest free solo in history. Still, I wasn’t fully paying attention until I heard the following exchange (I’ve edited it slightly for length):
MCEVERS: OK, so I just want to be totally clear here. What you did on Saturday – I’m just going to say it again so people can understand the magnitude of it. You climbed a bare rock that is 3,000 feet tall with no ropes. How long have you been planning on doing this?
HONNOLD: I’ve been climbing for over 20 years, I guess. This route on El Cap I’ve been sort of dreaming about on and off for maybe the last eight or nine years. I mean it’s always been kind of a vague dream, but then it just seems too daunting […]
MCEVERS: OK, so how did you work on it? Like, how does a person prepare for something like this?
HONNOLD: So I mean specifically for the route that I soloed at, I prepared by climbing the route many times to make sure that I could physically do it. And then I also spent a lot of time with ropes by myself, rappelling down from the summit so I could work on individual sections or memorize certain moves or, like, mark certain holds with chalk so I could remember things. The bigger thing, though, was probably the psychological side of it, like, somehow feeling like you’re ready to climb a wall like that. And that was sort of a longer process I suppose.
The two continued back and forth, with McEvers continuing to ask in different ways, ‘How did you deal with your fear?’ and Honnold doing his best to describe the long process that somehow turned fear into confidence.
And then Honnold said this:
HONNOLD: I’d always look at it and be like, oh, no. But then over the last few years, that perspective started to shift a little bit. And then this last year, I thought that I could do it. And then – and once you believe that it’s possible and you start working towards it, then it sort of becomes inevitable.
“Yes!” I yelled at the radio, “that’s it, exactly!”
I didn’t actually yell out loud, but I felt like it, and then I felt like stopping the car and writing down what I had just heard, before remembering that I could look up the transcript of the interview. Meanwhile, I repeated the words over and over: “…Once you believe that it’s possible and you start working towards it, then is becomes inevitable.”
That word, “inevitable,” I decided, was one of the most startling and meaningful words I had ever heard. How could anyone describe what Honnold had done — the greatest feat of rock climbing history by some accounts — as “inevitable?” And yet here, I felt, was the answer to the question that the host had been asking.
How did the climber reach the top of El Capitan? How does any underdog vanquish a reigning champion? How does a high school kid run a sub-4:00 mile? How do we, when faced with our own seemingly trivial challenges transform ourselves into athletes who are capable of meeting them? It happens when we start believing that something is possible, and then commit ourselves to working towards it. Then it becomes inevitable that we’ll achieve our goal.
But no, it’s not that simple.
Believing that something is possible isn’t the same as simply imagining ourselves accepting the accolades for accomplishing the task. You can’t believe in something if you’ve never bothered to study what’s involved. That’s why it’s not super helpful to “believe” that you can run a sub-4:00 mile if you’ve never run a sub-5:00 mile. It’s wonderful to have that as a dream, but it’s not real enough to survive as a belief.
Almost every season since I began coaching over 15 years ago, I’d get questions from athletes who wanted me to tell them how fast they can run. It’s always a tough question because the answer “frames” what happens next. Set the bar too high, and a season of solid improvement might seem like a failure. Set it too low, and the athlete might never believe in their ability to be better than that.
Sometimes I would dodge the question, and sometimes I would apply the following rule: no one was allowed to talk about running a specific time for a specific distance until they had run half the distance at the goal pace. So no talking about a sub-4:00 mile until running a sub-2:00 800m.
Was this fair? Was it useful? I don’t know, but it kept certain kinds of wild speculation in check. More importantly, it asked the athlete to put in a lot of work to earn the right to begin believing in more ambitious goals.
And that brings me back to Honnold and his remarkable achievement.
In every story and interview I’ve read, after hearing that piece on NPR, I’ve been struck by how everyone focuses on his mental preparation. I understand that, and agree with it, to some extent. But I also think that the really interesting part of his story is that his mental preparation was inextricably linked to his extensive physical preparation. I don’t just mean doing a lot of pull-ups; I mean studying every single move that he’d need to make the climb, and then practicing those moves – with ropes – until he knew that he could execute them all flawlessly.
And then, the climb without ropes wasn’t crazy. It wasn’t hoping for the best, or trusting in divine inspiration. It was easy. It was inevitable.