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Opinion | A solitary athlete living on the edge

Go on then, take a minute, watch Alex Honnold at work. Very few people on earth, after all, can write symphonies on stone

A still from ‘Free Solo’, a documentary on Alex Honnold on his quest to perform a free solo climb of El Capitan in 2017.
A still from ‘Free Solo’, a documentary on Alex Honnold on his quest to perform a free solo climb of El Capitan in 2017.

To even marginally understand a man who could be the greatest athlete in the world, or arguably the scariest, or possibly the most hypnotic, you have to momentarily be like him. You must take a voyage. He rises up rock faces, you have to soar, too. You have to free your imagination and consider what he calls a “poor handhold".

In his TED talk, this is how Alex Honnold described it:

“It’s an edge smaller than the width of a pencil but facing downwards that I had to press up into with my thumb."


Imagine, that’s all that is keeping him from falling. Just skin affixed to this edge of stone.

Imagine, there is no rope and no piton and no safety harness, just chalk on fingers, just those ancient glues of technique, belief, nerve, strength; just him alone as he rises to the top of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park last year. It’s a 3,000-ft granite face which is taller than the Burj Khalifa.

From that height the trees resemble shrubs and a road is just a winding ribbon. Even though I am watching an old film, and he survived that climb, I am still scared for him and yet uplifted. It’s the fascination of fear and the narcotic of great skill. No one had free-soloed it before and it’s easy to see why. Tommy Caldwell, his friend, with whom he climbed El Capitan again this year in record time, calls it “the moon landing of free soloing".

We’re conditioned by cultures and tradition when we consider great athletes. Joe DiMaggio will never make an Indian list nor Dhyan Chand an American one. These days we judge according to who appears on our TV sets most often. Presence makes for popularity. Rowers rarely make these lists, nor do judokas, and yet we have to keep widening our view.

Honnold has no set arena, no “live audience", yet by any measure he is an extraordinary athlete. He has no changeover to sit down, no time for a toilet break. At 2,000 ft there is no coach to call on, no injury time, no option to quit. This is a man entirely responsible for himself.

He climbed El Capitan without ropes last year in 3 hours, 56 minutes and imagine the purity of that concentration. Once he had a mini-nervous breakdown during a climb but he had only two choices. Up or fall. The penalty for the unforced error here is not severe, it is final. Or as he said in his talk about free-soloing:

“Staying calm and performing your best when you know that any mistake could mean death requires a certain kind of mindset."

He grinned.

“That’s not supposed to be funny but it is."

People will dismiss Honnold, as we do with extreme athletes, as some sort of adrenalin-seeking daredevil wrapped in a death wish. We reach for cliché only because we fail to understand. We mock because we do not hear their voices. Why does he do it? Because he can, of course, an athlete urged to express himself, and what else is sport and high art?

What are the greatest athletes but explorers. If we speak of human limits then Honnold is pushing them as much as Usain Bolt did. What we gain from climbing a rock is no less than what we do from running fast. And if we are dismayed by the risks he takes, then read what his mother wrote in Climbing magazine in 2015:

“Without (imagination), my son wouldn’t be on the cover of National Geographic. Would he be really alive, the way he is now? Or would he be biding time, like so many of us? Dying takes many forms. So does living. The hard part is recognizing them."

Artists paint, rock poets climb. This is just the way it is.

Honnold, who creeps up stone faces like a slow-scuttling spider, is a recent fascination for me. I thought I understood the idea of an athlete’s faith in himself but this is utterly profound. In his TED talk he speaks of climbing a slab of rock —during his ascent of the 2,000-foot north-west face of Half Dome—which has “no cracks or edges to hold on to. Just small ripples of texture up a slightly less than vertical wall. I had to trust my life to the friction between my climbing shoes and the smooth granite".

His method is almost maddening, his attention to detail excruciating and he is no different from Virat Kohli, Lionel Messi and Katie Ledecky, for he is a child of routine and preparation. Three-thousand feet of rock involves “thousands of distinct hand and foot movements" and in a variation of Rafael Nadal hitting hundreds of forehands a day he rappelled down the face of El Capitan to practise his moves in advance.

“Once I found sequences that felt secure and repeatable, I had to memorise them. I had to makes sure they were so deeply ingrained within me that there was no possibility of error.... I needed everything to feel automatic". He would visualize with such clarity that he could feel the texture of every hold in his hand.

There is no boasting to what Honnold and his tribe do because who is there to boast to? No one is watching. This is just the solitary athlete, communing with nature, respectful of his landscape and rising to meet his finest self. So go on then, take a minute, watch him at work. Very few people on earth, after all, can write symphonies on stone.

Rohit Brijnath is an assistant sports editor at The Straits Times, Singapore, and a co-author of Abhinav Bindra’s book, A Shot At History: My Obsessive Journey To Olympic Gold.

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