The Impossible Climb
By Mark Synott (Allen and Unwin, £20, 416 pp)
Until very recently, Alex Honnold was the most significant sportsman you had most likely never heard of.
For many years, the guileless and engaging young Californian has been an outstanding climber, developing some of the boldest routes in the world.
But climbing was always a relatively minority interest.
Then came this year’s nerve-shredding movie Free Solo, an Oscar and Bafta-winning documentary about Honnold’s epic ascent of the nose of El Capitan, alone and without ropes or any form of safety protection.
Alex Honnold peers over the edge of Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. He had just climbed 2000 feet up from the valley floor
Alex Honnold, pictured, climbed El Capitan’s in Yosemite National Park following a route called Freerider and could have died if he made one wrong move
The athlete, pictured atop the summit of El Capitan, completed the climb and it has now been made into an award-winning documentary called Free Solo
El Cap is the outstanding rock feature in California’s Yosemite Valley and, for years, has been the ultimate dream destination for climbers.
Huge, beautiful and imposing, with nearly 3,000 ft of blank walls, featureless slabs, overhanging roofs and ferocious steep cracks, all elite climbers wanted to pit their skills against the granite challenges and fearsome exposure of El Cap.
Honnold, a brilliant athlete and hardened veteran of Yosemite, had, for some time, wanted the ultimate test: a free solo ascent.
The route he chose was called Freerider, and the climb would call on all his reserves of strength, suppleness, athleticism, power, balance and mental fortitude.
Alex Honnold dangles his feet over the edge of the summit of El Capitan after becoming the first person to climb the mountain without a rope
Any mistake, however small — a lapse of concentration or, more routine, a loose hold — would mean certain death.
It was a game-changing moment, that weekend morning in 2017 when he risked his life on Freerider, and now it is the centrepiece of an enthralling new book.
Few sports have as rich and varied a literature as climbing —cricket, perhaps; boxing, maybe.
And this gripping work from the vastly experienced mountaineer and adventurer Mark Synnott is a magnificent addition to the canon.
It is much more than just an account of Honnold’s mind-bending climb: it is a story of the complex friendship between the two men, from their early expeditions together in Borneo, Canada and Morocco, to the moment in the small hours of June 3, 2017, when the author sees his friend’s headlamp flickering hundreds of feet above the Yosemite Valley floor as Honnold inches up the glassy lower slopes of Freerider, where one slip could prove instantly deadly.
The attempt was on.
Alex’s climb is the centre piece of a new book
At the heart of the book is this extraordinary young man, Alex Honnold, but it is also a riveting account of what are known as dirtbag communities — and their exploits — that have made up the history of climbing in the Valley; the rebellious young athletes who lived to climb (and sometimes died); the rivalry between the Yosemite big wall pioneers Royal Robbins and Warren Harding; and the daredevil Stonemasters, a group of youthful renegades who led the way in extreme climbing.
Honnold is part of this great tradition and had been planning — and practising — his epic solo ascent of Freerider for the best part of a decade.
Synnott and Honnold, as well as several other key players in the book, are members of an extreme adventure team backed by North Face, the clothing and equipment company.
Make no mistake, climbing is big media business, with major brands involved, and the influence of athletes such as Honnold can be colossal.
A couple of examples: Beastmaker is a small, very niche Sheffield-based firm making hangboards, which climbers use to develop finger strength. Honnold spends a lot of time on his, literally just hanging around.
For a couple of seconds in the film, the company’s logo is on screen. As a result, it cannot keep up with demand. And the Free Solo director, Jimmy Chin, himself an accomplished climber, has a six-figure income from his Instagram account alone.
But central to the book are these questions: why does Honnold do it? Is it worth it? And how far are the film-makers — and we, the audience — complicit in what could be a deadly accident?
Honnold, pictured in May, says he has worked and practised so hard that he has eliminated fear
Climbers talk of boulder problems: technically very hard moves — but they practise on rocks near the ground, so if you fail, you drop only a foot or two.
One key sequence in the book is Honnold’s solution to the crux — the hardest part — of Freerider, known as the Boulder Problem because of its extreme difficulty.
It is 2,200 ft above the ground and involves 11 separate moves, each ferociously hard, with the slightest error being fatal.
Most of us would be physically unable to make even one of those moves, even if it were just inches above the ground.
In the movie, we see one of the film-makers, his camera trained on Honnold as he attempts the Boulder Problem, suddenly turn away, grimacing. He knows he could be about to witness the shocking death of his friend.
But Honnold doesn’t fall and instead gives the broadest grin you will ever see as he completes the sequence of moves. He is not safe yet, but he knows the climb should be in the bag.
Synott’s book also reveals those known as dirtbag communities that have made up the history of climbing in the Valley. Pictured is Alex free solo climbing on El Capitan
Honnold is wary of too many film-makers being near him, so most of the cameras are remotely operated.
Is it worth it? Honnold has a girlfriend, Sanni, and a house in Las Vegas — his accountant suggested Nevada because of its helpful tax regime — though he is still sleeping in his van in the driveway while Sanni fixes up the furniture.
He gives a huge chunk of his not inconsiderable income to his foundation for renewable energy.
He loves to climb, but, for years, was too shy to ask anyone to join him, so had to go it alone.
He seems slightly on the autism spectrum: he certainly doesn’t appear to feel fear. In brain scans, his amygdala — the part of the brain that controls our response to fear — registered very little. Honnold says this is because he has worked and practised so hard that he has eliminated fear: any adrenaline rush would mean he was doing something wrong.
He admits he is selfish, and a war game geek, but he is also reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens and Dostoevsky. In conversation, he can be charming, if a bit brusque.
But his chosen sport, solo climbing, brings extreme danger. It is like being an Olympic athlete, but if Usain Bolt makes a mistake in a race, he might miss a personal best — but he’ll still be alive.
Extreme surfers or skiers know that they might die if they get things wrong. But then again, they might not. If Honnold gets it wrong, death is certain.
Climbing is a risky sport anyway and soloing is seriously dangerous, no matter how skilled you are.
In North Wales, many years ago, an acquaintance of mine, a legendary extreme climber and supremely skilled soloist famous for the boldness of his ascents, fell off a climb that was so straightforward I had done it myself many times.
In fact, I would take climbers who were almost beginners on to it, to give them a taste of airy Welsh climbing.
But my friend was soloing and fell to his death: his was a precarious existence.
This compelling book reads like a thriller as it ranges over the rarefied world of extreme climbing. It is a portrait of fascinating people and of an extraordinary place, the Yosemite Valley.
Above all, it’s about this strange young man who risked his life to pull off a mindbending feat, one that has been compared — not unfairly, in my view — in its boldness, daring and danger, to the Moon landings.