Incredible new photographs have emerged of the free climber at the summit of El Capitan after he became the first person ever to scale it without ropes last year.
Alex Honnold was 31 when he reached the climax of the vertical rock formation in California’s Yosemite National Park in June 2017.
His journey became the subject of a National Geographic documentary ‘Free Solo’, which generated the highest per-venue average of 2018 and the best theater average ever for a documentary when it was released in September.
‘So delighted,’ Honnold said once he reached the top at the climax of the movie, which narrates the climb and his preparations for it.
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 climbs through the enduro corner on El Capitan’s Freerider. His journey became the subject of a National Geographic documentary ‘Free Solo’ released earlier this year
Free solo climbing is an extreme technique practiced only by the most experienced climbers. They scale mountains with their bare hands and many die trying.
One climber quoted in the film put it this way: imagine if the penalty for Olympic athletes who failed to win gold every time they compete were death. That is the reality for free climbers.
Honnold was accompanied by a filming team, who did use ropes, arrayed along the climbing path. A drone and two fixed cameras were also used, for the parts that are too difficult and dangerous for camera operators.
In some places the rock looks practically smooth, leaving Honnold with nothing more than seemingly invisible bumps and other irregularities in the mountain’s surface to get a toehold and hoist himself upward.
Staggering new photographs released by National Geographic show the vertical almost smooth rock face that Alex Honnold climbed in June last year without any ropes
Alex Honnold making the first free solo ascent of El Capitan’s Freerider in Yosemite National Park, CA. Honnold underwent an MRI scan to determine whether or not he felt fear as a normal person would
At times he can squeeze his fingers into a crack or work his thumb into a small hole. One particularly tricky spot is known as a ‘Boulder Problem.’ Here, Honnold has to perform a complicated set of arm and leg movements to keep moving ahead.
In months of training, working with a rope, he learned to execute those moves to perfection.
Still, on the day of the big climb, one cameraman looked away, unable to watch, as Honnold struggled to cling to the granite wall.
The movie’s production team spent much of the time holding their breath against the nightmarish prospect of a fall.
But Honnold himself seemed so calm that researchers wondered if there was something different about his brain.
With this in mind, Honnold underwent an MRI in 2016 as he got ready for the ascent. That test, which is documented in the movie, shows that a part of the brain that was once usually associated with fear – the amygdala – did not activate when he was shown violent or frightening images.
Alex Honnold free soloing the Scotty-Burke off width pitch of Freerider on Yosemite’s El Capitan. Drones and fixed cameras were used to capture his journey, because it was too difficult and dangerous for camera crews to follow him in some parts
Alex Honnold atop Lower Cathedral with El Capitan in the background. El Capitan is a vertical rock formation located on the north side of Yosemite Valley. The granite monolith is about 3,000 feet from base to summit along its tallest face
But, according to the latest research, the amygdala is no longer considered the fear center of the brain. Instead, it activates when a person sees something unfamiliar – whether positive, neutral or negative.
And fear is expressed throughout the brain, not just the amygdala, according to Lisa Barrett, an emeritus professor of psychology at Northeastern University and the author of a recent article on the brain region.
Honnold himself said he knows what it is to be afraid.
‘I’m afraid of death, I’m afraid of danger, I’m afraid of pain. I used to be very afraid of public speaking,’ he told AFP last week on the sidelines of a pre-screening of the film in Washington.
His explanation of how he conquered fear is simpler. ‘To me it just shows what 10 years of preparation and practice and de-sensitization does,’ he said. Hard work has taught him to tame his feelings.
Alex Honnold sits atop the summit of El Capitan in June 2017, having just become the first person ever to climb the rock without a rope
One climber quoted in the film said imagine if the penalty for Olympic athletes who failed to win gold every time they compete were death – that is the reality for free climbers
For years he climbed El Capitan with the aid of ropes, recording all of his movements. He was in great physical shape for the solo climb.
The film suggests that Honnold’s determination borders on obsession, to the point of his neglecting his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless. She calls him ‘brutally honest’ and a ‘weird dude.’
She recalled how he reacted nonchalantly to news that a climber friend had died in a fall.
‘What did she expect?’ Honnold asked of the deceased friend’s wife, according to McCandless. Honnold himself says he does not understand how his own death would affect other people.
At times Alex can squeeze his fingers into a crack or work his thumb into a small hole. One particularly tricky spot is known as a ‘Boulder Problem.’ Here, Honnold has to perform a complicated set of arm and leg movements to keep moving ahead
Alex Honnold getting his haircut by his girlfriend Sanni McCandless before attempting his free solo of El Capitan in June 2017
‘This is the life he wants,’ said the documentary’s director, Chai Vasarhelyi, who co-directed it with her husband Jimmy Chin, a climber and photographer. ‘He’s thought about mortality deeply. He’s constructed his entire existence to have this life.’
There was one thing Honnold did worry about: falling in front of the camera.
He said it would be ‘kind of okay if I’m by myself’ but ‘kind of messed up’ if it happened in front of his friends. ‘Nobody wants to see that,’ he said.
In October, Honnold shared a note penned to his younger 18-year-old self on CBS This Morning, for the regular feature ‘Note To Self’.
Alex Honnold at the base of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. National Geographic’s documentary film’s ‘Free Solo’ was released in September in the US and will bereleased in UK cinemas on Friday 14th December
Honnold and his girlfriend Sanni McCandless are seen last month. They are the subjects of National Geographic’s documentary film, Free Solo
Alex Honnold cleaning his van in Yosemite National Park, CA. In months of training, working with a rope, Alex learned to execute the moves he needed to free climb El Capitan
‘Your lack of social skills will be one part of why you take up free soloing, climbing by yourself without a rope. But don’t worry – you’ll eventually find yourself right at home in the climbing community, surrounded by close friends and lifelong partners,’ the note reads.
‘Right now, you’re afraid of so many things: strangers, girls, vegetables, falling to your death. That’s fine; fear is a perfectly natural part of life. You will always feel fear. But over time you will realize that the only way to truly manage your fears is to broaden your comfort zone,’ Honnold writes.
The note concludes: ‘Climbing is a lifelong journey; use it to learn and grow. And Alex, don’t forget to enjoy the view.’
In this still photograph from National Geographic’s documentary Free Solo, Alex Honnold writes down the day’s climbing event in his climbing journal
Famed climber Alex Honnold shared the advice he’d give to his younger 18-year-old self in a note penned for a segment on CBS this morning in October
Climber Alex Honnold’s note to his 18-year-old self
Right now, you’re an 18-year-old loner, lost in a sea of uncaring faces at UC Berkeley. You’ll spend most of your freshman year, not at class, but at a local boulder, traversing the rock face back and forth with headphones in. You prefer it to the climbing gym because you don’t have to talk to anyone. Surprisingly, this is the beginning of a path. You will leave school, move into a van, and devote yourself to climbing.
Your lack of social skills will be one part of why you take up free soloing, climbing by yourself without a rope. But don’t worry – you’ll eventually find yourself right at home in the climbing community, surrounded by close friends and lifelong partners.
You’ve always loved the physical movement of climbing. There’s a certain joy in swinging around, propelling yourself upward, the fluidity of movement. Whether it’s climbing trees or buildings as a kid or climbing Half Dome in Yosemite National Park as an adult, you’ll come to appreciate the strain in your arms and the burning of your muscles. You’ll experience this joy climbing throughout your life; no matter how many routes you climb, it will always be at the core of your drive.
The idea of free soloing El Capitan, the iconic 3,000-foot wall in Yosemite, will become an all-encompassing dream for much of your climbing life. For the first five or six years, you’ll be too afraid to try – too afraid to even put any effort toward a potential solo. Right now, you’re afraid of so many things: strangers, girls, vegetables, falling to your death. That’s fine; fear is a perfectly natural part of life. You will always feel fear. But over time you will realize that the only way to truly manage your fears is to broaden your comfort zone. It’s a long, slow process that requires constantly pushing yourself, but eventually you’ll feel pretty darn good, and you’ll climb big walls just like this.
You’ll have near misses and frequently think about death. It will change your perspective and little annoyances will melt away. There will always be people calling you crazy or assuming that you have a death wish – that’s fine. They don’t see the amount of time and effort that goes into preparation or your drive to do something difficult, especially if it’s never been done before.
But you will always find purpose in exploring your own limits. Don’t let anyone else’s opinion rein you in. It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks: live your life in the way that you find most fulfilling.
For many years, climbing will be the most important thing in your life. You will put climbing before everything else. But keep an open mind. Eventually you will have a wonderful girlfriend and a charitable foundation.
In the end, it all comes back to El Capitan. It will give your life direction for almost a decade. It will be your muse, the reason you get up early to train and stay out for long days in the mountains. The day that you finally free solo El Cap will be one of the most satisfying of your life. It will also serve as an important reminder that no summit is more important than the long process of getting there.
Climbing is a lifelong journey; use it to learn and grow. And Alex, don’t forget to enjoy the view.
Source: CBS News
Honnold scaled the 3,000-ft El Capitan along the Freerider route (pictured) in just under four hours in June 2017, shattering the speed record for the route