On June 3 of 2017, Alex Honnold did something that has been called one of the most incredible athletic achievements in human history. National Geographic called it “the greatest feat of pure rock climbing in the history of the sport.” Honnold climbed El Capitan, the 3,000-foot slab of granite in Yosemite, with no ropes and no safety gear. It was just his body and the rock. It took him about four hours, completely focussed on the task at hand, because to fail meant to die.
Of course, by now you know the story. It’s been looked at from all angles all around the world. The feat required over a year of planning and training — although Honnold kept it mostly to himself — and catapulted him into the record books as the greatest climber to ever live. He was, however, already in most people’s books, and had been for a while. In 2008, he stunned the world by climbing Yosemite’s Half Dome rope-less, then followed it up by conquering Moonlight Buttress in Utah.
“What Alex did on Moonlight Buttress defied everything that we are trained, and brought up and genetically engineered to think,” Peter Mortimer told Nat Geo at the time. “It’s the most unnatural place for a human to be.”
But there is nothing that compares with Honnold’s free-solo of El Cap. “(Free-soloing El Capitan) was always the obvious next step,” said Peter Croft, a legend in his own right and the first to complete a free-solo of Yosemite’s Astroman. “But after this, I really don’t see what’s next.”
Climbing is a curious mix of physical stamina, strength, and mental fortitude. The fear is there, but the way elite climbers deal with it is different. Honnold, it seems, is scared of dying, just like everyone else. The difference is that he knows – in the very deepest sense of the word – that it is inevitable. “I have the same hope of survival as everybody else,” he said in 2016. “I just have more of an acceptance that I will die at some point.”
In the video above, created by JRE Films, Honnold discusses how he successfully free soloed Half Dome and El Capitan using visualization and years of preparation.