Recently I’ve become a bit obsessed with rock climbing. Just learning about it, but not doing it (yet). It started with a video that popped up on YouTube of professional climber Adam Ondra teaching a newbie version of himself, via split screen, the basics of climbing. Ondra has dozens of videos, mostly him “sending” extremely technical routes, including the preceding attempts and failures. I appreciate how earnest and enthusiastic he is about climbing, even if he is also clearly very serious and driven to excel. (Turns out he is almost certainly the best in the world at the type of climbing he does.)
After that introduction, I was reminded of the movie Free Solo about climber Alex Honnold’s rope-free ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite. I knew about the movie but hadn’t seen it, so I watched it one Saturday morning a few weeks ago. It was as much about Honnold the person as it was about the actual climb — his determination, the years of planning and preparation, the strain on his personal relationships, even the dynamic of being filmed by friends who might have to watch him fall to his death. It was a great film about an interesting person and an absolutely legendary feat. The movie itself felt quite similar to Man on Wire, which is about Philippe Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. That stunt remains completely gob-smacking to this day, but Honnold’s achievement is on another level. Whereas Man on Wire had elements of a heist movie — how will they pull this off without getting caught? — Free Solo is really about one person’s mastery of his chosen field.
In interviews, Honnold likes to talk about risk versus consequence. Free solo climbing is obviously very high consequence, especially on a big wall like El Capitan: If you fall, you die. But the high risk can be mitigated somewhat through planning, conditioning, practice, patience, and so on. Many people have climbed the route Honnold chose, and their goal typically is to prove they are capable of doing all the component parts. Honnold knew he could do the parts. His quest instead was for mastery: to put in the work necessary to do it all perfectly, then prove it to himself by executing when only perfection would do.
Soon after seeing Free Solo, I watched The Dawn Wall, a movie about a pair of climbers doing the first free ascent (with ropes and safety gear but without other climbing aids) of a different part of El Capitan. The two movies came out around the same time, and while they are ostensibly about similar topics, they are very different. The Dawn Wall was about Tommy Caldwell’s decade-long obsession with piecing together a route over the blank face of El Cap, finding a climbing partner in Kevin Jorgensen, then training together for several years before completing their 19-day first free ascent. In contrast to Free Solo, which was about individual mastery and life-or-death consequences, this story was about obsession, perseverance, and friendship. Another excellent film; I’m really not sure which one I preferred.
Since then I’ve continued my diversion into climbing. I’m excited about it for now. If that continues, I may eventually break out of my comfort zone to take a beginner class at a climbing gym.