Why Alex Honnold’s Free Solo Climb of El Capitan Was Groundbreaking

Until just a few weeks ago, Alex Honnold was arguably the best free soloist in the world. Having soloed massively complex projects such as Squamish’s University Wall and the Northwest Face of Yosemite’s Half Dome. Now, having free soloed El Capitan, one of the most iconic rock faces in the entire world, the argument has been laid to rest; Alex Honnold is the best free soloist in the world. Full stop. But this isn’t the first time that Honnold or others climbers have performed amazing, boundary-pushing feats, so why is this one boundary breaking not only for the climbing community but also for human beings as athletes?

The Climb Breakdown
To understand why this climb is unfathomable, let’s break down what Honnold actually did in both climbing and non-climbing terminology.

El Capitan is a big wall that is over 3,000ft high. Yes, 3,000 feet. That’s over a half mile of sustained, un-roped, climbing. The route he took is called Freerider and is rated a 5.12d or 5.13 which, for the non-climbers out there, imagine a vertical wall with virtually nothing for the average person to hold on to, wicked overhangs, massive cracks, and areas that appear to be completely smooth to the touch.

Even more impressively, he accomplished this endeavor in under 4 hours. For many elite climbers, El Cap takes a full day or two to climb due to the fact that climbers are typically hauling ropes, trad pieces, food, water, and other gear.

They call him “Spiderman” for a reason. The skill and speed with which he climbed this iconic wall is both inspiring and insane.

This May Change the Way Climbing Big Walls is Perceived
Typically, climbing records are broken into two categories: first ascents and speed records. A first ascent, as the name implies, is awarded to the person who first climbs the route. Historically, first ascents are done with ropes for big wall climbs; however, this could change with Honnold on the scene. Speed records are awarded to those who climb the route in the least amount of time. For example, Honnold holds the speed record for climbing The Nose on El Cap.

Honnold’s free solo of El Cap isn’t a first ascent and it isn’t a speed record. It’s in a class entirely of its own. He climbed an unimaginably difficult rock face—without a rope. Often Everest ascents are broken into two categories: Those who climbed the mountain with supplemental oxygen and those who climbed the mountain without oxygen. The number of people who elect to climb the tallest mountain in the world without oxygen is a mere handful. It is generally accepted in the mountaineering community that conquering big mountains without oxygen is more difficult and more risky.

Honnold’s free solo ups the ante in big wall climbing. You can either climb it with a rope or without. There doesn’t seem to be much question concerning which one is more challenging or dangerous. As such, this climb may revolutionize how the climbing community views first ascents and record setting all together. If people who climb Everest are seen by some as second-rate mountaineers, then is it possible that Honnold’s feat will cause some in the climbing community, as well as spectators, to see big wall rope climbers as second rate? It remains to be seen.

This Isn’t Just About Climbing
Athletes do amazing things for their sport every day. Things that normal, untrained, human beings can’t begin to attempt or achieve. But, unless you’re a huge baseball fan, climbing buff, skiing aficionado, or football junkie, you might not hear about it when records are broken or the sport it pushed to the next level.

Here’s why Honnold’s latest work of climbing art is different: He was inches from death. And yet, he did something graceful, skillful, and masterful.

Football players get hurt and, yes, rarely they die from head injuries. Big mountain skiers assess avalanche risk before skiing a line. But, other than BASE Jumping, there are relatively no sports in which the athlete must perform with perfection or death is imminent.

That’s what makes this special: It was perfect, it was masterful, and breaks through the limits of what athletes and human beings as a species are capable of doing, not only with their bodies, but also with their minds.

Watch a short clip from the climb in a video shot by Jimmy Chin for an upcoming documentary by National Geographic.

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