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.