Populous Magazine 17: Cliff Hanger

From the archive: Issue 17, November 2017

No ropes, no harnesses, no protective equipment whatsoever. One slip and you’re dead. This is free solo climbing, the most extreme of all the various climbing disciplines. And, in June this year, it was the method that American climber Alex Honnold employed while ascending the sheer granite wall of the 900-metre (3,000-foot) mountain in California known as El Capitan. Honnold completed his task in four minutes shy of four hours, using one of El Capitan’s routes known as Freerider.  Tommy Caldwell, one of his rock-climbing peers, described it as “the Moon landing of climbing”.

Unless you’ve seen El Capitan up close – a sight you’ll never forget – it’s hard to imagine the scale of this forbidding yet beautiful rock fortress. Situated in California’s Yosemite National Park, it’s higher than the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai; three times higher than the Eiffel Tower. When El Capitan was first conquered in 1958, it took a team of crack mountaineers 47 days to complete. The first solo ascent a decade later required ten days. Even today most fit, skilled climbers will allow five days to complete the Freerider route.

His regular workout includes hanging by his fingertips for a whole hour, and one- and two-arm pull-ups on a device set into the door of his van.

The essential aspect of Honnold’s groundbreaking achievement, however, is not just the speed, skill and fitness – it’s the fact it was done free solo, with no ropes or any other equipment to provide assistance on the route or protection in a fall, leaving absolutely no margin for error. And since a fall would almost certainly be fatal, mental composure was crucial.

Freerider has 30 pitches (or sections) which feature ledges no wider than a ruler, fissures varying from the width of a human body to tiny slits, and moves where Honnold was forced to hang by his fingertips over an abyss. Remember, no ropes, no protection…

The crux – the hardest move on the route – involved a hold just 4mm wide and some 600m above the ground; not the place to start doubting your abilities. Honnold claims he is able to deal with the fear since, “it’s only hindering my performance, so I just set it aside and leave it be”.

This is a very particular skill. Honnold’s brain has actually been studied by neuroscientists at the Medical University of South Carolina in the American city of Charleston. It turns out the part of his brain that deals with memory and emotional reactions (the amygdala) does not respond like that of a mere mortal. MRI scans of his brain show virtually no activation of the amygdala when exposed to stimulation that would normally have it firing on all cylinders.

Neuroscientist Jane E. Joseph suggests the same thing is happening in Honnold’s brain when he is dangling thousands of metres above the ground by his fingertips. The amygdala is showing no or very little activation so he doesn’t feel fear. And as the climber himself points out with disarming clarity: “If you don’t have any fear to begin with, there’s a lot less to control.”

Clearly, though, you need to be an elite-level athlete to climb in fours hours a route that takes most experts days. And here again, Honnold is different. He trained for the El Capitan ascent for over a year at some of the most challenging rock-climbing locations around the world. His regular workout includes hanging by his fingertips for a whole hour, and a sequence of one- and two-arm pull-ups on a device set into the door of his van. (Despite his near-celebrity status in the climbing world, Honnold lives in his van. He also donates a third of his income to environmental and developing-world charities.)

In addition to this Honnold records each of his climbs in detail, and rehearses and memorises the key moves of his major ascents. According to Joseph he has an exceptional ability to focus on a task, and possesses a very low level of neuroticism, which means he doesn’t ruminate excessively over risks that are impossible to manage, or unlikely outcomes.

For most people, what Honnold does is beyond comprehension. Even watching his free-soloing shenanigans on video can be enough
to give you sweaty palms and shaky knees. But perhaps the best way to get a feel for his fearlessness is to look at a famous photo of him on Thank God Ledge, a skinny ledge on the 600-metre rock face of Half Dome, also in Yosemite National Park. He stands serenely gazing out to the horizon, his back to a vertical rock face, and over 500 metres of empty space below him. This is not a place a human being should be, especially with no rope or climbing aid. Just sneeze and you could easily tumble to your death. Yet Honnold looks calm, almost meditative, where 99.9 per cent of the population would be trembling, gibbering wrecks.

Perhaps the biggest irony is that, in a climbing career that has pushed the very limits of what is possible, Honnold’s most serious injury has been compression fractures in two back vertebrae after a fall from just three metres. He was roped up at the time.

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