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Long Read of the Day: El Capitan, My El Capitan 

HT: NEONEOCON who notes: in » Free-climbing El Capitan He is also—obviously—rather obsessive compulsive, as one must be to do that sort of thing successfully. Human beings can accomplish amazing feats if they have just the right combination of characteristics and all the stars are in alignment. He makes me think of wire-walker Kurt Wallenda, who said, “Life is on the wire, the rest is just waiting.”

Alex Honnold woke up in his Dodge van last Saturday morning, drove into Yosemite Valley ahead of the soul-destroying traffic and walked up to the sheer, smooth and stupendously massive 3,000-foot golden escarpment known as El Capitan, the most important cliff on earth for rock climbers. Honnold then laced up his climbing shoes, dusted his meaty fingers with chalk and, over the next four hours, did something nobody had ever done. He climbed El Capitan without ropes, alone.

The world’s finest climbers have long mused about the possibility of a ropeless “free solo” ascent of El Capitan in much the same spirit that science fiction buffs muse about faster-than-light-speed travel — as a daydream safely beyond human possibility. Tommy Caldwell, arguably the greatest all-around rock climber alive, told me that the conversation only drifted into half-seriousness once Honnold came along, and that Honnold’s successful climb was easily the most significant event in the sport in all of Caldwell’s 38 years. I believe that it should also be celebrated as one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.

Like all mature athletic endeavors, climbing has sub-disciplines that call for different genetic gifts and venerate different accomplishments. Alpine climbing demands perverse cardiovascular endurance coupled to a lust for suffering, while its devotees have trouble getting lathered up over anything that doesn’t involve a delicious risk of death by avalanche or freezing. Indoor-gym climbing rewards one-finger pull-ups fired by a deeply spiritual connection to textured polyurethane, plus emotional tolerance for the sight of shirtless young men with complicated mustaches spidering up fiberglass overhangs.

Fear of falling is about as primal a fear as we humans have, and that fear is present to some degree whether you are 10 feet off the ground or 3,000. In this sense, Honnold’s specialty — free-soloing — is a distillation of the entire climbing world’s collective fantasy life. Vanishingly few elite climbers make careers out of free-soloing, and plenty call it irresponsible and deplorable, but in their heart of hearts they all recognize it as the final word in bad-assery.

 

RTWT at: El Capitan, My El Capitan – The New York Times

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  • Casey Klahn July 9, 2017, 9:41 PM

    I was involved with climbing as a younger man. My back took care of that habit, or was it my first child’s birth?

    You can’t understand it. You’re going where man was not really meant to go, I suppose. I’ll always hold in my memory the time my wife and I were climbing the route in Yosemite that, in the early 70s, was the first clean free climb. I knew the guy that did it, too: Royal Robbins. He was a small “g” god of climbing, like Alex Honnold. Anyway, back on the climb of Nutcracker. We were retreating by rappel, and Off to the right of me by about 10 feet was this little ledge, about 4 feet by 1 foot, with a little tuft of grass. The winds along the buttress were such that they would take your baseball cap and fly it a few hundred feet, and deposit it on this shelf. There were about 2 dozen lost hats sitting there.
    I see in Google that Robbins just passed this spring. Damn.

  • bud July 9, 2017, 10:43 PM

    I did a little climbing in Yosemite in the mid/ late 70’s. I think my buddies took me along because I was bigger than any of them, and set a solid belay. My personal best was a couple of 5.8s (never leading). I climbed enough to realize that I had neither the talent nor the conjones’ to be very good at it, but it certainly gave me the ability to appreciate who do. All I can say is, “Wow!”

  • MMinLamesa July 10, 2017, 2:54 AM

    I wonder how he did that hauling those huge coconuts along.

  • ghostsniper July 10, 2017, 4:14 AM

    LOL…thanks for the mental visuals….

  • Rob De Witt July 10, 2017, 8:38 AM

    Daniel Duane, of course. I think no one has ever written more acutely about the interior dialogue attendant upon being outside and on the edge.

    In Caught Inside he tells of the realization that you’re alone with only a surfboard and a wetsuit, in an environment primarily notable for the presence of great white sharks, and the unavoidable insight that your ego, your personality quirks, all those traits that make you unique, are “immaterial to your status as protein.”

    A few pages later, by the way, one of his characters delivers himself of the observation that “I’ve never heard a feminist complain that her husband made more money than she did.”

    Pithy, and one of a kind, and not to be missed.

  • Rick July 10, 2017, 12:28 PM

    I’d guess the death rate among free climbers over time approaches 100%. It ranks right up there with BASE jumping for stupid ways to go.

  • John A. Fleming July 10, 2017, 6:54 PM

    I’ve had a few self-chosen journeys on steep rock or ice, solo and and sans rope. Enough to know what it requires, and to know that I probably didn’t have enough of it and shouldn’t make it a habit, both innately and due to my choice of a career. When you are young, and climb hard every day, one day you just know that you can do it, and so you start. At some point you stop, or you are stopped.

    It is a great joy to simply climb, to look at the rock above you and then ascend it. No doubts cloud your mind. It is all graceful movement, no struggle. There is always a crux that must be passed, and if you waver you are lost. Sometimes the crux is past the point of retreat or rescue. There are the ever-present and lurking moments of inattention, and if one catches up with you, you are lost.

    You can teach yourself to do this. You can practice this. It is a hard apprenticeship. No one else can teach you the Way, it cannot be taught, it can only be found and seized.

    It is the closest man can come to Christ’s challenge of certainty of faith sufficient to move a mountain and cast it into the sea.

    I once saw up-close a John Bachar free-solo in Yosemite. He took a nameless route adjacent to ours, and motored past us. He did not acknowledge us, but it was no slight. He was alone with the rock in front of him. I watched him caress each chosen hold, until he figured out how to grip it just so. He first gently placed his feet on each chosen hold, and I could see the subtle wiggles that then locked his rock shoes into the granite crystals. He was completely relaxed and completely focused as he moved from hold to hold, never a rushed or false move, never hesitating. I finally learned how to climb, after years of untutored frantic scrabbling, from those five minutes observing the Master.

    These men are not as you and I. They are modern day sons of Zeus, and like Hercules and Perseus before them, these great powers come with great challenges and uncertain outcomes. From these few, the rest of us are shown how to be as men.

  • John A. Fleming July 10, 2017, 6:58 PM

    I’ve had a few self-chosen journeys on steep rock or ice, solo and and sans rope. Enough to know what it requires, and to know that I probably didn’t have enough of it and shouldn’t make it a habit, both innately and due to my choice of a career. When you are young, and climb hard every day, one day you just know that you can do it, and so you start. At some point you stop, or you are stopped.

    It is a great joy to simply climb, to look at the rock above you and then ascend it. No doubts cloud your mind. It is all graceful movement, no struggle. There is always a crux that must be passed, and if you waver you are lost. Sometimes the crux is past the possibility of retreat or rescue. There are the ever-present and lurking moments of inattention, and if one catches up with you, you are lost.

    You can teach yourself to do this. You can practice this. It is a hard apprenticeship. No one else can teach you the Way, it cannot be taught, it can only be found and seized.

    It is the closest man can come to Christ’s challenge of certainty of faith sufficient to move a mountain and cast it into the sea.

    I once saw up-close a John Bachar free-solo in Yosemite. He took a nameless route adjacent to ours, and motored past us. He did not acknowledge us, but it was no slight. He was alone with the rock in front of him. I watched him caress each chosen hold, until he figured out how to grip it just so. He first gently placed his feet on each chosen hold, and I could see the subtle wiggles that then locked his rock shoes into the granite crystals. He was completely relaxed and completely focused as he moved from hold to hold, never a rushed or false move, never hesitating. I finally learned how to climb, after years of untutored frantic scrabbling, from those five minutes observing the Master.

    These men are not as you and I. They are modern day sons of Zeus, and like Hercules and Perseus before them, these great powers come with great challenges and uncertain outcomes. From these few, the rest of us are shown how to be as men.

  • GoneWithTheWind July 10, 2017, 7:37 PM

    I took a class in rock climbing when I was 50. The instructor was a wise ass 19 year old kid whose favorite advice was “you can put your foot anyhere you can put your hand” and then he would do just that and maneuver his 119 lb body up so he was standing on the foot that he had placed on the rock well above his head. I weighed 220 and completing a 20 foot easy climb was a victory for me. So I am not a rock climber. But I can still recognize that what Mr Honnold did was incredible. Too bad there is no video.

  • Casey Klahn July 10, 2017, 7:37 PM

    Rick, I was a free climber and here I am today to tell the lies, er, I mean stories. I’m not going to say it’s not stupid, but as I said above in this thread, you cannot understand it if you haven’t done it.

    Yes, I have a list of dead friends from my climbing days. Avalanches, cornice break-throughs or falls from a precipice, anchor failures on retreats. None I recall caused by climbing upward on a rock face.