What gives life meaning? This question is the bedrock that holds up the fascinating and often-harrowing book The Impossible Climb by Mark Synnott and the accompanying Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, currently streaming on Hulu. Both must be read and watched, respectively, to begin to grasp the world of free soloing, a sport that unites man and nature in a merciless environment.
Prior to starting The Impossible Climb, my knowledge of rock climbing consisted of one course taken in a dingy gym where I won first place in a competition not because of any special skills, but because I was the oldest, and thus strongest, kid in the class. I didn’t know what soloing or free soloing was, though I now realize that learning a little bit about each has widened the gap of knowledge further. For those uninitiated, a climber that solos is one who climbs without use of a belay but with a rope in case of a fall; free soloing is climbing alone without a rope. While free soloing, a slip means death.
The book beautifully interweaves the story of Alex Honnold’s extraordinary life with a history of climbing, causing the reader to experience such a rush of emotions that the pages fly by as if by magic and time stands still. Nothing else matters when you’re on the wall with the greats, traveling through the most difficult and technical rocks in the world, which all seem encapsulate and bring into relief Yosemite.
Details of Honnold’s life and his eventual free solo climb of El Captain abound, not all of them positive. The book, though written by a fellow accomplished climber and friend of Honnold’s, takes pains to be objective, noting that Honnold’s attitude shifted markedly towards self-centeredness the more notoriety he achieved. In an especially brutal passage, Honnold, “was showing zero empathy and being selfish ‘in the way that a psychopath is selfish.’” Throughout, Honnold isn’t portrayed as a god, but rather as a fallible, quirky, and sometimes unsympathetic human being. Honnold’s climbing achievements, though lauded for their technical prowess, always seem difficult and arduous as well, letting the reader glimpse just how much grit and training it takes for a body to defy gravity.
Throughout the well-written pages, there still remained a want for just a little bit more. Why do Honnold and so many others continually risk their lives and their families’ heartbreak by free soloing? Why were Yosemite and El Captain chosen in particular? Why do these daring human feats, either lauded or violently hated, cause commotion even amongst those of us who will never achieve them? The closest answer included in the book comes from Maurice Herzog: “‘There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men,’” meaning that we each have our own demon to surpass. Taking it a step further, we each have our own demon to surpass so as to give life meaning.
Honnold himself, when faced with his own risk-taking, eloquently notes that “‘No matter the risks we take, we always consider the end to be too soon, even though in life more than anything else quality should be more important than quantity.’” The toll this philosophy takes on the people who love him is felt in Free Solo. His mother, Dierdre (Wolownick Honnold), seeming both lost and immensely proud, always speaks cautiously to her interviewer. Honnold’s girlfriend Sanni (McCandless) is seen leaving the van both she and Honnold call home before his big free solos, crying out of sight in the car. To love Honnold is to live in fear.
Watching Free Solo is a visceral experience. El Captain, Yosemite’s crowning glory, is an overpowering wall of granite. It is difficult, just by reading, to image the sheer size of the monolith, something that is experienced with dizzying effects throughout the documentary. This is not a spoiler: in the end, Honnold weaves his way to the top of El Captain unsupported by a rope, topping the 2,900-foot Freerider route in 3 hours and 56 minutes, securing his spot as the best and most accomplished free soloist in the world. It is as much a mental as a physical achievement. As a watcher, I was left amazed at one human’s achievement, my own palms sweating from the experience. It seemed otherworldly.
What gives life meaning? We each answer for ourselves. I don’t have my answer yet, but The Impossible Climb and Free Solo steered me closer to one.
By: Mari Civilini (@mcivilini)