Story and photos by McKENZIE NICOL
Ascending 3,000 feet of sheer granite is no easy task. Most would deem it impossible.
Rock climber Alex Honnold proved the impossible to be possible as he ascended El Capitan in Yosemite National Park without safety ropes on June 3, 2017. His triumph, depicted in a 2018 documentary, is impacting the sport of rock climbing by pushing the limit of where risk lies.
Climbing up the Free Rider route in just under four hours, Honnold has achieved one of the greatest physical tasks conceived in the human mind.
Fellow climber Tommy Caldwell was the first to free climb (a style of climbing with ropes only for safety, not aid) the Dawn Wall of El Capitan in 2015. In a National Geographic story published in October 2018, he called Honnold’s ascent the “moon landing” of free soloing.
Honnold’s “moon landing” is quite possibly the most incredible physical performance of humankind, and the physical achievement is just the beginning of the victory. Honnold holds an astounding ability to control fear and remain determined and clear headed.
National Geographic quoted Honnold as saying, “[Fear is] only hindering my performance, so I just set it aside and leave it be.”
Honnold’s ascension is helping local climbers to see an obvious representation of what it means to really compartmentalize fear and overcome difficulty and stress through grit and mental toughness.
In the heart of Salt Lake City, the climbing team at the University of Utah is training to compete in the collegiate national climbing tournament April 27 and 28, 2019. Ben Roa is in his fourth year at the U and is president of the team. He expressed his amazement and admiration of what Honnold has achieved.
“It is the single most impressive athletic feat that any human has ever done,” Roa said. “The fact that Honnold has done it is astounding.”
He explained that climbing is 80 percent mental and 20 percent physical. It is all in the head. “He compartmentalizes fear and fatigue and it is really impressive,” Roa said.
Roa said he enjoys the constant challenges that rock climbing presents mentally and physically. He said he has several “projects” – or routes – that he is working on in Big Cottonwood Canyon that require “great mental effort.”
“The cooler stuff is always the harder stuff,” Roa said. “It might be a little dangerous because people can be like, ‘Oh wow, I can do it.’” He described that setting goals and knowing your limits is an important part of getting better.
“The goals never stop. That’s one of my favorite things,” Roa said.
Joel Zerr, another climber and employee at Momentum Climbing Gym in Salt Lake City, gave some insight on Honnold’s accomplishment. He said, “[The] level that he’s pushing is on the edge of the risk. Mistakes can happen. It’s a different thing and it’s really impressive.”
Zerr recognizes the immense psychological control that is required to rock climb and why many people, rock climber or not, are drawn to what Honnold has done.
“People can relate to him because you can obviously see the anomaly of what he did. It draws attention and it inspires,” Zerr said.
Zerr explained that he does not feel that pushing those boundaries of risk is completely necessary. It is possible to push oneself in any aspect, not just rock climbing, and it does not need to have such dire consequences. He said he challenges himself mentally and physically, but not in the same way Honnold does.
Managing stress, pressure, and fear are factors of Zerr’s daily climbing life. Whether in the gym or on a wall outside, it feels “real” to be up there and trying to work out the best way to maneuver to the top. Mental sharpness and control are essential.
Isaac Baker, a rock climber from Bountiful, Utah, suggested the idea that rock climbing brings a new edge to life.
“Being on the wall not only gives you a new perspective of life, but a new way of living. Climbing is not a hobby, it’s a lifestyle,” he said.
Baker has been rock climbing for seven years and can see the effects of needing to be mentally sharp on the wall in his everyday life. He said he loves challenges and tackling any sort of project with the mindset of pushing himself to his limits.
Rock climbers all around can add their story to that of Baker’s in saying that the sport has changed their life. Following Honnold’s journey and studying his mental game shows us that his is no exception.
Being the first to free solo a beast like El Capitan, Alex Honnold has set the stage for pushing the limits of what humans can do physically and mentally.