The Bookshelf: An Account of Alex Honnold's 'Impossible Climb'

Mar 2, 2019

Credit Rachel Cohen/NHPR

Last weekend, the Oscar for “Best Documentary” went to a film called Free Solo, which captures the rope-free climb of Alex Honnold up the awe-inspiring face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. Nobody had ever done a free solo climb of "El Cap" and it had previously been considered impossible. Free solo climbers use no ropes or equipment, so a single slip-up could mean a fatal fall to earth.

New Hampshire author and climber Mark Synnott has climbed with Honnold before. On the day of Honnold’s big climb, he watched Honnold make his way up El Capitan through binoculars. In his new book, The Impossible Climb, Synnott gives an account of what led up to that day. The history and the evolution of climbing culture serve as a frame for Honnold’s daring feat. Synnott spoke with NHPR's Peter Biello about his new book, due out March 5, 2019.

Mark Synnott on Repentance, Cathedral Ledge, North Conway, N.H.
Credit Jim Surette

 

Mark Synnott's Top Five Reading Recommendations:

1.   Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. "This book, along with The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, may have had the most profound impact on my life of any book I’ve ever read. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn taught me, at a time when I was desperately seeking direction and meaning in my life, that the escape from the boredom of suburban Boston, where I grew up, was waiting right outside my door. I’ve also always admired the honesty and humor in Twain’s writing—something I have tried to emulate in my own."

2.   The Singularity is Near by Ray Kurzweil. "It's not often that a book profoundly changes your perspective on life, but I don’t think I’ve ever looked at the world and my place in it in quite the same way since I first read Kurzweil’s masterpiece back in 2006. His central premise is that technology is evolving at an exponential rate and that we’re currently sitting at the knee of this exponential curve. He posits that the “Singularity”–that point in time when machines become more smart than us – will occur in the mid 2040s. I became so fascinated with Kurzweil’s ideas that I profiled him for Hemisphere’s magazine. During the interview I asked him a question I don’t think he adequately answered in the book: “If what you’re saying is true, how are we going to avoid the plot of Terminator?” He told me that rather than allowing the technology to exist as its own entity, like Skynet in Terminator, we will embed it in ourselves, thus becoming cyborgs."

3.   The Shining Mountain by Peter Boardman. "I don’t read many mountaineering books these days. Not because I don’t enjoy them but because I’ve already read every title I can think of. When asked to put together this list, I thought to myself, ‘What is the most important mountain climbing book I’ve ever read?’ The Shining Mountain immediately sprung to mind. It’s the story of the first ascent of the west wall of Changabang (a wild, 22,500-foot fang of rock in the Indian Himalaya) by two intrepid British climbers – Peter Boardman and Joe Tasker - in 1976. One of the things I love about mountaineering books is that most of them are written by people who aren’t professional writers, and perhaps as a result, they tend to have an authentic voice that is often lacking in non-fiction. I read this book as a teenager, and all these years later I can still hear Boardman’s voice when I think about this book and the seminal influence it had on me as a young climber. It is the one book I can point to (right where it still sits on my shelf) and say that it had a direct influence on the kind of climber I eventually became."

4. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson. "When I was first outlining my book, The Impossible Climb, my literary agent recommended that I read The Devil in the White City. Set in 1893, it consists of two interwoven narratives. One is that of Daniel Burnham, the architect who designed Chicago’s World Fair; the other is told through the eyes of H.H. Holmes, a pharmacist and serial killer who murdered most of his victims in a hotel he ran a few miles from the World Fair. Larson is a masterful storyteller who brings his characters and the times in which they lived to life through meticulous research and the use of vivid, granular detail. I am currently studying Larson’s style, and reading more of his books (like Dead Wake and Isaac’s Storm) to find inspiration for my next project, which is taking me to Mount Everest this spring."

5. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. "If I were to somehow be limited to reading only one genre for the rest of my life, I think I would choose biography. I am fascinated by the lives lived by important historical figures, and there’s a bookshelf in my library where I store these titles, hoping my children will one day find them. Perusing this shelf a few minutes ago, I saw biographies about Mao Zedong, Marco Polo, Alexander the Great, Albert Einstein, Andrew Jackson, H.W. Tilman, Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus and Daniel Boone, to name just a few. But if I had to choose one as my all-time favorite, it would be Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. Hamilton was already my favorite founding father before I read this excellent biography, but afterwards he was permanently cemented as one of my all-time heroes. The scene towards the end of the book, when Hamilton faces Aaron Burr in the fateful duel that cost him his life, is one of the most powerful accounts of a historical event that I’ve ever read."

So for those who don't quite get the magnitude of Honnold's achievement, could you tell us about how significant it was for the sport that Alex Honnold climbed the 3,000 feet of El Capitan without any ropes?

It might be the greatest climb ever done and I think it was the New York Times that said it was the greatest or one of the greatest athletic feats ever. Tommy Caldwell (who's one of the best climbers in the world today) called that "the moon landing of free soloing."

I think some lay people were annoyed that this was equated with the landing on the moon. But to those of us who really understand what it is that Alex did and the historical context, it does feel like that, and that's something that I was trying to convey in the book. But I think if you don't know anything about climbing and you don't really understand what El Capitan is, it's hard to wrap your head around that idea. 

So if listeners want to Google a photo of of "El Cap" you might get a sense of how big it is but I suspect standing at the base of it really gives you the impression of how formidable this is.

Yeah. One of the things that's so amazing about El Capitan is it sits right next to the Loop Road in Yosemite National Park and right next to this beautiful meadow El Cap meadow and you can park your car and you can walk you know 10 or 15 minutes and it's basically just a flat trail and then boom there's the wall just basically sticking straight out of the earth and going straight up for 3,000 feet. And you can walk up and you can put your hand on the wall standing on flat ground and look up and it is absolutely inspiring even you know for someone like me. I've climbed it 24 times and I've spent you know years of my life in Yosemite and I still get that same feeling of awe. When I when I see the wall and it's definitely something that you have to see firsthand to appreciate like a photo just doesn't even remotely do it justice.

One of the ideas you return to time and time again in this book is fear and how climbers in general and how Alex Honnold in particular think about and manage fear. You're a climber. How do you manage your fear?

It is a process that every climber has to work, how to control it. I don't know if we can master it. Even Alex, I don't know if he has completely mastered it. But when you first learn how to climb and you dangle on a rope for the first time, it's a scary thing, because your instinct just tells you that you're doing something that's not right, because it's not actually normal for us to like hang on the side of cliffs with ropes and things like that.

But as you expose yourself to it more and more, you slowly become accustomed to this unknown thing that was making you fear feel fearful and you become more comfortable with it. And that I guess you could say that there's kind of a spectrum of how far people are able to go on that arc in terms of learning how to control it.

To be an elite climber you have to become very good at that, because you end up in situations where you're clinging to the side of a cliff where, if you screw up and you fall, you could get badly hurt. Sometimes you can even get killed, even if you have a rope on because your gear can rip out, you can hit a ledge, or you can  be in really crazy remote places, like in some of the climbs that I've done where if you get hurt it's going to be a really bad scene. It's only natural that you might get a little panicky when you get into these dangerous positions but what you learn pretty quickly is that if you let the panic take you over all it's going to do is make it more likely that the bad outcome is going to occur. So you teach yourself to kind of press the panic down and to keep your cool.

I think it's something  real similar that like a lot of athletes go through. But in climbing it's very unique and the degree to which Alex has taken this process that I'm describing is just way beyond any other climber ever I think in the history of the sport.

How is the way that you manage fear different from the way Alex Huntelaar manages his fear?

I don't know if I'm doing a whole lot of managing fear for myself personally these days. But I guess I still do end up in some scary positions sometimes. I think the simple answer is that it's probably similar in terms of  the way that I go about it, or the way really that any climber goes about it. It's just that Alex trained himself to a much greater degree than any of us ever have. I mean to be able to  keep himself together when he was doing some of the crux moves on El Cap. I mean one of them the the actual technical crux of the climb is something like 200 feet up and it's just like  a sheer wall with tiny little hold, some of which I described as being like the size of a eraser on a pencil.

If he had started to panic or gotten nervous, he could have lost the plot and he could have started to tense up, hyperventilate like his heart rate all that kind of stuff all of which would have made it probably impossible for him to execute the moves that he needed to do. And I just don't think there's any another person on the planet who could have done what Alex did that day or done any of the other stuff that he did leading up to this big climb.

For listeners who are still sort of wondering about the logistics of this, I mean there were times when Alex and other climbers and other situations too would have to hang literally from their fingertips on a small ledge, as you describe, the size of a pencil eraser. This is what climbers...I don't know how routinely they encounter it, but it's not out of the question that they would encounter something like this.

That's normal for climbers. I try to describe a little that a lot of different types of climbing in the book. And one of the things that I describe which it sounds like you read is the most difficult rock climb in the world that was done with a rope. I tried to give people a picture of what that looks like but it's it's basically: guys going up, women going up, overhanging walls that are roofs where it's like horizontal and you're hanging upside down like an insect clinging onto holds that are just absolutely tiny, like the size of matchbooks and then actually like springing through the air and doing dynamic moves from getting to one hold to the other. One of the things that I said in the book is just just Google it and look it up and look at videos to get a sense of it because it's crazy what people are doing.

Those who love climbing sometimes call it exhilarating to be be that close to death, that engaged in an activity with your whole body and mind. In your book, you have multiple passages where people say that climbing makes them feel more alive. And you also have passages in the book where you quote people unfamiliar with the sport who criticize it, who say that climbers take such huge risks to get that feeling but it's not worth it. So how would you explain why the risk involved in climbing is worth it.

Well, I think you just hit upon it there, which is I guess it's hard to explain this without maybe having it sound cliché but I think one of the things that I've learned as a climber and also from observing Alex and spending so much time with him is that when you are deeply into the process of climbing and maybe when you're pushing yourself to your own personal edge, you could call it a "peak life experience."
I think it's common for people to step away from doing that kind of thing and feeling like they were really squeezing a lot of juice out of life. And I think that's why we all do it because we feel like we're living life as richly as we possibly can.

The other thing about being in positions like that is you are forced to just be in the moment. When you're climbing or you're doing anything else like it, it could be like crazy skiing or kayaking or any other sports like that, you sort of forget about everything else that's going on in your life and you're not really thinking about the past or the future or your bank account or any of the worries that you have. You're just existing in the moment. And that's kind of an awesome thing. 

Everybody takes their own risk. Even the people that are criticizing Alex, some of them are like sitting on the couch eating potato chips as Alex has pointed out, and they're taking your own risks by not being healthy. And so I've always felt that that's a personal choice and we have so many people in this world that if some of them want to be a little crazy and see how close they can get to the edge, then that's their prerogative.

You mentioned in your book how a lot of people seem to want to figure out Alex they want to know.  what about him allows him to scale out cap without any ropes and he even has in one chapter an MRI to examine his brain to see how his brain experiences fear and compared to I guess we'll say a quote unquote average brain in your opinion assuming we should try to figure out Alex what is it about him that you think makes him capable of achieving something like like a free solo climb of El Capitan.

I wrote that chapter in the book I think it's called "Amygdala" specifically to try to explore that question. And I felt like I should try to answer it because I was partly responsible for people even asking that question, because I did a talk with Alex and Jimmy Chin at National Geographic in 2014 and afterwards this neuroscientist came up to me and he leaned in and he said, "Hey, Alex's amygdala is not firing right."

And then I told that story to Alex and I actually told it to the guy who cowrote Alex's autobiography with him and it kind of entered the sort of public consciousness as Alex's superpower that he had this defective amygdala. And I think it kind of bothered Alex a little bit because it was an example of people who are kind of writing him off and not giving him credit for the fact that what he's able to do as a climber is actually a skill that he's attained through a ton of hard work and mental exercises and that kind of thing.

So it's kind of a long story but the conclusion that I come to is that Alex has an amygdala. Alex's amygdala works. He does experience fear but he may be a little bit of a genetic outlier. So if there's a spectrum you could say that he's somebody that it takes more to to make him fearful like some people get scared really easily. He's not that type of person. So he was already a bit of a genetic outlier and then he spent 20 years as a free soloist exposing himself to the thing that he was afraid of to try to turn it into something more commonplace.

One example that he gave to me, he said: think about when you first get your license and the first time that you you pull out from the  road onto the freeway and how terrifying it is to move into traffic, but after you've done it for years and years you can just pull out into the highway and it's no different from when you get up in the morning and you brush your teeth. And he said, "That's how free soloing is for me. I've done it so much that for me to hang from my pinky from a tiny little crack a thousand feet in the air is the same as  it is for like New York City cab driver or something like that."

And as you describe that my palms literally just got really sweaty just thinking of having to climb and dying hanging from that high up. But I guess you can get used to anything. 

I guess that's that's kind of the point. And I think that's maybe a takeaway from the book. And I kind of want people to think about this because we all have things that we're that we're fearful of, like I'm fearful about something happening to my children. People can be fearful about having financial problems or about their spouse being unfaithful or  all kinds of things like that. And I think there are some lessons learn edfrom a guy like Alex in terms of how we can  gain a little bit more mastery over these things, because I don't think any of us feel like it's a good thing if we don't fully have control over our emotions.

The sport has changed over the decades. And you write in The Impossible Climb about how climbers used to sort of  just do it. They didn't want to brag too much about it or "spray" in the climbing parlance but now it's it's changing somewhat. I mean obviously with "Free Solo" and other film projects climbers are being filmed and the people who wouldn't consider themselves to be hardcore climbers are sort of climbing starting out at gyms and then going out into the into the real world. What do you make of the evolution of the sport? Is it heading in the right direction?

People have been asking me that question and I guess I would say, as an insider in the sport, I could say that there are some people that are resistant to what's happening right now which is basically this sport that used to be pretty obscure moving into the mainstream.
I do a lot of lecturing and sometimes I speak to youth and you can ask the question at a gym full of  students how many of them have climbed and almost every kid is going to put their hand up nowadays because they're they're all being exposed to it at one time or another in climbing gyms, whereas when I was a kid and I started there there were no climbing gyms. So it's a very different thing than it was back then.

I can't personally really see it as anything but positive because when I think about everything that I've got out of climbing and what an amazing sport it is and how it's essentially shaped my life and who I am. I don't want that to be something that I just sort of cling to for myself and try to keep away from other people. So when I see other people out there when I see the cliff busy it makes me happy at the end of the book.

Alex had just finished with the free solo climb of El Capitan when he turned his attention to his next adventure. So I wanted to ask you if you're keeping in touch with him as he pursues his next his next summit. 

I have been. And his goal right now is the same one that he told me when I sat down with him right when he came down from the wall. I think it's somewhat amusing that he told me that while he was on the wall going up it without a rope he was already thinking about his next thing. His next thing is to just try to rock climb had a higher level and that's something that he will do with the rope. And he'll be working on it. He's been on this tour promote the "Free Solo" film for like the last six months. But I talked to him recently and I asked him how it was going and I sort of assumed that his fitness wasn't that good. And he said that he was. He's currently climbing as best as he ever has and I think he's climbing almost exclusively with a rope now. So  all of his friends myself included were were all like hoping that he's kind of gotten it out of his system and we've all made a point of telling him, "Hey, there's nothing else. That's it. You've done it. There is no further you can go with free soloing, so why don't you hang your hat on that and keep doing what you're doing? Which is pushing yourself with a rope because yeah he went further out on a limb really than almost any human ever has and and lived to tell the story."

And boy, if he could just ride into old age, roll in to Yosemite some day with his grandkids and point up to the cliff and say, "Yep, I went up that without a rope one day." That would be such an awesome thing.