Free Solo

I went and saw Free Solo, the story of Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan — 3,000 feet of sheer in Yosemite Valley, last night. It was a thought-provoking, visually-stunning and — at times — sweaty-palmed 97 minutes. And I’d recommend checking it out at Film Scene.

Plenty has been written about why and how Alex does what he does and the ethics of scaling cliffs without protection where a single mistake would be fatal. The filmmakers choose to explore the this issue through the lens of Alex’s relationships with those around him: his girlfriend, his mom, his fellow climbers, the film crew.

From a story-telling perspective, this choice makes a lot of sense. Good drama is based in relationships and while the majority of the audience will have little if any experience rock climbing — let alone free soloing — they have plenty of experience with relationships and thus, an entry point to the film.

While the relationship-lens makes sense as a narrative device, it doesn’t help me understand why Alex does what he does. Instead, it makes what he does — mind-boggling to begin with — even more so.

For me to gain insight into what Alex does it is through the lens of mastery. And the conversation Alex had with Rich Roll on the latter’s eponymous podcast delves deeply into the subject of mastery. Alex’s free soloing can be seen as both a logical and extreme outcome of the pursuit of mastery. Quite simply, years of methodical practice mastery 1,000 of individual movements is put to the ultimate test: do or die.

I listened to podcast last spring on the way up to the MVC Indoor meet in Cedar Falls and my notes are a little messy but I have transcribed them below. But the podcast is definitely worth a listen although it runs almost two hours in length — shorter, though, if you fast forward through the ads.

  • Hardest part “constantly thinking you’re going to die” the cumulative effect of making so many small decisions you’re pretty sure are right but…
  • Other than lifestyle choices (that are far removed from the consequences) when do you contemplate mortality?
  • High Risk vs High Consequence (a lot of what Alex does he doesn’t consider to have a high risk — at his skill level) however, mistakes have a VERY high consequence (death).
  • Understanding vs Fear Impulse
  • Chicken and the Egg with Amygdala — sees it as practice because he can now do things that 10 years ago he couldn’t (because of what he’s done has dampened the response or because of dampened response can do what he can do)
  • When you’re on the pat it never feels like you’re on the path (only looking back with perspective do you establish narrative around “the path”)
  • Can’t reach the next level without higher level of commitment (examples of the athlete-ization of climbing and surfing vs dirtbag/bro cultures)
  • What was the secret? 2o years of hard work. Took eight years to believe that El Cap was possible.
  • There are variables you can’t control but you can still think them through so if they do happen you’re not “Oh nooooo!!!”
  • If you’re really focused on doing something wind (?) doesn’t matter.
  • Didn’t feel destined at start of El Cap: (but as climb went on went from) these aren’t perfect conditions to who cares? Had experience climbing it in so many different conditions before,
  • There’s a lot of magic in it. You’ve got to feel confident.
  • El Cap: “First thing I’ve done in climbing I’m really proud.”
  • Because I care about the objective so much more I was willing to [make more sacrifices]. (58:00)
  • Motivation: seeing what I’m capable of, obligation to try
  • Elemental: “Because it’s there” Everest/4:00 mile
  • What is worth doing the work and what is the work you need to do to do it (1:49:00)
  • Mastery > Proficiency > Adequacy