Free Solo: Risk and Consequences

I’ve always wanted to love rock climbing. It’s beautiful to watch someone calmly and elegantly overcome nature with equal parts body and brain. You’re solving a puzzle while trying to not fall off of the puzzle. I love using exercise a tool to understand my brain, but I’ve mostly done this through the uncomplicated acts of running and hiking. All I do is start in a direction and keep going until I’m there. I feel like climbing can help me come to understand another part of my brain. Running has improved my endurance, patience, and presence of mind, but there’s more to learn. I imagine climbing to improve my ability analyze and come up with creative solutions to overcomes my fears.

My passing fascination with climbing led me to doing one of my least favorite activities, seeing a movie. “Free Solo” is about Alex Honnold and his rope-less ascent of Yosemite’s El Capitan. For a movie about climbing, “Free Solo” is surprisingly grounded. The majority of screen time explores Alex’s mindset, personality, lifestyle, and relationships. The movie wants to understand Alex in order to explain how he’s able to routinely perform superhuman feats while free soloing. The answer lies in Alex’s humbleness. He doesn’t see himself as exceptional, he merely sees himself as someone who likes to climb. His uncomplicated relationship to his passion is reminiscent of Forrest Gump’s ability to run. Alex just keeps climbing.

Through his daily dedication to his unique hobby, Alex’s brain has become specialized for free soloing. This specialization has resulted in a wholly unique worldview. In nearly every interview about El Capitan, Alex is asked why he’s drawn towards the risk of free soloing. Alex says that he doesn’t take risks. If free soloing a route was risky, he says he wouldn’t do it. He rehearsed his route up El Cap countless times, both on the wall and through his climbing journal. He’s memorized every hand hold and body position that he’ll encounter on his 3,000 foot journey. In that way, free soloing El Cap isn’t risky; he can do it. Whenever Alex is asked this question, he frames free soloing as low risk, but high consequence. Think of it like driving your car. It’s low risk because you’ve easily driven countless miles, but it’s high consequence because you’ll pay dearly for nearly any mistake. To Alex Honnold, free soloing is like driving to Target. It’s quotidien.

Alex’s ability to differentiate between risk and consequence has enchanted my brain since I saw “Free Solo”. Most things in life seem risky, but actually just have a high consequence. And when compared to Alex’s constant consequence of death, my daily consequences seem like child’s play. There’s low risk to quitting my job and writing on the road for a few months. I know how to write, drive, hike, and camp. I won’t fail at these things. But if I do fail, the consequences amount to being stranded in the middle of nowhere with little money fall back on. I’m worried about making this decision not because of the risk, but because of the potential consequences. I’m paralyzed by indecision because I think of the consequences as the risks.

When I’m afraid of risk, the fear is an intangible feeling. Just doubts swirling in my brain that are impossible to grapple with. Thinking of problems as consequences instead of risks brings my fears into the real world. It gives me actual situations to think through, analyze, and creatively problem solve. I have barely yet to begin rock climbing as a hobby, but watching “Free Solo” has already validated my expectations about what climbing can do for me. Now if you excuse me, I’m going to Joshua Tree in the morning to put my money where my mouth is — and actually climb some fucking rocks.