A pursuit of excellence: My biggest takeaway from Alex Honnold and ‘Free Solo’

Alex Honnold was the subject of what many consider one of the best climbing films ever, “Free Solo.”

When I went in to see “Free Solo” on the big screen, I had high expectations. Alex Honnold’s feats in big-wall rock climbing are incomparable. Given the filmmakers involved, including pro adventurer Jimmy Chin, I figured the production quality would be somewhere on a “Meru” scale, which is in my eyes, pretty damn good.

We all knew Honnold succeeded in becoming the first person to free-solo El Capitan. That’s news from awhile back. But seeing it unfold on the big screen? That’s a whole other thing.

The film delivered. I got sweaty palms watching it unfold. I was given his backstory. All of it was beautifully filmed, expertly told and compellingly arranged. You don’t have to be a hard-core climber to enjoy “Free Solo.”

But there is something else I got from “Free Solo” that I wasn’t expecting, and in my eyes, it was probably the most revealing part of the movie: Honnold is driven by a desire for excellence.

I think it’s forgotten by most of us just how much preparation, practice and study it takes to do what he does. “Free Solo” makes sure you know.

There is a montage about midway through the film in which Honnold is shown reading from one of his climbing journals. Every entry is about a specific part of the Freerider route he planned to climb, sans rope, from base to summit. It’s loaded with climber jargon, route locations and descriptions of specific obstacles he’d have to work though to finish the route. Each step is detailed, complete with what sort of technique and move he’d apply. There’s nothing colorful or emotive about his writings. It’s all business.

His meticulous attention to detail is matched by the hours he spent “practicing,” or in other words, time spent climbing the route over and over again. He climbed Freerider a number of times in the traditional roped style while also climbing big walls elsewhere and hitting the climbing gym often.

Pro athletes are seen spending hours in the gym or on the practice field, and hours more in film rooms, and hours more still hitting the weights. It’s no different for Honnold, except when it’s game time for him, the price of losing is fatal. To succeed – which is to live through it – is to be as close to perfect as a human can get. Getting yourself ready to be perfect is an exercise in discipline and work ethic that’s hard to fathom.

I left the theater wowed, just like everyone else. But more than that, I walked out hoping that in some fashion, I’d reach a level of excellence in something – anything – that Honnold achieved when he topped out on Freerider in the spring of 2017. It won’t happen in climbing for me, and in reality, it probably won’t happen in anything I do. But if it did, we’re talking about Hall of Fame/Pulitzer/Nobel-level stuff. Maybe climbing doesn’t have the gravitas of all that, but if you want to see what being the best at something looks like, watch the film.

As it turns out, the dirtbag climber community has more to offer than high stoke, big views and an adrenaline rush. The best of them can show us what it takes to be great. Or in Honnold’s case, the greatest.

Bob Doucette

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Of thrilling victory and tragic defeat: A tale of two climbs on El Capitan

El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park. (Wikipedia commons/Little Mountain 5 photo)

Years ago, ABC used to air a weekend program called “Wide World of Sports.” It was a staple for many who were interested in watching events that weren’t part of the “big four” of American sports, that being football, baseball, basketball and hockey.

But the show’s most lasting imprint on popular culture didn’t come from the sports it televised. It came from its intro, a montage of clips from a variety of contests. The narrator speaks of “the thrill of victory,” then cues up a downhill skier wiping out violently during a race before continuing, “and the agony of defeat.”

The stakes of sports are what make them compelling. The higher the stakes, the greater the drama. Nowhere is that more true than in the mountains, and we saw both the thrill and the agony play out within days of each other on one of the most iconic rock faces on the planet.

On June 2, climbers Jason Wells and Tim Klein were on El Capitan’s Freeblast route when they fell, ultimately plummeting more than 1,000 feet to their deaths. Both were accomplished, experienced climbers on a section of the route described as well within their abilities when the fall occurred.

On Wednesday, June 6, climbers Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell were also at El Capitan, trying to set speed records on the Nose. They accomplished this – twice. The new speed record for climbing this route stands at 1 hour, 58 minutes and 7 seconds, an astonishing feat on a route that takes most people days to complete.

Two solid climbing teams, two very different outcomes, on the same mountain. Wells and Klein are mourned; Honnold and Caldwell are celebrated. Only four days separated them.

This is the dualism of mountaineering. Obviously, there are other possible outcomes. You can get turned back by weather or route conditions, or perhaps forced into retreat by illness or injury. But there are few sports where the reward for success is, in reality, so modest, and the toll of failure (even if you did everything right) so painfully high.

It’s something I think about every time summer draws near. Exploring the mountains is becoming more popular every year. Most aren’t climbing El Capitan, but they are venturing into wild places that aren’t inherently safe or forgiving. Many thousands cut their teeth on the easier peaks, then try tougher challenges as time goes on. The vast majority do OK. But some don’t make it back. That’s how it works in the high country.

I won’t waste time grousing about the unnecessary chances people take, or social media pressures to go bigger each time. That’s been covered. But it does make me stop and think. Last year, scores (hundreds?) of people successfully climbed Capitol Peak in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. But within a span of six weeks, five people died on that same mountain. Other peaks, in Colorado and elsewhere, had similar stories, I’m sure.

It would also be silly to ask why people bother, given the risks of climbing, mountaineering and backcountry exploration. Mountains draw us in. Wild places fascinate us. Summit views, the sounds of the woods and the quiet of wilderness are always going to be a draw. The good parts, and the feeling of accomplishment, have their own special allure. That’s our version of the thrill of victory.

But I suppose it’s worth considering the agony of defeat. I’ve had a few close scrapes, but have come out of those OK. Others haven’t, even if they have many times before.

Maybe that’s the lesson from Yosemite Valley last week, just in time for the crowds who are heading into the mountains now.

Bob Doucette

On Kilian Jornet, Alex Honnold and Ueli Steck: What comes next?

Kilian Jornet. (Sebastien Montaz-Rosset photo)

As the spring of 2017 unfolded, new frontiers in climbing and mountaineering were opened.

On May 21, Kilian Jornet set a speed record ascent of Mount Everest, climbing the world’s highest peak in just 26 hours. For most climbers, whether they’re paying clients of expedition companies or elite climbers in their own right, a climb of Everest is an endeavor measured in weeks, with the final pushes taking several days. Jornet did it from the lower base camp on the Tibet side of the mountain in a shade over a day.

As if that wasn’t amazing enough, Jornet did it again: Starting from Advanced Base Camp (10.4 miles up and 4,000 feet higher), he reached the summit in just 17 hours. Jornet climbed the mountain in a fast-and-light style that has served him well in setting speed ascent records on Denali, Mont Blanc and Matterhorn.

Alex Honnold. (NatGeo photo)

Meanwhile, back in the United States, another audacious plan was coming to fruition. Alex Honnold had quietly been preparing to do something that had never been done. Honnold is famous for his free-solo climbs of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. But the monarch of Yosemite, El Capitan, had never been free-soloed.

That changed on June 3, when one of the world’s best rock climbers set off to ascend the 3,000-foot tower without the benefit of ropes or safety equipment. In just under four hours, he topped out, standing alone with what might be the most impressive feat of climbing ever undertaken. Keep in mind, most people spend days climbing El Cap.

These two climbers, the greatest in their respective skills, have done things most of us cannot comprehend. Even their peers are in awe.

It begs the question: What comes next? Will someone else free-solo El Cap from a more difficult route? Or follow up Honnold’s feat in less time? Can someone race from the Tibet base camp to Everest’s summit in less than a day?

It’s hard to take stock in this. The passage of time has given us improved equipment, better climbing techniques, more knowledge of the mountains and advanced training methods that push the boundaries of mountaineering. But it wasn’t that long ago that mountains like Everest were unclimbed, and that scaling a face like El Capitan was unimaginable without climbing aids and a significant commitment of time.

So, what’s next? Can these feats be topped? One thing I know is that someone will try. If not these two athletes, then someone else, a name we might already know, or perhaps a climber currently cutting their teeth at some unknown climbing gym or perfecting techniques on their local crag. Or maybe there’s a trail runner burning up local races in the mountains we don’t know yet who is experimenting in mountaineering and climbing that, when he or she is ready, will give it a go.

Ueli Steck. (Jonathan Griffith photo)

And that leads me to a third mountaineering story from this spring: the death of Ueli Steck.

Steck fell and died April 30 during a solo training climb on Nuptse, elevation 25,791 feet, a peak in the same neighborhood as Everest. He’d been gunning for an ambitious climb of Everest’s west ridge, then traversing to the summit of neighboring Lhotse.

Steck was an athlete in the class of Jornet and Honnold, at least in his accomplishments. Credited for the only known solo climb of Annapurna’s south face, he’s also summited 82 4,000-meter peaks in the Alps in 80 days. And now he’s gone.

I’m not sure why the feats of Jornet and Honnold bring up thoughts on Steck and his demise, but they do. Perhaps it’s because these things happened within a couple of months of each other. Or maybe it’s the fact that pushing the envelope of mountaineering – and the risk that entails – makes me wonder what story we’ll see in the future.

The early days of alpine exploration were a strange combination of scientific curiosity and nationalistic drive. That’s not the case anymore. Corporate dollars are on the line, as many of the elite in the mountaineering world are sponsored by gear companies. Social media can fuel this further. I’d hate to think that dollars and likes are what drive us now, but these are different times.

But the common thread of what people do now and what they did decades ago is as old as humanity itself, that of seeing just how far we can push the limits of physicality, of mental steel, and of commitment to a goal.

So I say this knowing that it’s likely that someone will try to climb Everest faster the Jornet, and someone will climb something harder than Honnold. Most will fail, but a few will probably succeed. And as is too common in mountaineering, someone will probably die trying. At that point, we’ll be awed by the accomplishments and saddened by the loss. And asking ourselves again, “what’s next?”

Bob Doucette

The Weekly Stoke: Everest firsts, Mont Blanc speed record, death on El Cap and the best flow chart ever

Been a rough week in terms of the news, so let me offer this break from reality. It’s that time. Time for the Weekly Stoke!

First off, have a look at Brendan Leonard’s flow chart. It’s a work of art, I’m telling ya.

poopchart101

An 80-year-old Japanese climber and extreme skier (and multiple heart surgery patient) became the oldest person to ever climb Mount Everest.

And another first: The first Saudi woman to summit Everest. Yep, it’s that time of year: Everest firsts. Funny thing, though: She can climb Everest, but can’t drive a car or show her face in public in her home country. Hmmm…

For literary mountain folk, it’s time to grieve once again for the demise of the Mountain Gazette. One of the most interesting and genuine publications of its kind. RIP, MG.

And a new record was set on Mont Blanc.

A terrifying piece of news from El Capitan. A deeper report of that incident can be seen here.

And here’s a list of things learned during a trek to Everest base camp by a Portland blogger who was just there.

Have a good weekend, all.