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

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

NPS opens up applications for Half Dome hiking permits

Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. (Wikpedia Commons photo)

Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. (Wikipedia Commons photo)

If you’re interested in hiking Half Dome in Yosemite National Park, here is a bit of news you might want to know.

A report from The Associated Press says you can start applying for permits now. Up to 300 hikers per day are allowed on the cables leading to the top of Half Dome. But you need reservations.

Restrictions on numbers began in 2011, with the National Park Service citing safety as the main reason for the new rule.

The lottery system will end March 31, the AP reported, but 50 additional permits per day will be issued through the hiking season.

For more information, go to this link.

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.


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.

NPS makes daily hiker limits at Half Dome permanent, will keep cables

A conga line of hikers going up the cables on Half Dome. (NPS photo)

A conga line of hikers going up the cables on Half Dome. (NPS photo)

A longstanding controversy over what to do about hiking and climbing Yosemite’s Half Dome appears to have come to a conclusion that is bound to leave a lot of people miffed.

In 2010, the National Park Service approved limits as to how many people could ascend the iconic peak every day. Upwards of 1,200 people were attempting it daily, creating logjams and leaving people at risk when trying to descend during bad weather. NPS decided to try limiting it to 300 a day on an interim basis.

NPS also considered whether or not it should allow the cables installed to help hikers up the mountain remain. Half Dome is in a wilderness area, and things like the cables are forbidden by law (the 1964 Wilderness Act) from being built. The cables predate the passage of the law by several decades, however, and the cables have been allowed to stay.

Wilderness advocates have been calling for their removal. Hiking enthusiasts counter by saying the cables’ removal would halt access to Half Dome’s summit to everyone except expert climbers, as its 45-degree, slick granite slopes would make ascending it too difficult for the average day hiker.

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park. (NPS photo)

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park. (NPS photo)

NPS has decided to make to 300-person daily limit permanent and to keep the cables. You can read more about that story here.

One way you can look at this is that both sides lost. Fewer people will have access to Half Dome while a section of California’s most famous wilderness area will be marked by a man-made safety device that doesn’t exist in other wild places.

But if you think about it, NPS’ decisions have a degree of consistency. Yosemite National Park is not like most other wild areas in the country. It receives far more visitors because of its location (in the most populous state in the nation) and its popularity outside California. Deaths have occurred on Half Dome because of a confluence of overcrowding on the route and bad weather.

I’m all for keeping wild places wild, and I’m in favor of keeping outdoor spaces accessible. But I understand what NPS has done. Half Dome is a unique place, and these two issues requires unique solutions that won’t apply to other wilderness areas. In order to accommodate visitors, NPS had to thin the crowds while also making sure that some degree of safety remained on a route that people had become accustomed to climbing over several decades.

The only real alternative would have been much harsher: Remove the cables and institute even stricter rules on how many people could ascend. That surely would have made the chorus of discontent a lot louder, with only a few purist wilderness advocates happy.

Drop your thoughts on this development in the comments below.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

NPS wants to limit hikers on Half Dome cables, but should the cables be removed entirely?

A conga line of hikers going up the cables on Half Dome. (NPS photo)

Last week I wrote about a divide in the outdoor community over how American wilderness areas can and should be used. But the whole mountain bike controversy isn’t the only fissure. The latest one deals with one of the most iconic places in the U.S.

Half Dome is one of the most photographed and visited natural features in the country, and for good reason. This massive granite monolith rises thousands of feet above the Yosemite Valley floor, with its glacially carved cliff face daring the most skilled climbers on earth to tackle it.

But it’s on its rounded shoulders that the most visitor traffic comes. Nearly a century ago, park officials installed a series of poles and cables to allow hikers to ascend the less technical but still treacherous slopes without the need of technical climbing gear or skill.

Half Dome, however, exists within a federally established wilderness area. The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibits the establishment of man-made structures or features within wilderness. The cables predate the law, so they’ve been grandfathered in, so to speak. So wilderness or not, this peak is one of the most accessible places in the park, just as long as you can stomach the steepness of the slope and the effort it takes to pull yourself up the cable route.

The National Park System wants to limit the number of people who can ascend Half Dome. According to an Associated Press report, NPS hopes to reduce the number of hikers scaling Half Dome’s cables from 400 a day during the height of the tourist season to about 300 (not long ago, that number had been an astounding 1,200 a day). The reason is that people get stacked up on the route, creating a hazard for folks who find themselves caught on its slick, exposed surface during storms. Half Dome is the wrong place to be during a storm, as wet rock is very unfriendly to climbers, and lightning is a major risk.

As you might expect, there are people who are opposed to this plan. And more still who think NPS should dismantle the cables altogether. Some quotes from that AP report:

“At the end of the day, if the visitors and users of wilderness aren’t willing to make sacrifices to preserve the wilderness character of these areas, then we just won’t have wilderness. We’ll have some Disney-fied version of it,” said George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch.

And the other side:

“If people want solitude in Yosemite, there’s another 12,000 square miles to do that,” counters hiker Pat Townsley, a Bay Area resident who has been to the top nine times.

The battle lines are clear. Access verses preservation.

The story quotes others who make some interesting points. One point: The cables allow more people access to Half Dome, which draws more people out of their living rooms and into the outdoors. I like this argument, as I am a huge fan of getting people outside, moving, and learning to appreciate our nation’s natural heritage.

A counterpoint: If people really want to experience Half Dome on its terms, in its most natural state, they should be willing to commit to learning and practicing the skills needed to climb such a mountain. This is also a very strong argument to me. Wilderness areas are not theme parks. With the exception of Half Dome, they don’t have handrails. They are only as safe as the visitors who go inside make them – through preparation, respect and proper execution of wilderness skills.

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park. (NPS photo)

There are other, similar examples of this conflict at play. Go to Longs Peak in Colorado, and on the final pitch to the summit, there are bull’s-eyes painted on the rocks to help guide climbers up the steep route to the top called the Homestretch. So much for route-finding.

And the climbing world is afire right now after a pair of mountaineers stitched together an amazing ascent of Argentina’s Cerro Torre, but then proceeded to remove all the bolts that had been hammered into the mountain’s sheer walls by another climber decades ago. Purists love it, but others are outraged.

It’s classic preservation versus access, a rift that continues to divide the outdoor community.

I’d love to stand atop Half Dome. But I’d love to be able to do it without the aid of handrails.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088