Alex Honnold is notorious for quietly doing what he wishes to and then, underplaying what he accomplished. In sharp contrast to the media savviness that characterizes much of sport today, the world woke up to some of his riveting climbs with a lag. Like – done, then word gets around and people are startled. Honnold is the world’s leading practitioner of the art of free solo in climbing; a branch of climbing in which, the climber uses no rope for protection. It’s just person, rock shoes, a chalk bag and big rock walls – if you take Yosemite, Alex’s favorite playground – walls that rise up to almost 3000 feet. While there have been others who free soloed, what set him apart are a few things. Free soloing appears to be the bulk of what he does and within that discipline he has to his credit records straddling both speed and endurance. That’s an unusual mix.
I picked up the book Alone on the Wall less because of Honnold and more because of co-author David Roberts. The latter is one of the finest writers on the outdoors. The book didn’t disappoint. Its idiom suits narrative about an intense, young talent in our midst. The story focuses on Honnold with research in the near vicinity of story. Done so, except for its portions explaining specific climbs in great detail, the book moves fast. You get a ringside view of the life of a free soloist and what it is like to climb rope-less on a big wall. Friends and observers think Honnold has the ability to switch off fear. Not true, he says; he lives with fear, just that he handles it and panic, better than the rest of us. From the book, you learn much about Yosemite and names associated with climbing in Yosemite. You get an idea of how the climbing routes there developed, how the speed and endurance records set on those walls evolved and how Honnold’s accomplishments compare. Away from Yosemite and the US you get a taste of climbing in Chad and Patagonia. You are also introduced to the Honnold Foundation. In its own words: the Honnold Foundation seeks simple, sustainable ways to improve lives worldwide. Simplicity is the key; low impact, better living is the goal. These days, private foundations are usually the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) end of big companies or the philanthropic pursuit of jet setting billionaires. Against that, you imagine Honnold and his life in a van, harassed by security personnel at parking lots he tries to camp at and being shoed away. If climbing is what matters, then the nomad’s life makes sense. One of the interesting twists in the book is its delving into the link between Honnold, media and sponsors. All these are part of forces shaping contemporary climber’s professional ecosystem. Perceptions matter because mileage through media is what attracts sponsors in the modern paradigm of sustainable sport. It creates distortions and tussles. There are also sponsors who back off should the extreme trajectory of an extreme sport be too extreme for brand’s own good.
Honnold didn’t become a free soloist because that’s what he wanted to do. A reserved person, he couldn’t easily find company when he wished to climb. So he started to climb alone. Slowly, as the pages turn, profile of individual takes shape in reader’s mind. Intrigued, you search the Internet for a video or two on Honnold and you see lone man sans rope on challenging rock face, his face – smiling when it meets the camera – hardly betraying the immense risk all around. Just one regret – free soloing being one of the most stunning accomplishments in climbing, I missed seeing in the book a chapter or two on the art form, its history and evolution. Whatever was provided so was in measured dose such that it does not overshadow immediate narrative.
This is a good book, worth reading.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)