Four hours later, that lone figure, the thirty-one-year-old professional climber Alex Honnold, had completed the first ascent of El Cap in the free-solo style. In other words, he had climbed the cliff alone and without a rope or protective equipment of any kind. Had he fallen, he would have died.
The achievement had long been predicted but never quite accepted as possible. The iconic face of El Capitan—photographed by Ansel Adams, praised by John Muir as “the most sublime feature of the Valley”—has long been the proving ground for American rock climbing. It has been climbed at incredible speeds and via routes of extraordinary difficulty; a ropeless ascent was the last “big psychological breakthrough” that remained, as Peter Croft, who completed groundbreaking free solos in the nineteen-eighties and nineties, put it. There was no real competition to be the first to meet the challenge. Either Honnold would do it, or he would leave it to future generations. Or he would try, fail, and fall.
“His place in the soloing world is singular,” Croft told me. “As crass as it sounds, I can’t even think of anyone who could honestly boast of being in second place.”
In 2008, Honnold, then a twenty-three-year-old universally described as “dorky,” made a ropeless ascent of another Yosemite wall, the two-thousand-foot-tall face of Half Dome. Even then, he had bigger dreams. “My goal has always been to solo El Cap, but it’s always been, like, we’ll see if it’s possible,” Honnold told me, in a phone interview from Yosemite this week.
The step up from Half Dome to El Capitan may seem almost academic—what’s another seven hundred feet? Yet even the easiest route up El Cap, called Freerider, involves difficulties far more sustained than those Honnold encountered on Half Dome: there are long cracks, leaning out over the void, that are relentlessly exhausting to climb and that provided the most striking images of the ascent. (A National Geographic team documented his solo.) But the cracks are not the worst.
The most serious sections are usually described with a word of dude-speak: “sketchy.” Honnold had to climb steep sheets of glassy rock, on holds that would appear nonexistent to the untrained eye. As unglamorous as such climbing is, it represents a new level of rigor for the free soloist. Sketchy rock—and Freerider has a lot of it—demands balance, body control, and composure. It sets the ultimate standard: perfection, or death.
Sonnie Trotter, one of the expert climbers who trained with Honnold in the lead-up to his El Cap solo, compared Freerider’s hardest move, or crux, to hanging on to two windshield wiper blades frozen in mid-swipe, so that both angle sharply downward in the same direction. A soloist clinging to such holds is pulled by gravity toward the ground, but also outward, like a barn door that swings open on its own weight. Give in to either pressure, and you fall. The crux is located about eighteen hundred feet above the ground.
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