“What a journey.” –Alex Honnold
Alex Honnold is human.
Alex Honnold might actually be superhuman.
Alex Honnold climbs walls.
Several months after successfully completing the day hike to the top of Half Dome with my Cousin Kevin in 2014, I had hoped to find a relevant way to share this experience with my students. The goal was to select a few videos to illustrate the science connected with the formation of the granite monoliths that tower over the Yosemite Valley. It seemed like a great way to pair videos with some of the photographs that I had taken of my own adventure. It was during one of these searches that a video clip of Alex Honnold appeared on the screen before me. From that moment on, Alex Honnold has been one of the biggest inspirations in my life.
Alex Honnold is probably best known for his skills as a free solo rock climber. Free soloing is a form of rock climbing without ropes. No ropes. No safety net. The force of gravity still exists for these climbers. (You read all of those words correctly.) Alex is not the first person or the only person to free solo. Other individuals have ventured onto rock walls without ropes to attempt this perilous and risky adventure long before Alex was born, and will continue to do so as long as those walls exist and call to these unique people. Alex has set himself apart from other climbers in his field with the degree of his imagination and his determination to attempt the seemingly impossible. The inspiration that has permeated into my soul is a direct result of this determination.
At no point will I attempt any sort of intense rock climbing in my life. (Perhaps the word likely should be inserted here somewhere. We should never rule out anything in our own lives, as I keep trying to remind myself.) My few attempts at indoor rock climbing during college and during professional development courses as a teacher were enough to satisfy this curiosity. The self-consciousness of wearing the harness alone gives enough pause to make further attempts, let alone the physical strength required that I am most certainly lacking. Yet I am completely fascinated by Alex Honnold and the act of free soloing.
Over the past few years, it has been rewarding to see my students’ reactions to witnessing Alex climb on the sheer granite cliffs. After briefly discussing the processes involved in the formation of the granite mountains in Yosemite National Park, the discussions have usually focused on his daring adventures and the deadly possibilities of what Alex is doing.
Some of the children have gasped.
Some have closed their eyes or turned away.
Some have just stared in complete awe with mouths gaping.
Seeing their reactions is priceless.
The first time I saw the videos, I got warm all over in a way that I only get when I feel like I am in real danger. I have made it a point each year to share with the children just how proud and inspired I am of Alex for following his dreams, regardless of the risk involved. Many of the children today have grown up in a world designed for them to be safe and sheltered from risk and danger, whether perceived or real. Parents often appear instantly to protect them from any potential challenge or risk. (Side note: The discussion each and every year has started and ended with a “don’t try this at home” disclaimer to avoid concerned calls from those instantly appearing parents.)
Danger and risk build character, and guide us towards understanding who we are and what we hope to achieve in life. When I close my eyes and think about being on the top of Half Dome, I can instantly bring forth the look and feel and sound and smell and sense of accomplishment from that day. There is no doubt in my mind; hiking to the top of Half Dome is the most physically challenging thing that I have ever done. To think that Alex Honnold took the sheer vertical route with no ropes, and got to the top in a fraction of the time it took me, boggles my mind.
Last year, I remember reading that Alex Honnold became the first person to successfully free solo El Capitan. This past spring, I remember sharing that fact with the children during our “digital visit” to Yosemite National Park during our study of rocks. Before yesterday, however, I had not fully comprehended the significance of this accomplishment.
Yesterday afternoon, I saw Free Solo with two friends, which documented the time leading up to Alex Honnold’s record breaking and historical feat. (The link to the trailer is included below the post.) The film was terrifying and uplifting and emotional and real. I do not know Alex Honnold personally. The film provides a glimpse into his world, both past and present, which provided the opportunity to build deep empathy in an incredibly short period of time. For someone who has held a place of honor in my mind, I am inspired by Alex even more today than I have been in the past few years. Free Solo is one of the most beautifully and artfully built documentaries that I have ever seen. What the creative team has been able to document, photograph, and piece together through storytelling has become a powerful testament to what it means to be human. Alex may have climbed that wall solo, but it was quite evident that he had not gotten there by himself. The freedom to climb El Capitan, with all of the immediate and immense risks, clearly took its toll on those who love Alex the most. We know the outcome going into the theater, but it did not feel that way in the moment. My hands shifted often. When I wasn’t wringing them, they were in different configurations all across my face. Chills and tears and fears. Free Solo should not be missed on the big screen.
Alex Honnold climbed a granite wall.
Alex Honnold dreamt about doing so for so many years.
Alex Honnold will certainly continue to climb new walls.
We are all human.
We all have our own walls to climb.
Whether or not we succeed ultimately depends on whether or not we take the risk to take that first frightening step.
The Ascent of Alex Honnold (The CBS video from 2011 that “introduced” me to Alex.)