It seems impossible when you look at a photo of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park to think someone could scale the sheer granite wall that rises 3,200 feet without using safety equipment such as ropes and harnesses. The climber’s security is dependent upon the placement of his or her hands and feet in crevices, small cracks and minute indentations. Without ropes, there is no margin for error.
Yet Alex Honnold climbed “El Cap” free solo in three hours and 56 minutes on June 3, 2017.
I watched the National Geographic documentary on the climb, which was a dream for Honnold — or perhaps more solidly a goal — for eight years. Although he climbed El Capitan many times with ropes, he said he saw question marks all over the wall when attempting a free solo.
“I need a good map of what that will take; a mental image of what the hard parts are, where they are and what they will entail,” said Honnold.
So, he slowly erased those question marks making detailed notes in a journal: Pitch one — “stay left toward the top;” pitch eight —”easy romp, go fast.”
We are astonished by such an accomplishment, yet the steps Honnold takes to achieve success in free solo climbing can be a blueprint for reaching our goals or realizing our dreams.
What was most noticeable is the time and effort he dedicated to free soloing El Cap. He lived in a van and parked near the mountain for frequent climbs. Honnold said free soloing required 100 percent focus because his life depended on it, but whether or not there is physical danger, excellence requires dedication. Author Henry Miller advised writers who wanted to publish their work to:
“Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.” In a word, focus.
Mastery is a second requirement for a successful free solo. Honnold commented that another free solo climber who fell to his death talked about doing “sketchy climbs,” but he tried not to climb this way. He prepared and rehearsed until he felt ready. In the documentary, “Free Solo,” he stops part way up, not yet ready, during his first attempt.
Years ago, while waiting for a haircut, I read an article in a magazine about being the “best of the best” or world-class. I wrote the answer in a notebook so I wouldn’t forget: “It takes something like a minimum of 10,000 hours of really hard work before anybody is world-class and in many fields it can be twice that.” Hours of practice were common for great athletes, great artists and great scientists. If Honnold tracked his hours, the documentary did not provide the information. However, he has most likely logged more than 10,000 hours in the pursuit of perfection since his life is free solo climbing, not only in Yosemite but other places around the world.
We appreciate success stories like the free solo climb up El Capitan made by Honnold. More recently, we celebrated with Tiger Woods when he won the 2019 Masters, a comeback story after more than a decade of setbacks that kept him from winning major golf tournaments. Neither of these accomplishments was easily achieved.
Honnold observed that some people like to live a “happy and cozy” life. I think he was referring to those distractions that decimate the 10,000 hours of really hard work. But such a lifestyle does not result in great achievements.