Everyone wants to be great at something; being great means you’re not just another person. You’re different—you do things in a way that exceed the expectations placed on the average Joe. You dream, study, innovate, and work hours so long you begin to question the legality of caffeine. Perhaps along the way, you achieve the impossible, maybe even make the world a better place. The path to success, whether it be personal or professional, is loitered with risk and sometimes isolation. No one is more acquainted with the type of risk (in a not so metaphorical sense) than American rock climber Alex Honnold—our current free soloing champion of the world.
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Alex climbs really tall rock walls without a rope—Insert clever metaphor for meaningful life pursuits without assistance here—it goes without saying, the risk Alex faces in his profession makes things like deciding what college you want to attend, who you want to fall in love with and seeing how long you can drive your car with its fuel gauge on E seem inconsequential. Alex would say that the sport of free soloing is one with low risk but high consequence. When the normal person makes a mistake at work, their boss might just chew them out. If Alex makes a mistake at work, he dies. He often downplays this, emphasizing the amount of meticulous preparation free soloing entails.
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This daredevil gained attention in 2012 for scaling the Yosemite Triple Crown and in 2017 became the first and only person to free solo the 3,000-foot El Capitan in Yosemite National Park (which is suicide)—for which everyone’s new obsession, the Academy Award Winning documentary/intriguing character study, Free Solo, is about. The sweat-inducing, heart palpitating, “God this makes me feel lazy” film takes a look at the methodical sport of free soloing, the psychological warfare beneath its surface, and the life of Alex Honnold. The dude’s amygdala basically reacts to nothing. He’s put himself in so many life or death situations that the fear center of his brain is on holiday. What he accomplishes in the referenced documentary is mind-blowing—climber and friend of Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, said it best: “Imagine an Olympic-gold-medal-level athletic achievement that if you don’t get that gold medal, you’re going to die.”
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Early on in Free Solo, Alex is shown signing copies of his book, Alone on the Wall. The book, which now includes two chapters on the free solo ascent of El Capitan, recounts some of the most extraordinary things that have happened in Honnold’s life and career. Not only does this book explore Alex’s mentality, but it’s existence deeply affected the narrative of Free Solo. Alex met his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless (a patient angel from the planet Way-too-nice) at a book signing while preparing for El Cap. McCandless adds an extra layer of the heart, soul, and logic Free Solo needed—making it at least ten times more moving than it would have been without her. She confronts him with a desire to maximize his lifespan, to which Alex replies, “he feels no obligation” to stop doing what he loves. Their dynamic shows us how problematic and impractical Alex’s calculated approach to things is—he’s an awkward guy. Totally rocking the callous genius archetype at times. The book begins with Alex admitting why he got into free soloing in the first place: He was too shy to climb with anyone else.
Those who have seen the film will be familiar with Alex’s Spock-like demeanor and resolve—the book, being co-authored by Honnold, might disappoint anyone looking for a deeper look at the reasons behind what Alex chooses to do with his life. For him, it’s simple: climbing and his lifestyle make sense within the confines of a minimalistic life. The logistics behind climbing are explored as we get a look at Alex’s climbing journal or bible that he uses to record every climb. The book also talks about the Honnold Foundation which aims to lower carbon admissions by helping those in need.
The book may not have the film’s dope camera angles or rad soundtrack, but it stresses the importance of hard work. Impossible feats can be attained if you work your ass off. It doesn’t even matter if you see the appeal behind rock climbing or not, if you look at it metaphorically, allegorically—however, Alex’s story becomes a didactic tale about the potential of the human spirit. The cliche tagline: You can do anything if you set your mind to it. Wake up every day with a purpose, go join a climbing gym…or at least finish that book. Challenge yourself, descend, propel (climbing words) out of your comfort zone. As Honnold says in Free Solo, “Nobody achieves anything great by being happy and cozy,” they do it by plunging confidently into the abyss of uncertainty, or they do it—alone on a wall.
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