Talking with author/climber Mark Synnott earlier this week about his new book, “The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan and the Climbing Life,” I was touched by something vaguely familiar. Vaguely, and weirdly, because the book is about one of the most audacious physical and psychological feats of our time: Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan, a 3,000-foot near-sheer rockface in Yosemite National Park — without any form of protection to save him should he slip from one of the wall’s precarious microscopic holds. What could possibly be familiar about that?
Now, some sensible advice from Alex Honnold.
Alex Honnold!? The guy who climbed Yosemite’s Half Dome and Nose with no ropes, no protection at all!?
Ironic, isn’t it, that the guy who seems to embrace danger like Pooh embraces honey, would be chock-a-block full of sensible thoughts.
Yet last night at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre, Honnold, along with Sufferfest buddy Cedar Wright, entertained a standing-room-only house with tales of their two bloody buddy movies, “Sufferfest” and it’s sequel, “Sufferfest 2,” and insights more fitting of a tribal elder than a 27-year-old who’s arguably the most daring athlete on the planet.
Their appearance was part of The North Face Never Stop Exploring Speaker Series, sponsored locally by Great Outdoor Provision Co.
Not that their antics, on the surface, suggest a good deal of careful forethought.
“Sufferfest,” released in 2013, documented the pair’s quest to climb California’s 12 14,000-foot peaks, while this year’s follow-up involved climbing 45 towers in the Southwest. In both cases, they sweetened the adventure — and suffering — by mountain biking from climb to climb. Both adventures took about three weeks.
Last night, several months removed from S2, the duo joked their way through the trip.
After screening “Sufferfest 2,” Climbing Magazine Editor Shannon Davis, who moderated the event, asked about the pair’s “planning” for the trip. Would better preparation have made the journey easier?
“It would have killed the adventure,” Honnold said. The remark drew a laugh, but a knowing laugh from an audience thick with local climbers. (When mention was made of climbing earlier in the day at the local Triangle Rock Club, the crowd roared.)
Along the way, the pair discovered interesting bolts and other “safety devices” that had been set over the years. A favorite involved two nails embedded in mud and attached to bailing wire. After easily yanking the nails from their perch, Honnold quipped, “At least they had it anchored to this boulder.” He gave a light tug and the mud-dried boulder sheered off.
Wright said it didn’t worry him.
“I had a Honnold. If you have a Honnold with you, it’s an excellent safety device.”
Of an impossibly narrow squeeze-chimney high up one tower — a slit so narrow Wright said he had to compress his rib cage to get through — Honnold said he had prepared for it by sleeping under a Jeep.
Honnold, who has a Morgan Freemanesque eloquence, touched briefly on his reputation as a pioneering free-soloist — one who climbs the likes of Yosemite’s Half Dome and the Nose without protection of any kind. Honnold has said he loves the freedom and purity afforded by climbing without ropes. On a grand — and dangerous — scale, his rationale is similar to that of a fixie, a cyclist who has foresworn gears.
Unless you’re Honnold or one of the few other elite free climbers (Tommy Caldwell and Dean Potter, for example) his rationale can evoke a head scratch. In the case of Clif Bar, it provoked a case of nerves; the energy bar maker recently withdrew its support of Honnold, Wright and three other climbers, deeming them too risky. (Whether he was being sensible in not burning bridges or entirely sincere, Honnold called Clif Bar “a good company, their heart’s in the right place. We were just too risky for them.”)
Yet on that very subject is where the sensible soloist kicked in. In the Q&A following their talk, Honnold was asked, “What happens when you have a serious case of nerves.”
“If you have serious nerves,” Honnold quickly replied, “maybe that’s a good sign you shouldn’t do it. You don’t have to do anything.”
Honnold had his nerves tested once, in 2008 as he was close to topping out, sans protection, on 2,000-foot Half Dome. He’d just crossed a sliver of purchase called Thank God Ledge, when even those miniscule holds petered out. He was close to the top, so close, he told Outside Magazine, that he could hear hikers talking just above him, on the summit. His famous “mental armor” was exhibiting chinks. He took five minutes, got himself together and punched through to the top.
Despite the relentless nature of both Sufferfests — the constant beating of daily climbs, the 30- to 60-mile bike rides between them (often on dirt roads, occasionally on dirt roads turned to mud), the high winds, the electrical storms, the scorpion on a hold you really need — the pair didn’t rule out a third ‘fest.
“What’s really cool about these trips,” Honnold said, “is that you pack so much life into a few days.” You come away with so many memories.
To this audience, he made perfect sense.
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