One morning, I watched a video of Alex Honnold climbing a vertical mountain face in Mexico. He was free-soloing, climbing without a rope or harness or any sort of safety gear. He wore a red t-shirt. It billowed in the wind. I noticed that he wasn’t wearing a helmet, and then I laughed. The wall was over 2500 feet high. If he fell, he would die.
He moved methodically. Right foot up, left hand jammed into crack, then left foot into crack, right hand pinching the rock. At one point, he reached his left arm over his right to grab onto a good hold. His feet were close together and his whole body was at a diagonal. He was more than half way up the wall. He looked down, probably to find a place to put his left foot. He must have noticed how high he was, but he just moved his foot, looked up, and continued on. The video ended when he reached the top, safe and smiling.
I couldn’t tell you why, but I was certain that the climb would be his only one. I thought of it like skydiving: fun to do once, but stupid to test death like that over and over again. Later, I googled him. In 2007, he free-soloed two climbs at Yosemite National Park: Rostrum (800 feet, difficulty 5.11c) and Astroman (1100 feet, 5.11c). In 2008, he free-soloed Moonlight Buttress (1000 feet, 5.12d) in Zion National Park. In 2012, it was The Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite (2900 feet, 5.14a). The list went on.
I joined the Yale Climbing Team in the fall. We practice two nights a week at a local climbing gym. We don’t free-solo. We climb inside with harnesses and certified belay partners. The walk to the gym – twenty minutes down a lonely bike path – is more dangerous than the climbing.
At practice, Dante traverses the wall. He moves slowly, deliberately. He places one hand on an orange hold high above his head and moves his right foot to a tiny yellow one. His black pants make me think of a sensei. This is his second traversing circuit – he’s spent the past half hour two feet above the ground travelling horizontally across the walls. I’ve never seen Dante top-rope before, only train-traversing and ab exercises and bouldering problems – so I know he must be good.
“Which one did you just climb?” he asks when he reaches the wall in front of me.
“The yellow 5.9,” I say proudly.
“How did it go?”
I think about it and tell him I got stuck towards the top. I had nowhere to move my hands. I hung back in my harness for a long while.
“Are you going to do it again?” he asks.
I hadn’t thought about it. I nod my head.
I’m reminded of a scene in Wordsworth’s Prelude when Wordsworth, as a young boy, rows across a lake, looks up at the cliff in front of him, and notices how it seems to blend into the skyline, how it seems to never end. It’s a sublime experience, wonderful and terrible and humbling all at once. I imagine that climbing the way Alex Honnold does it feels the same way. I imagine that this is why he does it — to feel small and strong and in awe, all at the same time. I imagine that once you know that feeling, it feels impossible to live your life without it.
Later that night, I will climb another 5.9. The tags will be pink. It will be named “Tutu Time.” I’ll get halfway up and the next foothold will be too high. I’ll fall twice. Eventually, I’ll reach the end and grab onto the top ledge with both hands. I’ll feel accomplished and exhilarated and breathless. I will stare at the ceiling a foot from my face. Then, I’ll look over my shoulder to the ground below and realize there’s nowhere to go but down, nothing to do but do it again.