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Alex Honnold, the free solo beyond the norm

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Rock climbing beyond the limits: thoughts about the scope of Alex Honnold's recent free solo ascent of Freerider on El Capitan (Yosemite).

So Alex Honnold has done it again. His rope-free ascent of Freerider astounded everyone. And in some respects it also frightened everyone. Those who say that a climb of this sort has never been seen before are correct in their thinking. And, dare we say it, a climb of this sort has never even been contemplated before. Because this particular free solo, far more than all previous performances (including Honnold’s), is akin to something that could be defined as “crazy". In order to comprehend it better, it’s worth briefly summarising the ascent.

Freerider is almost 1000 meters high. Almost all overhanging. And breaches the symbol of Yosemite Valley, El Capitan, the cradle and testing ground for big wall climbing worldwide. The climb was first ascended in 1995 by Alexander Huber who then freed it three years later with his brother Thomas Huber. At the time it was a genial little invention, an intelligent variation to the famous Salathé Wall that avoids the Headwall with a maximum difficulty of 7c and an exposure which, defining it as being absolute, is too simplistic.

Well, it is on this route that Honnold set off at about 5:30 in the morning on Saturday, June 3 and topped out 3 hours and 56 minutes later. He wore climbing shoes and had a chalk bag. Nothing else. This is what free soloing is all about. There is nothing that can stop a slip, so even the smallest mistake, the slightest hesitation, results in a merciless fall. All the more so on an ultra-vertiginous wall like Free Rider.

It is no coincidence that Honnold's is the first free solo of El Capitan. And although we’re certain that all climbers and mountaineers know it full-well, we have to underline and emphasise the fact that Honnold's example (and this type of climbing) is an absolute exception. Not only because the US climber is the closest one can get to an alien that climbs, but also because free solos require absolute awareness of the risks involves, hence they are always an exception. So much so that history has taught us that it certainly isn’t advisable to free solo too often. At risk of being too boring and stating the obvious, this needs repeating and underlining again and again.

Having said that, one needs to add that Honnold is certainly no newcomer to feats of this sort (El Sendero Luminoso in 2014, to name just one) and that his exploit up Freerider had been carefully prepared. Just a few days ago Honnold had teamed up with Tommy Cadwell (another outstanding climber and mountaineer) and repeated the climb in 5 and a half hours. An indication that convinced him to attempt the extraordinary solo we are talking about.

It’s equally clear that Honnold embarked on the journey that led him here years ago. In this regard, it’s worth remembering that his free solo of the Regular NW Face of Half Dome was carried out in 2008, while his Triple Crown (Mount Watkins, El Capitan and Half Dome) in less than 11 hours dates back to 2012. It’s worth noting that in 2007 Canada’s Stéphane Perron required 7 days to make the first solo ascent with a rope of Free Rider. While in 2013 Dutch champion climber Jorg Verhoeven needed 4 days to make his roped repeat (not all free), and in 2016 England’s Pete Whittaker whittled this time to below 24 hours for his all-free rope solo ascent.

Bearing all this in mind, perhaps it’s easier to understand now why Honnold’s sub 4-hour ascent “sans safety net" resembles the ‘moon landing’ of free soloing. And perhaps its easier to understand now why we wish to emphasize that this climb is absolutely “beyond normal". Despite closely resembling that of Hansjörg Auer up the Fish Route on the Marmolada in the Italian Dolomites in 2007. Despite echoing other legendary solo ascents of times gone past...

That’s precisely the point, it echoes something legendary, something which - by definition - needs to be handled with utmost care. In short, in liberally paraphrasing Snoopy: "if possible, don’t follow them because… you might get lost."

by Vinicio Stefanello

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