Book review: ‘Alone on the Wall,’ by Alex Honnold and David Roberts
Special to the Daily
The world is full of thrill-seekers, such as people who leap from soaring bridges with their ankles tied to bungie cords, or people who jump out of airplanes to feel the rush of air. And then there are people similar to big wall climber Alex Honnold, who, when it comes to death-defying adventure, exist in a class by themselves. Thanks to Honnold’s new book, “Alone on the Wall,” written with adventure writer David Roberts, details of the heart-stopping successes of the rock-climbing superstar are available to enjoy with vicarious abandon.
What sets Honnold apart from other highly talented rock climbers around the world is how he manages the risk. Though exceedingly capable with traditional climbing equipment, Honnold’s claim-to-fame lies in his impressive resume of climbs in which he has topped out without using any gear at all, which has come to be known as free-soloing, or climbing with no rope or aid of any kind. This means, that for Honnold, falling is simply not an option.
Honnold went from obscurity to fame relatively quickly in a sport that generally likes to keep to itself, and in which stardom favors the outgoing ones. Honnold says it was his shyness that led him to attempt free-soloing in the first place, which — for him — seemed easier than approaching other climbers he didn’t know to join them on rope. He took to free-soloing like a duck to water.
Roberts shares the pages of “Alone on the Wall” with Honnold, giving an outside perspective on the young climber, and Roberts’ admiration for his subject runs throughout the book.
“The reason for Honnold’s meteoric celebrity is that he’s pushed the most extreme and dangerous form of climbing far beyond the limits of what anyone thought was possible,” Roberts writes.
BIG WALL BALANCE
It was two free solo routes in Yosemite in 2007 that put Honnold on the map. He did the climbs without fanfare or without witnesses, but in the closely-knit climbing community, the word got out, and the reaction varied between disbelief and awe. For Honnold, he says, “succeeding gave me the confidence to start imagining even bigger free solos.”
Free-soloing is a dance between necessary confidence and dangerous cockiness, and Honnold seems well-suited for finding that balance. Nicknamed Alex “No Big Deal” Honnold by his friends and admirers, his abilities seem to defy reality. With a confidence and a calm that are mystifying, Honnold has progressed through one miraculous climb after another, and his friends seem to worry more than he does —after all, they will be the ones left to pick up the pieces should he fall.
Nonetheless, in spite of the immense risks associated with free-soloing, Honnold says, “I don’t like risk. I don’t like passing over double yellow. I don’t like rolling the dice.”
He manages his approach to the danger by putting tremendous effort and training into making sure he has the best chances for survival. Maintaining an enviable level of calm and focus is also crucial to his success, for fear can be crippling if allowed to take hold.
“For me, the crucial question is not how to climb without fear — that’s impossible — but how to deal with it when it creeps into your nerve endings,” Honnold says.
LIVING IN A VAN
For many, just watching Honnold undertake some of his climbs inspires fear. Readers of the book will be tempted to view some of the footage from the numerous films that have been made about Honnold’s unique climbing style, and doing just that provides a good pairing with the book, for much of what both Honnold and Roberts discuss in the book can be watched online.
Though Honnold can’t help but be aware of the high stakes game he is playing as he tallies up one big wall free-solo after another, he seems to be at the top of his game, and has no plans of stopping. But, with his fame has come a greater sense of responsibility, an awareness that his celebrity status can provide an opportunity to do something good in the world, and he has started The Honnold Foundation with that in mind, after becoming acutely aware of his own privilege and environmental impact after a climbing trip to Africa. The goal, “help people live better, simply,” is, like him, uncomplicated.
Back home, Honnold still lives in his van, always looking for the next big challenge, the next wall that will test his seemingly boundless skill.
Though he can now afford it “a permanent residence would have felt like an annoying anchor,” he says. “Living in a van reflected my ideals of simplicity, frugality and efficiency.”
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