I recently listened to an interview with Alex Honnold who does free solo climbing. That means someone who climbs up rock walls without a rope. I knew people did this and hadn’t thought much about it, but this captivated my attention.
The thought of climbing a rock wall without a rope makes me shutter. Watching videos or pictures of it is something I shy away from. I watched this Ted talk he did and put my hand over the video to wait until it went away before continuing to watch.
He climbed El Capitan without a rope. Apparently climbers usually take 3-5 days to climb it. He did it in one go – without a rope. What? Phenomenal and frightening all rolled into one.
But here’s what has my attention beyond just being amazed (or maybe sad that he has such a low desire to live, because how could he not?). He wasn’t fearful when he did it. He trained so well that he had the route memorized and knew it was well within his capability. Can you imagine trusting yourself to that extent?
But maybe you do? When you get behind the wheel of a car, a mistake could mean death. When riding a bicycle, a mistake could mean death.
What’s more, a mistake from someone else in those situations could mean death. If you run, cycle, and drive on roads, you are relying on other drivers not to screw up and kill you. When you fly in a plane, you trust that someone else will not make a mistake resulting in your death.
What’s the difference?
Room for error is one. I made a mistake driving a car once. I ran into a brick wall. The car didn’t survive, but I did. I have been hit by a car on my bicycle, and I hit a parked car. I’m still alive. If one limb slipped while Alex was free soloing any of his climbs he would be dead. But does that mean we should feel comfortable in our everyday risk taking? The risk is still high.
Is it familiarity? Are we comfortable with the risks we take everyday and scared of the ones we don’t understand?
Ability is tied to familiarity. The risks we take everyday may not require great skill. Climbing El Capitan is something most of us will never be able to achieve with a rope, much less without one.
Clearly Alex Honnold has a different relationship with risk and fear than most humans. But if you look deeper, maybe the difference between him and me (and maybe you) is less related to fear and risk and more related to is his willingness and dedication to master something he is passionate about. He spent a lifetime building up to El Capitan without a rope, and years specifically to complete that very feat. Years of dialing in and memorizing specific holds and body movements. He climbed the route multiple times, breaking up the sections. He moved loose rocks from part of the route. He practiced specific moves off the rock.
He mastered that climb in a way I cannot imagine learning anything. I think it is in this dedication that captivates me.