The Hypocrisy of Risk

I am not here to convince you that soloing is a good idea. I wouldn’t try to convince anyone of that. Regardless of whether you approve of soloing or not, we can’t ignore that it is happening, and it will continue to happen. I believe we all have a common interest that is served by seeing that it is not performed for foolish motivations. To that end, I would like to explore attitudes of risk with you before proposing a solution. We climbers have been struggling with how to treat risk in the media in recent years, and we have arrived at a point where there are interesting contradictions within our collective attitudes which I believe are holding us back from finding a workable solution.

This morning a few local Boulderite average joes soloed one of the flatirons, and nobody batted an eyelash. I can feel fairly confident of this statement no matter when you read this article. Unless it was raining in Boulder this morning. Almost every single day the Flatirons are soloed multiple times by ordinary folks like us, and nobody writes scathing comments on Facebook to decry their insanity. Nobody drops the heartfelt line: “I’m so glad you survived.” Every morning they wake up, drink coffee, solo, head to work, and relax through a proper morning post-coffee bowel movement. Despite the coffee, soloing didn’t make our morning joggers shit themselves. Average joe, average solo, nobody gets in a fluff.

This weekend Alex Honnold soloed Freerider and caused an internet shitstorm for the ages. World’s most accomplished soloist, world’s most incredible solo…. you’d think the two would go hand-in-hand and everybody would think “yeah, that’s fair.” Apparently, that’s not the case, and he’s a glory-hounding psychopath. What gives? We’re all okay with the Morning Joes, but not with Honnold? That seems logically inconsistent. I could understand if there was an internet shitstorm against all of them, it’s that breakout point where it suddenly isn’t okay that I find interesting.


High altitude mountaineering has got to be one of the most lethal sports out there, right alongside wingsuit BASE jumping. Not that long ago, we as a community held a collective celebration for the ascent of the “Shark’s Fin” on Meru. The ascent was amazing, and I genuinely tip my hat to those guys. I’m not about to criticize them or denigrate their achievement, but I feel our communal attitudes here are interesting and worthy of inspection.

During the film, I watched as Jimmy, Renan, and Conrad each acknowledge that this ascent could get out of hand and kill them, then state that it was absolutely worthwhile to attempt. Never once has heard Alex indicated that he would be willing to die for free soloing, and yet he has been put on blast by a portion of our community. They say he is the model of unacceptable risk. Meanwhile, alpinists refer to death almost as the cost of doing business in the mountains. We can’t go a single season without hearing of multiple deaths via avalanche and other catastrophes in the alpine world. How can we celebrate this, then turn around and skewer Honnold for “pushing it?” Is it purely because they had a rope and he didn’t? We can hardly argue that the ascent of Meru wasn’t “pushing it,” and we’d be fools to say it was safe just because they had ropes. At this instance, we celebrate unashamedly the ones who openly greeted death as a possible outcome in the mountains, and lump hatred on the guy who chose to climb on a sunny day without inclement weather or conditions of any kind. That too is logically inconsistent.

Angry at Alex, but not the Morning Joes. Ire towards Honnold for supposedly inspiring others to follow him, when generations of mountaineers have died pursuing the unfinished projects of their fallen mentors, who literally led them into the mountains and taught them how to think. And then they died because of it. Where are the fervent cries that we mustn’t risk inspiring more climbers to venture into that world?

Even if someone solved these inconsistencies by behaving equally incensed towards the average Joe, Alex Honnold, and the entirety of high altitude alpinism, they’d still have one more problem: Their Uncle Larry.

You know who I’m talking about, we all have one. That one relative who thinks that you are utterly insane for freehanding them thar cliffs. “But I prepared myself!” Doesn’t matter. “I trained endlessly for this!” Doesn’t matter. Uncle Larry still thinks you’re insane and can’t fathom how you would risk your life for something so utterly pointless. “But it’s the most fulfilling part of my life!” Uncle Larry looks deep into your eyes with a genuine and righteous sense of overwhelming pity. “Oh honey, we just love you so much, and I’m glad you survived.”

For climbers to hold this enmity for Alex, ultimately, is to be devoid of empathy. The only safety that any of us have is our ability to make competent decisions. The types of decisions we make vary based on the risks that we choose to take, but ultimately every single rock climber on earth is an unnecessary risk-taker. Don’t believe me? Just ask Uncle Larry. How can you justify putting him through so much stress over all of these years? It’s not like you have to climb up there to get food. Why can’t you take up something safer, like football?

An article on Fringes Folly recently suggested that we should all stick our heads in the sand and pretend this isn’t happening. The logic being that if we ignore soloing and stop reporting it, then maybe it will go away? I say that is folly. Soloing started long before anyone ever reported on it. And if you haven’t noticed, despite the glory espoused by certain articles, the internet comment machine is pretty damned negative. If you’re soloing for attention, you won’t be doing it for long because the attention from your peers is fucking harsh. Especially when you first start doing it and don’t have a Honnold sized fan-club to back you up. At that point, everyone tells you how stupid you are and why you shouldn’t be doing this. Ignoring it won’t make anyone safer because soloists are already told to quit incessantly, and they still go out to find peace on the wall. Just like you do after each conversation with Uncle Larry.

“And I’m not talking about shaming, or guilting that climber friend in your life. I’m just talking about reminding them how loved they are […]

Just maybe, we can help Honnold and some of our other brightest stars to finally rest in peace… Without having to die, first.”

Fringes Folly, not using guilt tactics, and not at all sounding like Uncle Larry.

There is one big problem with the Fringes Folly article: Those same lines of logic have been used for decades by Uncle Larry and still haven’t stopped you from climbing, so why would they stop anyone from soloing? Furthermore, if we don’t comment on the subject thoughtfully, and if we do stick our collective heads in the sand while whispering “this isn’t happening,” then the tabloids will spray word vomit across the universe with click bait titles unabated due to the lack of reasoned and well-thought counterpoint. Granted, there are some sorts of risk taking that are utterly foolish, and those should be condemned. You know what type I mean. It’s the kind of thing that starts with “hold my beer and watch this,” then finishes on “Unbelayvable.” But what of Calculated Risk™? Isn’t Calculated Risk one of the most important fundamentals of climbing? Isn’t the sensible calculation of risk one of the most valuable lessons gained from climbing?

Our society and our community has been exhibiting a truly bizarre relationship to the idea of risk in the last several years, and it’s cool to watch people grappling to come to terms with the the fact that calculated and deep risk is not the same thing as rushed, seat-of-the-pants risk. Risk is complicated, and risk is inspiring.

Steph Davis

If we want to change our reporting, we can start by reporting the calculation instead of just the risk. Yes, I’m looking at you, National Geographic, for breaking the story with a headline that reads like something from a trashy tabloid. “Exclusive: Climber Completes the Most Dangerous Rope-Free Ascent Ever.” I liked my title a little better: “Climber Sends El Cap After Reasonable Preparation.” In all seriousness, while I may quibble with the title, It’s just because they’re the big dog and the easy target. I do applaud Nat Geo’s coverage of Honnold’s process. If we want to keep impressionable youngsters from soloing in a “hold my beer” moment, then it is vital that we mention process so that it becomes understood that we shan’t take these things lightly.

On a personal note, I took to soloing nine years ago because it felt like the most obvious thing in the world to do. But I think initially I was on a crash course for something unfortunate, and I had a few scary moments. Luckily, I found the videos and blogs of Michael Reardon. I never met the guy, but I think he may very well have saved my life. Through seeing his videos and reading his words I realized there was a process that had to be respected if I wanted to live a long and happy life, and that preparation became my religion. Without that, I don’t know if I’d have made it. That is why I write this blog. From my own experience as a soloist and from watching others, I see that those who solo are drawn to it magnetically from something deep within their being, not because they want to endure the inevitable hate-storm of backlash from their peers. If one person saves himself from doing something foolish by reading my words, then it’s all worth it, including the backlash I’ve received myself, and the backlash that I know I’ll receive for writing this article.

Some would say that publicizing his solos or mentioning them in any way means that he is doing it for the wrong reasons. Does that mean Chris Sharma has been climbing for the wrong reason all of these years? Is Sharma a narcissist and attention seeker for publicizing his send? Is your friend a narcissist for being happy about his first 5.10 toprope and posting it on facebook? Despite the nomenclature, soloing is n’t about being alone. Most soloists I know practice their craft as a path to freedom. Do you expect Honnold to solo only when he’s verified that nobody is looking? The cycle is the same for all climbers: We go climbing, we have a fun time, and when we see our friends afterward they ask “how was your weekend?” For Honnold to avoid telling anybody about Freerider and his other solos, it would require a massive and sustained effort of outright boldfaced lies.

“Hey man, how’d it go today?”

-Oh you know, sat around, ate cheetoes and shot whiskey.

“But we all saw some guy alone on Freerider. That wasn’t you?”

-Oh glory me! I wouldn’t do anything so reckless and crazy!

“But the guy we saw was wearing the exact same clothes as you”

-Nope, not me.

“That chalkbag you just stuffed full of cheetos and whiskey is the same one that I saw soloing El Cap.”

-Still not me.

“We had a telephoto lens, this picture shows your face”

-What if it just looks like my face due to quantum micro lending? Einstein predicted things like this could happen.

Even if Honnold had no film crew, and went out totally by himself, hiding his sends would be completely devoid of integrity. If we don’t believe it is appropriate to lie about our sends, why would we pressure someone into lying to cover up his sends? For my part, if you ask me a direct question like “what did you climb this weekend,” I’m going to give you a straight and truthful answer. I absolutely refuse to look you in the face and lie. That sort of disingenuous behavior is the exact opposite of the “Brave and Humble” attitude we claim to idolize.

Like the rest of you, I don’t want to encourage anyone to solo, but I can’t ignore the fact that people are going to solo in good conscience. There have been soloists since the beginning of climbing, and there always will be. That is a reality that we cannot escape.

Given that, the most important story here becomes Honnold’s extensive preparation, rather than the risk he worked so hard to mitigate. Freerider goes at 12d/13a, but Honnold can onsight 5.13+. Alex has climbed El Cap seven times in a seven-day span and holds the current speed record on The Nose. The scoop here isn’t that a brash youngster survived a brush with death. The strongest headline is the notion that Honnold prepared himself so thoroughly that Freerider felt like little more than a morning jog. He was so fresh after his ascent that he went back to his van for an afternoon fingerboarding session.

The way we deal with risk as a community is positively absurd. We laud mountaineers who court death as an old friend but lambast Honnold for the best prepared and most controlled ascent of his life. I’ve always felt as long as the risks you take are commensurate with the preparation you make, then everything is copacetic. Even if Uncle Larry will never admit it. Actually, hold on… Even Alex’s mom is supportive of his climbing. How many of you can say that for yourself? If Alex’s mom is okay with his soloing, then who are we to judge?

Breaking News: Climber Sends El Cap After Reasonable Preparation

Alex Honnold and I have the same initials, and we both free-solo… but that’s essentially where the similarities end. Nevertheless, I get asked about this Alex Honnold guy a lot. I usually dodge the subject and try to avoid speculation… but… I feel like I finally have something useful to add. This whole El Cap thing has got me thinking. I start thinking the most whenever I realize there is a disconnect between my thought process, and everyone else’s. That’s what led to my fall practice guide, and all of the articles that left me most satisfied.

Everything is like something else. If you can draw parallels, then you can deepen your understanding of even the most unfathomable things. It works for quantum physics, so why not for climbing? I feel like this ascent was part of a natural, logical progression, and I feel that it shows a lot of restraint on Honnold’s part, but you wouldn’t think that from the internet comment machine. I’m not here to persuade anyone that soloing in general is more or less sane, but I think a little bit of perspective is useful when thinking about these things. Since I think about soloing way more than most people, I thought it might be helpful to offer up my view on this monumental achievement since I see things from a different perspective than most. The more you know, the better you can form your own opinion. 

Disclaimer: I don’t know Honnold, or really anybody in the climbing world. The first-hand gossip from the pro climbing scene never lands in my ear. I live deep down in the dirty south, about as far removed from Yosemite as one can get without landing in Florida. But I do spend a lot of time thinking, and I’ve been waiting for this to happen.

 

Alex Honnold solos “The Phoenix (5.13a)” – Photo Big Up Productions
Setting the stage:
Freerider, as a free solo, poses three problems: It’s big, it’s hard, and it has insecurities. Each poses its own dilemma, but luckily the insecurities are not the technical crux itself, unlike his ascent of Half Dome.

Speaking of which, Half Dome was six years ago! The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome goes at 5.12a, and 2200ft tall. The crux move was wildly insecure. In his memoirs, Honnold referred to it as a “very private hell.” He seemed to acknowledge that he over-reached on that one. In fact, he had only freed Half Dome a handful of times before he soloed it. With Freerider he invested a full year to training with that goal in mind. Furthermore, he made an attempt on “Freerider” back in November and backed off after an hour of climbing because it didn’t feel right.

Around the time of Half Dome, he soloed “Cosmic Debris” and “The Phoenix” at 5.13b and 5.13a, respectively. In other words, he could solo big walls, and he could solo 5.13. So why didn’t he solo the 5.13 big wall? I think that scare on Half-Dome made him wiser. He waited six years. He had the “high” and the “hard” in ample supplies to solo el camp, but he spent six years developing the precision necessary to handle the insecurity. I think that shows wisdom and restraint.

Alex Honnold soloing the 2200ft face of Half Dome – Nat Geo

What does it take?

The “Boulder Problem” pitch on Freerider is a V7/5.13a sequence that many ascensionists choose to avoid the insecure 5.12d “Teflon Corner.” In essence, they make a choice to accept greater difficulties because they are easier to control. It might be more physically demanding, but the odds of success are greater. This is what soloists pursue. But finding a secure path through the crux, and mastering it wasn’t enough. He needed the ability to control insecure sections of 5.11 elsewhere on the route, and that’s a different sort of challenge.

To understand this, I draw parallels from my own experience. At Sandrock, AL, when I soloed “Dreamscape” at 5.11+ folks immediately asked why I hadn’t soloed “Misty,” a “mere” 5.10+ nearby. The reason was that I felt it was too insecure. I didn’t solo “Misty” until after my first solo of the 5.12 grade.  Though Misty was “only” 5.10, I had to develop 5.13a climbing ability and 5.12- soloing ability before it felt secure enough to solo.

Honnold had soloed 5.13 before, that means he probably had the physical and mental abilities needed for the 5.13a crux pitch of Freerider. But that is only one piece of the puzzle. He had 3,000ft of rock to link securely. Mastering the crux means nothing if you risk punting on an insecure moderate pitch down low. For Honnold to solo Freerider, he needed the mastery to control insecure pitches of 5.11 elsewhere on the route. For that, he needed time. Six years of time, apparently.

I feel that he learned a valuable lesson on Half Dome. I believe that acting on the wisdom gained in that moment is the most remarkable part of this ascent. Many see a brush with death and a roll of the dice. Perhaps that was the case at moments in his past, but I don’t know the guy, and I can’t say for sure. Regardless, I see that Honnold has matured now. I feel this ascent is a display of wisdom, restraint, and patience. I feel that Alex Honnold will live a proper length of life.

Some folks cite this as proof that he’s insane, but insanity would have been going for it in a blaze of glory as a follow up to Half Dome. Allowing six years for personal development when he clearly had the basic physical abilities… That is a very good sign.

Six years ago Honnold had the abilities to solo 5.13 and to solo big. wall. But he waited six years to solo the 5.13 big-wall. That’s wisdom.

Some will say “This was crazy” but what they really mean is “I think he is crazy and nothing will change my opinion.” At the end of the day, this was the most well thought out and best-prepared action of Honnold’s life, precisely because it had to be. This doesn’t change Honnold as a person, and it doesn’t change Honnold in your eye. It’s simply the inevitable consequence of Alex being himself.

Post Script: I’ve always said if you solo something and say “I’ll never do that again,” that means you got away with it, and it was a terrible roll of the dice. If you are soloing right, you could do it on command, any day of the week. I just read a post from Jimmy Chin, when Honnold topped out he said “I’m pretty sure I could go back to the bottom and do it again, right now.” Congratulations Alex, you absolutely nailed it!