Rocked: Alex Honnold’s free solo ascent of El Capitan is the greatest athletic achievement of all time


Nate Goodwin-Kelly, Opinion Editor/Knights Speak Team

“Imagine you’re in the olympics, and you have to win a gold medal or you die.” 

World renowned climber Tommy Caldwell on Alex Honnold’s ascent of El Capitan. Athletic achievement continues to be glorified and idolized in society. From the ancient Greeks to Lebron James and Tom Brady, the greatest athletes are measured by their awards I have largely thought the same way for much of my life, until this summer when I watched the documentary “Free Solo,” a feature film regarding climber Alex Honnold and his free solo ascent of Yosemite rock formation El Capitan. 

The greatest athletes are often imposing physical figures. Climber Alex Honnold has none of the traits that one associates with world class athletes. He’s about 5’11” and doesn’t have the dominating physical physique that one associates with great athletes. 

Free Solo documents Honnold’s preparation and mindset for his ascent of El Capitan.. However, throughout the film, Honnold’s defining trait that makes him such a great athlete emerges: his mental fortitude is unlike most humans. There’s a scene near the middle of the movie where Honnold gets a CAT scan to analyze his brain. The results show Honnold doesn’t process fear or other emotions in the same way as normal humans. According to Natil.US, Honnold’s brain functions in a way that allows him to override fear and all other emotions that would prevent much of the human race from attempting what he does.

The act of free soloing is without a doubt the most dangerous feat in the world of athletic competition. A climber scales natural rock walls with nothing but a bag of chalk. No ropes, harness, nothing. The climber must rely entirely on physical and mental ability. Any small mistake would quite obviously be catastrophic. 

Honnold was and remains the only person to ever attempt to free solo El Capitan, the 3000 foot rock wall in Yosemite National Park.

The sheer difficulty of the climb is noted throughout the movie by numerous well-esteemed climbers.  World famous climber Tommy Caldwell at one point remarks, “Those who know climbing realize just how dangerous what he’s really doing is.”

Honnold’s preparation to climb with a movie crew tracking his every move ascends the amount of pressure on his climb. Imagine climbing three thousand feet in the air — no ropes or harnesses, and there’s a movie crew filming your every move. In an already pressure-filled environment, add a film crew. Honnold’s attitude towards the film crew elevates the level of his achievement. 

“I recognize if I wanted I could just go off and do it by myself and not tell anybody,” said Honnold. 

Free-Soloing is an immensely personal experience where any sort of distraction or mental slip-up almost certainly causes death. Honnold must perform with 100% concentration or else he will die.  Honnold decided to attempt this feat with cameras watching. 

To be frank, no human on this planet has had the guts or ability to attempt what Honnold does, setting him apart from the entire human race upon completion of the climb.  

Athletic achievement has been measured through trophies and personal awards throughout time; however, Honnold’s climb simply exemplifies the very best of all athletic characteristics. The mental toughness to completely own and conquer fear, the ability to be 100% focused while knowing the consequence of losing concentration is certain death, and the desire to push the mind and body to a point where no human has ever gone. Honnold’s free solo of El Capitan will likely never be replicated, and cements the achievement as the pinnacle of athletics in all of human history.