Book review: ‘Alone on the Wall’ by Alex Honnold
April 22, 2017
The world is full of thrill-seekers, people who leap from soaring bridges with only their ankles tied to bungee cords and people who jump out of airplanes just to feel the rush of air. Then there's big-wall climber Alex Honnold, who, when it comes to death-defying adventure, exists in a class by himself.
Thanks to his new book, "Alone on the Wall," penned with adventure-writer David Roberts, the rock-climbing superstar's heart-stopping successes are readily available to enjoy with vicarious abandon. What sets Honnold apart from other talented rock climbers is how he manages risk. Exceedingly capable with traditional climbing equipment, Honnold has an impressive resume of climbs without using any gear at all. It's a form of climbing that has come to be known as free-soloing — or climbing without a rope or aid of any kind. This means, for Honnold, falling is simply not an option.
Honnold went from obscurity to fame relatively quickly in a sport that generally keeps to itself and one in which stardom usually favors the most outgoing. 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."
Two free-solo climbs in Yosemite in 2007 put Honnold on the map. He did them without fanfare or witnesses, but in the close-knit climbing community. Still, word got out, and reactions varied from disbelief to awe. For Honnold, "succeeding gave (him) the confidence to start imagining even bigger free solos."
Free-soloing is a dance between confidence and cockiness, and Honnold seems well-suited for finding that balance. Nicknamed Alex "No Big Deal" Honnold by his friends and admirers, his abilities defy reality.
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With a confident, yet calm demeanor that's almost mystifying, Honnold 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.
In spite of the immense risks, Honnold says, he doesn't like risk.
"I don't like passing over double yellow. I don't like rolling the dice," he says. Rather, he manages his approach to 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 crucial to his success, for fear can be crippling if it's allowed to take hold. "For (Honnold), 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."
For many, just watching him undertake some of these climbs inspires fear. Readers 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 so provides a good pairing with the book, for much of what both Honnold and Roberts discuss in the book can be found online.
Though Honnold can't help but be aware of the high-stakes game he is playing as he scales 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 can provide an opportunity to do something good in the world, and he has started The Honnold Foundation with that in mind. Acutely aware of his privilege and environmental impact after a climbing trip to Africa, Honnold is uncomplicated like the foundation's goal — "help people live better, simply."
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 now can afford it, he says "a permanent residence would have felt like an annoying anchor. Living in a van reflected my ideals of simplicity, frugality, and efficiency."
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