Wednesday, September 10, 2008

El Cap Free Solo: Only a Matter of Time

Last summer I wrote here that someone would free-solo a route on El Capitan within five years. A year later, I believe I might have been too conservative. The unthinkable may happen much sooner. Today we learn that Alex Honnold, 23, has free-soloed the northwest face of Half Dome: 23 pitches, up to 5.12a. Honnold's solo comes exactly a month after Dean Potter free-soloed a 600-foot route called Deep Blue Sea (5.12+) on the north face of the Eiger. When Royal Robbins and company made the first ascent of Half Dome's 2,000-foot northwest face in 1957, the obvious next step in big-wall climbing history was the main face of El Capitan, which Warren Harding and partners completed about a year and a half later. The next step is obvious today, too.

Let me be clear: I have not asked either Honnold or Potter if he plans to attempt an El Cap free-solo. But surely the thought must lie somewhere in their minds, either simmering in the back or blazing at the front. Both men have soloed routes technically as difficult as El Cap's easiest free climb: Free Rider (5.12d). Both also have completed long, difficult solos, demonstrating they can hold it together for hours. But Free Rider is much more demanding than any climb that has been soloed before, with multiple 5.12 pitches and some extremely insecure moves. On his Eiger solo, Potter climbed with a five-pound BASE parachute on his back, an emergency back-up that might have saved his life if he slipped. So far, Honnold has worn only shoes and a chalk bag.

Writing about such ascents gives me a queasy feeling. No matter how objective one tries to be, a story about soloing has the effect of glorifying it. I do not think Potter, Honnold, or other soloists are motivated primarily or even significantly by publicity, but surely they are not unaffected by it. Do journalists and their eager readers become, in effect, participants in these dangerous climbs—and are we complicit when the worst happens? Like many climbers, I'm fascinated and impressed by hard free-soloing, and at the same time I'm frightened and even repelled by the act. How can someone put his life on the line like that? And for what? Yet I might ask the same questions of many climbers whose feats I cover and admire: I am fascinated and impressed by alpinists who attempt lightweight ascents on the world's harshest peaks, and I fear for them too.

History provides some guidance: Climbers have been pushing themselves beyond the bounds of what most would consider reasonable since long before the advent of corporate sponsorship. Some of the most impressive and dangerous ascents in climbing history have been carried out in obscurity, far from the media glare. We cannot fully explain the motivations behind hard soloing and other forms of extreme climbing. We can only marvel and hope.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

I was thinking the same thing after reading about Alex's solo of Half Dome. "Is El Cap next?" I find it truly astonishing and so far beyond my perception of climbing when I read about solo's of this magnitude.

Didn't Potter already solo El Cap though? I seem to remember seeing a video on Youtube of him racing up the thing. Maybe it wasn't a free solo since he used aiders and a rope for the King Swing.