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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Wildest Idea

The “First Look” department in the May issue of Outside has my story speculating about the possibility of a free-solo ascent of El Capitan—a buzz that surged in intensity last year after Alex Honnold’s free solo of the northwest face of Half Dome. The story naturally focused on Honnold and Dean Potter, who has begun exploring freeBASE ascents in Europe and North America (soloing with a BASE-jumping rig to give a possible second chance in case of a slip). Both men acknowledged they have pondered an El Cap solo, and both also indicated there was a very good chance they'd never attempt the feat.

Any time you feature such a dangerous act as free-soloing El Capitan—or the prospect of such an climb—in a high-profile venue like Outside, you will hear complaints that by “glorifying” the act you raise the chances that someone will attempt it, with the all-too-possible chances of fatal consequences.

When I interviewed him about El Cap, Potter told me, “The motivation should just be as pure as possible on this, and I think journalists might want to respect the mental process of a soloist, and not give them any extra motivation one way or another, and just kind of see what happens one way or another.” When he hears people ask him when he’s going to solo El Cap, Potter went on, “It doesn’t make me feel like, ‘Oh yeah, I should do it.' It makes me feel like a part of something that kind of disgusts me.”

But Potter and others are thinking about how and when someone might solo El Cap, and to me that’s a super-compelling story. I simply can’t imagine the skill, self-confidence, and self-control that would be required to free-solo El Cap, and so I find it fascinating to consider the possibility that any person might have what it takes. And as much as we abhor death and injury in climbing, the potential for such consequences is part of what makes climbing so compelling. Nowhere is that possibility more starkly illustrated than with free soloing. Of course I’d be horrified if someone died while attempting an El Cap solo, but I’d also be thrilled and inspired if someone succeeded. Like it or not, that contradiction is intrinsic to the sport.


Clyde said...

I'd bet Derek would have done it by now, if he were still alive.

Anonymous said...

Who was the first to free-solo the E Butt of El Cap? I guess it doesn't count. -George