Ever write the headline to a story and then realize that’s all there is to say?
Saturday, June 3, 2017, free soloist rock climber Alex Honnold became the first person to scale the iconic nearly 3,000-foot granite wall known as El Capitan in Yosemite using a bag of chalk, fingertips and toes. No ropes, no gear, no partner.
It is not only the greatest rock climbing feat in history, by a wide margin, but probably the greatest feat in the history of sport, period.
All he did was combine the most physically perilous with breaking through the most mentally impossible barrier to stand on top of one of nature’s signature landmarks, sweating, beaming—literally, figuratively and in every sense of the expression—on top of the world.
Honnold, known for his intricacy, focus and efficiency, every breath, every grip, every bat of the eye—his brain choreographing each move before it is executed—made the ascent in 3 hours, 56 minutes, itself a feat of the two-hour-marathon variety.
Witnesses said somehow he climbed stronger, faster, more resolute during the final pitch.
And there he was at At 9:28 a.m. under a postcard Yosemite sky, deep blue with a handful of Bob Ross brushstroke happy clouds. One last pull up over the summit, he announced his feat with a unforced sigh, Honnold uncurled his torso suddenly immortal, glowing. If members of the National Geographic doc film crew are to be believed, he was hovering victorious above the granite.
But this was no parlor trick. Honnold had been training for the ascent for more than a year, his practice climbs taking him to far reaches of the globe—China, the UK, Europe, Morocco—and of course, multiple partial ascents on El Cap itself.
Known to climbers as Freerider, the ascent has 30 pitches, most are notable for being treacherous and slow-going even with ropes. There are ledges less than an inch wide, spaces where only two fingertips supported his entire body’s weight and sheer, slick surfaces that featured no cracks or holds of any kind. About 600 feet up there is a pitch of polished rock, no toe holds, no foot holds called Freeblast. Honnold had to use only the friction in his shoes to create enough tacticity to support his entire body. He once compared the pitch to “walking up glass” and that might be generous. Imagine glass sprayed with lubricant, now add your own sweat.
Though Honnold has hinted at the feat in interviews before, nobody knew when, if ever, the attempt might happen. And why would he announce it? Saying one is about to take on such a thing would be similar to Derek Jeter telling reporters during Spring Training that his goal for the season was to win the World Series …by himself.
Through the decades, other free soloists mused on Freerider. Michael Reardon, perhaps the most skilled free soloist of his day, drowned in 2007 just before Honnold came straight out of his climbing gym in Sacramento onto the scene. Dean Potter, one of the more technically sound climbers of all time, perished during a BASE jumping accident in Yosemite in 2015. And John Bachar, the godfather free soloist, died climbing at the age 52 in 2009. Each gave Freerider cursory glances but none seriously considered it.
Until Saturday, Freerider was the speculative dream of a trio of ghosts.
When Honnold, 31, surfaced from his van at 5:32 a.m. at the base of the mountain, he didn’t say anything to the crew. Instead, he gave a cursory good-to-go nod and strode to the wall, finding his first toe hold with his eyes still closed and began his climb to the silence of the break of day. “I’ve pushed my comfort zone and made it bigger and bigger until these objectives that seemed totally crazy eventually fell within the realm of the possible,” Honnold said prior to the climb.
Then he followed that statement up by making the impossible, his.