Alex Honnold, Free Soloing, and the Viewer’s Guilt

There is a profile of the fascinating climbing pro Alex Honnold up on the Esquire website.  I read it with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I’m impressed by Honnold’s climbing prowess, and fascinated by his recent record breaking assents, but on the other hand I worry that by following Honnold’s career, I am risking his life.

Honnold, for those who don’t follow the sport, is one of the most famous rock climbers in the world. He is perhaps best known for his speed assents of classic routes in Yosemite, and for free soloing, the extremely dangerous practice of climbing very high walls without safety equipment.  Honnold has been featured in countless rock climbing articles and blog posts, and has even had some cross over into the mainstream with including this piece in esquire and a piece on 60 minutes.

From everything I’ve read about the guy, and the interviews I’ve seen, Honnold comes off as a modest, thoughtful individual.  Perhaps he is too modest for a man of such clear talent; but that is hardly a flaw.  In this interview, he goes to great lengths to down play how often he free solos, claiming it is a rare activity for him.  But still, how closely Honnold’s fame is tied to this extremely dangerous activity troubles me.

As the Esquire article notes, many of the world’s most famous free soloists are dead.  If Honnold keeps climbing routes like Half Dome without safety equipment, it is quite likely he will die on the wall as well.  We all know this, don’t we?  I imagine Honnold knows this as well.  Yet he continues in this risky behavior. Sponsors continue to pay him. I continue to watch.

I’m of two minds regarding Honnold’s free soloing.  He’s a grown man; if he wishes to risk his life that is his prerogative.  However, Honnold, and free soloing do not exist in a vacuum. His actions affect others who climb in Yosemite, those who rescue climbers, and his friends and family.  If Honnold were to fall many people would face awful consequences.

Free soloing is just another example of a question I intend to return to over and over on this blog – where does personal freedom intersect with our duty to society?  It reminds me of a comment I’ve heard attributed to Malcolm Gladwell.  When he was asked about the ethics of football, he apparently said “I don’t think you can stop adults from playing the game, the question is should you be watching?”  That’s something I often wonder about.  Because not only does Honnold owe his fellow man a duty to act responsibly, but we owe him a duty to not encourage his dangerous behavior.  Honnold was not featured on sixty minutes because he is an incredibly good climber (which he is). He was on it because he was doing things that could lead to his death.  I watched that video with fascination and a certain admiration, but I didn’t feel good about it.

I imagine Honnold would say he does not free solo for the (limited) fame and money it has brought him. That might be true. But we cannot ignore that he is paid to do these things.  And I and everyone else who follows his career, should remember that by championing Honnold’s most dangerous exploits, we are putting his life in danger.

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  1. Glenn Jones

    My son free climbs. I’m hoping that the walls are less than 6 feet high!

    1. seanv2

      I hope so too, Glenn! I’ll climb up to ten to twelve feet without a rope, higher than that, not way.

    2. carolyn

      FREE SOLOING is a form of free climbing and solo climbing where the climber (or free soloist) performs alone and without using any ropes, harnesses or other protective equipment, relying entirely on her ability instead. FREE CLIMBING, also called trad climbing is a form of climbing in parties of 2 or more using ropes, harnesses, and a variety of protection. BOULDERING is commonly carrying out a short # of highly sequently climbing moves low to the ground with movable pads and often friends to help keep you upright when you fall to avoid serious injury.

      All of the above are dangerous.

  2. Alyson Gregory

    Reblogged this on An Interesting Life!.

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  4. Joann

    I’ve seen him in some videos and read an article last night in Outside Online. I was wondering the same thing. Should I be watching this kind of stuff? Shouldn’t he be done now? Wasn’t that his magnum opus? Now dazzle us with a little poetry and call it good?

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