Quantifying Greatness: What Alex Honnold Really Achieved on El Cap

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park

I left San Fran on the Greyhound bound for Merced. There, I walked to the edge of town, stuck a thumb out, and three rides later was stood at the foot of El Capitan, the 3,000-foot monolith that had occupied a large portion of real estate in my imagination for the best part of two decades.

I’d gone to Yosemite on a recon mission. To take in all of the valley’s other notable sights, sure, but primarily to gawp at the mythical monolith dominating Yosemite’s north-west flank and gauge as objectively as possible whether or not it was doable. I left a week later, tail between my legs, delighted to have had the chance to see first-hand what was to me — along with K2, the Eiger, Matterhorn, Cerro Torre, and the Trango Towers — one of the Vertical Wonders of the World, but in no hurry to pull on my climbing shoes and take the thing on.

Three years later, safely returned to the more gradually inclined environs and diminutive crags of my home in the Italian Alps, I was sitting at my desk when my phone pinged with a message from my climbing partner, bearing news that Alex Honnold had just climbed El Cap free solo.

“Wow,” I thought, impressed but delaying astonishment on account of a suspicion that he must have climbed one of the easier routes, one of the 5.8s or 5.9s that most moderately proficient climbers would be able to handle technically if never consider trying without a rope. Later that day it emerged that Honnold had, in fact, climbed Freerider, a route with sustained 5.12d climbing and a 5.13a crux. (We’ll get down to how that compares to other feats in climbing and other sports below).

Early in 2019, the film documenting Honnold’s climb, Free Solo, was received with the appropriate commendations from the climbing fraternity and oohs and aahs from the non-climbing public. When I left the cinema after my first viewing, surrounded by scores of mildly impressed non-climbers checking their phones to discover what Instagram stories they’d missed over the film’s 2-hour screening, I wanted to block the exits and scream at them until sure they knew the significance of what they’d just witnessed. I managed to restrain myself, and what follows is an attempt to atone for that reticence with a brief, toned-down version of that vetoed outburst.

Size Matters…

First up, the Freerider route on El Capitan is long. Very long. At 3,000 feet, it normally requires a total of 33 pitches (sections of climb) when climbed by roped teams, who typically take a full day or even two to “top out” — something Honnold achieved in just three hours and fifty-six minutes. To give that length, or height, some perspective, that’s almost three times the height of the Eiffel Tower and more than twice the height of the Empire State Building.

The Empire State Building: diminutive by comparison

Climbing Grades for Mortals Vs. Climbing Grades for Mr. Honnold

The grades of the pitches on Alex Honnold’s route on El Cap were consistently elite-level for even roped climbers.

In a study conducted by the Stanford Climbing Team (read: experts with years of experience climbing) the average top-rope grade among 28 participants was 5.11c and the average lead climbing grade just 5.11a. To unpack that a little, all of the study’s 28 participants are experienced climbers and presumably among the best in their university. Their highest climbing grades were all achieved using a top rope protecting any fall from above, thereby ensuring the distance of that fall would be only the amount of slack in the rope plus an extra foot or so of dynamic stretch. At max, the furthest any climber with a remotely competent belayer could expect to fall would be in the region of 5–6 feet.

In the UK, the UK Climbing Logbook lists the average grade of its users on sports climbs (roped, single-pitch routes usually under 100ft in length) as 6a, which in the Yosemite Decimal Scale used in the US is a mere 5.10b, a full ten grades below Honnold’s El Cap route’s average grade.

Measuring Up: Comparison to Feats by Other Sporting Greats

In the wake of Honnold’s successful ascent Dougald MacDonald, executive editor of the American Alpine Club said: “I think there is no doubt this El Cap free solo will be remembered as one of the major climbing events of the 21st Century.”

A major climbing event, sure, but how does Honnold’s El Cap climb compare to feats in other sports? Is, indeed, any such comparison possible?

Filmmaker Jimmy Chin gave it a go when he stated: “It’s beyond the Super Bowl. The mental capacity to do that is unlike any athletic achievement I’ve seen, whether it’s extreme sports or professional sports or Olympic sports. You have to play the perfect game for four hours.”

The consequences of not playing a perfect game, Chin might have added, were graver by far. And this is where the difference lies. The margins that would determine “perfect” from not perfect (read: death) the slimmest imaginable. Indeed, Honnold’s achievement is not of the type that might be measured in superlative adjectives but in a metric more rudimentary and quantifiable by far: millimeters.

To complete the Freerider route on El Cap, a ball-park estimate of the number of moves Honnold made with his hands and feet runs into the thousands. Such is the nature of the route, the verticality of El Cap, the sustained exposure, and the fact that Honnold chose to climb without ropes, that on each and every one of those thousands of moves — barring maybe a handful at the very bottom of the climb — he was never more than a matter of millimeters from failure. While “failure” in most other sports might mean a lost point, a lost match, or a lost title, for Honnold it would have meant an expedited return to the valley floor.

While most observers with a working knowledge of climbing grades and route difficulties were left overawed by Honnold’s feat on El Cap, a few commentators have noted the seeming injustice of Honnold achieving such wide recognition given the similarly daring feats carried out by other athletes, particularly in the field of mountaineering, which were not met with such widespread acclaim. Two commonly cited examples are Rheinhold Messner’s first ascent of all the world’s 8,000-meter peaks without supplementary oxygen and Ueli Steck’s solo ascent of Annapurna’s south face. In the case of Messner, we might say that the shock-factor of his ascents is and was mitigated by the fact that he could have turned back at any point and in doing so eliminated perhaps the greatest element of risk his undertaking posed — and the very thing that made it so exceptional. Steck’s endeavor was not blessed with such an easy get-out-of-jail-free card as a swift retreat when running into difficulty. It took place, moreover, on a mountain boasting the world’s highest mortality rate and was fraught with several objective dangers not present on the face of El Capitan — avalanches, crevasses, rockfall, the quality of the snow and ice on the route. But, like Messner, Steck was not the first to attempt his route solo and will not be the last — neither of which can be said with any certainty of Honnold’s Freerider free solo success.

So, does what we saw in Free Solo amount to greatness?

Any achievement, sporting or not, merits its claim to greatness when it forces a paradigm shift in our conception of what is possible and allows us to dream that the priorly perceived limitations to our anatomy and neurochemistry are not quite so fixed we thought. In this respect, Honnold’s climb is not so much an achievement as a gift — a fresh stamp on the passport of each and every one of us, climber or not, who might aspire to new goals or covet some achievement outwith our current comfort zone. While it might not have many of us rushing to push our limits on vertical, 3,000ft granite walls, it provides an inspirational fillip to pursue our own greatness, whatever that may be.

Freelance writer and editor.

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