No Margin for Error – The Risks that Climbers Will Take

In Yosemite Valley, the afternoon sun shines over Half Dome. The sunlight is leaking out of the valley, but the looming 8,839 foot cliff is cast with light, making the valley look somewhat darker. The date is June 5th.  It is 2:00 P.M. Alex Honnold steps out of his white van (his home), and sets out with his climbing shoes and chalk bag. There is a good chance that he will die today.  He will attempt something that was thought impossible until he proved that it wasn’t. He is setting out to free solo some of the hardest climbs in the world.  Specifically some of the tallest cliffs in Yosemite: Mt. Watkins, Half Dome, and El Capitan. Each of these faces took over a week to ascend for the first attempt. Now, Honnold will attempt to climb all three in under 24 hours.

Free soloing is a type of climbing, but it is so dangerous that only one percent of climbers attempt it. Free soloing is climbing without a rope.  All that you have are your climbing shoes, and your chalk bag. If you climb higher then 20 feet, you could really hurt yourself. Most climbers climb with a rope because it offers very reliable protection from falling, but when you are climbing without a rope, there is literally no margin for error.  If your foot slips, your fingers give out, if you make one mistake, you fall to your death. All of the climbs that Honnold is attempting on June 6th are all higher than 2,000 feet. El Capitan, is 7,000 feet high, and Half Dome is about 8,000. If Honnald falls at all on any of these climbs, the result will be certain death.

At the base of Mt. Watkins, the time 4:00 P.M, Honnold looks up to the cliff that he is about to scale. This is the time to turn back. The same thing is going through Honnold’s head that he always thinks before setting out on a free solo. “Do I want to do this? Am I ready?”. He almost always is.  On every free solo Honnold has attempted, he does not come unprepared. He spends a couple of days on ropes, looking at all of the moves he will have to make, and memorizing the sequence of those moves. He cleans out holds that may have moss or dirt in them, so that he knows that every hold is reliable. He has been working on the three climbs for two weeks, and he is ready.  He knew his route so well, that last week, he blazed up the 8,839 foot cliff of half dome in just 1 hour and 22 minutes. This was a record, breaking Honnold’s previous record in less than half.  His record before was 2 hours and 50 minutes.

Now Honnold starts to climb. “When I climb, I don’t really have any thoughts in my head, if I’m stressed, I know that there is something wrong.”  It is as if Honnald is just going through an everyday gym workout. There is no thought process.  He knows all of his moves so well that he can put himself on autopilot. Honnold climbs through the night and into the morning. He starts at Mt. Watkins, moves to El Capitan, then finishes at Half Dome, and he “topped out” at 10:45. He climbed Yosemite’s triple crown in 18 hours and 50 minutes. Honnold did what no one had ever done before. Within 24 hours he summited three of Yosemite’s tallest cliffs.