Last week, I watched Free Solo, a documentary about 33-year-old Alex Honnold’s attempt to free climb El Capitan in 2017. It’s a horror film. You watch squirming in your seat, as this likeable young man dangles by his fingertips 2,300 metres off the ground in Yosemite. Even the cameraman can’t watch.
Yet he manages it, grinning all the way.
What powers this superhero? Honnold is quite frank about the secret of his success. He’s driven, he says, by a ‘bottomless pit of self-loathing’. His father died when he was young, and his rather icy mother didn’t hug him or show him much affection, but instead told him repeatedly that ‘nearly is not there’ and ‘good is not good enough’.
That’s what powered him to success — a critical mother, plus an unusual amygdala which doesn’t really feel fear, plus layers of Stoic armour.
He’s able to climb to the top of his sport because he has no fear, and no attachments. He lives in a van. He doesn’t have a girlfriend. He eats his dinner straight from the sauce-pan with a spatula. He is totally focused on climbing. He accepts that ‘everyday you may die, and there’s nothing wrong with that’.
The problem is, Alex falls in love.
He meets Sanni, a beautiful bubbly and basically adorable woman, at a book signing. He decides to give it a go though he is barely committed to her at the start of the film.
Gradually, we see Alex let down his Stoic armour and allow Sanni in.
That’s when he starts to have accidents.
The first is her fault — she lets go of a rope and he falls on his back. The second is his fault. While climbing with her, he just lets go, falls ten feet, sprains his ankle.
He blames it on her: ‘I’ve never had an accident, then I meet her, and I have two in a year.’
He is beginning to feel fear, because he recognizes that he is vulnerable. He has something to lose.
His friend explains. To free solo effectively, you need to be single. Have no attachments, nothing to distract you.