BOOK REVIEW By R.L. STOLZ
For many folks, the mere notion of climbing a sheer cliff, rising vertically for hundreds—or perhaps thousands—of feet, is the stuff of nightmares. Doing so without a rope, or at breakneck speed, fully understanding that your first mistake will almost certainly be your last, is simply beyond comprehension. Welcome to Alex Honnold’s world.
Written from the perspective of the world’s consummate adventure athlete, Honnold’s new book, Alone on the Wall, walks the reader through a series of first-person accounts of his most mind-boggling accomplishments. In April 2008 he stunned the climbing world by soloing the 1,200-foot- all Moonlight Buttress in Zion National Park without a rope. His ascent of this iconic monolith—plumb vertical, smooth as a baby’s behind, and desperately difficult every foot of the way—propelled him into the highest echelon of extreme adventurers, overnight.
Later that year he made the first unroped ascent of the striking Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. This route is fully two thousand feet high and even more difficult than Moonlight Buttress; nobody had ever considered an unroped ascent. In 1957, the era’s best climbers made the first ascent of the Northwest Face, and it required five days of camping on the wall and extensive aid (pulling on gear pounded into the rock). Honnold dashed up the route in just under three hours wearing shorts and a T-shirt and carrying a couple of energy bars along with a bit more than one cup of water in his pockets. Over the past eight years he has shattered performance expectations repeatedly. Now in a class by himself, Alex Honnold is expected to do no less than the impossible.
Alone on the Wall reveals a lot about what makes this extraordinary man tick. Aided by the storytelling skills of the acclaimed writer David Roberts, an accomplished climber in his own right, the book flows well and reads easily. Actually understanding Honnold, however, will require a very open mind.
At its core, climbing deals with the relationship between actions and consequences. Beneath its harrowing tales, this book addresses that relationship, and that’s why every climber, as well as anyone with a serious interest in their own inner workings, would do well to explore the demanding existential questions posed in its pages. But beware: you might find real monsters in that closet.
We all depart this world sooner or later; what we do before that unknown time comprises our life. Although some may chide Honnold for shamelessly manifesting an apparently reckless disregard for the gift that is life, others will celebrate his relentless tenacity in living it to the fullest. Regardless of how you see it, the compelling question is “What could possibly justify such risky pursuits in the face of such dire consequences?”
Operating in a “do or die” mind-set is decidedly not for everyone, but the utter lack of ambiguity, and the absolute focus it engenders, leaves room for nothing but total immersion in the present moment, where deep introspection becomes effortless. There’s a truth in this place that is lacking in most others.
Alone on the Wall is really not a story about climbing, but a story of one person’s very bold journey to self-discovery and his attempt to craft a genuine life. That he chose this particular vehicle for the trip makes him a phenom in the eyes of the world, but in his eyes, as he often says, “it’s really no big deal.” Maybe not for him.
For me, the most interesting part of the book relates to the way he becomes entangled with sponsors. While Alex and his sponsors feign concern for one another, their agendas could hardly be further apart. Sponsors and the media are looking for a gripping story, and they need Alex to be on the edge to get it. He is looking for the truth, which makes even the most thrilling tale seem tame. Alex wants to explore his chosen path as deeply as possible, and without the benefits from sponsorship this would not be feasible. The rationalizations they each concoct to avoid exposing their motives (mostly to themselves) are fascinating.
I find myself rooting for Alex’s capacity to self-actualize and to distinguish between taking huge risks for self-discovery and taking them for his ego and the machine that has evolved to stroke it. The inescapable irony with this level of risk-taking is that you need a gargantuan ego to even entertain it, yet you can’t perform solely in service of your ego or it will unabashedly end you. Talk about a rock and a hard place!
Extreme climbing without ropes is nothing to trifle with. Adventure sports have abbreviated more than a few lives, and Honnold may not be with us for too long, but he knows precisely what’s at stake. Like most climbers, I am in awe of Honnold’s astonishing accomplishments. Having climbed unroped myself, although at nowhere near the level of difficulty he does, I can relate directly to his journey. That said, despite my admiration for his talent and convictions, I would not want to be him. ■
R.L. Stolz and his wife, Karen, are the owners of the Alpine Adventures guiding service in Keene.