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You might have heard of Alex Honnold, he is an incredible athlete who has gained worldwide notoriety not only for his physical abilities, but also for his attitude to life. He is a free solo climber, climbing rocks hundreds of metres high, alone, without ropes and harnesses or any of the usual protective gear usually seen on climbers. And he does this because he says it is fun.
The world’s fascination with Alex Honnold centres on a frank disbelief that someone could do something so inherently dangerous, and that he’s still alive, and still doing it. We’re also fascinated with his lifestyle choices – he lives in a kitted-out van and climbs mountains. He climbs using nothing more than tight climbing shoes and chalk to assist his ascent. Sponsorship makes his lifestyle feasible. He is admired and respected by climbers around the world.
Alex’s fame began within the local climbing community in his home in the USA, then word got out about how he was free soloing routes normally ascended with ropes and in teams. He was climbing them ‘free’ and he was climbing them fast. For him, free soloing is purism. His philosophy of life is his emphasis on simplicity, on paring away extraneous stuff. He likes the speed records because they give a baseline for improvement, and beating times is gratifying.
You might have seen the feature about Alex’s climbing on 60 Minutes, or the famous front cover photo on National Geographic with Alex standing on a thin sliver of a ledge half way up an almost vertical rock overlooking a vast valley. After a local adventure film company made a few films about his ‘crazy’ ascents, he became famous on a wider scale – he reckons being Facebook-friended by thousands of people he didn’t know was one of the first signs of his burgeoning fame.
You get the feeling with Alex Honnold, though, that climbing rocks for challenge and satisfaction is something he was born to do and as you read his book, it is crystal clear that he is driven to keep at it. Climbing has made him extremely fit, and you need to be extremely fit to hang from a ledge with a finger and thumb wedged in if that’s all that is holding your weight.
He’ll say he hasn’t had many close calls that he can remember. He insists that his climbing is low-risk – he is not likely to fall off. He recognises that the consequences are high if he did, but he wants to be clear about distinguishing between consequence and risk. The rest of us just feel that it’s a chance we would rather not take, which is why we aren’t several hundred metres up in the air on a rockface in Yosemite National Park.
The book is a collection of some of his most challenging climbs, and it’s a chance to get inside his head as you wonder what he is thinking up there. Alex says the ‘camping lifestyle’ he lives day in day out does wear thin – camping likely holds a special appeal if you don’t do it routinely. He admits to liking showering, eating out, being able to call his friends, checking email. He also tires of the lonely life in the van sometimes, but it’s a trade-off and he says on the whole he is pretty content.
Alone on the Wall is a great read for the climber in your family and still very interesting if climbing is your worst nightmare. Life is precious, but just because something is precious it doesn’t mean you have to baby it. As Alex says, “What’s the point in having an amazing vehicle if you’re afraid to drive it?”
Review by Amie Lightbourne
Alone on the Wall
by Alex Honnold with David Roberts
Published by Macmillan Publishers