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The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life

A new glimpse and look at Alex Honnold's ground-breaking free solo of El Capitan, from Mark Synnott.

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The Impossible Climb climaxes with Alex Honnold’s unprecedented, almost unimaginable feat: a 3,000-foot vertical climb up El Capitan in Yosemite, without a rope. Mark Synnott tells the story in the context of a deeply reported account of his ten-year friendship with Honnold, multiple climbing expeditions, and the climbing ethos they share.

Synnott’s book is a personal history  that delves into a raggedy culture that emerged decades earlier during Yosemite’s Golden Age, when pioneering climbers like Royal Robbins and Warren Harding invented the sport that Honnold would turn on its ear. Synnott weaves in his own amateur and professional experiences with poignant insight. Tensions burst on the mile-high northwest face of Pakistan’s Great Trango Tower; photographer/climber Jimmy Chin miraculously persuades an intransigent official in the Borneo jungle to allow Honnold’s first foreign expedition, led by Synnott, to continue; armed bandits accost the same trio at the foot of a tower in the Chad desert.

The Impossible Climb is an emotional drama driven by people exploring the limits of human potential and seeking a perfect, dialed-in dance with nature. They dare beyond the ordinary, but this story of the sublime is really about all of us. Who doesn’t need to face down fear and make the most of the time we have?


The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life, by Mark Synnott.

The Ditch, as climbers sometimes call Yosemite Valley, typically
remains summer hot well into September, but a rogue cold front
had blown in overnight. A wan sun slouched low to the east, barely
discernible through a thick, overcast sky. Tiny droplets of water
saturated the air. Alex wondered, Is the rock getting slippery? The
friction still felt okay, probably because a stiff breeze was drying
the stone as quickly as the moisture-​­laden air was wetting it. But
the rock had absorbed the raw gray cold, and that was starting to
bother his feet. His toes were a little numb, and the size 42 shoes
felt sloppy on the glacier-​­polished granite. He wished he’d worn
the 41s.

Years earlier, when he first contemplated free soloing El Capi‐
tan, Alex had made a list of all the crux sections on Freerider, the
parts that would require careful study and extensive rehearsal. The
traverse to Round Table Ledge, the Enduro Corner, the Boulder
Problem, the downclimb into the Monster, and the slab section on
pitch 6, six hundred feet off the deck, which he now confronted.
Of all the various cruxes on the 3,000-​­foot-​­high route, this one
haunted him most, and for a simple reason: It’s a friction climb
that is entirely devoid of grips on which to pull or stand. Like
walking up glass, thought Alex.

He couldn’t help thinking about the fact that it had spit him off
before. It’s only rated 5.11, which, while still expert-​­level climbing,
is three grades below Alex’s maximum of 5.14. But unlike the
overhanging limestone routes in Morocco that Alex could bully
into submission by cracking his knuckles on the positively shaped
holds, the crux here required trusting everything to a type of foot‐
hold called a smear. As the name implies, a smear involves pasting
the sticky-​­rubber shoe sole against the rock. Whether the shoe
sticks depends on many factors, including, critically, the angle at
which it presses the rock. The best angle is found by canting one’s
body out away from the wall as far as possible without toppling
over backward. This weights the foot more perpendicular to the
stone, generating the most friction available. The more a climber
can relax, the better a smear feels. Conversely, a tense or timid
climber instinctively leans in toward the rock, questing for a non‐
existent purchase with the hands. To rely solely on such a delicate
balance between the necessary adhesion and teetering past the tip‐
ping point in a high-​­consequence situation is perhaps the most
dreaded move a rock climber can encounter.

Alex had climbed this section of El Cap twenty times and fallen
once on this move. A guy who keeps numerical records of every
climb he has done since high school, he had noted to himself in
recent days that 5 percent of his attempts at this move had gone
awry. And those were low-​­consequence situations; he had worn a
rope clipped to a bolt two feet below his waist.

He had obsessed about free soloing El Capitan for nine years,
nearly a third of his life. By now he had analyzed every possible
angle. “Some things are so cool, they’re worth risking it all,” he
had told me in Morocco. This was the last big free solo on his list,
and if he could pull it off, perhaps he might start winding things
down, maybe get married, start a family, spend more time work‐
ing on his foundation. He loved life and had no intention of dying young, going out in a blaze of glory. And so one in twenty wasn’t
going to cut it. He needed to get this move, along with the other
crux sections, as close to 100 percent as possible.

But Alex wasn’t thinking any of this. He had trained himself
not to let his mind wander when he was on the rock. He was fa‐
mous, after all, for his ability to put fear in a box and set it on an
out‐of‐the-​­way shelf in the back of his mind. The life questions,
the analyses—he saved that stuff for when he was hanging out in
his van, hiking, or riding his bike. At that moment, he was just
having fun and not thinking about anything except climbing and
climbing well.

Details, whether they rose to the surface of his mind or not, did
factor into the climbing equation he was in the midst of solving:
how he wasn’t sure how his right foot felt because his big toe was
slightly numb, or how the callus on the tip of his left index finger
seemed glassy on the cold rock, or that his peripheral vision,
key for picking up all the subtle ripples and depressions in the
rock, diminished when he had his hood up, as he did now.

Back in the 1960s, when this section of El Cap was pioneered,
the first ascensionist drilled a quarter-​­inch hole in the rock here,
hammered in an expansion bolt, clipped an étrier to it, and stood
up in this stirrup to reach past the blankness. That bolt (since re‐
placed with a much beefier three-​­eighths-​­inch stainless steel ver‐
sion) was still right here, next to Alex’s ankle.

Balancing on his left foot, Alex lifted his right leg high and
squeegeed his toe onto the blank seventy-​­five-​­degree-​­angle rock.
Trusting more than feeling the friction, he rocked the full weight
of his body onto this smear.

It held. But only for a second.

Oftentimes, a foot slip can be checked by bearing down on the
handholds. But Alex’s palms were laid flat against the smooth,
holdless slab; nothing counteracted the pitiless pull of gravity. Alex was weightless and picking up speed when the heel of his right foot
hit a bulge in the wall, snapping his ankle over hard. But before he
could register any pain, the rope tied to his harness came taut and
he skidded to a stop. It could have been a short, routine fall like the
other time he’d slipped, but Alex had chosen not to clip to the bolt
protecting the crux, because he wanted to feel out, and perhaps
ease into, being ropeless on this section of Freerider. He dangled
some thirty feet below where he had come off.

“Ow, ow,” whimpered Sanni, who was now only ten feet down
and to the right of Alex. While he was in the air, Sanni had tried
to reel in a handful of rope to shorten the fall. She was pulling
with her left arm, her right down by her hip. When Alex’s 160
pounds hit the end of the rope, the force of the fall pulled Sanni
up violently, snapping her against the tether that connected her to
the anchor and slamming her left arm against the cold granite.

“Are you okay?” Alex asked his girlfriend.

“I’m okay, it’s just a bruise,” she called up, her breaths coming
fast and ragged. “Are you?”

“I think I’m okay, but my ankle really hurts.” Alex looked down
and saw his right ankle swelling. Bright red blood was splotched
across the wall around him. He pressed his fingers into his knee. It
felt spongy and full of fluid, like something had burst inside of it.

“I’m gonna try to weight it,” he said. He put down his foot on
a small shelf and tried to step up. Lightning bolts of pain shot up
his leg. “Okay, that feels really bad, sickeningly bad.”

Alex’s first foray onto Freerider for the season could have been
worse. Had this been his free solo attempt, he’d be dead at the base
of the wall.

Excerpted from the book The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life by Mark Synnott. Copyright © 2019 by Mark Synnott. Published by arrangement with Dutton, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

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Mark Synnott is a twenty-​­year member of the North Face Global
Athlete Team. He is a frequent contributor to
National Geo‐
graphic magazine and has written for Outside, Men’s Journal, Ski‐
ing, Rock and Ice, and Climbing. He is also an IFMGA-​­certified
mountain guide and a trainer for the Pararescuemen of the United
States Air Force.