Famed athletes explore the evolution of climbing

By Doug Hare EBS Staff

If you asked the mountaineering community who the best living climber in the world is, the two most common answers would likely be Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell. (Unfortunately, the recent death of the “Swiss Machine” Ueli Steck near Mount Everest makes that question easier to answer.)

Caldwell and Honnold are old friends and climbing partners. Last month they were training in the mecca of the climbing world, Yosemite National Park, logging countless pitches on terrain that few would even consider climbable.

On June 3, Honnold did something thought to be impossible. He free-soloed the Freerider route on Yosemite’s El Capitan. With nothing but rubber shoes and a chalk bag, he scaled over a half-mile of vertical granite in less than four hours—an almost incomprehensible feat. Caldwell, who was at home with his wife and children in Colorado, called the achievement the “‘moon landing’ of free soloing,” in a June 3 National Geographic story.

Both Honnold and Caldwell have recently published autobiographical books that examine their roles as the preeminent climbers of their generation. Honnold’s “Alone on the Wall” recounts many of his accomplishments that led up to his ropeless ascent of “El Cap.” What emerges is not a portrait of a reckless daredevil but more so an athlete trying to test himself, and an artist who sees rock formations as canvases. His kind of artistry just requires more physical endurance and mental stamina than most mediums.

In the end, Honnold’s motivations for climbing, and the secrets of his seeming fearlessness, remain obscure. “I don’t claim to understand the inner workings of Alex’s mind, but I know one thing for certain, Alex lives to climb, not to cheat death,” wrote Caldwell, in a June 5 story published by Outside.

Caldwell’s “The Push” might be a more satisfying book. His introspective musings provide a window into the psychology of elite climbers—and what drove him to spend seven years to successfully make a first ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Cap. Perhaps it’s his wife and kids, or having sawed off his finger and re-learned how to climb without it, but Caldwell comes off as more relatable, more human and more down-to-earth than his superhuman climbing buddy.

We can learn from both of them. These two friends share an incredible ability to focus, a humility despite their enormous talents, and a pioneering spirit that would help anyone achieve excellence in whatever field of endeavor they chose. Both memoirs hold insights into how perseverance and resolve are essential to overcoming adversity and living life without regret.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.