How Free Soloist Alex Honnold Overcomes Fear

Wednesday, October 30, 2019
Nick Williams
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“Doubt is the precursor to fear, and I knew that I couldn’t experience my perfect moment if I was afraid. I had to visualize and rehearse enough to remove all doubt.”

—Alex Honnold, the first person to free solo El Capitan, 2018 TED Talk   

If you’ve seen Free Solo, the Academy-Award winning documentary from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, you probably have a lot of opinions about Alex Honnold, the professional climber who has shocked the world with his incredible feats of athletic daring.

Here are some of the initial character judgments that might spring to mind while watching Honnold prepare for his historic free solo (without ropes, and alone) climb of El Capitan, the 900-meter rock face in Yosemite, California: nuts, insane, weird, taciturn, emotionless, daring, impressive, brave.  

Free Solo is interesting because it does not aim to present Alex Honnold as a flawless hero. The film tries to objectively present Alex Honnold for the man he is: a person who has been almost entirely consumed by a passion for the seemingly impossible, and who has spent nearly his whole life hanging off of insidious seeming handholds and hanging out in the back of his van, aka training center, aka camp, aka home.  

Here is a person who had difficulties maintaining a long-term relationship, has lived on the road almost his whole adult life, spent years eating $1 dinners, and risks death on a daily basis—yet, he seems perfectly content with his place in the universe.  

In a sense, Free Solo is both a celebration and a cautionary tale—exemplifying that single-minded focus and passion is not without its human costs—both in terms of the staggering amount of free solo climbers that have died throughout the years, but also in terms of a necessary distance that must be created and maintained between the individual climber and everyone around them. The climbing community is strong however as a free soloist, the moment you start worrying about someone or something else is the moment you lose focus on the task at hand, and that, in this case, would almost certainly be a fatal error.  

The film does a great job building the drama and tension surrounding Honnold’s epic journey up the El Cap, but it can be argued that it also undersells the years of preparation involved before Honnold could even truly consider the possibility. What started as a pipe dream for Honnold slowly but surely became a reality through gradual preparation.

It took 7 years of thinking about, driving by, and considering El Cap as a possible candidate for the next big free solo.  Simply put, the idea of climbing one of the most staggering and daunting mountain faces in the world terrified Honnold—but Honnold is also the type of man that doesn’t back down from challenges. As he states:

“Eventually I came to accept that I wanted to test myself against El Cap. It represented true mastery. But I needed it to feel different. I didn’t want to get away with anything or barely squeak by. This time I wanted to do it right.”

Practice makes perfect

El Cap was actually Honnold’s second groundbreaking free solo climb: the first being his ascent of the Regular Northwest Face of the Half Dome, also in Yosemite Valley, which he accomplished in 2008.  

Honnold’s successful conquering of the Half Dome was simultaneously mind-boggling and earth-shattering for everyone, except for Honnold himself, who was unsatisfied with his performance:

“I’d succeeded in the solo, and it was celebrated as a big first in climbing—some friends later made a film about it, but I was unsatisfied. I was disappointed in my performance because I knew that I’d gotten away with something. I didn’t want to be a lucky climber, I wanted to be a great climber. I actually took a year off of free soloing, because I knew that I shouldn’t make a habit of relying on luck.”

Alex’s aversion to luck is an important model in that we are, ultimately, the masters of our own fate. There is always the possibility that one day, the foothold will crumble, but until that day comes, being in control of our own destinies through hard work and motivation is usually a more fruitful strategy than ‘trying to get away with something.’

While doing his free solo of the Half Dome, Honnold decided to change his climbing route mid-course to avoid one of the more difficult sections but ended up getting slightly lost. Keep in mind, this is partway through a 2,000 feet climb!  

It goes without saying that the ability to remain composed at 1,000 feet up is easier said than done, especially when faced with such devastating odds and risk.

Part of Honnold’s success lies in his ability to always think 10 or 15 steps ahead, keeping his mindset on the bigger picture rather than getting mired in the difficulties of the present. Regarding his mistake during the Half Dome climb, Honnold states:

“I was slightly rattled...I was pretty rattled, but I try not to let it bother me too much, because I knew all of the hardest climbing was up at the top. I needed to stay composed.”

Slow and steady wins the rock face

Honnold’s free solo conquest of the El Cap rock face has been called the ‘Moon Landing’ of rock-climbing—a feat so unique and daring that it has fundamentally moved the goalposts for what is possible in the sport of climbing.  

But how did Honnold prepare himself mentally for such an incredibly terrifying feat?  

A group of researchers at The University of South Carolina School of Medicine became interested in Honnold’s brain, speculating that there was actually something physically different going on—that in some way, his fear receptors were fundamentally unlike those of a regular person.

After a series of tests, including an MRI scan, researchers determined it’s not that Alex’s brain is fundamentally different, but rather, through years of practice and repetition, he has re-configured the hardwiring of his brain to make seemingly impossible feats of strength, agility, and mental fortitude feel like a walk in the park.

In other words, what’s dangerous and scary for most people, is completely normal to Honnold.

Jane Joseph, the cognitive neuroscientist behind the research, was most excited to check out Alex’s amygdala, also known as the brain’s fear center.

What Joseph found was that there was no amygdala activation in Honnold’s brain—where there is no activation, there is no threat response. Which suggests that when Honnold is climbing at heights most people could throw up just thinking about, he feels no fear.

Despite the scientific findings, Alex is the first to reject the idea that he’s fearless. He admits, especially in his early free soloing days, mistakes or general exhaustion could trigger the feeling of fear, but the experience faded as he learned and practiced disciplined ways of dealing with it, i.e. deep breathing.

Jane Joseph’s research opened up new possibilities about fear:

A new theory emerged, one that stated that a way to eliminate fear is through habituation. Gradual and systematic exposure to dangerous stimuli could render such situations completely harmless for that person. If this is the case, alternative therapies to treat fear could expand monumentally.

Let’s get it straight —Honnold is definitely a weird, unique dude with a very particular way of seeing the universe, but the process of conditioning his mind to be able to evade fear like a difficult crag on the face of a cliff didn’t happen overnight.  

Instead, it seems that Honnold’s dare-devilish tendencies were a slow combination of a unique mind conditioning itself through repeated experiences—gradually becoming comfortable with new and more extreme situations.  

Any of us could benefit from even a minor version of this Honnold effect: gradually and repeatedly exposing yourself to whatever it is you fear could potentially increase your ability to face that challenge with more courage than ever expected.

In an interview for National Geographic with fellow climber friend, Mark Synnott, Alex explains how he stretches his capacity for possibility:

“My comfort zone is like a little bubble around me, and I’ve pushed it in different directions and made it bigger and bigger until these objectives that seemed totally crazy, eventually fall within the realm of the possible.”

So, Honnold’s mentality is simultaneously one of pushing oneself while entering every situation fully and completely prepared, without any margin for error.

For most people, an error could mean making ourselves look kind of silly and having to deal with social anxiety. For Honnold, an error literally means turning into dust.    

Honnold’s comments speak to the idea that throwing yourself into difficult and uncomfortable situations is not necessarily the best process for overcoming our anxieties—rather, a slow crescendo of exposure will allow our brain to take the time it needs to adapt, before moving onto a tougher problem.

Think of it in terms of school. A teacher would never assign a university level Calculus problem to a Gr. 1 student (unless that particular teacher was feeling particularly grumpy because they just got yelled at by an overbearing parent or something). They wouldn’t assign it because the student simply does not have the tools or knowledge base to handle that type of problem. First, they need to go through years of grade school and high school math.

The same concept applies to Honnold, and to us:  Honnold was not necessarily BORN to climb El Cap—he had to train, train, train his body and mind to get there. We can apply this methodology to our everyday life—for example, if we feel socially anxious, immediately going to a giant house party is probably not the best idea. Rather, we should get comfortable with another person, then a few people, and work our way up to hanging off a chandelier while wearing a toga and funneling a beer.

Even though Honnold’s achievements might seem totally alien to most people—there are still many transferable skills and approaches for a healthy mindset that can be extracted from Free Solo and applied to one’s own adventure.  

That adventure can either be climbing 3,000 ft. up the side of a mountain as slick as a sheet of glass, or it could be trying to finally sit down and write that novel you’ve been pondering for the last 5 years, or hell, it can even be lining up 10 hours early to be the first customer in Best Buy on Black Friday.  

The most valuable thing about feats of human heroism and courage as seen in Free Solo is that it can be projected across thousands or millions of people, inspiring determination and a desire to push oneself and take risks.

The mentality that Honnold applies to fear can actually be applied to all manner of emotional roadblocks that might serve to hinder us in our daily lives. Sometimes fear, anxiety, stress, jealousy, or frustration are beneficial, and certainly, they are natural.  But in most cases, these feelings can be safely set aside—because in the end, they will almost always be more of a hindrance than not.

In Honnold’s words:

“With free-soloing, obviously I know that I’m in danger, but feeling fearful while I’m up there is not helping me in any way...it’s only hindering my performance, so I just set it aside and leave it be.”

Experience life in the driver’s seat

Alex Honnold is a dreamer, an adventurer, a perfectionist, a human being (even if sometimes his athletic feats make it seem like he isn’t). His physical and mental accomplishments can serve as an inspiration as well as a warning.  One thing that can certainly be taken away from Honnold’s approach to fear is his constant forward progression—Alex is never content to remain stagnant or to stop pushing towards new experiences and dreams.

That drive, that motivation to keep broadening our horizons and pushing ourselves, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, should act as an underlying motivation for everything that we do. When asked to describe what drives him, Honnold responds:

“Maybe it is more complicated—trying to do things people haven’t done before, to push my limits, to see what I’m capable of doing. In some way the drive is like curiosity, the explorer’s heart, wanting to see what’s around the corner. And part of it is being a perfectionist. If I’m gonna do something, I want to do it well. I’m constantly saying to myself: Maybe I could have done it a little better, I could have tried a little harder. When I dream about something and I finally do it, I’m always like, well, I did it, so obviously it wasn’t that hard.”

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