|Alone of the Wall
by Alex Honnold
with David Roberts
|W.W. Norton, 2015
The majority of books I review are poetry, often in translation, because I came to literary criticism via my career in translation. However, I’m also an avid athlete and one of the sports I pursue is rock climbing. While it may not have the household-name superstars of the NFL or NBA, rock climbing nonetheless has its celebrities (I’m not going to take the easy pun of calling them rock stars, but if you like, go ahead with that). No one within the cloistered community of climbing nor to the general public’s view of the sport is a bigger star right now than Alex Honnold, a man who has in a multitude of ways raised the bar on what is even possible in climbing. Along with journalist David Roberts as his co-author, Honnold has penned his autobiography and despite being only thirty years old, it’s an apt time for him to do this: While we can hope this certainly is not the apex of Honnold’s fame or accomplishments, he is at a zenith of sorts currently in his celebrity status and has become one of those people in the public sphere who is written about and spoken of enough that a formal, personal, account of himself is useful.
Alex Honnold’s story is a compelling one: a shy high school student in California, he took up climbing at the local rock gym as a hobby and realized he was good at it—like, really, really, really good at it. A bright and able kid if something of an introvert, as a freshman at Cal Berkeley he would walk around the lush, beautiful, campus and think of the fact he could at will climb the sheer sides of many university buildings. He was drawn to climbing in the way that very special athletes at times are drawn to their sports, especially to solitary sports such as surfing, skiing, or obviously, climbing. With many great places to climb within the scope of northern California, Honnold couldn’t see the prospects of an engineering degree from Cal outweighing the chance to spend limitless time pursuing climbing, so he dropped out of one of the most-respected of American universities and set off on the road in a old van which would become his home and base of operations as he encountered climbing routes which challenged even the most experienced and hardy of veteran climbers.
But it wasn’t simply the fact that Honnold was an exceptional climber nor one this dedicated to his sport that has garnered him the praise, the fame, and the awe he now inspires: Honnold engages in free soloing, the act of climbing without ropes to secure oneself against a possible—and often possibly fatal—fall. Those who do not climb probably conjure in their minds a climber with loops of rope in hand, secured to his harness, carefully placing strange equipment here and there to offer safety and protection while scaling great heights. This is, no doubt, a compelling picture, one still capable of making the heart quicken and the blood rush, but with free soloing picture instead the athlete climbing with only his climbing shoes on, using nimble fingers dusted with chalk to cling to the edifice on which his climb is engaged. That’s Honnold, that’s what won him fame at least, because he actually undertakes far more of his climbs commonly with traditional ropes and associated safety gear. Nonetheless, it’s not the frequency of his free solo climbs but the intensity, the difficulty, of those he’s made which have garnered him not simply praise but downright awe both within climbing circles and without. From a college drop-out Honnold has become the singular adventure athlete who is now a household name, sponsored to climb and explore, traveling the world doing such day in and day out.
What makes such a person?
Not just what provides the courage to climb unprotected, at risk to fall and die at most any moment, but what paved the way for that tremendous development of athleticism? What allowed for Honnold to evolve from humble, shy, kid in the shadows of Yosemite to an athlete who has extended the very thought of possibility in his sport? And what does such a person think about while holding to dear life via a hand firm to the scrappy side of a sheer wall of rock?
If ever there was a person who needed to write a book of nonfiction, it would be Honnold, so I was elated when he decided to commit thoughts to paper. I had long followed Honnold on Facebook and noticed that unlike many pro athletes I follow, he posted not simply stunning photos of himself doing awesome stuff, but lengthy, pithy, musings on the outdoors, environmentalism, and related topics. Many action sports athletes come off like your kid brother in college at best, but Honnold came off on social media like John Brinckerhoff Jackson or R. Edward Grumbine. His Facebook posts are normally upbeat and do (expectedly) promote his activities and his sponsors, sure, but they betray a scope and depth that draws you in to desire to know Alex the person just as much as Honnold the ultra-athlete. Honnold is often described in the media as being “humble”—I’ve used that word already in this piece several times and it’s hard to avoid in any profile on Honnold—but more than anything, he is likable. Youthful and good-looking in a rugged and slightly geeky sense, he comes across as literally a guy next door, the grad student or dude who works at the local outfitter you might pass on the street in a mountain town like Truckee. He doesn’t factor—in looks or words either one—as the person who has accomplished feats beyond what many could even dream possible, and all that is part of his appeal.
Like many celebrities who have penned autobiographies, Honnold enlisted a co-author, however in his case his co-author, David Roberts, acts as a cross between interviewer and outside observer, allowing him to add in his own comments instead of just wordsmithing Honnold’s prose. I very much like this approach, as it makes clear both what Honnold wrote and also does provide the benefit of someone beside the subject contributing to an autobiography. Too often, the co-author is really a combination of editor and ghostwriter, but here he is a journalist adding additional insight directly to Honnold’s narrative while keeping that narrative Honnold’s own, not truncated nor scrubbed for clarity nor effect. Honnold, as his social media posts suggested, doesn’t really need an editor anyways, as he’s a very strong, honest, and engaging writer on his own. There are people with full-time jobs in print journalism who do not write as well as Honnold does, suggesting that should he ever tire of hanging off outcroppings of rock for a living, Honnold may have another career awaiting him.
Honnold obviously knew his book would reach a readership beyond hard-core rock climbers. He speaks to them, to his peers, with inclusion of the argot of our sport and detailed specifics on his climbs, but he also defines his jargon and offers an open enough framing of climbing to be inviting to non-climber readers. I did not fully appreciate the challenge of that task until embarking on this review, where I am tempted to laud Honnold with a chronicle of his greatest accomplishments, detail by detail retelling how he took on a free solo and why it was so jaw-droppingly difficult, but I know those reading this review—a review of a nonfiction book with what I would dare consider literary value—are not climbers, or at least most of you are not. I could spend a couple tidy paragraphs explaining trad climbing vs sport climbing or how Honnold goes about his climbs and preparing for some of his most-grueling exploits. However, most readers here probably would rather understand the book and somewhat the man who wrote it than those things. Therefore, writing an entire book that can appeal to both the rock climber who admires Honnold and the casual reader is a daunting task, but Honnold and Roberts have pulled it off as well as anyone could hope.
The question most readers will want to walk away from the book with—especially those who are not climbers and encountered Honnold firstly via a 60 Minutes feature on him or some magazine article—is simply enough, why does he do this? Why take the risk, the great risk, to his own life? Why do something where beyond much question, any wrong move or simple mishap could lead to certain death? Is he a daredevil, does he have a death-wish? Does he seek the thrill of knowing he’s air and sky away from a very short fall down a very serious distance? Is he like the BASE jumpers who become nearly addicted to that thrill? Is that it?
I will give this much away: that’s not it. That’s not the reason in Honnold’s mind, but even more, it’s not the experience, either. It’s not a thrill he seeks nor that he finds up there, ropes or no ropes. It’s not part of the process, according to Honnold, to say it is would be akin to saying you attend a rock concert foremost for the lyrics, or watch a James Bond movie to understand British spycraft. The experience of free soloing is not a rollercoaster-type rush of pure excitement, Honnold tells us.
And he’s right. I know this not only because he is beyond much debate the best authority to weigh in on the topic, but also because I tried free soloing myself this summer in North Carolina. What I attempted was much less challenging by far than even the more mundane of Honnold’s efforts, but I found the same state of mind he describes: the experience is one of concentration, of effort, of exerting oneself’s in a deeply physical, tangible, manner. It’s a turtle’s craft, not a hawk’s. It’s more like carving a form from a block of stone than surfing or skydiving. It’s just as much careful and complete calculation as you’d expect when miscalculating could spell disaster. If anything, it’s the opposite of being a daredevil drawn to a rush. There is no doubting Honnold’s vast courage, but the foundation of that courage is one of confidence in his innate skill, not a haughty young adventurer’s bravado.
David Foster Wallace, himself very accomplished at tennis, once wrote of the problem he found with the vast majority of autobiographies of pro athletes: You pick up such a book hoping the greatest of greats, the person whom you know of for their ability to hit a ball or kick a ball or run faster than you or . . . or whatever, to tell you how they do it, or at least what it’s like to do it as they do. You hope the secret of their super-human athleticism will be shared, that it can be decoded, that the immense joy they have for it or the great skill they have for it will be transcribed in a manner maybe we can put it to use in our own lives. And as Wallace rightly noted, seldom does that happen,if ever.
On a personal level, to be honest and sincere, what I really have always hoped from athletes’ biographies is to learn if it’s the same for them as for me: I know Lionel Messi and Ryan Giggs play soccer far better than I can dream of myself, but I would at least know if what they feel, what they think, when out there on those hallowed pitches before the adoring fans is the same as what I experience in my own Sunday pick-up games. I think, at least for athletes at all levels, that’s really what we want from a sports biography—not a how-to of becoming a great athlete, but to know the greats really don’t differ from us so much, even if they’re so very much better than us.
Alex Honnold comes closer to offering this intangible quality than any other sportsman has in any autobiography I’ve yet read. It is still not precise nor complete, but he does give a good idea of his experience. He provides the actuality of things, the fact that climbing—free soloing included therein—is a process that requires concentration and nimble movements but also moves its athlete into a zone of understanding, into a channel where the immediate outweighs all before and after it. I would liken it myself to the movements of a great cargo ship, so easy to steer in the endless ocean, but prone to serious problems in the confines of a foreign harbor where obstacles abound. You know, when a ship enters a harbor passage like that, a harbor pilot who lives there comes out to the ship on a smaller boat and comes aboard to steer it in to whatever mooring will be its destination. The change in mindset while climbing can be much like that harbor pilot coming aboard, removing the scope of focus from the very general to the native, specific, and instant. Honnold via the sketches of his climbs and his wholehearted efforts to answer the question he has admitted he’s quite tired of being ask—do you fear falling and dying while free soloing?—is able to offer very good summary of how climbing at the highest of levels shapes the athlete’s psyche.
This book is worthwhile—not only for rock climbers or those who spend ample time out of doors, but for anyone keen on knowing how someone who has carved out for himself a rather unique . . . career, vocation, whatever we wish to say of someone who became the most famous person in his sport but simply dropped out of school to head for the hills and climb to his heart’s content sees himself and his journey. It is, in a sense, a stations of the cross of climbing but also of Honnold himself. And it’s an utterly fascinating read.