El Capitan is a monstrous vertical wall of granite in California’s Yosemite National Park renowned worldwide by serious rock climbers as a destination climb and one of the most difficult to conquer in the entire world. That the vast majority of humans would not even consider scaling El Capitan with every piece of safety equipment available and would lack the skill to complete the journey anyway did not deter Alex Honnold from becoming the first person to complete the climb this past Saturday without the use of a rope to save him from what would have been certain death had he made even one small miscalculation during his incredible ascent up El Capitan’s daunting 3000-foot face.
The fact that Honnold managed to make the climb in an astonishing three hours and 56 minutes only makes it all the more impressive.
Alex Honnold, a 31-year-old American who began rock climbing at the age of 11, is no stranger to daring to climb up daunting rock formations. In 2008 Honnold scaled Yosemite’s Half Dome and the Moonlight Buttress in Utah’s Zion National Park, both without the use of a rope. El Capitan, however, is a whole different story. According to SFGate, the challenging climb Alex Honnold faced was filled with impossibly small cracks in which Honnold was forced to negotiate his body and the rock with difficult maneuvers. Intense focus and superb stamina and strength were paramount for the treacherous ascent.
“The hardest part was 2,300 feet off the ground,” Honnold said after finishing the climb up El Capitan. “That’s where you hit a part with a ‘boulder problem.’ There’s short sections where you’re moving from one crack to another, using very small holds. You have to get your body in tenuous positions. And one of the holds is a little thumb press that requires you to do this crazy maneuver — you have to switch from one thumb to the other.”
Honnold had bottles of water and Clif energy bars stashed along the journey up the rock to make sure he wasn’t lacking in hydration or calories to burn, but I’d imagine water and food are the least of one’s concerns when the tiniest mistake could mean a plummet to certain death. Even Ken Yager, a former Yosemite climbing guide who has scaled El Capitan dozens of times with a rope over the years was stunned and impressed by Honnold’s feat.
“Well, eventually someone was going to do this,” Yager said. “And it might as well have been Alex. I wrote him a text and said, ‘I don’t know whether to congratulate you or call you a knucklehead.'”
Alex Honnold’s incredible ascent up El Capitan was filmed and will be made into a National Geographic documentary. According to National Geographic, Honnold made his first attempt at climbing El Capitan without a rope last November but turned back after an hour because conditions did not feel right.
Honnold chose a difficult route called Freerider for his ascent. Just 600 feet up this path, Honnold encountered a stretch of smooth, glass-like granite with no cracks or jagged rocks on which to hold. Honnold used a climbing technique called “smearing” for this part of the climb which involves pressing the rubbery climbing shoes against the rock to hold the weight of his body as he moves up the surface. About this part of the journey Honnold said, “it’s like walking up glass.”
A free climb of El Capitan without a rope is something rock climbers knew would happen eventually, but is nevertheless seen as a major step in the sport of rock climbing. It’s difficult to imagine what’s next for the sport. At only 31 years of age, it’s likely that Alex Honnold is already contemplating his next incredible ascent.
[Featured Image by Ben Margot/AP Images]