It’s pretty hard to top this as an athletic, physical or psychological achievement:
Alex Honnold woke up in his Dodge van last Saturday morning, drove into Yosemite Valley ahead of the soul-destroying traffic and walked up to the sheer, smooth and stupendously massive 3,000-foot golden escarpment known as El Capitan, the most important cliff on earth for rock climbers. Honnold then laced up his climbing shoes, dusted his meaty fingers with chalk and, over the next four hours, did something nobody had ever done. He climbed El Capitan without ropes, alone.
The world’s finest climbers have long mused about the possibility of a ropeless “free solo” ascent of El Capitan in much the same spirit that science fiction buffs muse about faster-than-light-speed travel — as a daydream safely beyond human possibility. Tommy Caldwell, arguably the greatest all-around rock climber alive, told me that the conversation only drifted into half-seriousness once Honnold came along, and that Honnold’s successful climb was easily the most significant event in the sport in all of Caldwell’s 38 years. I believe that it should also be celebrated as one of the great athletic feats of any kind, ever.
It’s barely conceivable that a human being can pull off this feat of strength, endurance and dexterity. What’s even more amazing, as this guy points out, is the fact that Honnold has to be in the zone, 100% focused yet also relaxed, during the entire four-hour climb because the slightest error in his elaborately choreographed dance on the rock means certain death.
Honnold has an underactive amygdala, which would explain how he is able to suppress his body’s fear response with seeming ease. There’s a moment in this video (10:45) where you can see him smiling happily and even whistling as he spiders up the 2,000-foot Half Dome in 2011:
This mellow, zen-like state is only attainable by someone who is a serious genetic outlier, who has also put in countless hours of obsessive training and rehearsal to perfect his routine. Honnald prepared for the El Capitan climb for months, mastering every nuance of the route and the intricate sequence of moves involved so he could do it largely on autopilot.
Here is a video of another master climber, Tommy Caldwell, on a particularly tough stretch of El Capitan’s Dawn Wall: