Thanks to Joe for helping out with this story!
Alex Honnold is free climbing El Capitan, poised over a stomach-churning drop thousands of feet from the ground, with nothing but tensed muscles, crooked toes, and the chalked-up girth of his fingertips to keep him from a fall. And those fingers… Pink from the pressure of his weight, each digit flexes, tensing like a bodybuilder on the night of the big show.
I feel sick – actually sick – as I’m watching ‘Free Solo’. On screen is a breath-taking landscape of greens and yellows reaching for the horizon. Alex Honnold dangles above it all, no ropes, no mistakes, climbing a sheer face of rock with nothing but his two Herculean hands. It’s irresponsible. It’s incredible. It’s making my tummy feel really quite weird.
I squeeze the padded arms of my chair. I think about my own hands, about the laughable idea of entrusting my survival to them. They’re clumsy, constantly dropping things, barely able to tie a pair of shoelaces. Smooth and pampered – not a hard day’s work in their boring little lives. They’re nothing like Alex Honnold’s hands. Nothing at all.
Watching Free Solo was the first time I was really taken by the idea of rock climbing. Nothing like El Capitan, of course. Plastic, pastel handholds and fall matts, that sort of thing. So last year, urged on by my friend Joe, I finally gave it a try. He’s an avid rock climber, having spent time in just about all the climbing gyms across Taipei. “It’ll be fun,” he promised. “Honest, you’ll love it.”
By the end of my first session, I honestly thought my fingers might fall off. There was the sensation that eighty years of arthritis had caught up with me in a single afternoon. Everything was so stiff – it was hell to grip my phone.
Afterwards, we decided to go for some food. Throughout the meal, I groaned and grumbled. My arms were aching and slow. My hair was slick against my forehead, wet with sweat. I must have looked like a withered corpse, freshly awoken from its underground tomb. “That sucked,” I said. “That really, really sucked.”
Joe looked at me, tilted his head to one side. “You didn’t like it?” he asked.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “Everything hurts. Everything.”
I curled a strand of pasta around my fork.
“Well,” I said. “When are we going again?”
Joe is quite the fan of ‘Free Solo’.
“I think Alex Honnold shows us a passion for life. When you try to do what you really want, you’ll feel that your life is full of meaning, happy, and free.”
There’s discussion throughout the film, and even more online, as to how ethical such an achievement is. Ultimately, Honnold is risking his life for an arbitrary goal. During the ascent, his girlfriend watches on, dreading the moment he might slip. But this is his passion, and Joe feels that you must follow your passions to truly appreciate life.
“Alex shows us,” Joe explains, “that you must practice, think, adjust again and again. But in the end, it’s possible for your dream to come true. Follow your heart, consider how to complete your goal, then just do it.”
Joe started rock climbing in August 2019. One day at work, bored and a little tired, he sent an idle email to his co-worker: “how’s your life?”
She explained that, recently, she had been top rope climbing. Which, needless to say, peaked Joe’s interest. Just like that, he booked into a local rock-climbing gym, where he fell immediately in love. “When I climb, I have to observe the route and consider my options. Climbing is about imagination. When I look at the wall, I can see many ways to complete my route. But when I begin climbing, I test my ideas, and sometimes I think ‘oh, not this way, damn,’ whereas other times I think ‘this isn’t as complicated as I imagined.’ When you have these feelings, you must consider how to change or fix your plan and try again and again until you succeed.”
Joe can spend hours working his way through a climbing gym. Most gyms have hundreds of handholds, scattered seemingly at random. But once you look closer, you can spy colour coded routes, snaking their way up and across the walls. I’ve seen Joe breeze through beginner routes as a warmup, routes which I’d be stuck on for a dozen attempts. Then he’d approach progressively harder challenges, taking his time, learning from each slip up and mistake. “Rock climbing is full of both feelings of accomplishment and defeat. It makes my mind stronger.”
“When you climb,” Joe continues, “you understand your body. Sometimes I complete a challenge and think: Oh! I can do this movement, it’s unbelievable! Maybe it sounds like I am overstating, but it’s exactly true in my mind. Recently, I learned to jump between handholds, and the feeling was just amazing. I can feel my body changing, getting better.”
With the world the way it is, I hadn’t been able to go rock climbing again until recently. The UK hasn’t handled things nearly so well as Taiwan, and even when it’s been possible to visit the gyms, it hasn’t necessarily been responsible. But a few weeks ago, me and my flatmate booked onto a quiet slot early in the morning, and gave climbing another go.
It was my flatmates first time. He’d never done anything like this before. A couple of hours later, and he was exhausted. His muscles ached, his fingers throbbed, his willpower had been whittled away.
I was convinced he hated it.
Then, after a few days rest, he came up to me and said: “when are we going again?”