Free Soloing and The Mob Mentality

Slight disconnection from the mainstream climbing media feed notwithstanding, I've found it impossible to ignore some of the recent events that have shaken the climbing world by its very heartstrings. I am, of course, referring mostly to Alex Honnold's recent solo blitz of the Yosemite "Triple Crown" (the South Face route on Mt. Watkins, NW Face of Half Dome and the Nose of El Cap) in about 18 hours, much of which was free solo. Of course, the other news of the week is Adam Ondra coming within five moves of flashing the 'Realization' extension to 'Biographie' at Ceuse (rated 5.15a), which is no less dumbfounding albeit in a completely different category than Honnold's efforts.

My interest in this event encompasses, of course, the astounding nature of the event itself but also a number of different issues both surrounding and resulting from the event. First I want to try to think about the event itself in context with other feats of climbing 'sportif' in recent years. Naturally, I'm going to shoot from the hip here as opposed to exhaustively mining climbing history for comparable achievements. Although this may sound slightly like the manifesto of the official 'Alex Honnold Fan Club', I'm not going to feign smug disinterest and pretend that I'm not astounded. I would say Alex's solo ventures have only slight precedent when sheer difficulty and magnitude are taken into account. Half Dome completely free solo was a monumental event for climbing and the 'triple crown' is at least of equal importance if not more when the amount of effort getting between the three routes is taken into account. The level of commitment, focus and, of course, danger are certainly in phase with extreme alpine-style ascents at high altitude but that's really the only common ground I can think of among the different climbing disciplines. It is unique, also, in that it combines this commitment and objective danger with an extremely high level of performance on rock. Bachar, Hersey, Barber, Reardon, Croft, Potter and Osman to name but a few accomplished rock soloists, have certainly paved the road to understanding something about what Honnold is doing, but he is, like Ondra in his disciplines, playing almost a different game altogether. As a climber, I can only interpret these feats as another remarkable glimpse of what humans are capable of doing when they apply talent, skill and extreme amounts of discipline and effort towards singular goals.

My own experiences with free soloing are far, far more modest and far less extensive than those of any of the protagonists from the above list. On trips to Joshua Tree I used to wake up every morning and solo a circuit of easier routes just to warm up my body and wake up my brain. Climbing without a rope (and bouldering certainly has some of the basic ingredients) demands a focus required by very few other situations: each decision is one of life or death. Despite this fact, it is often neither terrifying nor, I believe, particularly dangerous. Feeling in control in that environment is one of the most rewarding things I have experienced and in that mental space often I climb with the almost certain knowledge that almost nothing can break that control. Feet slip off holds, rock breaks: there is certainly risk involved--no one who solos routes would dare deny it. However, it is the risk that informs the activity: it is a choice to take the risk and with it comes immediate personal responsibility that requires unbending focus and unadulterated action. On probably my most memorable and rewarding day of free soloing, a friend of a friend, Renan (who has gone on to much bigger and riskier objectives in the alpine than I am likely to ever attempt), once took me on a circuit that I will never forget. We soloed Illusion Dweller and Clean and Jerk in Joshua Tree (yes, soloing with another person is still soloing), along with several other easier climbs. The decision to commit to action without hesitation is so liberating that, in my experience, the climbing becomes pure movement and flow. To demystify, I've never felt so fluent and aware as in those moments where I was able to look at terra firma and around at the scenery from far above and just be present, at peace with both the necessity of action and the risk. For me, there are few comparable experiences in life, everyday or otherwise.

My love for the art of soloing has fostered an understanding of why someone would wish to pursue an activity that, from the outside looking in, appears at best reckless and at worst insane. It seems trite to try to explain, but the problem has plenty of relevance judging from the amount of backwash I've read in forum responses to Honnold's accomplishments. With every news report comes endless internet forum responses, some of which feature several different varieties of derision. I've also heard essentially the same from speaking to people about this topic. There is a group who simply call soloing stupid, reckless, pointless, idiotic, or crazy amongst other such adjectives. The idea that someone would choose to play in the grey area between life and death is outright noisome to them. They categorically reject it, refusing to acknowledge any validity of the pursuit. I was actually astounded to skim through 142 posts on the Supertopo forum, subject: Honnold, and not find a single "he's gonna die" post (well, there was one but it was clearly someone trolling). This trifecta, along with Regular Route on Half Dome a few years ago, must just be that enthralling that it avoids derision on the most derisive climbing website in existence. In a way, it's gratifying to see that climbers are actually aware of important occurrences in the world of their activity. Elsewhere, however, I have seen snippets of the familiar detraction. "Great job. Too bad he'll be dead within the year", was the gist of one comment on the Alpinist newsfeed. I don't believe this particular detractor (or others like him/her) is actually really worried about Honnold or other soloists at all. I think they just can't accept that someone would boldly and willingly step into the realm that soloing inhabits. The fear of death and personal responsibility runs rampant, especially in the U.S. The reasons 'why' someone would solo (or whitewater kayak or downhill mountain bike or...) are, of course, personal; despite one interesting concern that I will discuss in the next paragraph, no soloist is ultimately acting in anyone's interest other than his or her own. This is typical fodder for criticism as well, but selfishness is relative and many actions are ultimately selfish regardless of how they are construed. Ultimately I think the detractors just don't really understand the motivations of the risk-taker and as such their reductive 'cost-benefit analyses' always come up short of the mark.

Really there is only one thing I can think of that is potentially problematic in this, but it also raises some fascinating questions of intent and responsibility. It is directly related to the fact that we can already watch a film clip of Alex's latest exploit on the internet. Although I don't know him personally, Alex is undeniably a professional athlete: he is sponsored by several companies who give him money and gear so that he can rock climb; by performing these astounding feats while using gear from the companies (like North Face, La Sportiva, Black Diamond, New England Ropes, etc.) he simultaneously advertises their products. While this is nothing new (many climbers these days are sponsored in some way, shape or form) when combined with something that is especially personal (like free soloing) some potential problems arise. Primarily what is problematized is the question of intent: Alex is aware of the media attention and either solos or reenacts solos while being filmed. What does this mean? Well, I don't have an exact answer. I think it's still ultimately a very personal experience despite the unprecedented amount of press. John Bachar was filmed soloing but I just don't think the audience was as numerous or the media so accessible as they are today. I've seen a video of Peter Croft soloing the Rostrum (I think it was in Painted Spider?). Michael Reardon may be a closer parallel as far as media exposure, but always seemed fairly unequivocal in his devotion to the experience rather than the limelight. The current state of technology allows for very fast and wide dissemination of information. How does this affect an experience that is so personal?

Well, for one thing soloing in a place like Yosemite, with or without a rope, entails being around people, sometimes in large numbers. On the Nose route on El Cap, anyone climbing quickly would pass a number of parties en route. Mt. Watkins, I imagine, is probably a different story. Still, while the experience is one of personal focus and concentration, often soloists are not truly alone. One related question that I have seen asked and pontificated over many times is whether the having a photographer along during solos is in some way a greater risk to the soloist. Does it affect his concentration? As an accessory question: does having media exposure, some of which is arguably in part for commercial reasons, somehow taint the soloists experience or integrity? I'm not really sure about this either. Having soloed routes with other people around or actually climbing with me, I don't recall it ruining my concentration or my enjoyment of the experience. I imagine being filmed 1000 feet off the ground is slightly more invasive in some way, but I doubt it's enough of an intrusion to be a problem if one were expecting it. As for the question of integrity: this is a loaded question and probably best answered by Alex himself as the presence or absence of a cameraman is his choice alone, as are his intentions vis-a-vis sponsorship. Sponsors, for their part, have always maintained (I think it was the North Face that said this but I may be wrong) that they avoid putting undue pressure on athletes, especially in cases where risk is involved. I also don't think that high-profile solos are Alex Honnold's only skill: he is clearly a very gifted climber and would almost surely have media attention regardless. I still think that the experience is ultimately personal and that the camera is a mere peripheral that is becoming more common to all of our experiences as climbers. To those who think that the media exposure is driving climbers like Alex to take more risks than they would otherwise, I say mere unsubstantiated conjecture. Possible, yes. It's true that someone like him could be doing all of the same things entirely under the radar, so to speak, but even this becomes more and more improbable if you think about it. It's also true that a culture of one-upmanship like that so endemic to our lives can and does impel athletes to expose themselves to undue risks for the recognition they receive. In this particular case, I'm not going to say any more about purity of intent because it isn't my conclusion to make. I enjoy looking at pictures of myself climbing as much as the next person and I like watching climbing videos including those depicting free soloists and as such have little to criticize about the soloist/cameraman issue either.

Also, I may be backpedaling a little as I've criticized my own (extremely limited) experiences with sponsorship in the past, but I actually really don't see that much of a problem with someone having commercial support in a sport in which they are clearly such an elite participant. It isn't so much that they've 'earned' the right to have it (although they have done that), but rather that they've made the compromises and have the image required/desired by the companies involved. Compared to other professional sports, climbing sponsorship is still extremely modest: even elite professional climbers live in vans and most do not net six-figure salaries. Certainly this is changing, but for now I think that stands true. Is this good? Bad? Some of both, I think. Commercialization comes with some serious drawbacks, but with its popularity climbing in its mainstream forms absolutely cannot remain as anonymous as it has thus far. Fame presents its own set of problems, of course, but in our society those who stand out in the crowd by the nature of what they do or who they are simply cannot avoid attention.

Before this becomes too cluttered, I'm going to say something relevant to the title of my post. The reductive mob mentality regarding climbing and other 'extreme' sports is at the root of this issue. Climbing is still Mt. Everest because it's the highest, it's cold, it's dangerous. It's 'extreme'. Free soloing could have the same media appeal because there's something gripping and fascinating even in watching a video where the viewer knows, by inference, that the climber is not going to fall. Still, while few question the often ill-advised attempts on Everest (including many failures resulting in severe injury and death), many decry soloing as reckless, perhaps because of the apparent immediacy of danger. Worse still are those who believe that acknowledging the accomplishments of soloists is akin to an endorsement of their actions that will influence other climbers in a negative and dangerous way. This is a high enough level of bullshit that it needs to be addressed whilst discussing this topic. Climbing itself is dangerous. So is living in the city, driving a car, riding a bicycle, working in a steel mill; is it necessity (like that of car travel) that makes our sense of the dangers involved less acute? People make their own decisions about risk and as such they should take responsibility for the results of their actions (although in our society we tend to try to defer that where possible). Those who are impressionable enough to blithely wander into danger without being prepared are like to find ways to do that without even setting foot in Yosemite or Joshua Tree. I don't buy the whole 'attractive nuisance' or 'dangerous example' arguments and think that they and the litigious philosophy that supports them are ridiculous. Worse, they are actually damaging because they propagate false expectations about risk that are complete fantasy. They also dumb down all of our experiences by attempted to limit risk by essentially prohibiting certain types of experience. I think Peter Croft said it best in Painted Spider (I think?) after his Rostrum solo and it was something along the lines of "...if you think soloing is stupid, then for you soloing is stupid. You shouldn't do it." I concur. It isn't necessary to add in stupid snap judgements that look suspiciously like vestiges of one's own fear and doubt. Meanwhile, the jaw-dropping feats continue to shake the realm of what seems possible in climbing and I've probably spent enough words on this topic.


Under the Knife

At around 8:15 this morning, I was laying back in a dentist's chair having a needle inserted into the underside of my tongue. Once the anesthetic rendered everything of consequence perfectly numb, the surgeon picked up his scalpel and, much in the manner of tracing an outline on paper with a pencil, incised and removed a small, flat oblong piece of my tongue measuring about 8mm in diameter. In expert fashion, he sutured in the wound, winding the thread around the curved needle with a well-practiced speed and precision. In less than five minutes, it was done. If only the excruciating pain of the aftermath was so short-lived. 

I knew exactly what to expect, having had this procedure done twice in the past, albeit not quite as extensively. Perhaps I could blame it on several years spent smoking cigarettes in my youth, but for whatever reason for the past ten or more years I've had small, abnormal patches of tissue on the side of my tongue. Albeit painless, these types of things are always worrisome because occasionally they turn into oral cancer, which is certainly not painless and often involves much more cutting than the simple biopsy I had today. Fibrosis, epithelial hyperplasia, dysplasia; only histology will evince an exact answer, but right now the largest of my areas of mystery tissue is on the way to the lab.

This is probably a good thing but would be much more easily celebrated if it wasn't so mind-bendingly painful after the anesthetic has worn off. I can say for certain that Tylenol/Hydrocodone combo pills do little to placate the agony save offering an hour of mild euphoria (and that's probably not the Tylenol silently destroying my liver). Though hungry, the logistics of eating are slightly more than I care to unravel today. Swallowing water is a feat not to be taken lightly, especially since with each gulp the accompanying ripple of muscle activation through the tongue sends a bolt of lightning through my embattled nerve endings. The pain is, in fact, what prompted me to write a few words. It is a meditative sort of pain, unyielding and fierce. In these cases I always find myself delving into the sensation with fascination, trying to uncover the secrets to why it feels so unequivocally horrendous. The brain is in command of this interpretation, of course, and with good reason: the pain is there to warn me that there are six stitches in the side of my tongue and a sizable chunk of skin missing. With painkillers there are the effects of both direct analgesia and, with opioids, distraction. Neither really tackles severe pain completely, it seems, so for these (thankfully rare) moments (days, in this case) of intractable pain there really isn't any other method of management other than with the mind. Maybe by focusing brainpower one way or another it's possible to understand the pain as a mere ephemeral sensation and simply see through it. By another name, perhaps, this would be meditation. As pain management is a multi-billion dollar industry fraught with addiction and greed on the part of drug manufacturers, I wonder whether these of non-pharmacological techniques are considered at all? It seems that with so much treatment failure (with drugs, at least) there have to be better elements to explore that involve more personal responsibility and introspection. Who knows? I'm gonna keep popping my pills, of course, but it seems like I'll have to use a little brainpower in preference to just drinking milkshakes and suffering, although those are certainly on the menu for this week.

So don't smoke cigarettes unless you want to regularly have someone cut pieces from your tongue and sew it back together like a sweatshop garment.