Watch the first man in history to free-solo climb El Capitan, a 3,000-foot granite wall. The feat was undertaken without rope, harnesses or any gear whatsoever.
- Touted as the only person who has the mental toughness to accomplish the feat
- Honnold’s brain has some distinct differences that may make him less prone to fear
With only a bag of chalk and his shoes, renowned rock climber Alex Honnold scaled what appeared to be an impossible piece of rock – El Capitan, the famous rock face at Yosemite National Park, California – on Jun 3.
The video was shot by Jimmy Chin for an upcoming documentary by National Geographic.
Honnold completed what has been called an “unfathomable” feat in 3 hours and 56 minutes.
It has been said that Honnold is the only person who has the mental toughness to free-solo that route.
Tests show Honnold’s brain has some distinct differences that may make him less prone to fear.
Researchers showed Honnold images that most people react to with fear, disturbance, or excitement. Generally, such images get the amygdala in the brain firing, but there was barely any perceptible response in Honnold’s brain.
His activity patterns matched those of sensation-seekers’ brains to such a strong degree, in fact, that he might be part of a particularly extreme group of such people.
However, other aspects of Honnold’s behaviour didn’t fit with traditional sensation-seeking patterns. Many sensation seekers end up in dangerous situations and are vulnerable to substance abuse problems due to their impulsivity and lack of conscientiousness, the behaviour trait that helps people regulate their actions.
Yet Honnold seemed extremely conscientious, which perhaps enables him to calibrate his meticulous preparations to the extreme risks he takes.
That exceptional combination enabled him to survive something that no other known person has attempted.
It would be easy to call Honnold a “daredevil” or “crazy” when you look at his ascents.
But if you listen to the way the climber (who is frequently called one of the most humble out there) describes risk, he doesn’t sound like a thrill-seeker.
On an episode of The Tim Ferris Show podcast, Ferris asked Honnold how he handles the mental preparation for a particularly difficult climb.
“When I’m planning on doing something challenging, I spend the time sort of visualising what the experience will feel like and what the individual sections of it will (feel like),” said Honnold.
“I’ll think through what it’ll feel like to be in certain positions, because some kinds of movements are insecure and so they’re kind of scarier than other types of moves, and so it’s important to me think through how that’ll feel when I’m up there, so that when I’m doing it I don’t suddenly be like ‘Oh my God, this is really scary!’ I know that it’s supposed to be scary, I know that’s going to be the move, I know what it’ll feel like, and I just do it.”
In psychological terms, this type of prep is known as “mental rehearsal”, a technique used to get ready for anything difficult. The logic is that once you’ve thought through how everything could feel – even if a task goes wrong – you’ll be prepared if things actually do go south.
Research has shown this approach can help doctors perform better, and astronauts like Chris Hadfield say it’s an essential part of their preparation for space flight.
Honnold had been doing both mental and physical training for more than a year before his remarkable El Capitan ascent – he climbed every section of the route over and over, and even started an attempt then abandoned it last November. Eventually, he decided he was ready.
Honnold previously stunned the world with free-solo climbs of Half Dome in Yosemite and at the 2,500-foot El Sendero Luminoso limestone cliff in El Potrero, Mexico. But this recent accomplishment required both unparalleled physical skill as well as a singular -perhaps unique – mental focus. And that was exactly how he prepared himself to successfully pull off the phenomenal feat.