The documentary covers the history of Yosemite National Park as a climbing hub and the greats who emerged over the years. A shy and awkward Honnold makes an appearance at the end of the feature. It’s hard to believe he’s the greatest free solo climber of all time.
Honnold’s climbing relies on nothing but chalk, shoes and several buckets of courage. He has climbed all over the world and completed the Yosemite Triple Crown – Yosemite’s three peaks – in 18 hours and 50 minutes. He holds a number of speed climbing records, the most recent being California’s Lover’s Leap.
What makes him successful?
His ability to remain in control on a precarious rock face is what separates Honnold from the rest.
He earned the nickname, No Big Deal, as his attitude toward risky climbs borders on nonchalance. He is capable of detaching himself from his emotions and channels all his focus into navigating his way up the trickiest of climbs.
Is this something he’s nurtured over time or was he born with these abilities?
J.B. MacKinnon from Nautilus explored Honnold’s brain – with the help of science – to get to the bottom of this question. The fMRI, a machine that detects activity in different parts of the brain, showed no amygdala activity when Honnold was exposed to stress-causing images. The amygdala is a region of the brain responsible for emotions like fear.
A sleepy amygdala is common in thrill-seekers – people who need large jolts of sensation to get a dopamine hit – and Honnold’s brain activity was 20% higher still than his sensation-seeking buddies.
Experts suspect Honnold was born this way. Though, they speculate that over the years, with exposure to climbing, he has furthered the ability to turn off his nerves.
Student of the sport
A good example of Honnold’s climbing ability not being completely innate came during his first attempt at free climbing. Fear, he admitted, got the better of him.
He has combined his good genes with an intense rock climbing apprenticeship. As an 11-year-old, Honnold read all he could on the subject. He began a journal and jotted down detailed notes of each climb, including what he could improve on. Self-review is an underrated but valuable tool, given it’s not always possible to get feedback from others.
Honnold also visualises climbing. He rehearses what’s required to reach the peak before an attempt. He reviews what could go wrong along the way. By coming to terms with the potential pitfalls, Honnold knows what he’s getting himself into and makes the climb as objective as possible.
Mental rehearsal also allows Honnold to develop his motor memory. As he examines every hand hold and foot placement in his head, it consolidates his technique.
The future for Alex Honnold is simple – climb. Living out of his van, No Big Deal lives and breathes the sport. His life shows that by combining passion with a desire to improve can result in the remarkable.