On June 3, legendary rock climber Alex Honnold completed the first ever free solo climb of El Capitan at Yosemite National Park in California. The 31-year-old climbed the nearly 3,000-foot wall in 3 hours, 56 minutes — without ropes or any protective equipment.
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.
“Free soloing El Cap has been the most anticipated climbing feat of our generation, but only because of Alex,” climber Tommy Caldwell, who trained with Honnold, wrote in Outside Magazine. He added that he hopes people are inspired by Honnold’s “dedication to excellence and ability live without fear,” rather than his acceptance of risk.
“There have been very few people potentially capable of accomplishing this, and sadly most of these individuals are no longer with us,” he wrote.
“A different class of sensation seeker”
In 2016, neuroscientist Jane Joseph, a professor at the Medical University of South Carolina, investigated the inner workings of Honnold’s brain for Nautilus magazine. Joseph put Honnold in an fMRI brain scanning machine to see how his brain responded to fear stimuli. Honnold also filled out a survey that psychologists use to assess “high sensation-seeking,” people who pursue thrilling or dangerous experiences.
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 Joseph told Business Insider Honnold might be part of a particularly extreme group of such people.
“Alex showed very little amygdala activity to stimuli that most of the rest of us would have a reaction to,” Joseph told Business Insider at the time. That lower-than-average reaction could be what drives people like Honnold to seek out more extreme experiences.
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 Joseph told Business Insider that Honnold seemed extremely conscientious, which perhaps enables him to — at least so far — 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.
“With free-soloing, obviously I know that I’m in danger, but feeling fearful while I’m up there is not helping me in any way,” Honnold told Nat Geo. “It’s only hindering my performance, so I just set it aside and leave it be.”
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.
“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 will 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 will 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 will 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.
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.
A documentary about Honnold’s record-breaking climb is in the works from National Geographic — you can see some initial footage below:
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