Watching Free Soloing Yosemite was a humbling experience for me because of the enormity of the raw physical talent and mental strength of character necessary to pull off such feats. The daring and courage required to take that first step in BASE jumping by Gallou and the other base jumpers was also awe inspiring. My family and I make it a point to go hiking at least once a year and many times simple treks such as ours are tenuous and straining for me. In a way though these exploits are my first step off a cliff or first ascent up one but one a smaller and feasible scale that I can manage.
A couple years ago my family traveled to Peru to see the sights, go white water rafting, and hike Machu Piccu. The entire hiking experience was stressful and brilliant. Our train broke down as we traveled to the entrance to the city and we were stalled for more than three hours. We spent the stalled time in anxious and bored anticipation: playing cards, twenty questions, and gossiping with other families stuck on the train. This inconvenience lead to the most amazing experience of my life.
We missed the parks normal hours for Machu Piccu; but instead of turning the tourists on the train away they let only us in since the delay was their fault. My family and a handful of others stood alone with a deserted city looming over us and mountains circling us. This served to emphasize this one glorious point of human innovation that was the city. At that time, this hike through the city seemed impossible to me. My legs were half the size of some of the stones and I had to pull myself up only to have to repeat the motion again and again. Regardless of that, the elevation makes breathing terribly difficult and walking on flat and even surfaces was a challenge all on its own. There were countless times when I would collapse next to an ancient house and sarcastically consider just living there so I would never have to move again. Here, is where I most relate to Alex Honnold. There was that moment in the clip where he stood on the edge and is asked by an off-camera voice if he wants to continue. For one agonizing second I thought he would give up, scale down. I know how appealing giving up can be.
My exploits do not even really begin to compare to Honnold in difficulty but I can only assume my hike filled with gasping breaths and cloudy heads was as impossible feeling to me as his first ascent felt to him. Obviously, if I was faced with a sheer cliff face it would be an impenetrable obstacle to me, but this hike to me was those cliffs to him in difficulty. I would never dive off a cliff or tall building like Hervé le Gallou. I can, however, relate to Dave McDonnell’s distinction of “hear[ing] three distinct internal voices at the exit point, which he called “Yes,” “Fear” and “No.”” As I climbed up to the vantage point of Machu Piccu and beyond, fear struck me suddenly and often. My life was never truly in danger but as I sometimes struggled to breath the thinner air I could fool myself into thinking I was. I cannot imagine the impregnability of the sensation of fear when the jumpers lives were truly at risk and the payoff that comes with it.
A clear question comes from these extreme conditions Honnold and BASE jumpers placed before themselves: why? Why did they bother stretching what we as society see a human as capable of? Honnold glides up mountain surfaces like how to do it is innate to him and BASE jumpers took steps that could make the weaker-hearted faint from disbelief. Perhaps they did these exploits to show the rest of us that they can be done. As Honnold scales cliffs lets walk up ancient stairs. As BASE jumpers face obstacles fearlessly maybe we should all confront our own demons. Extreme sports are simply a model of what we are all capable on our own smaller scales. Let’s be daring, as much as we can be.