A week ago we watched a short video made by National Geographic profiling the rock climber Alex Honnold and his tremendous ability. The baby-faced 29 year old is shown climbing the Half Dome of Yosemite without ropes or any other equipment, a feat never done in recorded history. The crew of National Geographic seamlessly tapes his ascent of one of the hardest walls in the world, showcasing his superhuman talent. However, this video does no justice. Mark Jenkins, the National Geographic writer on assignment to cover Alex, compares Honnold to Michael Jordan, who is debatably the best basketball player to ever live. This is like comparing Reggie Bush to Bo Jackson, or Belgian soccer player Edin Hazard to Pele; or in other words, a terrible comparison. Alex Honnold is truly incomparable to the rest of the climbing world.
What Alex is able to do is a true physical and mental anomaly. Blessed with big hands for his size and the mental willpower of a fighter jet pilot, he soars up walls free solo at speeds never accomplished even by experienced climbers with ropes. What makes his comparison to Michael Jordan so ludicrous is the difference in competition. Jordan is undoubtedly one of the best to play the game of basketball, but is in no way head and shoulders better than the rest of the all-time greats. What makes Honnold so extraordinary is that fact that he has no competition. Climbing is of course a sport of self-will, and about winning the battle against your own mind. Yet for the physical aspects of the sport, he does what no one else can. For example, he completed his climb of Half Dome, without ropes or any other equipment, in about 3 hours. An experienced climber with equipment completes the same climb on average in about 2 days. It is not as if there are capable climbers out there who are hesitant, there is just no one else who can do what he can.
Mentally, he also faces no competition. During his famed 60 Minutes piece with CBS, Honnold is filmed climbing El Capitan, and of course, achieving another never-done-before feat. Yet the day before one of the most intimidating climbs in the world, he became restless and snuck off to climb another incredibly difficult wall, with the intentions of easing his nerves. By him doing this, it proves that he faces no mental obstacle in doing the unreal. He does not physically nor mentally face any competition.
We as humans live for competition. We want to be the best, and we want to prove to everyone else why we are the best. Every year sports idols in all sports are crowned as ‘the best’, only to have to prove again why they earned it the next season, tournament, or match. In the case of Alex Honnold, no one else is fighting for that crown. As if he were playing a different sport all together, no one can accomplish what he has done because no one else can even play. Why does Honnold keep climbing? What causes him to face death to keep completing these climbs? Maybe he is trying to prove a point. Maybe it’s because the time he functions the best is when he is on the wall, thousands of feet above the ground. Or maybe an obligation of pushing the bounds of physical ability pushes him to do even better than the impossible feats he has already accomplished. Whatever drives him cannot be understood by us because we don’t understand the greatness he was endowed with. However, the feats he has accomplished in his lifetime are unprecedented, and may be something we will never see again.