Alex Honnold has been pushing the boundaries of climbing for years. His passion is free soloing – climbing without a rope, often thousands of feet off the ground.
Since he’s best known for his “death-defying” hobbies, it’s no surprise that the phrase “Alex Honnold death” does get about 150 Google searches a month, so some folks are wondering about his status. (Incidentally, the phrase “Alex Honnold girlfriend” gets about 500 searches a month, so that’s another status people are curious about.) Obviously, what Alex does is dangerous, but when I heard him talk about it in 2010, he was very laid back about the risks. His secret? He just doesn’t let go. He doesn’t put himself in positions where he might fall. He is confident in his abilities and knows the difference between a no-fall and a yes-fall zone. And so far, his system is working.
In 2011, National Geographic put Alex on their cover for a feature about Yosemite. The piece was well-written and researched, and opened with a story of Alex losing confidence momentarily thousands of feet off the ground. It had a happy ending (of course) and referred to Alex as a hero whose storied feats on the rock are the stuff of legend. And they are – for better or worse.
The North Face is one of Alex’s primary sponsors, and I recently came across a video of Alex, doing what he does, climbing high in Yosemite Valley, ropeless and unafraid. If you can watch that video without a spike in your heart rate, you may have icewater for blood. And when I posted it on my Facebook feed last month, it raised an interesting question: is North Face doing a disservice by glorifying an incredibly dangerous activity?
On the one hand, anyone who looks at what Alex is doing thinks he’s maybe a little bit nuts. It’s hard to justify taking that kind of risk unless you’re as confident as he is – remember, Honnold eats 5.13s for breakfast. You’d have to be incredibly confident to attempt the routes he’s free soloing on a rope; showing us the extreme ends of the sport isn’t necessarily enticing us to try it for ourselves. And the National Geographic piece took us to the cliffs with Alex while he had a momentary lapse in that confidence – almost fatally.
On the other hand, The North Face video linked above presents Alex without comment or context. Lots of people climb really hard, and not all of them are engaging in Alex’s style of extreme free soloing. When The North Face makes movies about Alex Honnold, rock climbing rock star, are they setting him up as a standard to be emulated, or merely admired? They aren’t clear, and maybe that’s a problem.
At the end of the day, I’m not more likely to lace up my climbing shoes and go ropeless somewhere just because I’ve watched this video. But I’m maybe not most people. As Alex Honnold continues to push the boundaries of his own endurance, are people going to follow in his footsteps, perhaps disastrously? And do media outlets like National Geographic or The North Face have a responsibility to prevent this kind of disaster?
What are your thoughts? Tell us in the comments!
This post is purely the product of Erin’s thinking-out-loud and solicitation of discussion. It does not reflect the opinions of Peak Experiences as a company nor any of its staff, although if staff want to weigh in, please do!