Alex Honnold needs no introduction to the climbing community. While he relies completely upon himself on the wall, his memoir Alone On The Wall is a joint effort with David Roberts (a veteran author of mountaineering books) and the accounts of the climbers and figures surrounding Honnold. Which makes sense, since if Honnold were to have written the book alone, we would have gotten an extremely narrow viewpoint of his incredible accomplishments. After all, if you take a cursory glance at his famous solo climbs moment by moment, they aren’t the hardest ever done – and Honnold would be the first to admit that.
The joint narrative of Roberts and Honnold puts his staggering feats into perspective. They volley back and forth a history of the soloist’s ascent to fame, starting from the 2008 Moonlight Buttress feat. It seems as if a large reason of why the book was written is an attempt to ward off the tired questions of if he’s afraid of death and his motives for why — if you haven’t figured it out yet, he doesn’t think that much about it and he simply likes the purity of soloing.
What’s most interesting about the book are the little subtle yet revealing hints of who Alex Honnold is – an American boy (albeit one who speaks French) who hasn’t had to fully grow up and live in the ‘real world’. He describes his quiet childhood with the poetic and succinct line: “it was more just a kind of chilly silence that filled the house”, and the death of his father seems to pass with the same kind of emotional numbness. Like most young Americans, Honnold uses the word ‘pussy’ to self-describe moments where he is truly scared; in a snowshoe fiasco, falling roped climbing, and he even calls the Sender film crew ‘pussies’ for having doubts to make him reenact a solo climb for the camera. All that said, what’s left is portrait of a young man who persistently pursues what he loves to do, without comprising to fit some preset notion of what one should do.
The climbing language of the book can be technical and tedious to a point where it seems to make sense to just watch some of the videos described in Alone On The Wall instead. What is interesting is how the usage of the word ‘psych’ seems to solidify the term from mere slang to a staple of climber speak; the term itself reveals how psychological and mental climbing really is. And we learn a little about the psychological landscape of Honnold.
Honnold, like many other climbers, grew up reading Mark Twight, “Doctor Doom”, who used “dark thoughts and stormy moods to precipitate cutting-edge climbs, especially solos”. Honnold himself admits that some of his impulsive climbs were driven by his rocky relationship with his ex-girlfriend. But these seem to be the exception rather than the rule since Honnold’s strong suit is keeping his mental armor intact where others cannot.
Contrary to what others believe, his amygdala is fully functional – he feels fear. Honnold is just supremely meditative with his climbing and allows it to pass, somewhat like an advanced Buddhist monk. He is self-aware and empathetic, and as his climbing propelled him to fame and around the world, it became clear to him how charmed his life really is. As a result, he founded the Honnold Foundation, which seeks to improve lives worldwide, simply and sustainably.
Alone On The Wall is almost more worth reading for insights to Honnold’s non-solo adventures and mind-blowing accomplishments that went without spotlight by the mainstream media. It ends with Honnold speculating on the future of his sport, and on his own, putting himself down already in the history books as a footnote in comparison of what may come. His belief in our unlimited capacity as humans to push adventure further and further is inspiring to say the least – he’s setting the bar high for generations to come.