September 24, 2020

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Climber the El Capitan of athletes

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 7/6/2017 (1204 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


While we were all preoccupied last weekend with P.K. Subban’s oral care and Kevin Durant’s beef with Rihanna, a guy you’ve never heard of authored what, for my money, just might be the greatest single athletic achievement in human history.

Alex Honnold’s free solo climb of the iconic El Capitan rock face in Yosemite National Park this past Saturday went mostly unnoticed during a weekend both the Stanley Cup final and the NBA Finals were playing out simultaneously.

But make no mistake: what Honnold accomplished in a gruelling climb up a 3,000-foot sheer granite face in the early morning hours of Saturday was nothing less than set new limits for our species in strength, agility and endurance — all of it while also demonstrating an audacity that bordered on the suicidal.

Durant wouldn’t get 10 feet up El Capitan, even with a seven-foot head start.

While other’s have climbed El Capitan before, no one has ever even attempted what Honnold did on the weekend, climbing the route solo and entirely without ropes or any mechanical aid.

Honnold literally climbed El Capitan without a net, which is to say he climbed a rock face so smooth it’s been likened to climbing on glass with the knowledge that even the tiniest slip anywhere along the route would mean certain death.

All of which gives a whole new meaning to the sporting term "sudden death."

And then there’s Honnold’s climbing time: just under four hours for a route that has traditionally taken the world’s best climbers, armed with ropes and all kinds of other mechanical aids, at least four days.

For his climb, Honnold used nothing more than his hands and feet and was armed with nothing more than a tub of chalk affixed to his back he used to keep his hands dry while he ascended an almost perfectly vertical pitch dotted with just a few tiny crevasses with which he could grab hold.

JIMMY CHIN / NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC</p><p>Alex Honnold atop El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Calif., after he became the first person to climb alone to the top of the massive granite wall without ropes or safety gear.</p>


Alex Honnold atop El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Calif., after he became the first person to climb alone to the top of the massive granite wall without ropes or safety gear.

For years, El Capitan, was thought to be unclimbable, even with the use of ropes. And precisely because of its notoriety, the El Cap became so famous that it was used by Apple as the default desktop backdrop on Mac products for years. (Go check; I’ll wait here.)

Put it all together and Honnold’s climb on Saturday, which was documented by National Geographic for an upcoming documentary, was instantly proclaimed the greatest rock climb in history. And, quite possibly, something even much, much more. likened Honnold’s climb to "a three-minute mile." Legendary climber Tommy Caldwell likened it to the "moon landing of free soloing." And Peter Croft, who made headlines in the '80s when he free-soloed Yosemite’s 1,000-foot Astroman, said Honnold’s climb had not just moved the bar, it created a whole new paradigm.

"It was always the obvious next step... But after this, I really don’t see what’s next. This is the big classic jump."

Biggest achievement since Messner's Everest

I would argue it’s been 37 years since the last "jump" of this magnitude. Back in 1980, Italian climber Reinhold Messner rewrote the book on mountaineering with his three-day alpine-style solo ascent of Mount Everest.

Messner essentially ran up the world’s tallest mountain in under 72 hours — by himself, without the use of supplemental oxygen and despite falling in a crevasse at one point and being forced to spend the night there.

Until Messner, the ascents of Everest were conducted "siege" style, a military approach to mountaineering that solved the problem of the world’s 8,000-metre peaks by throwing huge amounts of personnel and equipment at them.

It was a technique pioneered by Edmund Hillary — hundreds of sherpas, miles of rope and ladders, pre-stocked camps every couple thousand vertical feet — and which is to this day still the way the overwhelming majority of climbers who summit the big peaks get to the top.

Messner found a new way to the top of the world in the oldest way of all — one foot in front of the other, crampons on your feet and an ice-axe in hand as your only aids.

It is a monument to just how pioneering Messner’s 1980 Everest climb was that until this weekend it was still regarded by many as the unequalled gold standard of human athletic achievement.

Greatest achievements, but not greatest athlete

Now, it’s important at this point to draw a distinction between the singular accomplishments of Messner — and now Honnold — and the other gold standards we use to measure greatness in athletes.

I would argue that what Messner and Honnold have accomplished are right at the very top of a list of greatest single athletic achievements, which is very different than saying that they are the world’s greatest athletes or that their records will never be broken.

If we’re talking world’s greatest athletes, I would argue that title goes to 18-time Olympic gold medallist Michael Phelps. The breadth of Phelps’ accomplishments, both across strokes and distances, and his longevity across three Olympic Games puts Phelps in a class by himself.

And the fact Phelps did it all in a sport like swimming, which perhaps better than any other tests every single measurable attribute in an athlete — strength, endurance, speed, agility — simply further elevates his accomplishments.

But did any one of Phelps’ races surpass what Messner accomplished on Everest or Honnold on El Capitan? Don’t make me laugh.

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

And then there’s the unbreakable sports records we admire. The most unbreakable of all in my books is Billy Mosienko’s 21-second hat trick, but no one in their right mind would compare that to Messner or Honnold.

Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-points in a game? A seven-foot man dropped a ball in a basket 50 times.

Four homers in a baseball game? Hats off to the guy, but Scooter Gennett’s four homers for the Cincinnati Reds Tuesday night was actually the 17th time a major league player hit four homers in a single game.

Secretariat’s 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont? You know he’s a horse, right?

Usain Bolt’s 9.58 second 100-metre record? That’s getting closer, but still lacks the daring and certain death that failure would have meant for Messner and Honnold.

No, you can discuss among yourselves, but for my money Messner back in 1980 and now Honnold stand in a league by themselves in terms of singular athletic achievement.

And I’m not alone in thinking so. Here’s how Kevin Trahan, writing for the sports website, described Honnold’s climb on the weekend:

"In America, we’re obsessed with team sports and individual feats within those sports, but the most astonishing athletic feats are those that fight against nature and go where human beings are absolutely not supposed to be. Honnold has now pushed biological boundaries further than anyone else in the world, and it might be quite some time until someone is able to push the boundary even further."

True enough. But here’s a guarantee — someone is going to try.

It is the singular marvel of our species — and our last, greatest hope: we have been rendering the impossible possible on this planet since that day long, long ago that one guy looked at another and said: "Hey, I bet I could walk on just two of these." 

Twitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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