Is Free Soloing El Capitan Success?

What is the balance between performance and ‘happiness’?

If you haven’t seen the movie Free Solo yet, SLIGHT spoiler alert! Read at your own risk.

In the documentary, the struggle between free soloist Alex Honnold and his girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, is a classic one. He wants to climb giant rocks without a rope, and she wants her boyfriend intact and alive. This conflict arises time and time again throughout the movie, but Alex continually makes it clear that rock climbing comes first. When Sanni brings up the late soloist Ueli Steck, who had recently died on Mount Everest, Alex’s callous reply about Steck’s widow hits home.

“What did she expect?”

The assurance Sanni reaches out for is met with a crushing blow of realism. She obviously wants the best for Alex, but her presence in his life may be holding him back from bigger, and potentially more dangerous, free solo exploits.

Can Alex have it all? Or more importantly, should he have it all? Can he have a girlfriend who loves him, AND do whatever rock climbing escapade his heart desires? Would that be living a successful life? Maybe I’ve been hanging out with philosophy professor Carrot too much, but I think we have to ask ourselves; What is success?

From my perspective, this question is the main conflict for Alex in the movie Free Solo. Does Honnold lead a successful life if he summits El Capitan? What if he never attempts the mountain, choosing to grow old and happy with Sanni instead?

Consequently, if Alex chooses rock climbing over Sanni, and she leaves, would he still consider himself successful?

I can’t answer these questions for Alex, but the movie definitely made me think about my own life. I’m a fairly performance-oriented guy. Couple that with the tendency to overestimate my capabilities, and I end up with a pretty busy schedule. Sometimes it’s important for me to say no to opportunities in order to have time for the things (and people) that I love.

I think we all need to decide where to draw our line doing the things we HAVE to do so we can have time for things that make life worth living. We all have to decide what those things are. Where things get sticky is when the thing that makes your life worth living IS the thing that makes you your living!

So I’d love to hear from you. Do you lean towards valuing performance? Or doing things that make you happy? What makes life worth living for you, and what have you had to give up to make time for it?

Thanks as always for reading!

Casen (Co-writer)

40 thoughts on “Is Free Soloing El Capitan Success?

  1. ryansiacciesq says:

    Good thoughts! I think you hit the nail on the head when you said you can’t define it. These are extremely personal matters, and not only will they vary wildly between individuals, they will vary wildly in the same person at different moments in life. Thanks for a good read.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. C Marsden says:

    Haven’t seen the film yet but have often wondered about partners of adventurers and boundary pushers. I think if you fall in-love with someone who is already living that life you do so at your own risk. This becomes very different if children are involved but this is purely my opinion. I want to attempt some long distance hikes in the states when my health recovers but I have a 12 yr old daughter, even if my health returned next Yr I’m not sure I’d be entirely at ease with leaving to do the PCT, I’d probably be absolutely fine but there is always a risk isn’t there? In my mind I feel I would wait until she was older but it’s hard, how selfish can I be? Is it worth it?

    Liked by 2 people

      1. C Marsden says:

        I’d like to attempt the PCT one year and the CDT if the PCT doesn’t break me 😉 The great trail Canada would be my dream. Some smaller ones here in the UK the west highland way in Scotland , hadrians wall in England and one of the camino routes in spain

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Fred says:

      If this sort of thing is what gives your life meaning, do it while you have the physical plant to handle it. If you don’t, you may have to swallow that bitter pill that you’ll never do it or anything like it. Rust never sleeps.

      The logic of protecting your 12 year old daughter from losing her daddy assigns a pretty high probability of death on the trail. You are not free soloing El Capitan naked, you are walking down a dirt path shared by thousands of other people. You have the option of just not doing risky parts. You have the option of hiking it in sections. Take a satcom device with you and you can have rescue there in hours if you need it. There are a lot of sections of the PCT that are gentle enough you could reasonably take her with you.

      My issue would be not seeing my daughter grow up all the time I was gone, not of leaving her daddyless. You could as easily (and more likely) be flattened by a sleepy trucker during the morning commute.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. justanotherchristina says:

    I love this! I struggle with something similar, though my relationship is with my career rather than a person lol. In the age of the highly social-media oriented dirtbag it seems like the only way to be good at climbing is to dedicated your whole life to it. But I love my job too! I felt like I was betraying my love of climbing by placing priority on other things. In the end I’ve embraced the fact that my career comes first. I’ll still get to leading 5.11’s or 5.12’s. It’ll just take me a bit longer 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. thedihedral says:

      Such a good way of saying that. That’s awesome that you’re able to prioritize things like that. I struggle with wanting to go 100% in EVERYTHING I try to do. Sometimes it’s a good thing, but it can put a strain on my personal life. I love what you said about it taking just a little bit longer. That’s a great way of looking at it and definitely gives me a new perspective. Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Martha Kennedy says:

    Long, long ago when my friends and I got interested in climbing (I mean late 60s/early 70s) I went so far, and then I stopped. Not because I didn’t love it — I did — but because friends started getting hurt. I could see death as a real possibility, and I had things I wanted to do. I KNEW I would need to be older, wiser, more traveled, recovered from more fuck-ups and more life before I would be able to do those things. The whole way, “success” has been a moving point, and somewhere in there I realized that my success depends mainly on how I feel about what I am doing. In a way, success and satisfaction go together. The questions became, “Does this make me happy? Is this true to me? Could I do it better?” I could and did get injured running trails, but the chance of dying was much less than it would be if I’d kept climbing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. thedihedral says:

      I love that! Martha, you have a great perspective and I appreciate the comment. Success as a moving point is such an interesting way of looking at it. Sounds like a great blog post that I would love to read. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  5. chaosgatebook says:

    May I suggest that Alex’s climb of El Cap is the highest mark on a very long scale? Climbing is precisely about betting your life on your own skills. All climbers do it. Should all climbers eschew love relationships, families, careers? I honestly don’t know. Climbing endows great gifts and threatens ultimate tragedies. I’ve climbed for forty-two years. I can easily think of half a dozen times the mountains could’ve/should’ve killed me. That’s humbling. No-one can take credit for fate.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. thedihedral says:

      Love it! It’s definitely a hard problem. Is it fair to put that stress on those around us? If it’s a girlfriend situation like for Alex, maybes it’s on her to decide if that risk is worth it to her? It’s an interesting topic to think about. Thanks for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Fred says:

    Without seeing the film…

    One of the most important lesson to learn in life is that you cannot change a person’s fundamentals. You have to accept them as they are and if they are not following a path you cannot share, you have to go your own way. There is no fault involved and success is internally defined. I can’t tell you what your success ought to be.

    More than a few destroyed marriages were doomed from the start because one partner thought they could change the values of the other.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. drkottaway says:

      …change the values of the other…. but wait… what if the spouse is going down the addiction path? Do you accept them as they are? Isn’t that enabling? Where is the line between watching someone making harmful choices and making independent choices? And I think that line can be subtle and people can be so caught up in the what-I-want-to-do ego thing that they are not being realistic at all about what is happening! Reality check by family is appropriate!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. billdawg24 says:

    I saw the movie and I thought it was great. But not being a mountain climber myself at least a technical one, but being in the military and being deployed three times to combat, I see a lot of parallels and she even touched on it in the movie. When you’re doing something that is life threatening for lack of a better term your head has to be in the game you can’t think about your family at home, your girlfriend, pussy, beer, anything else. One of three things is going to happen with he and his girlfriend. Number one he’ll quit because she keeps begging him he’ll end up resenting her. number to she’s going to try to push yourself to be part of his world and she’s going to end up falling and hurting herself. Or number 3 which is more likely he’s going to be climbing and she’s going to be in his head and he’s not going to be paying attention to detail like he should be and he’s going to fall to his death. My prediction is if they stay together then he will die within the next two to three years. and it’s not that he’s being selfish or she’s being selfish different people are different bottom line. He needs to make a decision free sewing or family life or try to combine the two, it’s awful hard to combine the two. That’s just my two cents from somebody’s with his life on the line albeit in a different way. Your mileage may vary. and I talked to texted this whole thing and I’m not proof reading it so if it looks goofy I hope you can read between the lines haha

    Liked by 3 people

  8. halffastcyclingclub says:

    I saw this film earlier in the week and have thought about it a lot. You pose great questions. Rather than write a lot on your comment page, I posted on my own blog so as not to use your space. I think one’s definition of risk changes with the risk one takes. In the film Alex spoke of this as high reward/low risk. Most of us would not see it that way.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. jefftcann says:

    So I just spent 2 hours in hell. I watched Free Solo. My wife wanted to see it for the cinematography. When she brought it up a few days ago, I said no, I wouldn’t go. I have a terrible fear of heights. Not really for me, but when I see others taking even reasonable risks around cliffs it makes me sick. But the thought of her having to go to the movies alone on a Saturday night was depressing so I decided to go. Performance: what’s the point if it’s going to kill you. And make no mistake, Alex Honnold is going to die climbing. Probably soon. It’s nice for him that he’s now a household name–sort of like Aron Rolston. famous for the wrong reasons–just in time for us all to mourn for him and feel sorry for his poor girlfriend, and his friends will say stuff like “He died doing the thing he loved. He died with integrity” blah blah blah. Maybe nailing a climb brings Alex happiness, but it doesn’t do much for the people who love him.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. billdawg24 says:

      Jeff, but what does it matter if he’s doing something that you don’t like? I’m sure that you do a lot of stuff that others find distasteful. If Alex wants to do____, who are you or anyone else to say he shouldn’t. At the end of your life, your epitaph should read, “He was a man.”

      Liked by 1 person

  10. jefftcann says:

    You ask a good question. It really doesn’t matter what I think, but the point of this blog post is to start a conversation about performance/success, so I was participating. I’m big on ethics. In this case, I think a lot of what is portrayed in Free Solo is questionable. Besides the fact that Alex’s attempt is devastatingly conflicting for those in his life, but I also think it glorifies risk-taking to a group who may be overly impressionable. From my perspective this makes the performance/success question moot. The movie itself was great, beautifully shot and engagingly “acted”. My wife, who is completely uninterested in sports like climbing wants to go see it again because of the cinematography. But some stories, IMO don’t need to be told. I fully recognize that I’m being a prudish old dude.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. billdawg24 says:

      Fair enough. Living in a free society means that sometimes people are allowed to do things that some of us find distasteful. It no different than other activities that carry a high amount of risk. Some people like to push the envelope, and that’s what makes America great. I would throw up all over myself if I attempted what he does. But, I’ve done things that others may believe crazy. Broken horses, seen combat, SCUBA dived, etc. It’s all perception.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Fred says:

      I am a child of the 60s who grew up in the rural mid-west where we never really got out of the 50s. My inclination has always been towards the rugged individualists of the world. And as I grow old I am pained greatly by what I didn’t try when I could.

      If she loved him but expected him to turn back from what he loved before they met, she doesn’t love him. She loves a person she holds in her imagination. Either she didn’t think about what she was getting into or she made the fatal mistake of thinking she could change him. It is rather like falling for someone who chose to be a soldier or a cop and then trying to talk them into a safe civilian sector job. Very bad news for the relationship.

      There is nothing wrong with “glorifying” risk taking – else every adventure tale ever told is wrong. Should we not tell the tale of conquering Everest? Of crossing great oceans in tiny vessels? Of man going into space? Of trekking across vast and deadly environments? A certain number of people will always want desperately to pit themselves against the unknown or the never before accomplished. To push themselves to their ultimate limit. Sometimes they live and sometimes they die.

      If conflict with loved ones is part of the story, then that should be told as well. Their response, their pain and their adjustment or failure to adjust need to be shown. Their happiness at the safe return of their loved one or their tears for the loss. Was the relationship destroyed or renewed? Did the people involved communicate? Did they attempt mutual understanding? Was it a heated argument, a calm discussion or was it cold silence?

      I’m not worried about impressionable minds. Adults are expected to make their own decisions and live with the consequences. Children are expected to gather the skills they need to follow their dreams as adults. Today’s society seems to be focused on eliminating every possible risk in life and forbidding those not so easily eliminated. I think that is sad and in its own way lessens the value of life.

      Truth (or as close to it as we can manage) is always to be desired. Telling just one side would be propaganda. Telling both sides is what makes a good documentary.
      Just because you don’t like what a person did is not a reason for the story not to be told.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. jefftcann says:

        The best outcome to dissenting conversation and debate is that if one or both parties actually grow from the exchange. My feelings in this topic are evolving. Of course you’re correct. If every stupid act was censored, it would limit our growth as a society. I’m beginning to understand that it wasn’t necessarily that Hannold was doing something dangerous, he was doing the one thing that bothers me more than anything else in the world. And that I got myself into a situation where I had to watch. Thank you for your comment, I’ll see you on the Dihedral.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. danielgutfeld says:

    I posted this to my Facebook after a few questions and comments from folks who know I am/was a climber… I leave it unedited.
    It is my unadulterated opinion on the subject of free soloing in general, and the film Free Solo. The context is a YouTube video highlighting Jimmy Chin and the creators of the video amidst their ethical difficulty in filming this “thing.”

    Great questions by the film makers. This is a prime example why many climbers find this film gross and disgusting. The feat of what Honnold did is truly amazing and even more so still foolish. The film makers, I will never understand how they even dealt with what they did. Free soloing is dangerous and when the inevitable outcome of what they do happens, fall and die, it makes climbing look even more dangerous than people who climb already know. Climbing is very safe and the error of climbers is the main (I’d say in over 90% of circumstances) element in danger. Wether mental or mechanical, errors happen and when someone is a participant in the discipline of free soling they take all of those into the most extreme case.
    While I am amazed at what Honnold and those like him do, I find it foolish, selfish, and a product of their (mostly) atheist humanist perspectives in the world. I will never watch this film… go watch the Dawn Wall movie instead to look at *real* progress in the sport and activity of climbing.

    Below is the link to video in question

    Liked by 1 person

    1. billdawg24 says:

      You find an activity that someone else does on their own accord with their own free will, selfish? Not sure you are using the right definition of that word.
      Again, this is America and people have their own free will to do things as they see fit within the confines of the law. I’m tired of everybody getting bunged up over other people’s activities or ideas. If everyone minded their own freaking business we’d all be better off.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. danielgutfeld says:

        Selfish, self·ish
        (of a person, action, or motive) lacking consideration for others; concerned chiefly with one’s own personal profit or pleasure.

        Yup I’m using it right…
        And, for sake of consistency, how come Alex Honnold can do something “on their own accord with their own free will…” But I cannot critique or disagree with what I perceive to be his motives? Apparently, for you, my activity should not be free? They should be limited? I do believe I was extremely clear in the fact of his accomplishment, even called it such. My opinion was, it does nothing for the advancement of climbing, and according to the film itself he cares little for those opinions around him regarding such activity.


      2. Fred says:

        Ales was probably the only one who knew exactly what the risk to benefit ratio was. He was also the only one who knew what his true capability was. And he knew exactly how to do it, having climbed it before many times with rope. If he was confident, then he should make the final call.

        All human behavior is selfish to some degree. An awful lot of human progress happened because someone pushed on despite being told to stop. I would find it much more selfish to meet someone who loved to climb rocks and then tell them later that your subjective feeling should overrule his objective assessment of something that would be the pinnacle of his career.

        If he were married with children I might change my assessment – or not. If he climbed irresponsibly such that he might take out someone else, then I’d definitely change it. Otherwise, it is like peeing on the graves of every adventurer who pushed the limits of human endurance simply because it was there.

        I couldn’t care less if he is a humanist or a Buddhist or a Christian or a Muslim or a Zoroastrian. What has his religion -or lack thereof – got to do with it?

        Liked by 2 people

      3. danielgutfeld says:

        Thank you for the generous interaction Fred, your comments are appreciated and concise.

        While agree all human behavior is selfish to some degree (and this is where, if I may, get a little philosophical) it is the nature of the selfishness that I have issue with in the case of free soloing in general and Mr. Honnold’s particularly. He is a self attested devout atheist and by the nature of his own admission I believe he is so via conviction. While I have no general qualms with this choice, I would wager much that a huge part of his free soloing is that he has nothing apart from this life to look towards. Just the nature of his comments to those that love him regarding his decision to continue free soloing shows their concerns are not at the forefront of his mind. This position he takes is entirely reasonable and nothing to argue with him about. It is true, his girlfriend should know these things but she cannot be faulted for also bringing some selfishness to it by wanting him to stop for her and his family’s sake.
        My larger problem is with the idea that this progresses the sport and activity of climbing. I do love climbing and want to see many people participate in the activity. The most common retort to not wanting to from those I meet and discuss is two fold: a) I’m afraid of heights i.e. don’t want to fall, b) It’s to dangerous.
        Alex’s decisions to participate in the discipline of free soloing just exacerbate people’s aversion to climbing in general. While we can’t change people’s perceptions of such, making sure people are aware of the difficulty, danger, and relative stupidity of free soloing can influence their understanding of the actual dangers in normative climbing. Alex’s discipline of choice is not normative. Climbing in general is quite safe, that is the reason we have the equipment and safe guards in place.
        While the feet Alex Honnold has done is truly, and I *really* mean this, incredible, it does nothing to advance the sport of climbing. All it truly does is keep people away from it.

        I’m not decrying those who, “break the mold and show how far the human will can succeed.” Far from it, but to be specific, Alex Honnold is in this more or less for himself and not anyone else. He said as much in the clip I gave and also in his Ted talk when speaking of why Half dome was a failure in his eyes and why he sought out The Nose.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. PeteB says:

    I am still yet to see the movie. Been working away for quite awhile now so missed the screenings and its not show in normal cinemas over here in Aus. As soon as i have the time and can find it i will. With my life i am always out having fun and adventures but also thinking about the safety side of it a lot. Working as a professional Rope Tech and playing with ropes during my time off I do get a lot of funny looks from other people with the way i set up all my systems. Either rigging them so that they can be lowered for a rescue or making it as simple as possible so the last person doesn’t need to worry about how to de rig it. It all depends on the group that i am out in the bush with and i adjust it to their skills. Because if i get in trouble then they are the ones that will need to come and help me out.

    As much as i would like to push myself and do amazing adventures like Alex did in the movie. I have grown up enough and away from the reckless youth that i would prefer to spend my time on the easier climbs but sharing my experiences with the ones around me. That way we can be in pain and hate the time that we are having but look back over a beer later in life remembering how much fun it was and what we achieved. Some days i am silly and manage to scare myself while i am out there. Even knowing that i am very safe and i trust the system we have in place. But i still don’t want to fall or hurt myself. I think ahead about how hard life would be if i was broken. Surviving on government payouts or watching my mates go out on adventures without me would break me even more.

    Liked by 3 people

  13. drkottaway says:

    I am reading this month’s wisebrain journal, here:
    It talks about not letting that inner voice tell us produce produce produce work work work. It’s so important to have quiet time and rest time. The more quiet time I need, the earlier my body wakes me up! So it’s easy for me to pay attention to that — isn’t success really being loving and healing what we can in the world? The climate, each other, trees, water?

    Liked by 1 person

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