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)

25 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 2 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 1 person

    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!


  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 1 person

  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 2 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!


  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

  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 1 person

  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.


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