12 November 2021

Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold with David Roberts

Anyone who spent time with me towards the spring of 2019 likely wanted to die because I would not stop talking about Free Solo. The film had just won the Academy Award for best documentary and I watched the trailer so many times that Scott finally suggested we just watch it. We finished the movie with palms as sweaty as if we'd climbed el cap ourselves. I've now seen it in full 6x and made every single person I know watch it. I think it's a perfect documentary. Naturally, I was thrilled to find out Alex Honnold had written a book about his experiences. 

I actually got this book through my work's buy-a-book program since it has so many themes around resilience and perseverance (things my company likes to try and instill in us). If you have programs at your work to get perks of this nature, take advantage of them!

Honnold didn't write this book himself but I wasn't totally surprised. If you watch the film you'll know he's a bit of a social introvert and with the amount of dedication and time he spends on climbing it's honestly surprising he even had time to work on this with a writer at all. Based on my obsession with the movie I thought I would be drooling over every page in this book but it was just ok. 

Free soloing is far more than a stunt. It amounts to reducing climbing to its most elemental challenge: a man (or woman), with only rock shoes on his feet and chalk on his fingertips for better purchase, against the cliff. It's climbing at its absolute purest."

The book talks about Honnold's experiences climbing, soloing, and preparing for what he calls his "big project" of free soloing a route called Free Rider on El Capitain in Yosemite National Park.it covers basically the same content and time period as the film. If you don't know what free soloing is, you definitely need to see the movie, but I will enlighten you. It's rock climbing without ropes. Like, none. 

Obviously, books allow for so much more finite detail than a film ever could, which usually makes me prefer the book version of a story but in this case, I think the details were distracting and geared towards a climbing audience in a limiting way. There are so many statistics for each climb, and even for each move, that went way over my head and took away from the emotional pull I felt during the movie. 

The one thing I did gain from the book that I feel was not as much a focus in the film were various aspects of climbing culture. I always wondered, since Honnold is known for soloing routes at the last minute without telling anyone, why anyone believed him. The book really helps to explain that this type of trust and respect is freely given in the climbing world and I think that's so, so cool. They are all really helpful and supportive of each other, it feels very non-competitive compared to other sports (from reading about it, anyway).

There was also, of course, the undercurrent of posters who wondered whether the free solo of Moonlight Buttress was an April Fools' joke. But one thing I've always appreciated about the climbing community, after so many of my climbs by now have gone undocumented by film or photos or unverified by witnesses, is that people have taken me at my word."

I felt like the film described Honnold's personal life in a way that felt much more compelling than the book. Even though the book talked about his family and relationships, etc. I didn't feel that connection. Part of me thinks Jimmy Chin is just a really talented documentary filmmaker but I also think the film had the advantage of doing actual interviews with the important players in Honnold's life and seeing their reactions to his career. I was thinking of when I read American Sniper, how Kyle's wife Taya actually wrote certain parts of the book and how that format could have been really effective here. 

Honnold married his girlfriend Sanni McCandless last year (surprising, I know) and Tommy Caldwell officiated the wedding. The couple are expecting their first child in 2022.

Honnold's personal life is such a vital part of his soloing career because, throughout his relationship with his girlfriend Sanni, he continues to prioritize climbing over her. This is shown in contrast to his climbing partner Tommy Caldwell who prioritizes his family and evaluates his risk based on his role as a husband and father. Something about this says so much about Honnold and who he is as an athlete and I think that piece really makes the story what it is.

On one hand I am still a kid, full of wonder at the world, chasing dreams of distant summits. But I'm also a father- and this means I am no longer allowed to die." - Tommy Caldwell, The Alpinist

As I've mentioned a few times now, I think the movie is a masterpiece. It's also so beautiful to watch and I think appeals to everyone who has an ounce of adrenaline even if you aren't into climbing (me). The book I feel is much better suited towards climbers who may have a chance at understanding statistics and descriptions of routes, etc... It's a lot less Into Thin Air than I wanted it to be. 

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