Those not familiar with the world of rock climbing are probably unaware that Alex Honnold recently made history, being the first to climb, without a rope, the ~880 metres from the base to the summit of El Capitan, a giant granite monolith in Yosemite National Park. It’s worth googling El Capitan – it’s a rather pretty rock. Here are some more details about his climb.
I recently read Alex Honnold’s autobiography, Alone on the Wall. Alex is a professional climber, whose speciality is going up extremely tall, sheer rock faces with only his climbing shoes and a chalk bag. With no ropes or other safety equipment, the consequences of a fall are likely to be fatal.
His book is a tale of adventure and I loved how Alex conveyed that he sees extreme challenges as fuel for living his best life.
Understandably, some have said, “That guy is nuts!” Since reading his book, I’ve drowned myself in interviews of Alex describing his experiences and philosophy and made my eyes go bleary watching footage of him climbing. I’m no psychiatrist, but he seems perfectly sane to me. Incredibly focused, meticulous in his planning, ambitious in his goals, and passionate about his adventures, but never reckless.
The distinction that Alex makes between risk and consequence helped me understand his decision-making process. He acknowledges that the consequences of falling would be deadly and even visualises this outcome, without dwelling on it. However, he only climbs when he judges that there is little risk of failure. After hours of preparation and training, when Alex has a climb fully dialled (dialled is a climbing term for full comprehension of the route or move), there is little chance of an undesirable consequences coming to fruition and, therefore, he considers it to be less risky.
What’s intriguing to me is why I find Alex's pursuits inspiring. Why should they be? I’m not planning to break any records or perform death-defying acts; I’m not a really climber, nor am I an adrenaline junky, and I've got young children to consider.
But like Alex, I must muster extreme courage to go after my dreams. I must set goals, plan and prepare, stay focused, and keep the passion alive. Alex’s relentless pursuit of his goals provides a clear model for this. There are other examples of people so completely driven to follow their purpose that it looks preordained. The unique perspective that Alex provides comes from his discussion of risks versus consequences. For Alex, failure is falling and the consequence is death. For most people, the consequences of failing at their dreams are much less dire. These may include such difficult outcomes as lost income, moving house, or relationship breakdown. These aren’t insignificant consequences and this is where adventure comes into it. If worst thing that could happen does happen, you’re still alive. When you’re alive you’re winning, you can start again.
So go for it. Take a hard look at the consequences, maximise your chance of success, and climb!
PS – Watching climbing videos is addictive. You have been warned.