A thrills-and-chills—and occasional spills—view of the mad heroes of free climbing, scaling mountain faces without ropes.
You’d have to be out of your mind to head up the 3,000-foot-high cliff face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without equipment of modern mountaineering, the lightweight chocks and clips and ropes that keep a person from plummeting into the void. Yet, as mountain guide Synnott writes, building on his reporting for National Geographic, that out-of-mindness defines young Alex Honnold, “the world’s greatest free soloist,” who has developed the habit of sizing up some of the planet’s most formidable mountains and then scrambling up them without the benefit of equipment. Old-school climbers have looked at him with combined awe and despair, and, as the author writes, Honnold does have a talent for alienating potential allies: “He wore his ego right on his shirtsleeve like the logo of one of his sponsors.” Still, there’s no question he has bragging rights; in one of his well-publicized exploits, Honnold free soloed El Capitan, Half Dome, and Mount Watkins, all three of Yosemite’s big three rock faces, in less than 19 hours altogether. “This monster linkup entailed 7,000 vertical feet of difficult rock climbing,” writes Synnott, “seventy-seven pitches up to 5.13a.” If the last clause contains numbers that aren’t immediately meaningful to you, no worries: One of the great virtues of this book is the author’s cleareyed explanations of how alpinists parse mountains, rating them for difficulty and then doing the calculus of who qualifies as the world’s leading climber on the strength of those numbers. Old-timers agree: Honnold may be ill-mannered and self-absorbed, but he’s got the right stuff, doing what previous generations of climbers deemed impossible. As for lessons for would-be climbers, Synnott offers the cardinal one in the voice of one of the old-timers: “Don’t fall.”
Fans of mountaineering will find this a winner.